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Bill Kristol on the state of the Republican Party, and the need to look forward, not backward.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

HH: Joined now by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, New York Times columnist. Bill, welcome, your assessment of how great the damage to the Republican Party of yesterday’s Obama win?

BK: Everything depends on what happens next. How Obama governs, how Republicans oppose or cooperate where that’s appropriate. You know, we’ve had instances, as you well know, Hugh, where a party lost an election badly. In 1980, the Democrats lost and the Republicans held the White House for 12 years, and really laid the, you could say dominated they country ideologically for the next, until now, I would say, for 28 years, right? With Reagan and then Gingrich and Bush? Other times when a party got blown out, ’64 with the Republicans, 2004 with the Democrats, you know, and they came back very, very fast. And so I think, I don’t think structurally, there’s any necessity for this to be a long exile or a devastating defeat. The country remains conservative. The most interesting thing in the exit polls is there’s almost no change, one percentage point decrease in the percentage of the country calling itself conservative, and no increase in the percentage calling themselves liberal. More conservative than liberal, more moderate than either. So I think it’s a political task. It’s not as if the country suddenly decided they loved taxes, they love weakness in foreign policy, they love judges creating social experiments and the like.

HH: The most alarming statistic I have seen, Bill Kristol, well, actually, there are two, that the under thirty demographic voted for Obama 66% to 32%, and that two-thirds of Latino-Americans voted for Obama. Both of those are killer trends if indeed they become trends. Your thoughts?

BK: I totally agree. I mean, and I think that means thinking hard about the message to those groups and what’s wrong, either with good ideas that were badly presented, or maybe some ideas that just need to be rethought in light of new demographic and generational realities, I suppose. But I was most upset, especially, maybe you could argue the Hispanics, you know, there’s a short term…immigration was a such a hot issue, and fairly or unfairly, Republicans were viewed as hostile to the interests and aspirations of Hispanics. And so the young people obviously is a terrible thing if that’s allowed to settle in. And in that respect, again, I come back to, as McCain said last night, nothing is inevitable. History is fluid as we’ve all learned over the years, and changeable and variable. And I think really, the next few years become very important. I mean, things could go in a way where people look back at this as we look back at 1980 as a turning point, or people could look at it as, you know, a bad election for Republicans, a good election for Democrats, but not a change in direction. And indeed, it could even lead to a revitalization of the Republican Party.

HH: Now Bill Kristol, if you had a chance to address the 250 or so elected Republicans left, what would you advise them about the face of their leadership? You know, there are people like Pete Hegseth out there who are brilliant, young, connected, experienced, and yet John Boehner, and I like John Boehner a lot, it just doesn’t work. Do they need a conservative makeover in order to get a conservative message effectively delivered?

BK: I think the answer is yes. I don’t think that necessarily means that you need to depose leaders. You know, Bob Michel, I guess, stayed as the minority leader of House Republicans in 1993-1994, and Bob Dole was the minority leader of Senate Republicans. It wasn’t as if those were great, new faces. But Newt Gingrich and a million other people, and some of us outside government, for that matter, got involved and did a lot of things. And I think people have the sense that the Republican Party, by the end of ’94, was A) pretty good in opposing Clinton, and B) was itself a source of some fresh ideas and fresh thinking. But you remember, I mean, think how stale and tired the Republican Party looked in November of ’92 after the first President Bush’s administration had been voted out of office, we’d been clobbered, we looked just exhausted, et cetera. So I very much agree that we need to promote new leaders. Whether they need to literally be the minority leader of the House I think is a subsidiary question in a sense. But one of the healthy things that’s going to happen, I think, and you and I have talked about this before, is I think it will be good to have some shakeups, some creative destruction. The party got too hierarchical, too deferential, too I don’t know what, exactly. There wasn’t the kind of challenging, you know, everyone wanted to get along and make sure the Senate or Congressional committees were happy with them. One of the things that most annoyed me is they were always clearing the field in primaries, you know.

HH: Yes!

BK: They had this obsession with the notion that no one should every challenge anyone else. God forbid we’d actually have a debate in the Republican Party to see which candidate was better, as opposed to just making sure one guy had an easy path to the nomination, which often then made him a very weak candidate, it turned out, in the general election. So I think a lot of turmoil is good.

HH: I think they also fell down on the basic education as to the facts of pitch which we can agree. I remember Reagan always talking about the number of divisions the Soviets had, et cetera, always driving home a set of eight or ten points that everyone could agree on, and we failed in that. But let me ask you about one issue that drives a lot of people crazy. I guess I just might be ridiculously optimistic. I don’t believe the Democrats are going to go for the Fairness Doctrine. If it passed, which I don’t think it would, I think it’s unconstitutional, and even if it wasn’t unconstitutional, I’d just change the way I do my show. But a lot of people are wringing their hands. They’re afraid they’re going to get cut off from information. They’re afraid their beloved Rush or me are going to go away. What do you think?

BK: Oh, I don’t think they’ll advance that. I think that would be insane politically for them to do. That would be like Carter trying to go after the IRS exemption for religious schools in ’78-’79, which led to the founding of the Moral Majority and to a huge reaction in the country. It would be like Clinton, I think, with the combination of gays in the military and gun control and the health care plan and other things where he just, you know, really antagonized a lot of middle America. I assume Obama isn’t foolish. I assume that whatever the views of some of the individual members of the House and Senate, that the leadership is not going to let them. They’ll have a hearing or something, you know, and scream and yell a little bit about talk radio, but I can’t believe they’re going to really do much. I guess I’m inclined to the view that Obama will try to not to be foolishly on the left. But look, if he does that, we need to fight it, of course, and frankly, it’ll be an opportunity.

HH: I’m encouraged that Rahm Emanuel has announced he will be the chief of staff in the White House, encouraged only because he’s serious and competent. Now I’m discouraged because he’s very, very competent when it comes to playing politics, but I don’t think he’s going to go over a cliff. Bill Kristol, two big issues…

BK: Let me just say on Rahm, I totally agree with you. We are in a minority, I’d say. The people I’ve heard from today are all ‘oh, he’s such a fierce partisan.’ For me, he’s a Clinton Democrat who’s fought the left on quite a few issues. He voted for the war in Iraq, he’s a free trader. I actually agree that this is a sign that of course it’s going to be a tough, political White House. What do you expect? But that Emanuel will try not to let them go over a cliff, I very much agree with you on that.

HH: And I think he will be very concerned with the two issues I’m going to raise with you – national security and immigration. Now I believe the Committee On the Present Danger filled a need in the 70s which we need to reorganize an equivalent now. But what do you think, Bill Kristol?

BK: Oh, I agree, and we did a little of that in the 90s with the Project For the New American Century. And I actually think there are people talking about this. And there’s a lot of good foreign policy and defense thinking on our side, the Fred Kagans and Bob Kagans and Reuel Gerechts of the world, Victor Davis Hanson, et cetera. But a little bit of a political organization for them wouldn’t be bad. And I think we should Obama, incidentally, if he does the right thing.

HH: Yup.

BK: But I think it’s very important to sort of say look, this is what we need to be doing with respect to Iran, and if Obama doesn’t do it, then we have an alternative laid out.

HH: Now two-thirds of Latino voters went for Barack Obama last night. It is certain to be a major initiative of the Democratic Congress in 2009 to bring forward comprehensive immigration reform. It’s got to be completely and thoroughly understood what the Republicans are going to do. They cannot, whatever they decide, they cannot be shanghaied by either amnesty people or nutters who don’t want anyone, and be sent out of the country everybody with a gun at their head. What’s the appropriate response, Bill Kristol?

BK: You know, that’s, I hadn’t really focused on that. I think you’re totally right. We had a disastrous sort of civil war on that in 2006. And whatever people say, individual views, I think that the party needs to think who are its most responsible spokesmen on it, and who can think through a coherent alternative. Yeah, I think that’s a very good point, actually.

HH: I hope it is, I talked about with Victor Davis Hanson earlier today about this, that they couple, we are willing to go with regularization provided that we have security like the wall built, and let’s get it done in a hurry and in a bipartisan fashion. But I don’t know that the hard anti-immigration wing of the party will allow that. It will be fascinating. Who ought to be the chairman of the national Republican Party, Bill Kristol?

BK: You.

HH: Sorry, I’m working.

BK: We need change, we need change. It can’t just be one of these, with all due respect to the state chairmen, they’re all busy making sure there are enough lawn signs in the suburbs of Detroit, and someone’s upset because one of the phone lines is dead. You need someone with a little more imagination and pizzazz, so you’re my candidate.

HH: Well, I agree with that, but given that I’m on the West Coast and am not available and will not run and Shermanesque and all that, does anyone…because I agree with you, we can’t go get the deputy party chairman of some state that did well in the election. They need someone, sort of an anti-Dean. You don’t want a Howard Dean being crazy, but you do want someone who can communicate.

BK: Right, and if not, then the party committee will just do its thing, and others will emerge. I think it’s good to have, as I said before, just let a thousand flowers bloom in terms of conservative voices, and some of it should be coordinated. On a sensitive thing like immigration, where there’s a real legislative agenda, it’s very important for the House and Senate leadership to call in some outside people, see if they can get a pretty good consensus, a few people on either side willing to agree. But I think you could get a pretty good consensus. One big advantage of losing an election if people get a little chastened, and sometimes they’re willing to work together. But there’ll be a lot of flailing around, frankly. I have sort of resolved to ignore all these conservative get-togethers for the next month or two, as there’s going to be a huge amount of ‘if only they had done this, if only they had done that’, and it’s better to sort of sit back a little bit and let the dust settle, I think.

HH: Yeah, the backward look is no good. The forward look is always useful. Bill Kristol, New York Times, Weekly Standard, thank you, look forward to many conversations on the road to rebuilding.

End of interview.

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