First District Congressman Gil Gutknecht hosted House Majority Leader John Boehner today at the student union of Minnesota State University Mankato. About 75 people were in attendance, about a third students, with several more filtering in and out depending upon class schedule. Another dozen or so demonstrators greeted the two congressmen outside the union prior to their presentation.
Gutknecht is a charming spinner of tales with an announcer’s voice and a wry smile. He began with a reference to his new grandson and his optimism for creating a better future for all kids. That said, he declared the U.S. was winning the war on terror despite the problems in Baghdad, and pointed out the positive strides in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq, which he called “an oasis of peace and prosperity.”
He displayed the same optimism about Iran, which he said had more educated young people between the ages of 18 and 30 than any other country in the Middle East. And, he said, “They love the United States.”
Taking the podium, the tanned and polished Boehner said he was number two in a family of 12 kids, the son of Irish Catholic parents who always voted Democrat. But after starting early in business Boehner realized that the more successful he got, the more taxes the government took. His epiphany came in 1978, when he said he had to pay more taxes than he made the previous year. That’s when he became a Republican. “It didn’t make any sense to me,” he said, “that the government was choking the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Boehner tried to separate himself from his predecessor as Majority Leader, Tom Delay, saying he preferred teamwork. He drew an analogy to football, which he termed a game of “blocking, tackling and moving the ball.” He said, “You don’t get ahead by using gimmicks.”
Unlike many of his colleagues, he claimed he has never asked for an earmark for his district, a commitment that he made to the voters when he first ran. On immigration, Boehner said the country needs to “seal the border and enforce immigration law.” He pointed out that enforcement has improved as border incursions this year are less than last.
He called the war on terror a “real war with real consequences” that world leaders for too long ignored. After 9/11 the U.S. had “no choice” but to take on terrorism and bring it to an end. “Every intelligence agency in the world said Saddam had WMDs,” he said. And even though the U.S. has made mistakes, “winning the war in Iraq is critical to our efforts.”
In a question and answer session after the remarks, a man identifying himself as a veteran challenged Gutknecht to explain his 20% rating from the Disabled American Veterans. Gutknecht replied that he didn’t know anything about the ratings, but that he does support veterans. “We have never turned our back on wounded vets,” he said. The man walked out.
A student in the room asked about the Foley affair. Boehner said the episode was “abhorrent and reprehensible,” but that the three ongoing investigations would get to the bottom of it. He said the first time he heard about a possible impropriety was in the spring of this year but that he didn’t learn the details till ABC broke the story a few weeks ago.
Students give reasons for attending
Prior to the speakers, I asked two students in the audience why they had come.
Tiffa Scott of Cottage Grove said she favored Republican candidates primarily because of her opposition to abortion and her belief that welfare should “be supportive but not a dependency.” She’s also against same-sex marriage, though she confessed she has a younger brother who is gay. “This country was founded on God,” she said, reflecting the values she was raised on.
Yet she admitted that Congress hadn’t done much for students, citing the high cost of tuition and the fact that student loans were not covering all her expenses.
She also disagreed with the war in Iraq, explaining that her grandmother, who is from Syria, says that Americans are disrespectful of Mideast religion, culture and values. “It’s good they got rid of Saddam,” she said, “but they can’t act like they’re better. They’re egocentric. They think they are superior.”
Bryan Munson, who said he comes from a bipartisan family but usually votes Democrat, came to hear what the “other side” had to say. He said that Iraq was the key issue for him, and while he supported the war at first he thought the U.S. should admit its mistakes and bring the troops home now.
He noted other controversial issues — gay marriage (he supports it), the government’s role in the economy and the environment (“both sides have good arguments”) — but lamented that most students were not politically engaged.