The Reinvention of Jim Talent

Published the week of October 4, 2000

If Democrat Bob Holden were running for governor against Newt Gingrich or Henry Hyde, it would a no-brainer for voters who consider themselves part of the reasonable middle ground of American politics.

Even if they had little knowledge of the low-key, centrist Holden, there's no way that folks in the center would want a right-wing hardliner to run state government. Moderates would shudder at having another governor who, like Sen. John Ashcroft, was an extremist on abortion, guns, taxes and the like.

Well, guess what? Nice, soft-spoken U.S. Rep. Jim Talent -- a fellow who seems to exude middle-ground reasonableness -- is every bit the right-wing hardliner that Gingrich, Hyde and Ashcroft are.

He just doesn't act the part.

Like Holden, Talent is a gentleman who is conducting an honorable campaign, and the gubernatorial battle feels like a checkers match next to Ashcroft's ugly struggle against Gov. Mel Carnahan for the U.S. Senate. Unlike Holden, however, his real-life voting record doesn't look at all like the candidate you see on television.

Don't take my word for it. After four terms in Congress, Talent has compiled a record that -- measured from either end of the political spectrum -- is among the most conservative in America.

The scorecards speak for themselves. A quick trip to the nonpartisan Almanac of American Politics (the three editions covering Talent's tenure) finds that the congressman scored 100 percent ratings from the Christian Coalition over six years. Not even Hyde could say that, or, on the Senate side, Kit Bond.

Talent always has a "perfect" 100 percent record of supporting the positions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, and his ratings of 96 to 100 percent with the American Conservative Union are substantially higher than those of most other Republicans.

Conversely, Talent rates near the very bottom in the eyes of the Americans for Democratic Action (5 to 10 percent), the American Civil Liberties Union (0 to 14 percent) and the League of Conservation Voters (15 to 22 percent).

This isn't just about numbers. To achieve Talent's dramatic ratings, he had to vote a much harder line than he talks, and the proof is in some notable examples showing him to be more conservative than many in his own party. Consider:

¼ Talent voted in 1995 to repeal the ban on sale or manufacture of many assault weapons. Forty-two Republicans supported keeping the ban in place.

¼ Talent voted in 1995 to limit the enforcement authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. There were 63 Republicans against the limits.

¼ Talent voted in 1995 for a constitutional amendment against flag-burning. Twelve Republicans were against it.

¼ Talent voted in 1996 against raising the minimum wage to $5.15 per hour. There were 77 Republicans who voted for the increase.

¼ Talent voted in 1998 for a constitutional amendment to guarantee a right of prayer in public schools. There were 28 Republicans against it.

¼ Talent voted in 1998 to end minority set-aside funding benefits in the federal highway program. There were 29 Republicans in favor of maintaining the benefits.

This isn't an exhaustive list. It doesn't speak to his repeated votes against public-education funding, abortion rights and the like, but it does illustrate one point: Talent isn't merely another right-leaning Republican. He's a true believer, much more so than his public demeanor suggests.

It seems like ancient history now, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Talent rose quickly in the congressional ranks in 1995 thanks to his loyalty to Gingrich and the infamous "Contract with America" (or "Contract on America," as it was also known). Indeed, in that crucial year, the Almanac's own cumulative ratings showed that Talent was second to absolutely no other congressman in conservative voting on economic, social and foreign policy.

That's right. During the ill-fated "Republican revolution" -- one of the most highly charged ideological periods ever -- Talent was regarded by nonpartisan scorekeepers as at least tied for the title of the most right-wing congressman in the nation.

In fact, Talent's only public divergence from the agenda of Gingrich's contract was to introduce a bill denying benefits to women if they have a second child born while on welfare and to send children of "unfit homes" to group homes. Talent's idea of "welfare reform" was rejected as too draconian by one of the most conservative Congresses in the nation's history.

Mind you, one need not go back in time to find evidence of Talent's exceptionally conservative views. He certainly doesn't deny his strong opposition to a woman's right to choose an abortion, he supports school vouchers that would spend public education dollars in private schools and he's an ardent backer of the National Rifle Association's efforts to allow Missourians to carry concealed weapons.

But you won't see much emphasis on these emotionally charged wedge issues -- especially not at home in St. Louis County, where they don't play so well -- and even when Talent does weigh in on such matters, he'll do so in that soft and inoffensive manner that has helped him create his benevolent persona.

Is he evil? Of course not: He's quite the opposite, a very decent man.

Jim Talent is just an extremely conservative fellow, and those who believe in extremely conservative positions should, by all means, vote for him. Those who identify themselves with the Religious Right would have a hard time finding a more faithful advocate.

On the other hand, for those who think of themselves as residing in the political center, there's a real pitfall in judging this particular book by its cover. Bob Holden, who admittedly doesn't inspire the emotions of liberals, can legitimately lay claim to that sappy, soft middle ground.

Talent isn't even close to any of that. And if he fools enough moderates with his pleasant public image, there's a big surprise coming when Talent moves into the governor's mansion.

This is one nice guy who had better finish last.

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