Ari Fleischer on the GOP’s communciations problem
HH: As House Republicans leave the Beltway headed to Williamsburg to have a retreat on how to communicate with the American people and the agenda, I thought I would check in with some of the best communicators on the GOP side. And perhaps leading in that rank is Ari Fleischer, longtime press secretary to George W. Bush when he was president, you see him now on CNN all the time. Ari Fleischer, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you on.
AF: Thanks, Hugh, great to be with you.
HH: You know, I can’t believe, I’ve been doing this for 12 years. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to you on the air before.
AF: I think you are correct. As the President always used to say, I had a face for radio, so I apologize for missing you all these years.
HH: Well, it’s great to have you, and I hope we have you early and often throughout 2013. So let me ask you, as the Republicans gather in Williamsburg, what’s your advice to them on communicating?
AF: Well, Hugh, actually I will be down there. I’m going to be addressing the House members on communicating.
HH: Oh, tip us then.
AF: And my most important message I’m going to give them is they need to be more thoughtful and more personal. You know, it just strikes me that Republicans speak policy, and Democrats speak people. And Republicans need to do a better job of connecting their policies directly to people, because after all, you’re not enacting your policies in a vacuum. You’re enacting it to help people.
HH: How about frequency and faces? How often should they be out there, because basically, they’re on milk cartons for the last 13 weeks. And who ought to be their face?
AF: Well, that always depends on what the issues are. It comes and it goes, it ebbs and it flows, and it’s going to be driven by actual news events. So you can’t really put a number or a limit on how often they’re out there. And of course, the Speaker of the House is the leader, and John Boehner is the communications leader of the Republicans. I do think it makes some sense for Republicans, though, to recognize that controlling only one third of Washington in an era in which the Democrats run the other two thirds, make Reid lead. Harry Reid needs to be held accountable, the Senate majority leader. He needs to lead. And they haven’t passed a budget in four years. Let the Senate go first on such things as the President’s proposal on guns. Make the Senate do its job first. House Republicans have been very willing to walk the plank, do the brave thing, try to put forward policies that they think is going to help the country. And I think it’s time for them to sit back a little bit and see if the Senate can do anything, because frankly, I predict that they won’t be able to.
HH: Now that is a great opportunity…
AF: And the media needs to focus on them, not just House Republicans.
HH: Now that is good advice to be passive on an issue like guns, where the Senate will never pass anything anyway. But what about the debt ceiling, Ari Fleischer? We’ve got a situation where the President’s relentless. You saw that press conference on Monday. He invents stuff, and he goes out every day and he invents it again, and we don’t see any GOP messaging back into that. Is that good strategery?
AF: Yeah, Republicans are in a real pickle here. I don’t, I think the debt limit is our enemy, and the sequester is our friend. And what I mean by that is that the debt limit is such a blunt instrument that if Republicans say we’re never going to raise the debt limit unless we get the spending cuts that we need to save the next generation of Americans, our children and our grandchildren, it’s going to be a hard sell, because the price of what people might think be default is so high that it’s a very risky argument to make. What I would try to do is postpone the debt fight for a couple of months, and instead let the sequester kick in that cuts spending for the Pentagon, for hospitals and for doctors, and use that as the point to say the only way to turn that off is to actually fundamentally get government spending under control so our children and our grandchildren, and the next generation of people have a chance to make it in America.
HH: Now you and I fundamentally disagree on that, but that’s okay. If they just announced what their policy was, and did it again and again, I would be in favor of that. But they’re making you and me guess what they’re doing. How long can that go on?
AF: Well, that’s because they are genuinely split. There’s a real divide inside the House Republican caucus about whether or not they should push default. There are some people who think that it’s exaggerated, that the risks of default are exaggerated, the government will be able to figure out a way to pay its bills anyway. And I just think that’s too big a risk to take.
HH: And again, that’s good, and I understand there’s that division. But in terms of communicating what they’re arguing about, should they do that publicly? Because what I am very frustrated with is you can’t find a Republican to talk about, in the leadership. You’ll find people like Congressman John Campbell who comes on the program a lot, we had Joe Wilson on yesterday, we have lots of guys who will come on who are not in the leadership to talk about…Greg Walden was on yesterday, and he was pretty blunt. But in terms of hash it out, let people hear what the debate’s about, I think that would be helpful, Ari.
AF: Well, they are hashing it out and letting people hear what the debate is about. One of the things about a legislature is it’s always leaky. Nothing looks crisp and clean. Everything looks messy, because you’ve got hundreds of different voices chiming in, and it’s hard to arrive at consensus. But Hugh, the bigger picture here, step back. One of the reason it’s all such a messy confrontation is the nation is finally at long last wrestling with the bills that have come do, trillions of dollars of spending that we shouldn’t have been spending on that’s come do. President Obama has made it so much worst. And big, mega-fights like this, where you finally face the facts, are never easy. You know, it’s kind of like the family that realizes they need to cut back something. We’ve been overspending, and we can’t afford to do what we’ve been doing before, and the kids start to scream.
HH: Oh, it’s like the family with the parents who left.
AF: You can’t take this away from me, you can’t take that away from me. Well, this is where our nation is, if we’re going to save our future.
HH: Now it’s a family analogy only insofar as the parents have left the House. They’re not seen. They’re missing. Ari, let me ask you as a professional, you’ve got to watch these presidential press conferences with a unique perspective. There are about four or five people who’ve held your job. Is the White House Press Corps at all like the one you faced in the aftermath of, say, the invasion of Iraq or any of these other…it seems to me like they’re docile.
AF: No, absolutely not. I think the number of reporters who really challenge the President is almost nonexistent. You know, the question I would have liked to have had a reporter ask, and I Tweeted this yesterday during the news conference was if you get everything you want, Mr. President, on taxes and spending, will your budget ever come into balance?
HH: Oh, great question, yeah.
AF: And the answer would have been no. It’s never going to come into balance under what the President has proposed. But nobody asked the fundamental big questions like that. It’s all about positioning and posturing. You know, one reporter asked him who do you think the voters are going to blame if you don’t get what you want? You know, that was softball time in the East Room.
HH: Well, you saw the first press conference after his election, in which someone actually asked him about global warming in the middle of the Israeli/Hamas confrontation. So what is it? What changed? Is this ideological? Or is it simply ratings driven?
AF: Well, it is in part. It’s in part ideological. I mean, Democrats, when the Republicans and Democrats fight, the press corps just tends to look at it more through a Democratic point of view than a Republican point of view. And that’s especially the case on social issues. And it’s been like that for decades. So that’s just the nature of the media. And even when a couple of brave souls in the White House Press Corps ask hard, tough questions, they typically don’t get the placement in the newspapers, or the headlines don’t scream it out, the way they did anti-Bush. Instead, they’re pro-Obama. And that’s especially the case with the front page of the New York Times. The editors who make the decisions about what is news and what’s not news, and how to portray the news, there’s a definite bias.
HH: Well, Ari Fleischer, good luck down in Williamsburg. Tell them, just kick them in the butt and tell them to get out there and start playing the game, because boy, it’s tough to score when you never take the field. And I’m telling you, I haven’t seen a Republican out there on CNN. When was the last time you had leadership on CNN with you, Ari?
AF: Well, I think they’re on there. You know, I’m on there regularly, but they’re not on during my segments. But I think they do go on there. But my point of view is if you’re doing what you think is right for the country, tell it everywhere.
HH: Everywhere and often.
AF: I don’t care if the reporter is biased. I’m going to say what I want to say.
HH: Amen. Tell them that, please. Tell them to go out there and do that. Ari Fleischer, good to have you, good luck on your travel, and a happy 2013. Talk to you often, I hope.
End of interview.