The Rove View.

May 25, 2008

The Rove View.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, May 25, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: Today we heard from Karl Rove. He had a number of things to say about how he sees each side of the presidential contest. The themes that are going to define the election are experience vs. change and the tactical question is which side can own their label and make that work to the detriment of the other. I want to ask you what you thought about his premises about the election and the road to Republican recovery. The country is basically a center/right country, he says. And the Republican majority, which he was an architect of over the last 15 years or so, rests on that being true. He argues that that’s still true and, consequently, it’s really an issue of finding a road to reconnecting to that fundamental dynamic in America.

Newman: That doesn’t make any sense to me. If that’s how the country “basically” is, why would the question be finding a road to get to it? Why wouldn’t that be relatively easy?

Salit: I presume he would say it’s because the Republican Party has been weakened and discredited in certain ways. He argues that the Republican Party is not in as bad shape as everybody says it is, though he did acknowledge that it’s in bad shape. So the issue he’s trying to speak to is whether the Republican Party can recover from the bad shape that it’s in. And he says it can and this is why.

Newman: We’ll see. It still doesn’t make sense to me because his account is that the Republican Party has made some mistakes, done things wrong, Bush’s popularity figures are as low as any president in the history of the United States, we’re in an unpopular war, the economy stinks, but the country is still a center/right country. Why would we remain a center/right country? The American people move all over the place as a function of what the parties are doing. So, the argument doesn’t make any sense. Always look out for the use of the word “basically.” Everything is already “basically” what it is, so what does adding the word “basically” mean?

Salit: Perhaps he means Yes, there are a lot of things wrong. The economy has tanked, the war is unpopular, there have been scandals, the president’s unpopular. But when you get right down to it, the Democratic Party is a left wing party and the majority of the American people won’t support a left wing party.

Newman: The majority of the American people supported the Democratic Party when it was a lot more of a left wing party than it is now. It’s entirely situational. What the American people support depends on what the historic circumstances are. The American people are neither center/left nor center/right. The American people are fundamentally pragmatic. We want to have something that works, whether it’s a kitchen knife or Washington, DC. That’s what the American people are, “basically.” And so they’re going to look at this election and say We don’t know what the future brings. We do know what the past has brought. And it’s brought eight years of what’s reasonably called “abject failure.” That’s what we’ve got. And that’s going to determine how they vote. The fundamental fact going way back to the beginning – before there were candidates, before there was Barack Obama, before there was John McCain – is that what you’re potentially looking at here is a gigantic landslide in favor of the Democrats. Forget all the convolutions. Forget all the stuff that they talk about week after week after week after week. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that that’s not going to be the outcome. The American people are saying: We don’t like what this guy Bush has done. I think that that might turn out to be the beginning, the middle, and the end of it.

Salit: OK. The American people don’t like what Bush and this administration have done. Then how do Republicans think they can make the “experience” argument work in that overall environment?

Newman: I don’t think they can.

Salit: Well, that’s pretty straightforward. But there’s endless conversation about the contest between experience and change.

Newman: Americans are baseball fans. And you would never use the experience argument against rookies. People would say you are crazy. Jaba Chamberlain, the new Yankee pitcher, is inexperienced. That doesn’t mean you don’t want him in the starting line-up. Of course, Obama’s inexperienced. Nobody running for president has been the president. So, in some fundamental way, everybody is inexperienced because no one’s had a chance to be in that position. I don’t think it’s a strong argument. I never did think it was a strong argument.

Salit: What you’re saying makes me think about the part of the conversation on Stephanopoulos where Republican consultant Matt Dowd was talking about how John McCain has to separate himself from the Bush administration. But he’s for the Bush tax cuts. He’s for Bush’s war. What else is there?

Newman: There are other issues, to be fair. Global warming and pork-barrel spending and stuff like that. But they’re not the hot issues in the campaign. On the hot issues in the campaign, he’s a Bush man.

Salit: The Obama team obviously knows that and that’s why they’re working the “third Bush term” refrain in talking about McCain. What about this idea that McCain should develop a reform agenda and that he’s got to sell himself as a reformer? That’s really a concession to the fact that the experience argument is not going to carry the day. On the one hand, they say experience is his trump card. On the other hand, if that’s all he’s got, he’s going to lose the election and he’s probably going to lose it big time.

Newman: One of the golden rules of American politics is that you never really fully overcome the issues that you had to run on to win your primary. McCain had to go right, way right, to win his primary. And now he’s kind of stuck there. Can he so easily say: I’m a reform candidate. Remember me. This is how I voted on immigration. Remember me. I’m the McCain of McCain-Feingold. He can’t go back there so easily, given how he’s set himself up. There’s not much time before November. I don’t know if he can redefine himself in that way. I’m sure some people are telling him to, but I don’t know that he can. In some ways, the more he tries to define himself in terms of the old McCain, the more he establishes how old he is.

Salit: Stephanopoulos asked Rove to give some free advice to the Obama campaign. Rove says: ‘Here’s how I look at it. There are two main pillars of the Obama campaign. One is the appeal for a bipartisan coming together to solve the country’s problems. And the other is his appeal to the Dr. King concept of the “fierce urgency of now.”‘ Rove says: ‘If he wants to move the ball down the field for himself, he’s got to find a way to link those two things for real, not just in speeches. Consequently, what he has to do is take some initiatives now that show that he can really produce that kind of bipartisanship.’

Newman: And Stephanopoulos correctly says, ‘Wait. He can’t do that. There’s no time.’ I think that was somewhat disingenuous advice on Rove’s part.

Salit: The Hillary question.

Newman: The Hillary question. Which is what?

Salit: What’s she doing now? She is in “end game” because it is coming to the end. What’s her best case scenario in terms of what she can accomplish at this point, do you think? Everyone seems to feel that, at some point, it will be over and the party will come together and she will be a vigorous Obama supporter. No one is questioning that. What everybody seems to be wondering about is what’s her “fierce urgency of now?” What’s her “now” game?

Newman: I think the strongest and most logical characterization I’ve heard is that she wants to give all the members of her constituency a chance to vote. She doesn’t want to be pushed out of the race. The way you do that is to go to the end of it and then put the ball in the court of the Democratic Party machinery. Let them decide what to do. And then she’ll say, I’m a loyal Democrat. They’re deciding this. They’re telling me to do this. I will do it.

Salit: What are we seeing in terms of the intensity of “she’s got to get the hell out of this? This last thing, the Kennedy thing, is a bridge too far.” But every week there’s a new last thing.

Newman: What else do they have to cover? That’s what there is to put on TV. She’s a candidate who came close in the Democratic primary. If she were getting creamed every week, you would reasonably ask the question “Why is she still in there?” But she’s not. She’s making showings every week, anywhere from respectable to doing very well. So, why get out? Why do runners keep running after they’ve obviously lost? Often it’s not even for money or prestige…

Salit: It’s to finish the race.

Newman: Yes. It’s to finish the race.

Salit: One final thing. Sometimes the race is talked about as a historic juncture in American politics…

Newman: I think it is…

Salit: OK. And then sometimes people say, like Chris Matthews did today, ‘Look. This is an unpopular war. When you have an unpopular war, the American people change parties. It’s just that simple. That’s what’s going on here. That’s why the Republicans are going to go down in flames and the Democrats are going to win. That’s really what the story of this election is about. It’s happened before. It’s what American elections and what the American people are like. War goes bad, party out the door.’ Are those two views in conflict with each other?

Newman: Which two views?

Salit: One, that this is an historic juncture in American politics. New paradigms, new coalitions, a new generation, new sets of problems, etc. That kind of thing. And the other one is this is what happens. Foreign entanglements that the American people don’t like and you won’t sustain the party in power.

Newman: There’s no incompatibility between the two. In addition to the fact that Americans throw out the incumbent party when a war doesn’t go well, it’s also an historic year. Hey, the Democrats are going to be nominating either an African American or a woman. That’s pretty damn historic. And, after the American people had a real flirtation with moving right, that seems to be changing this year, under fairly dramatic circumstances.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.