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Ari Fleischer Explains The GOP Plan To Reclaim Control Of Debates And Conventions

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HH: So pleased to welcome back Ari Fleischer, who has been pushed under the bus by Reince, who was here last week and got rolled over. But Ari, thanks for going, I love the report, but I may be the only guy in broadcasting that…

AF: Thrown under the bus? What does that mean?

HH: (laughing) Because everyone’s yelling at the report. I like it, but you’re out there defending it, and I’m so glad to give you the chance.

AF: I love it.

HH: So tell people what we’re going to do to save the debate process, because that’s the thing that was the worst part.

AF: Oh, Hugh, the debate process, people are still going to be sick of debates by the time we’re doing. We are proposing that we take the current system that has 20 debates in it, that begin in May of the year before the election, and go almost the whole year. And we’re going to go down to about 10-12 debates. We think we should begin them in September of 2015, in other words, shortly before the first primary voters vote, or caucus voters vote, as opposed to eight months before. I think that’s a great new system, and it’s got a lot of debates, and it’s plenty robust, but it’s not too much.

HH: That’s perfect. Who’s going to get to ask the questions?

AF: That’s an up in the air question, and that’s a great question. There’s a lot of Republicans who think that the moderators are biased and don’t like Republicans, and that the questions they get asked are biased questions. The trick here is we would love to have, see if we can’t find other folks to do it, if we can’t build our own to do it. But it’s got to be tough, it’s got to be credible, it’s got to be independent. You don’t let somebody run for president if you can’t make them ask hard, hard questions, challenging questions. But here’s the rub. There is no point in us taking back the debates if nobody puts them on the air. You don’t hold a debate so nobody watches it. And therefore, we have to work with our broadcast partners to make sure that the American people, Republican voters, get to see these debates.

HH: Now Ari, let me propose to you something. If you had Bill Bennett moderate, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, how many people would watch that debate? And wouldn’t those questions be as tough as anyone could possibly ask, but also relevant to a Republican primary audience?

AF: You’re talking my language. I mean, this is the kind of thing that we want to explore and see. But having said that, who’s going to broadcast that show?

HH: I think you could sell tickets on pay-per-view to that show.

AF: Interesting.

HH: But my guess is that Fox or CNN, given that Laura and Bill are put forward on both of those networks, would do so. And I also think actually you could add in, and I would welcome someone from MSNBC. You could put Chris Hayes on that panel. I wouldn’t mind a lefty on that panel, provided that we did not, that they were demarked as lefties.

AF: Hugh, you are asking all the right questions. This is how we should be thinking about debates going forward. We want to figure out if there’s a different, better way to run the debates, have the debates, do them with credibility and independence, but really make them count, and to be viewed. So we’ve got some work ahead of us to figure these things out. And that’s why we put this report out there. This is exactly the kind of wheel turning we need to be doing to say we don’t have to do everything the way we always did it.

HH: Let me talk about the other, I think it’s an extraordinarily important innovation, moving the convention to June. This made, I’ve never heard this debated before, and it makes the most sense given our campaign finance law. Does anyone think that’s a bad idea?

AF: Haven’t heard it, yet. The only issue here is going to be it means you have to move up certain states’ primaries. So somewhere, in some states, they’re not going to like it, because they have May primaries, and you can’t have a primary that close to the convention. Think about it, if we didn’t have a nominee, you’d need about 60 days to get ready for the convention. But here’s something else that we recommended that nobody has noticed. We propose to abolish public financing. Did you know that both Democrat and Republican conventions get taxpayer money to put on a convention? Let us raise our own money. We don’t need the taxpayers to give it to us. And if we abolish public financing, which only, you know, 90% of the American people don’t want to participate in it anyway. Hardly anybody checks that box anymore to give $3 dollars. Then we could have a new financing system where the people get to decide, as opposed to having all these arbitrary limits and regulations.

HH: And we’re moving in that direction. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if the Roberts Court strikes down contribution limits before we get to the next cycle.

AF: Could be.

HH: But speaking…

AF: And that’s also why you want your convention earlier.

HH: Yeah.

AF: Because you want to allow the candidates to spend the general election money sooner, not later.

HH: Now in terms of the primary, California for a long time bifurcated its presidential primary from its local primary. I think we did that for two cycles, probably your years when you were the captain of the media ship for President Bush. I think we held an early primary in California, and then a statewide primary for local elections, because people have always done it in June out here.

AF: I remember yours was March of 2000, and that’s when George Bush beat John McCain, and it was over.

HH: Yeah, so there’s no, states can get in line, and they don’t have to change the world, so that’s not a revolution. Now the question that people are asking about this is whether or not this is establishmentarian driven, whether it’s an inside the Beltway jam down, or…and the people who are saying that are the old Ron Paul people, maybe the new Rand Paul people. But in fact, I think it’s, I haven’t seen anyone who’s a party regular in the states complain about this. What are you hearing from the states?

AF: Look, I will forever be grateful to the Tea Party. They changed the Republican Party. They put some economic spine in people, and they brought the House around in 2010. But I also think that a lot of people in the Tea Party, you could praise them, and they would say why are you against me? And that’s just not the case. I welcome both establishment and Tea Party inside and outside. That’s how you have a growing party, and that’s how good ideas get spread. So the notion, for example, that having fewer debates somehow hurts an outsider candidate is nonsense. Frankly, 20 debates allows a frontrunner to get knocked down, get back up on their feet, and keep going. Fewer debates is probably good for an outsider to catch fire and then win. So I think some of the criticism is just the old habit of anybody who used to do anything gets called establishment. It’s fine with me. I’ve got thick skin. But I still want to keep all my friends close.

HH: Now Ari Fleischer, I want to switch subjects on you to, and by the way, where is the report available for the general public to read?

AF: It is online, and I’ll have to pull up the URL. I don’t have it off the top of my head, but I’ll pull it up and get back to you when we’re done.

HH: My guess is it’s Now what I want to ask you about, 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Where were you that night? And as you look back after ten years, are you personally glad that President Bush pulled the trigger on the invasion?

AF: Well, I was of course at the White House. I was going back and forth between my office, Condi Rice, National Security Advisor’s office, and the Oval Office. And it was the right thing to do. By all accounts, when we were told that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, the same intelligence that Bill Clinton had that led him to conclude that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, I don’t see how any American president could say he can keep them, that’s fine with me. I sleep better knowing that Saddam is not in this world. The mistake was that we had the intelligence wrong. And that is a lesson that we have to learn so we get Iran intelligence correct. But I still sleep better at night knowing Saddam’s not in the world.

HH: Have you talked to your old boss in the last couple of days or today about this anniversary?

AF: I haven’t talked to him about the anniversary. I was emailing with him just this week, and I do keep in regular touch with him. I know he’s a content man. He did the right thing for the right reasons. He believes in it, and continues to believe in it. And he wrote about it in his book extensively. What bothers me the most is the people who say that Bush lied. Saddam lied. The United States didn’t lie. And almost everybody around the world believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, including the best intelligence agencies, and as I said, it predated George Bush’s time in office, that people reached that conclusion. So that’s the one remaining piece for me is those who say that this administration, the Bush administration, lied about it. We absolutely said faithfully what we were told by the CIA, who genuinely believed it.

HH: All right, a couple of other topics, when did you first learn that your old boss could paint?

AF: (laughing) I sat down with him in October. I was in Dallas, and I went over to see him, and he took out some of his art, and he showed them to me. I was astounded. And I said to him, how long does it take you to do that, knowing how fast he plays golf, and how fast he does everything. And he said hours. And I said you have the patience to sit there for hours painting? He’s a different man.

HH: But did he ever do any of that in the White House?

AF: No. He didn’t. He just picked this up from scratch, and it’s fascinating to me that this is his taste and this is what he does. I would have never seen that coming.

HH: Yeah, I’m surprised by that. And then did you go to CPAC, Ari Fleischer?

AF: I did not go to CPAC. I live in New York these days. I moved out of Washington about a year after I left the White House, that way my children would never grow up to become Redskins fans.

HH: Very wise, so they’re rooting for the Browns? They’re good Americans?

AF: Well, I’m a Dolphins fan, my wife is a Colts fan, and so we’re still fighting over this.

HH: I was hoping Condoleezza Rice had had a good impact on you. So here’s what I want. From afar, then, looking at CPAC, there’s an isolationist strain that’s rooted and growing inside of the Republican Party. It’s dangerous. What do you think of it?

AF: Yeah, Hugh, that’s right. I think you’re seeing a breakdown of the political orthodoxy in the party, and this is the way breakdowns and factions should be settled. Air them and let the best ideas win. Senator Rand Paul has a different way of approaching foreign policy. The people that I support in politics, of course, George W. Bush is a more interventionist, more muscular school, have a different approach. But the way parties settle these things is in the open, fight over your ideas, go to the various conferences, and then you settle it in a nominating contest. That’s how our system should work. It’s going to be very healthy.

HH: Ari Fleischer, thanks for joining me, one of the authors of the RNC report. Did you find that URL?

AF: You can find it at And op stands for opportunity.

HH: Ari Fleischer, thank you.

End of interview.


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