Think Tank

01.29.14

GOP Invites Friends of TED to Its Party

House Republicans embrace lightbulb moments by bringing big thinkers to its annual retreat.

You can almost picture it: John Boehner delivering his weekly press conference alone on a darkened stage, a wireless microphone clipped to his shirt, a slideshow clicker wrapped up in his hand. Filibusters are limited to 20 minutes, black turtlenecks have replaced pinstripe suits, and instead of deficits and Obamacare, the GOP are buzzing about out of the box ideas and disruption.

That’s right—the Republican Party is embracing the TED Talk.

Or they are for this week at least, as House Republicans gather on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for their annual retreat, a gathering that is self-consciously modeling itself on those “Ideas Worth Spreading” that have dominated drone office lunch breaks for the last decade.

The retreat is the brainchild of Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a lawmaker from Eastern Washington and the fourth-ranking Republican in the House who’s already brought some west coast sensibility to her post: Her office walls are painted a multi-colored bright hue more likely to be found in Silicon Valley, and there’s a framed sign in the lobby that reads, “If You Could Do One Thing, What Would It Be?” She’s installed an “Innovation Lounge” in the back of her office suite and converted part of her office into a “GOP Lab” where members or their staff can learn tools like Photoshop or Final Cut pro.

Nate Hodson, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, says the conference was looking for “outside the box, TED Talk type speakers so members would be challenged to think about what is possible in the realm of public policy.”

“We wanted people who approach problems in their fields in ways you wouldn’t have thought of,” he adds. “It is just so easy to get trapped in the same ways of thinking because that is the culture here on the Hill.”

To wit, in addition to the usual slate of conservative stalwarts like National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru, pollster Frank Luntz, and celebrities like football coach Lou Holtz and Army Ranger Sean Parnell, a handful of unusual guests are slated to speak; guests that aren’t usually associated with a political party struggling to shake off its reputation as a hidebound enclave for old white men.

There’s Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker whose Twitter biography simply says, “To run & jump & laugh & cry & love & hope & imagine…to experience as much as I can all for purpose: to inspire,” and whose 2007 TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” remains one of the series’ most popular. In fact, that talk begat a bestselling book, Start With Why, that argues, “It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters Why you do it.”

“It is just so easy to get trapped in the same ways of thinking because that is the culture here on the Hill.”

There’s Odest Chadwicke Jenkins, a robotics research at Brown, and Henry Evans, who was left mute and completely paralyzed after a stroke at the age of 40, but thanks to Jenkins’ work, is able to communicate using a computer that only requires slight movement of the head and fingers. (The two also have a popular TED Talk.)

Add to the list Rich Thau, who, according to his website is “an industry leader in scientifically testing and refining the effectiveness of business and issue-advocacy presentations, moment-to-moment” (think focus group dials), along with being the co-author of the career advice book Get It Together by 30.

Sal Khan, a former Silicon Valley hedge funder who gave up the financial game to found a non-profit called Khan Academy that provides free online educational videos (and, yes, is also the host of a popular TED Talk), is also scheduled to address a roomful of Congressional Republicans. Though, he himself doesn’t exactly know why.

“Hopefully they are finding [what I do] a refreshing way to look at issues,” says Khan. “It is not about technology versus humanity; it is about technology that empowers humans, about taking any system and thinking about it from an orthogonal direction, which can help any problem.”

Also appearing before the lawmakers? Christine Hassler, a motivation speaker and self-described “achievement addict” who’s (more relevantly for the GOP) an “expert on Millennials and Generation Yers” that “helps families and corporations understand [millennials] as consumers and employees.”

Hassler told The Daily Beast that GOP brass visited her in Los Angeles recently. She says she told them, “Millennials don’t think government is very useful. They think they can make more of an impact building an app or starting a nonprofit.”

Although social issues continue to trouble the Republican Party’s relationship with young voters, Hassler hopes to tell the members of Congress that there’s an opening.

“They have an expectation hangover regarding Obama,” she says. “They can be at the same time apathetic, uninformed and a little bit disgusted about politics. But there are a lot of issues that I think millennials could really get behind.”

Overall, the retreat and its unusual list of speakers comes at an opportune time for the House GOP. It’s the first one held since they regained their Congressional majority in which they are facing some kind of looming budget crisis, and polls show they have a very good shot at retaining their majority in November. Whether they have “Ideas Worth Spreading,” however, remains to be seen.