In compiling these profiles over the last few months, there have been a couple of occasions in which authoring the introductory segments has proved challenging. This is one of those times. Do I simply go for broke and provide the rhetorical flourishes I feel the subject deserves? Or do I attempt a more understated approach so as not to convey a lugubriously wheedling tone? A happy medium is preferable of course, but am I capable of that?
Forthwith… I have admired Nathan Wurtzel’s cogently articulated grasp of the minutiae of American politics ever since I discovered his Twitter account a little over a year ago (soon after I joined). It was a banner day when he started following me back and I’m grateful for the opportunity to converse (via Twitter) with Nathan on a fairly regular basis and pick his brain on all things political. That may seem obsequious, but it is honest…so there you have it!
The fact is, I have never known Nathan to be reluctant to share his perspective, offer counsel or provide insight, when asked about a hot topic or up-and-coming political personality. Ergo, it’s not as if I’m taking advantage of special access to which only an elite few are entitled! Nathan weighs in regularly on races and referenda across the country, with the breadth of outlook that is only garnered from 13 years in the business of political consulting.
Nathan Wurtzel is a gifted storyteller, with an ample wellspring of anecdotes, and has his finger on the pulse of the trends in the conservative movement today; evidence for both is amply provided below. But on a daily basis, if there is any aspect I appreciate most about Nathan, it is his direct approach. Nathan doesn’t hesitate to communicate disagreement with anyone or disapproval of any opinion. But it is never personal or permanent and it is unfailingly supplemented by praise and affirmation.
Conservatives are in the midst of a renewed ascendancy, which is characterized by a plethora of dialogue. This is a sign of health and viability overall, but the conversation all too often becomes tainted with rudeness and disrespect among friends. As energized activists seek to widen our role in the coming days as members of a newly minted conservative majority fighting for the twin causes of limited government and liberty, Nathan Wurtzel’s prudent voice will be one that I continue to value. Follow him and you will see why!
10 Questions for Nathan Wurtzel
1. You understand the American political business…the personalities, the strategy and the issues…as well as anyone I follow on Twitter! When did you first become interested in it all and why?
I thank you for the premise, but I don’t agree with it. I think I need 20-25 more years before I truly understand politics and even then, there is no guarantee. Things always change; the rules we think are rules really aren’t. My interest in politics stems from what is probably a common story for Republicans about my age (39) – the 1980 Presidential campaign and the election of Ronald Reagan. It’s no accident we long for another Reagan; he was that rare politician who not only said the right things, but largely did them, and made you feel good about yourself and America in doing so. This is not to say he was perfect, and I think we’ve wasted much time looking for another Reagan that doesn’t exist, but there is no doubt he made a real impression on me at a young age and I believe it all flows from there, especially since I grew up in an almost-uniformly Democratic family.
2. Your Twitter bio states that you are a “softcore libertarian.” Since I can clearly intuit a limited government stance from that description, not to mention your tweets on various subjects, I would still hazard a guess that you wouldn’t object to being profiled as a “conservative.” Is that a fair estimation? Why or why not?
No, I don’t mind, but the endless litany of people deciding who is or isn’t a “true conservative” has grown tiresome, to the point where some grassroots activists and, unforgivably, fellow consultants, have now signed onto a speech code saying criticism of one particular Senator is out of bounds and will be met with punishment, rather than a reasoned defense. I did not sign on for that.
Conservatives, libertarians, etc., have a shared interest in limiting the size and role of government, but often, there is disagreement on a wide array of things and those disagreements must be resolved by rational discussion and a more or less democratic resolution, rather than some sort of mirrored Trotskyism.
When we say the word “conservative,” we must ask ourselves what it is we wish to conserve. The idea that there was some Golden Age of America where everything was great for everybody is ridiculous – a substantial portion of our population’s natural rights of life, liberty, and property were not protected by government, and that is government’s first and foremost role in society. Conservatives should not be afraid to advance change simply because it’s a term that has largely been co-opted by so called “progressives;” what matters is what sort of change is sought. If it leads to greater liberty and more equality of opportunity for the most people, it’s a good change.
I am indeed, first and foremost, a proponent of limited government, with the understanding that there are some areas, most notably the protection of natural individual rights and national security (and a finite amount of others), where government does have a role to play. However, that role should involve having the lightest touch and least interference possible and government must serve that given function well. That’s why I call myself a “softcore” libertarian – if you drill down, I think true libertarians would be even less interested in me joining their club than true conservatives.
3. Where did you grow up and how did your formative years shape the person you are today?
I grew up in Central New Jersey, first on the chicken farm owned by my father’s parents in Millstone Township, near Freehold. When I was five, my parents divorced and I moved to Toms River, which is on the Jersey Shore. After my Bar Mitzvah, I decided I needed to live with my father and moved back to Millstone Township. So my childhood was disrupted at times and not always happy, but now that I am an adult, I am able to intuit some of what my parents had to deal with and know they had a hard time as well. I have one sister who is three years younger than me and a half-sister who is thirteen years younger. My mom passed away in 1994 and my father currently is suffering from a severe Alzheimer’s-like syndrome cause by Lyme’s Disease and is in long-term care.
My first campaigns were helping my father when he ran for school board in the mid-1980s (nonpartisan, but Dad is most definitely a Democrat) and volunteering for Rep. Chris Smith (still in office) and Pete Dawkins, who was the Republican nominee for Senate in New Jersey in 1988.
I got my undergraduate degree in psychology at Rutgers University and spent some time in graduate school at the State University of New York at Binghamton, specializing in developmental psychobiology, but I didn’t do well after my mom passed away and the Republican revolution of 1994 and Newt Gingrich really grabbed my energy. In 1997, knowing only one person, I decide to move to Washington DC and start over.
4. Tell us about the Catalyst Group and what your routine responsibilities involve as a political consultant.
The Catalyst Group is primarily a political fundraising company, but we are not limited to that and often provide informal general consulting advice (when asked). My business partner and I both have a deep and varied background from our earlier political campaigns and our work in Washington, D.C. I often joke our job is to raise as much money as we can so other consultants can waste it, but it really is a joke – if I thought I could do their jobs better than they do, I would do them (a thought armchair political consultants should take into consideration). With that said, I am not a particular fan of the compartmental form campaigns often take, as I’ve often gotten very good fundraising ideas and advice from other consultants and campaign staff and I think we can offer the same in return. Campaign hours are brutal and as a result, you run the risk of becoming intellectually fatigued and bound to rules that, as I note above, continually change.
We enjoy our work, but it is not particularly glamorous or exciting – fundraisers are the offensive line of the political football team. Doing our job well enables the quarterback, if you will, to have the opportunity to advance the ball down the field. Of course, we don’t operate in a vacuum – issue focus and campaign decisions have a profound impact on our bottom line, and it is a mistake to view us as a less-skilled part of the campaign.
We spend a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time planning fundraising events, a lot of time communicating information by email, and in addition, I do some direct-response writing for a few campaigns. Besides the obvious compensation, we get to meet some interesting people from time to time (Meat Loaf and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter from The Doobie Brothers are two of my all-time favorites).
For my business partner and I, another key portion of our duties involves continually communicating with our clients and their staffs, as well as developing new business opportunities. In addition, we’re always volunteering on small projects and contributing modestly to political campaigns that we’re not working on ourselves.
I’ve more than once noted the above on Twitter: we do this in no small part because we are political activists as well as political professionals. The big thing in the national grassroots movement these days is to scorn political professionals. I’d remind those people: All of us could have done something else and made more money with less effort. We do this because we want to, and more often than not, our goals are no different than those of the non-professional grassroots community.
So, really, The Catalyst Group is a three-headed beast: political consulting, political activism, and a job-creating small business. That is why you often see me commenting on economic and small business issues on Twitter – they’re very important to me, personally and professionally.
5. The time has come to try to insert a little variety into the weekly “favorites” question. So please share your favorites in the following categories and explain why:
Books – Science-fiction/fantasy: anything J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks, some C.S. Lewis. Historical fiction: James Michener and Leon Uris. I’ve really enjoyed reading Robert Alter’s Torah/Tanach/Psalms re-translations; that’s material I am working on now. I’m a big P.J. O’Rourke fan. I own so many books I have yet to read, including the Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides and an original, contemporary book on slavery, written by Philadelphia pastor John Dixon Long in 1857. I found the book at an Ithaca, NY used bookstore in 1997, loaned it to more than one history professor, and have yet to crack it myself!
Sports team – New York Yankees, no question. I and all of my friends in elementary school (mid 70s – mid 80s) were Yankee fans. We’d even imitate them in our backyards using a “Rubber Pinkie” ball (easier on the cars and house windows in our closely-spaced suburb.
Movies – The Godfather I and II, Casablanca, the original Star Wars trilogy, the John Hughes movies of the 1980s. Ben Hur. 2001: A Space Odyssey. People who know me well know I will stop whatever I am doing to watch Forrest Gump. Guilty Pleasure: White Nights, not in the least because it’s one of the last in which American filmmakers recognized who our enemies are.
TV shows – Currently: Mad Men and Chuck. All Time: SportsNight, Moonlighting, The Sopranos, Twin Peaks and 24. I’m obviously driven by long-term plot and rapid dialogue. Guilty Pleasure: Dallas, and I am, in truth, not ashamed of it. For many years, it was a very well-written show. And, of course, Red Eye.
Foods – I like lots of different things, which should be readily evident from my photo, but Middle Eastern and Italian are at the top of my list.
Miscellaneous – Websites/Blogs: Hot Air, Real Clear Politics, National Review Online, Reason Magazine. Music: 80s New Wave, Classic Rock, Motown, Frank Sinatra. Comic strips: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Liberty Meadows.
6. Who have 3 of your strongest influences been on your career path, to date? Also, if forced to name 3 people you view as requisitely unlikeable, who would you pick?
The people who have strongly influenced my political career by their example as political/election professionals are Lee Atwater, Joe Gaylord, Karl Rove, Steve Schmidt, Ken Mehlman and Terry Nelson. I’ve never had a true mentor, but am always listening to and learning from others in my profession.
I have no desire to name three individuals as unlikeable, so let me instead give you the three types of people I find unlikeable: 1) those who wish to influence by coercion or force rather than by rational discussion; 2) those who intentionally misstate facts in their arguments (liars by commission) or who are too lazy to learn the facts could care less what the truth is (liars by omission); and 3) those who commit implied character assassination by association. I have no time for those people.
7. There is a lot of chatter and jousting on Twitter lately between conservatives and libertarians. As someone with many friends/acquaintances on both sides, can you share some perspective on how both can work together in the coming years for the cause of freedom?
People have to be willing to, as Morton Blackwell says, not make the perfect the enemy of the good. I suspect the real problem lies in there being no solid agreement on what is good. Beyond that, people have to take it upon themselves to learn more about the issues and personalities, because I see and hear so many things that are not true that it is absolutely infuriating.
In addition, people have to be willing to work together. When a group decides 60% isn’t good enough and would rather have 0%, we’ve got a big problem. Rational thought dictates you accept the 60% now and keep working to move it towards 100%.
Anyone who thinks they will get everything they want in politics should get out now. They’ll never be happy. I’ll never get the exact libertarian society I would prefer, but right now, things are going the wrong way and I’m happy for any movement in the direction of individual liberty.
There also are personalities and will-to-power involved, from legitimate Presidential politics to obnoxious people trying to increase the popularity of their blogs/websites at the expense of others. I don’t see a whole lot of hope for those people, so I just ignore them.
8. What are the issues that animate your involvement in the political arena?
Broadly, the overwhelming presence of government in our lives. It’s hard to boil it down to a few issues, because they often impact each other. We need to ask more of ourselves and less from our government. The amount of debt we are leaving to future generations is staggering and the only solution is a multifaceted retreat where everyone will have to take on more responsibility. People shouldn’t look upon that as a sacrifice, but as an opportunity.
If you want some specifics, I support broad-based tax reform that lowers both the tax rate and the amount of taxes paid for every individual and business in America. I prefer some sort of flat tax to any sales tax or value-added tax. Along with these tax reforms, we must have deep spending cuts and retreat of the role of government across the board – no sacred cows. We must do national security smarter – patting down 3-year-olds and elderly nuns is the very definition of insanity and is a violation of our civil society, but government does have the responsibility to protect us from terrorism, so I am not arguing for an absence of security measures. I believe the free market will eventually lead us to a “green energy” society, but science and cost-effectiveness are not there yet and the government is making a big mistake and causing us much hardship by trying to force us there.
I’m not a big social issues person, which should be obvious to anyone who follows me on Twitter, but I also don’t see them as terribly different from economic issues as far as the role of government is concerned. Government exists to protect people’s natural individual rights.
Keep in mind, though, that I am not a candidate and have no desire to ever be one. Any quality candidate who helps tip the scale in the directions I note above is one I am happy to work with, though of course,I have my favorites.
9. You have been based in DC for a number of years. What, from your perspective, are some of the advantages and disadvantages of locating there on a permanent basis and can conservatives (small-government, balanced-budget types) ever REALLY dominate the discussion there?
It’s a great place to live, first and foremost, though it is expensive. If you’re a political professional who works on federal elections all over the country (we’ve been involved in elections in 25 states and Puerto Rico in the last ten years alone), it’s where the federal government is. The idea that people become different when they move here is one I largely dismiss; if they are in favor of big government, then they likely have been that way no matter where they live. People with similar ideas tend to gravitate to the same location.
There has been tremendous private-sector growth in the Washington DC area in the last 20 years, so the region is not completely dependent on the federal government and cuts in the size and role of the government will not economically devastate us, despite what excuse-makers and naysayers might wish you to believe.
Can conservatives dominate the discussion in Washington DC and elsewhere? Of course, but it’s a question of 1) building alternative media institutions to spread the message while continuing to push mainstream media as far as possible, while 2) being willing to engage in the discussion via rational argument rather than through coercion. Limited government is not self-evident to a lot of people; they need to be convinced.
A lot of people in Washington DC believe in a big government. I don’t know how they plan to avoid national stagnation and bankruptcy in another generation or so, but it is what it is. Most of them can’t be convinced to change.
10. In your life so far, name 3 people you’ve met, accomplishments you’ve garnered or memorable experiences you would be willing to share with us, political or otherwise? (Not 3 of each…3 total!) Also, what are 3 goals, desires or dreams that remain on your “bucket list?”
- He cannot be characterized as a conservative, but Pete Dawkins was the first big-time Republican I ever met, and his background as a Heisman Trophy winner and General made him a formidable and inspirational figure.
- In 1998, I left the National Republican Congressional Committee in late August to be finance director on the House campaign of Don Sherwood (10th District, Pennsylvania). I helped raise over $700,000 in 70 days and he won by 515 votes, the narrowest House race in the nation that cycle. That was the first race where I had a significant professional role and made a real difference and it felt great.
- I got the highest possible score on Activision’s Laser Blast for the Atari 2600 after playing for 10 consecutive hours when I was 11. It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put a joke somewhere in this profile. True story, though.
- I want to get married and have a family. I’ve put it off, but now or very soon is the time.
- I need to go to Israel and hope to next year. It’s inexcusable I have not been there.
- I want to work with NJ Governor Chris Christie at some point. No conservative politician in America is more inspiring by their words and deeds at this moment.