Nine months ago at a coffee shop in Auburn, I asked our congressman, Jim Banks, how he planned to deal with the likelihood that after the November election, he would be in the minority party for another two years.
Banks replied that he was running — unopposed— to become chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House with some 150 members,
“It’s really an opportunity for me to take a leadership position and represent the conservative values of our district on a national level and take more of a national role advocating for conservative principles,” Banks said.
Last week provided an example of how Banks has succeeded in his game plan for national prominence.
Wednesday, I awoke to find this title on the lead opinion article in the New York Times: “Lean into it. Lean into the culture war.”
Something about the quote sounded familiar. I clicked on the file and began reading until I found the answer: The words came from Rep. Jim Banks.
Opinion writer Thomas B. Edsall quoted a June 24 memo from Banks to the Republican Study Committee: “We are in a culture war. On one side, Republicans are working to renew American patriotism and rebuild our country. On the other, Democrats have embraced and given a platform to a radical element who want to tear America down.”
The Times writer added that Banks’ letter ends by saying: “My encouragement to you is lean into it. Lean into the culture war.”
Banks has become a regular on Sunday-morning talk shows. He was invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas last weekend and to attend a huddle with former President Donald Trump in late June.
Two weeks ago, an Associated Press profile of Banks said “the 41-year-old Banks is working aggressively to play a prominent role” in the future of the Republican Party. It added, “A politician with mountaintop ambition, he is rising in the ranks of the House Republicans — and in the estimation of the mercurial Trump.”
Despite being far from the centers of power, northeast Indiana has become accustomed to having our representatives in Congress play prominent roles.
Dan Quayle, our congressman from 1977-1980, became vice president of the United States.
Dan Coats, who followed Quayle, went on to became a U.S. senator and then the director of national intelligence.
Mark Souder chaired a headline-grabbing House committee investigating the use of steroids in pro baseball.
Now we find Banks all over our TV screens and printed pages. His media stardom may be surprising, given his low-key demeanor, but his no-nonsense style could be one of his strengths.
Among the seven local members of Congress I’ve interviewed, only Quayle possessed an abundance of charisma.
It may be hard to remember now, after the ridicule Quayle endured during his time as vice president — but in the 1970s, Quayle’s good looks and easy charm made him seem like a Republican answer to the appeal of the Kennedy clan two decades earlier.
Republican women swooned over Quayle during his campaign appearances in Auburn. They would have given anything to trade places with my lovely wife, Betsy, who — in one of the oddest episodes in our family lore — once gave Quayle a lift across town in her Ford Pinto that had a sticker promoting his election opponent — Ed Roush — plastered on its rear bumper.
Quayle’s leading-man looks helped him upset Indiana legend Birch Bayh in the 1980 election for the U.S. Senate. Quayle’s re-election in 1986 helped convince George H.W. Bush to make him the surprise selection as his running mate on the road to the White House in 1988.
Everything went downhill for Quayle after that. Gaffes such as misspelling “potatoe” and misquoting “what a waste it is to lose one’s mind” made him a favorite target for late-night comics.
Which leads us back to Banks, who never says anything funny or foolish.
Among the prominent acolytes of former President Trump, it can be easy to dismiss U.S. representatives Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene as cartoonish.
Good luck finding anything to ridicule or discredit about the ultra-serious, squeaky-clean Banks. His rise in national recognition seems unlikely to be derailed by scandal or slips of the tongue.
AP quoted Andy Downs, a professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne, saying, “If Jim Banks decides that his (House seat) is an office from which he wants to do things, he’s in a position to be influential for decades to come.”
Should Republicans win back control of the U.S. House in the 2022 election, Banks might find himself in a very powerful role. If he uses his position for goals beyond personal ambition, that could turn out to be very good for northeast Indiana.