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Bill Kristol on Barack Obama’s first month.

Thursday, February 19, 2009
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HH: We begin this hour with Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. You can read his articles at www.weeklystandard.com. He also contributes to the Washington Post. Bill, always a pleasure, thanks for joining us.

BK: My pleasure, Hugh. How are you?

HH: Good, I want to start…during the break, I read an e-mail from Drew Faust, president of Harvard, an institution with which we both have affiliation and some affection. And she writes in this e-mail, we confront sobering financial conditions as we pursue our commitments. As we reported in December, our planning for 2009-10 assumes that our endowment will have lost roughly 30% of its value in 2008-2009 before subtracting the additional $1.4 billion that will go towards current operations. That’s a real hammer stroke. It really does drive home, Bill Kristol, that a lot of wealth has disappeared even if the unemployment rate is not at Great Depression levels.

BK: No, it’s really, it is pretty shocking, and some of these institutions you sort of have the, you know, sitting there with $30 billion dollars and charging extremely high tuition, and a lot of people there disliking the country that has allowed them to become so wealthy. Part of one thinks, you know, it couldn’t have happened to nicer guys, much as I still am somewhat loyal to Harvard. On the other hand, a lot of very good institutions, obviously, have taken a big hit. And yeah, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. I think it’s a big mistake for Republicans, because Obama keeps talking down the economy and saying things are really bad, which maybe he shouldn’t do quite as much. But it’s a big mistake for Republicans or conservatives to go to the other extreme and say oh, come on, it’s just a recession, we’re coming right out of it, you know, no big deal, all this alarmism is a mistake. I think this is…and I was in New York for the last two days talking to serious people, friends of ours on Wall Street, sound politics, real experience, money mangers and investors, and they are really, it is scary, especially the banking system, internationally, is really a scary situation.

HH: Now I talked to people like Brian Wesbury and others who are optimistic that growth will return at the middle of the year, and that’s what the Fed said today. And the Fed also said we’re going to get to 8.9% unemployment, perhaps, and unemployment’s going to stay in the 8% range next year, all of next year, though, growth will return slowly. That’s not Armageddon, but and so I really do score on the President’s rhetoric in this regard. But it also means that when something like the mortgage plan comes forward, Republicans ought not to reflexively say no, because the mortgage problem is a cross-cutting problem if it’s handled in a non-partisan fashion. Do you have confidence that President Obama will handle it in a non-partisan fashion?

BK: I mean, I totally agree with you, first of all, about your advice to Republicans on mortgages. And I think the same will be true of banking, both of which are serious systemic problems that do probably require some fresh thinking among conservatives, and certainly among everyone else. I wish I were more…incidentally, I sort of agree with what Larry Lindsey wrote in our magazine this week, that he also expected that we’re not going to, you know, the bottom won’t fall out. We will arrest the decline at some point and putter along, but at a pretty un…unless there’s really good policies, we could putter along at a Japan-like way without strong growth for quite a while, unfortunately. That’s where the strong policies come in, and this is where, I think, the disaster of the stimulus, this is where the stimulus package really deserves to be called a potential disaster, to fail to build, to get bipartisan majorities for what he could have gotten majorities for – tax cuts, some targeted spending, some extension of health insurance and unemployment insurance, that sort of thing. To get off to that kind of partisan start, and just really look foolish, I mean wasteful money, giving into the Congressional Democrats, I think that made it harder now for Obama to come back and try to be serious about mortgages and banking. I mean, he can do it intellectually. One thing doesn’t, I suppose, affect the other. But he just began on the wrong foot with this foolish, partisan Congressionally-driven package, I think.

HH: That is. He was captured by the Hill, and they unloaded their cupboard, and they got everything that they wanted that they hadn’t been able to get for the last eight years. And to a certain extent, if he restarts in the right mode, I do believe Republicans will work with him. Have you sensed in Washington a willingness on the part of senior Republicans to say okay, if he brings us a good plan on the automobile industry, on the mortgage refinancing, on the banks, we’ll go with it?

BK: Yeah, I think so, but I think a lot of people had that attitude a month ago and feel that they were misled, really, on the stimulus, and ended up opposing it, and feel like they did the right thing, as I do, too. Look, I think Republicans are trying to be responsible. I thought the Afghanistan announcement was interesting. The Republican response by both Republican leaders in the House and the Senate, McConnell and Boehner was very supportive of Obama. He didn’t do it, in my opinion, in the right way. If you’re sending 17,000 young Americans into a serious war zone, to announce that in a press release put out at 5PM on paper without the President of the United States, the commander in chief standing up and saying it, you know, on camera, telling people this is why we’re doing this, we haven’t fully worked out our complete strategy, but we know we need these more troops, they’re going over under General Petraeus. You know, you’ve got to, that’s a serious announcement. I support it. Let me make clear. I support it, I think it’s the right policy, and I’ve talked to a lot of friends of ours here who really have thought through the Afghan thing, and are pretty optimistic, incidentally, that Obama and Petraeus can come up with a sound strategy. So I’m not criticizing what Obama did, but I think the attempt to kind of smuggle it out so that you don’t take the news away from your signing of the stimulus shows a certain lack of seriousness, really. He’s commander in chief. He’s sending 17,000 young American over there. Stand up and say it. Don’t put out a press release with a written statement. So I think I remain hopeful that he’s going to rise to the occasion. I think he’s doing the right thing on Afghanistan. I remain hopeful on some of the economic policies, but I’m worried by a tendency to go for the kind of easy, political move, the tendency to campaign rather than govern. I’m a little less optimistic than I was a month ago.

HH: And there’s the tendency to overpromise and under-deliver when it comes to bipartisanship and innovation. Let me ask you about the announcement that came out of the White House today where he had his spokesman say he is not in favor of the return of the Fairness Doctrine. I’m one of those people who have never thought it was coming back, because it’s political suicide for blue dog Democrats and for some Senators, and as well just generally it would bespeak a very, very brass-knuckled indifferent kind of politics. But are you persuaded, Bill Kristol, that the Chicago crowd will resist the opportunity to silence their opposition?

BK: I’ve agreed with you. Also, I’ve had this argument with many of our friends. I’ve never believed Obama would be foolish enough to put that on his plate. But I’m a little unnerved when Axelrod on TV Sunday was asked by Chris Wallace, and says well, I’m going to leave that to the President and to the head of the FCC. I mean, that suggests that they haven’t sat around and said of course that’s out of the question. Now I think there was a strong reaction to what Axelrod said or didn’t say on Sunday, and maybe that’s why Obama said what he said today. If this little thing today on the Fairness Doctrine, I mean in a way, it’s little, signals that Obama has thought about the fact that he cannot afford to just go down the kind of Pelosi, MoveOn, you know, Chicago politics-type road, that if he’s to be a successful president, he has to be serious about some of these governing manners. And when you’re in an economic crisis and you’re fighting wars, you do want bipartisanship to the degree possible. Obviously we’ll debate and argue about all kinds of policies. And maybe that’s a little bit of a hopeful sign today, you know?

HH: Yeah, I agree. Last question has to do with the Secretary of State in her tour of the Far East. I’m getting mixed signals. I’m trying to follow it as best I can. What is she saying about North Korea? What is she attempting to convey to North Korea? How do you read it, Bill Kristol?

BK: Yeah, I’m not too sure. I mean, saying that the planned missile launch is not very helpful, I think she said…

HH: Yeah, not helpful.

BK: Not the strongest condemnation I’ve ever heard, but I think it seems like she did…look, here’s the good news about the trip. She went to Japan first, she went to see an ally first, and then South Korea, and then China. Bill Clinton, her husband, ten years ago, spent, if I remember correctly, five or six days in China and didn’t even visit our allies. So I give them a little credit there, for I think being serious about sending the right signals about standing with our allies, but maybe a tougher stance toward Korea would be useful.

HH: And two more questions, have you had a chance to read Great Powers yet, the new Thomas P.M. Barnett book?

BK: No, but it’s on my list. You recommend it, right?

HH: Oh, very, very strongly.

BK: Okay.

HH: Okay, I’ll put it aside for then. And then to Israel, I’ll ask John Podhoretz later in the hour the same thing I asked Bret Stephens yesterday and I ask you now. I know you’re not a prophet or the son of a prophet. What’s going to happen there?

BK: I don’t know. People I talk to think maybe an Netanyahu-Livni government, a sort of a unity government, Netanyahu as prime minister, Livni as foreign minister, maybe with some even suggestion that they would switch roles in two years. But I think that’s a pretty strong government, actually, and I think one thing people haven’t focused on, Obama’s sort of treating Iran as an issue that you can deal with months from now. You know, that could be an issue that comes to a head in a few months. I was in Munich at that national security conference about ten days ago, and the leading French expert on Iran really knows this stuff on the nuclear program, a real technical expert, said to me the Iranian nuclear problem will pass the line of no return, the point of no return, in months, not in years.

HH: In months?

BK: This is a 2009 issue, not a 2010-2011 issue.

HH: Oh, well then I hope Israel gets its act together. And in terms of that conference, how did the Vice President do in representing the United States, Bill Kristol?

BK: (laughing) He awkwardly read the speech that had been written for him, and wasn’t terribly…he likes to talk, so he was very sort of unhappy that he had to confine himself to 15 minutes, and didn’t take questions. I thought the U.S. delegation did not do a particularly good job. It’s an administration with a lot of people jockeying for positions, General Jones as National Security Advisor, Holbrooke, Biden, it was really somewhat amusing to watch in a way. And look, if they get their act together, this is the first month, it’s always chaotic. One shouldn’t overstate it, but I am, I just hope…the leadership has to come from the top. And when Obama said about two weeks ago, President Obama said I’m going to be judged on how I do on the economy, that was a little worrisome to me. Of course he’s focused on the economy now, and that’s fine. But he needs to know that he is commander in chief in a very dangerous world that will be made more dangerous by the economic crisis. History tells us if it tells us anything, that if you get this degree of financial and economic dislocation, you get worrisome and dangerous developments around the world in what’s already a dangerous world.

HH: Bill Kristol, on that note, thanks, we’ll read everything at www.weeklystandard.com.

End of interview.

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