The Magazine

In Praise of a GOP Moderate

Mark Kirk is the party's best hope in Illinois.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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In early summer of 2005, I was preparing to go to Afghanistan to examine the state of U.S. international broadcasting there when a friend suggested I call on Illinois representative Mark Kirk.

I really didn't expect to learn much from a congressman, but Kirk was on the House Appropriations Committee and, throughout my years of involvement in international broadcasting, I have never rejected a chance for contact with appropriators.

Kirk, though, proved a surprise. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Afghanistan and of broadcasting there. "You are covering Kabul well--but you are not reaching the rugged, mountainous border with Pakistan [where Osama Bin Laden is believed to be in hiding].

You are broadcasting there in shortwave--but that's no longer the primary medium of the region. I was up [in the Northwest Frontier Province] late last year, and I got out of my vehicle and went from car to car, truck to truck. Everyone was listening to a radio--AM or FM radio.

Both Kirk and I knew how difficult it is to change the traditions of a federal agency, but out of our discussion that day came plans to place an AM facility near the eastern Afghanistan city of Khost and line-of-sight FM transmitters on mountain peaks that could reach people throughout the region. Separate news and programming would be focused on the interests of the Pashtuns who dominate the region.

In Afghanistan, both Afghan and American senior officials were enthusiastic about the plan. President Hamid Karzai sent word that it was the highest broadcasting priority for his country. Back in Washington, I sought administration support for the plan, but OMB is not the place to go if you are looking for innovative ways to fight the war on terror. The best I could do was the hope of inclusion in the 2007 budget--which meant funding was at best more than two years away.

I told Kirk that we had won the battle, but were losing the war. "They're marking up the '05 budget on the House floor this afternoon," he said. "Come with me to talk with the subcommittee chairman."

Soon we were in the office of Frank Wolf, and Kirk was making the case for a different kind of broadcasting along the Afghan-Pakistan border. That afternoon $2.1 million was inserted in the appropriations bill, and within a month our agency had the money to begin planning.

I had been around Congress for decades, and I had rarely seen anything like Kirk's ability to get things done.

Trim and alert in appearance, Mark Kirk looks every inch the Naval Reserve officer he is. (He has served in Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia, and flew missions during the Gulf war.)

A graduate of Cornell and the London School of Economics, he was chief of staff in the office of moderate Illinois representative John Porter in the 1980s, and it was with Porter's backing that in 2000 he won an 11-person primary to succeed him.

The 10th district is one of the most socially liberal areas in America, and Kirk is a moderate on issues like abortion, the environment, and homosexual rights. But the state has trended heavily Democratic in recent years, and Kirk was targeted by a well-funded Democratic opponent in 2008. With Barack Obama running a full 20 percentage points ahead of the Republican ticket in the district--and the Obama campaign headquarters little more than a mile away--prognosticators in Washington had Mark Kirk marked for extinction.

But the mild-mannered Kirk was not going to go down easy. He is fluent in Spanish and worked hard to get Hispanic votes--the district is 15 percent Hispanic. He ran boldly on his strong record of fiscal conservatism calling for sharp cuts in the capital-gains tax and federal spending cuts and the elimination of congressional earmarking (except, of course, when that is the only way to find money to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan). Kirk not only won reelection in a district Obama carried by 23 points, he also slightly increased his margin of victory from 2006.

Less than a month after his victory, Naval Reserve Commander Mark Kirk was in Afghanistan working counternarcotics around Kandahar. (He concluded that our four-year failure to control opium cultivation was responsible for the Taliban resurgence in southern Afghanistan.) He spent most of December there--the first time a U.S. representative has deployed to an imminent danger area since World War II.

In January, he was fighting a different battle, serving as one of the most articulate (and outspoken) opponents of the Obama stimulus bill:

Combined with the provisions of the Ways and Means Committee, this legislation will cost taxpayers $825 billion and claims to save 3.7 million jobs. That means the government will save each job at an average cost of $222,972. Combined with the previous $700 billion bailout bill, the cost per job saved by recent congressional spending is $412,162 per job saved. On average, the private sector created jobs at a cost of $50,283 per job in 2007.

No Republican was more forceful in going after scandalous earmarks--and earmarkers. Kirk cast aside congressional decorum and condemned the obvious chicanery of the more than 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus 2009 appropriations bill. In a memo to GOP colleagues, Kirk charged:

This bill includes at least 23 earmarks for PMA Company lobbyists. The FBI raided PMA's offices in Arlington in November. The Justice Department is currently investigating whether PMA lobbyists used "straw donors" to route money to favored lawmakers.

He listed by name the millions in earmarks to PMA clients. Kirk also identified in his memo the recipients of Democratic representative John Murtha's earmarks--unions and businessmen who had given him lavish political contributions. Kirk may be a moderate, but he's not a wimp.

Kirk is the reason that Illinois Democrats have not fulfilled their pledge to hold a special election to fill President Obama's Senate seat, now held by the Blagojevich-appointed Roland Burris. Backing away from earlier assurances that Obama's successor would be elected, Illinois Democrats defeated a legislative move to enable the people to elect their U.S. senator. But with Burris under federal investigation for lying his way (under oath) into the Senate and Blagojevich newly indicted (a move that will unleash another flood of taped conversations), Illinois political observers believe a special election is inevitable. Republicans see an opportunity.

Kirk is not the only potential Republican candidate. He may face opposition from second-term Representative Peter Roskam, a popular Republican with a near-perfect conservative voting record. Yet, unlike many House Republican moderates, Kirk is genuinely liked and respected throughout the party. There already is talk of Roskam soon winning a spot in the House Republican leadership, and he might be convinced his real future is in the House.

After Kirk's surprisingly impressive reelection victory last year, the Rothenberg Political Report declared: "It appears that no amount of Democratic money will take Kirk down." Rothenberg was writing about Kirk's North Shore congressional district. Soon he might be saying that about the state of Illinois.

Kenneth Tomlinson, former editor in chief of Reader's Digest, was chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, from 2002-2007.