I met with UW College Republicans chair Crystal Lee as well as CR public relations chair Stephen Duerst today. I talked to them about the direction of the organization as well as that of the modern Republican Party.
Interesting characters and backgrounds. Lee is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who are staunchly “anti-Mainland.” Appropriately, her laptop is adorned with an enormous bumper sticker that reads “I LOVE CAPITALISM.” Nevertheless, she says both of her parents voted for Obama and that she is the only “conservative Christian” in her family. She converted to Christianity when she was in high school. Duerst is also a practicing Christian, and he says he grew up in a conservative family in Wausau.
According to Lee, the org has had a successful recruitment season, and has added roughly 300 names to the email list. They also emphasized community service work in the community, including volunteering at veterans hospitals, a fundraiser for Iraqi children and a “penny drive” headed by History Channel to restore Lincoln monuments around the country.
They were unsure of how to explain the GOP’s ultra-minority status on campus. When I asked them why young people tend to be more liberal, Lee wondered aloud about the effects that liberation from parents or a traditional family background may have on some college students. It sounds like a reactionary explanation, however, she is right to a certain extent. Many people who consider themselves liberal in college, whether they were in Madison during the Vietnam years or the Clinton years, later mold into more conservative voters.
However, the College Republicans are on campus to court college voters. Are there not certain generational conflicts, such as the debate over gay marriage, which hinder the GOP’s ability to accomplish this? Neither Lee or Duerst seemed interested in confronting the point I was suggesting: that the Republican Party will eventually have to ditch some of its favorite social policies to remain competitive in the coming decades. Lee suggested that Republicans may be viewed poorly in academic circles because of a perception that they are indifferent to education. “People think all we care about is tax cuts,” she said. Then is there too much of an emphasis on low taxes? To this they responded that there is room for low taxes and long-term investments in important social programs, such as education.
They emphasized the importance of economic policy in times of economic malaise, and said that students were interested in fiscal issues at this point. When I pointed out that Scott Walker’s fiscal record at the helm of Milwaukee County did not differ drastically from Doyle’s, they excused Walker’s venture into Keynesian economics by citing the political costs of turning down federal stimulus money for Milwaukee residents. Very honest. However, does that not seem to indicate that voters aren’t interested in the small government approach to the recession?
Lee continually emphasized “personal liberty.” When I asked them to define what that meant Duerst immediately cited “support for state’s rights.” States rights? What does that have to do with personal liberties? He then pointed out that the gay marriage debate was a good example of Republicans supporting the states’ decisions to make policy on the issue. When I pointed out that it was George W. Bush who wanted the most aggressive federal action on gay marriage (or at least pretended to want it) Duerst replied that most Republicans prefer the state-by-state approach. Nevertheless, when I asked them about civil liberties Lee seemed to turn the theme back to economic personal liberty, and ignored the reference to the PATRIOT Act I made. However, she did say she believed in free speech.I should have asked her about flag burning and anti-American statements.
My analysis of the College Republicans would thus be very simple. Even if the leadership is more intelligent and better organized this year, the organization will not be relevant until it establishes a local presence. Until it articulates positions on local and state issues, and differentiates itself from the talking points handed down by the national chapter, it will continue to mobilize new members in non-presidential elections.
I can’t believe that I, of all people, forgot to ask them about their plans for multimedia improvements. As I’ve commented before, the CRs have not had the best relationship with the internets in the past. Web presence keeps the rank and file members up to date and allows them to give input, whereas in the past the give and take was often restricted to a small group of insiders. It looks like they’ve improved, however, their web activity pales in comparison to the College Dems, who now have a regularly updated blog.