Rob Bluey / @RobertBluey / January 19, 2023
Advancing American Freedom is helping to shape the agenda for conservatives, the new Congress, and our next president. (Photo: Getty Images)
Rob Bluey / @RobertBluey
Rob Bluey is executive editor of The Daily Signal, the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. Send an email to Rob.
After serving as vice president of the United States, Mike Pence created a new organization dedicated to promoting and defending the policies he championed during his four years in office.
To lead this new organization, he tapped Paul Teller, a veteran of Capitol Hill who worked for Pence and President Donald Trump in the White House. Teller is now executive director of Advancing American Freedom.
Today, the organization is helping to shape the agenda for conservatives, the new Congress, and our next president. Teller joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about the Freedom Agenda and more. Read a lightly edited transcript or listen to the interview.
Rob Bluey: You’ve had some tremendous experiences working on Capitol Hill for the Republican Study Committee, serving as Sen. Ted Cruz’s chief of staff, and then later going into the Trump administration in the center of the action at the White House. Tell us about that journey.
Paul Teller: It’s a fantastic privilege. I mean, I guess you could say I’ve been a conservative movement guy my whole life, started in seventh grade as kind of an activist troublemaker in public school and all the way up, as you said, to the Trump-Pence White House. But I think maybe one of the most exciting times was working for House conservatives, as you said, for the Republican Study Committee back when the RSC was particularly robust in its fights and once the chairman was Mike Pence. So we go back to that.
Bluey: And of course, House conservatives are in the news a lot lately, having just staged this big fight for the House speaker. So what was it like, having that knowledge and that perspective that you had at the RSC, to watch that play out in real time?
Teller: It was two things. One was deeply satisfying because some of what we saw play out clearly had built on some of the successes of earlier House conservative pushes and stuff. But also deeply frustrating that I wasn’t on the inside with the daily machinations going on and being able to directly impact. Hopefully we impacted from the outside, but I do miss being on the inside at times.
Bluey: Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Advancing American Freedom. You have the Freedom Agenda. It covers a range of public policy issues, things that you would like to see conservatives embrace. Tell us about how it was created and some of the things that our listeners can find in it.
Teller: First of all, thank you to Heritage and [Heritage Foundation President] Kevin Roberts for hosting our founder, Mike Pence, a few months ago to talk about the Freedom Agenda right here at Heritage. I’m very grateful for that.
We thought if we have a group called Advancing American Freedom, we better have an agenda for how you advance American freedom. So we basically went to the movement. We went to the conservative movement.
At least 50 or more conservative leaders directly were asked, “Hey, what would you put into a freedom agenda?” And many more, we just got ideas from just by indirectly listening and hearing what things were being said and promoted.
We aggregated the ideas, as we said, from Reagan to Trump, what’s worked, maybe omitted what hasn’t worked or what’s a bit passé, and just put it all together in these three buckets of American culture, American opportunity, and American leadership as a road map for how you can restore freedom in America.
Bluey: In the interest of full disclosure, you talked to people at The Heritage Foundation. I know Jessica Anderson is on your advisory board. She’s the executive director of Heritage Action for America. One of the things that separates this from so many other agendas that might exist is the fact that you had it crowdsourced and collaborative spirit that went into it.
Teller: We’re really proud of that because I think you’re right, many other agendas, this is not to insult any other agenda, but just to point out that ours was not something that we sat around three, four of us in a closed, dark room. We really asked everybody, genuinely got their opinions, and genuinely included things that they suggested, and then put their names right in the document.
So you can go to advancingamericanfreedom.com, find the Freedom Agenda, and you could even see on there the names of the main contributors to it. And so we’re just really proud that it was kind of an aggregated product that way.
Bluey: You released the Freedom Agenda when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and President Biden in the White House. We’ve since had an election where voters put Republicans back in control of the U.S. House of Representatives. How do you want to see the Freedom Agenda enacted? What are some of the action steps that go into making sure that the policies you outline are implemented?
Teller: Great question. I appreciate it. Two things. One, we’re going to promote the Freedom Agenda in its entirety, kind of renew the promotion of it, go around the Hill, remind folks that it’s there, tell the new members that it’s there who may not be familiar with it. We met with some of them just yesterday, handed each one of them personally a Freedom Agenda, told them about it.
And two, we started this series we’re calling “Future of Freedom,” which is basically saying, “Yes, we have a freedom agenda, which, of course, is a lot of detailed policy prescriptions, but how do we put them into action?” And so, this future freedom series is going to kind of be spinoffs of the Freedom Agenda by issue area.
The one we did [last] week was energy, just released it, and basically saying, “Here are the bills that either already exist or that should exist that would put the Freedom Agenda, principles of freedom into action.”
Bluey: That’s great. And you talked about the federal effort, but I also know that there’s so much activity happening at the state level. How can they take some of the concepts that you’ve put together and maybe apply them in their own state?
Teller: That’s a great point. Just literally today we were huddling in the staff office to talk about how do we get it better understood in the states, better seen in the states. It hasn’t been as exposed there.
I think what we’re going to be doing is, besides a direct campaign to our allies in various state legislatures and conservative think tanks around town, around the states, we just want to make sure folks are aware that the Freedom Agenda is written, first of all, in plain English. So in other words, you don’t have to be some Washington swamp creature to understand it. We avoided any of that type of language so that regular normal Americans can use it.
But also, we wrote it in a way where the principles could apply to your specific state and your specific instance, maybe your specific legislative process. It’s not written for Washington where it only applies to the U.S. Congress, that kind of thing. So we’ll be talking more about that. But yeah, we very much want to make sure it’s used throughout the 50 states.
Bluey: Let’s talk about some of the specific policies. From your vantage point, what do you see as the biggest opportunities, both maybe that align with the interests of American citizens right now, but also, where there might be some momentum in the conservative movement?
Teller: It’s interesting because I think what’s been upsetting, if you will, to a lot of conservatives is to see how many of our fellow Americans were willing to give up their freedoms during COVID, for example, that freedom is not necessarily in the bloodstream of many of our fellow citizens, unfortunately.
So we’ve taken it upon ourselves as an organization and through this Freedom Agenda to say, “Here’s what freedom is. Here’s why it’s important.” We started with the “why.” I think that’s another point of difference. The agenda that we’ve put forward doesn’t just say, “Pass these 10 bills.” And there’s agendas that may do that, and that’s fine. We talk about, “What is freedom? Why does it matter? Why does it enrich the human soul and the human condition?” And then talk about how that translates into daily life.
So I think some of the issues that we get into, and really get into just about every major issue you can think of, but some of the things that are most important, the border, which impacts so many other issues like our economy, like education. There’s so much that ripples from, you get the border right, some of these other issues will be improved as well.
But certainly just everything—the economy to American leadership and the world stage. Energy is, again, something we’ve been big on. And of course, just signature issues for us, because we’re led by Mike Pence, would be the pro-life issue, the religious liberty issue, all of those things we have specific proposals for.
Bluey: And of course, with the March for Life coming up [this Friday], a signature event every year that brings pro-lifers to Washington, D.C., and Vice President Pence, when he was serving in that role, obviously played a significant effort in terms of getting President Trump more active and involved in that community. Thank you to him for everything he’s done for the pro-life movement.
Teller: Really appreciate it. It is a great honor, and he takes great pride in that. But again, he also was always giving credit to the president where it was due because, ultimately, it was the president that was leading the administration. But yes, I think the energy behind many of the pro-life initiatives, the religious liberty initiatives, other related such items, the energy came from Mike Pence.
Bluey: One of the other things that you do at Advancing American Freedom is a great project called the Biden Accountability Tracker. I think it’s so unique because I don’t see a lot of other people doing what you’re doing here.
Teller: I appreciate it. And again, with this and so many other things we’re talking about today, advancingamericanfreedom.com is the website. It’s all on there.
The Biden Accountability Tracker actually started just at the beginning of our time right after the White House, early 2021. We just said, when we were in the White House, “We wish we had had a better running list of all the successes that we have had, all the policy prescriptions that we’re putting out, that we were winning, that were conservative and things like that.”
And so we just kind of flipped that and said, “Now that it’s Biden-Harris in charge, let’s start a running list in real time of all the things that they’re doing that are undoing freedom, that are undoing the policy successes of the Trump-Pence years, and that I just think are harmful for America.”
And so we just started it kind of informally in a Microsoft Word document and someone, maybe a few people, said, “You got to put this out there. Let it be something that Americans can see in use.”
So again, it is on our website, advancingamericanfreedom.com. And what makes it different is we don’t just track the big things that maybe you’re seeing on a Fox News breaking news alert, but even some of the smaller things, an executive order that’s issued, a guidance letter that’s issued to the agencies. We dig down and say, “There’s a lot of horrible stuff going on, and we’re going to publicize it and track it for you.”
Bluey: It really started on Day One of the Biden administration. We saw, particularly, you mentioned the border earlier, undoing a lot of the successful Trump-Pence initiatives that really put the border crisis under control, and now it’s exploded. … Like you say, it’s very detailed. It provides tremendous information,
Teller: We want it to be interactive, meaning, if your listeners have ideas, maybe we missed something, maybe there’s something, we addressed a certain document, but we missed Section Three of it, and we should really highlight that, let us know. Please tell us. Or they can tell you and you could let us know because we want to make sure that we’re really capturing everything in that document that we could possibly put.
Bluey: Vice President Pence is so active, traveling the country, delivering speeches, whether it be on a college campus or another venue, always on television. He’s active on social media. How are you working with him to make sure that more Americans hear about the Freedom Agenda and other things that are going on in your universe?
Teller: That’s such a blessing, to have him as our founder, because of just what a fantastic amplifier he is. I mean, anything he does or says, it just gets tremendous news, gets tremendous attention. He’s getting tremendous crowds at events, always kind of forcing us to add seats in the back or create an overflow room at events. It’s just really fantastic.
He’s based in Indiana, he and his wife, and just is constantly flying all over the country, frankly, all over the world. He’s been out of the country as well. Just sharing the message of freedom, talking about the Freedom Agenda specifically, some of the ideas, but again, talking and touting those successes of the Trump-Pence years, those fantastic policy successes, so many of which have, unfortunately, either already been undone or weakened or made secondary to the Biden-Harris radical liberal agenda. So he’s out there telling the story, building alliances and collaborations wherever he can.
Bluey: Let’s talk about some current events. Having served in the White House, there’s a lot of news about these classified documents that President Biden’s lawyers have recently discovered. Seems like a double standard here, Paul.
Teller: Sure is.
Bluey: What can you tell us about how the media treats this story, because they’re not giving it nearly the attention that they gave stories about President Trump, but also from your perspective, having been on the inside, what do you think we need to do as conservatives to keep the spotlight on Biden?
Teller: It’s a great point. I think what we’re trying to say from Advancing American Freedom is we need to be a country of laws, the rule of law. And that’s throughout the Freedom Agenda.
And I think this is yet one other example in our unfortunate recent history of some people being treated one way, some people being treated other ways. More specifically, conservatives or Republicans are given certain treatment that liberals and Democrats are not given, given maybe a lighter treatment. That’s everything from on Big Tech, when conservatives are shadow banned, frankly, it’s even the border.
Does anyone think that if Democrats thought that the folks illegally pouring across the southern border were all becoming Republicans, that they’d be in favor of this open border? I mean, let’s be real.
So it’s that different treatment that I think we will continue to highlight. We obviously don’t know all the facts of what’s going on. It’s the developing story with Biden, but we will keep pointing out that this needs to once again be a nation of laws and people should be treated equally under the law.
Bluey: Not to pick on our friends in the media too much, but one of the things that recently irritated me was the commentary that you heard about House conservatives, and not only their principled opposition to [Speaker] Kevin McCarthy over some issues, but also just the fact that it was creating a scene of chaos on the House floor, when in fact, they achieved some reforms that really just undid the power grab of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi. Back when you were serving in the House, some of these things were fairly standard. It was Pelosi who implemented them.
So going forward, whether it pertains to the Freedom Agenda or just in general when it comes to the appropriation process or regular order in the House, what are you most hopeful for in this particular Republican-controlled House?
Teller: I think what the events, if you will, of the speaker’s race really showed is that conservatives can use their leverage for good, for policy wins, and even more importantly, for process and structural wins. Because that’s what I think the 20 really got out of this entire process.
Here’s the thing, it wasn’t that just the 20 got it. Really, the whole House got it. Meaning, the rank and file have been empowered through this process. So I think it does show that if conservatives believe in something and stand for it and insist on it, there’s a win to be had. And that win won’t just come to the people pushing it, but it comes to the larger body or hopefully, even better, all of America.
Bluey: You think we’ll see a positive step in the direction of more fiscal responsibility when it comes to the House now that we have some of these reforms in place?
Teller: I think so. Count me as maybe slightly cynical just because of my history working in the House and Senate. But fortunately, it does sound like Speaker McCarthy has made promises that we will keep spending under control. And one such thing is even just bringing separate appropriations bills to the House floor, I think, should help with that in the sense that it will allow for more opportunities to remove wasteful spending, to reduce spending. There’s more targets to shoot at. Whereas when you have that kind of singular omnibus appropriations bill very often comes to the House floor without the ability to even amend it, there’s just fewer things to shoot at.
Bluey: That’s right. And one of the important agreements that he made was a vote on the Republican Study Committee budget, which, having previously served for the RSC, you know about it. So why is that significant? What does the RSC contribute, from your perspective, that maybe others in Congress don’t necessarily take into perspective when they’re putting together a budget?
Teller: Historically, and has always been the RSC budget, kind of the conservative road map to a balanced budget, to a restored constitutional order in America. In other words, it wasn’t just, “Hey, let’s cut spending on random stuff.” It was, “How do we weed out from federal spending, from the federal budget the things that either are not constitutional or constitutionally questionable, or just inappropriate for the federal government to be spending on? And even if it is appropriate to be spending on, maybe we’re spending too much on it, that we could dial it back.”
And so no one better than the RSC to put forward that road map. So getting a vote on it is putting folks on record saying, “Do we want to move in a more constitutional direction in America? Do we want to reduce spending? Do we want to reduce the debt or do we not? And who specifically says ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the different options?” So it’s a worthwhile vote. I hope they get it.
Bluey: Paul, I want to close with a short story and then just get your take on what it was like to be a member of the Trump-Pence team there during those remarkable four years.
Bluey: It was August of 2020, and the White House press corps didn’t have anybody that was able to go on a trip with Vice President Pence. They would normally have somebody who was the pool reporter who would travel alongside the vice president. And when no reporter volunteered for that role, they contacted me. And they asked if I would come along as the trip. I’d be the pool reporter and basically deliver a blow by blow of everything that would happen from the time that we boarded Air Force Two to the time we were on the ground in Tampa.
Seated on Air Force Two on Wednesday, in a space normally reserved for a White House reporter, was a vice president for communications at the Heritage Foundation.https://t.co/Q9KC7UpLvP
You were alongside me on that trip. And you’ll remember that a reporter from The New York Times didn’t particularly [like] the fact that The Daily Signal had been given this responsibility. But it was just one glimpse that I had into what a remarkable experience it must have been to serve in a role like yours. What was it like to have that experience throughout your time in the White House?
Teller: First of all, thank you. And it was a great honor to have you on Air Force Two that day. It was a great day. The truth is, to properly answer that question, we would need another 20 minutes, which we don’t have. But yeah, the short of it is just a tremendous honor.
Every single day I would be one of those guys walking around just kind of tilting my head left and just saying, “I cannot believe I get to work here. I cannot believe I get to just show my badge and they open the gate for me. I mean, this is crazy. This is me. Do they know they’re letting me in the door here? This is insane.”
But yeah, just tremendous honor, including right up to my last day. I remember I was literally packing my desk and the last thing I did was I just walked the entire White House campus, wherever I was legally allowed to go. I just went and just stopped and looked and thought of different things that happened, not even just during our administration, but historically throughout the 200 years or so that the White House had been the home of the president, and just really soaked it all in because it was a tremendous honor.
Bluey: Paul Teller, thank you so much for the work you’re doing at Advancing American Freedom. Give our best to Vice President Pence and thank him for championing so many important conservative issues.
Teller: Absolutely. He’s grateful for your alliance both institutionally and personally, Rob, and we’ll be in good touch always.
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'Freedom Agenda' Offers Hopeful Vision for America's Future – Daily Signal