ST. LEO — A top Republican lawmaker during much of the Bush administration has some advice for members of his own party after they failed to defeat President Barack Obama last week.
"The Republican Party has to come back and take a review and a relook about where they're at," former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said during a speech to about 60 students Wednesday evening at Saint Leo University. "I think we hold onto some of these views and it's not in synch with where young people are today."
Hastert pointed to changing attitudes about gays and lesbians. He also said the GOP has to better connect with Hispanics and women. Some candidates' comments on rape and abortion, he said, played into the idea that "all Republicans are Neanderthals."
During his hourlong talk, he said Obama strategist David Axelrod "did a very good job of defining Mitt Romney from mid spring to the convention we had here in Tampa."
"Every day he would be throwing a political hardball at Romney's head," said Hastert, who retired from public office a year after Democrats took control of the House in 2006. Despite Romney's strong performance in the first debate, he said, "I think the dye was set."
Hastert, 70, knows Axelrod's style well. During Hastert's first run for Congress in 1986, Axelrod was one of two people running his opponent's campaign. The other strategist? Rahm Emanuel, who later served in Congress and the Obama administration before being elected mayor of Chicago.
Hastert took over as speaker in 1998 and started focusing on education, energy and health care. But he said his tenure will be defined by the Sept. 11 attacks, which "focused" the federal government's work on war and peace.
He said he'll never forget the blue flames and the black smoke billowing out of the Pentagon as he flew over in a helicopter. He also gave a special tribute to the passengers on Flight 93 who overwhelmed terrorists and crashed the plane in rural Pennsylvania. The aircraft was headed for Washington.
"If it hadn't been for those people, that plane would've been in the front door of the Capitol," he said.
He defended controversial measures passed in later years such as the Iraq war resolution ("made on a bipartisan basis") and the Patriot Act (one of several tools he said prevented more than 20 subsequent terrorist attempts).
"One thing that I said and the president said, we weren't going to let 9/11 happen in this country again," he said. "And we didn't."
He also riffed on Florida's history of election hiccups, noting that the "hanging chad" election of 2000 wasn't just a punch line for him. As No. 3 in the line of succession, he watched with personal interest as the U.S. Supreme Court effectively decided the election that December.
"If they hadn't made this decision … I would have been the temporary president of the United States," he said. "And that's something I really didn't want to do."
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