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Bill Kristol with advice to the new Congress

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
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HH: Starting off the hour, the editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol. Hello, Bill, how are you?

BK: Fine, Hugh. How are you?

HH: I’m great. I want to begin just by asking your reaction to the President’s foreign trip.

BK: Not good. I hosted a little conversation with former President Aznar of Spain, really a wonderful leader for the eight years he was prime minister of Spain, a great ally of the U.S. And he was politick and diplomatic. This was here in Washington, and he doesn’t come here to the U.S. to criticize American presidents. But he made clear that the President’s weakness, perceived weakness abroad, is a real problem around the world, not just in the Middle East, but in Asia. And then on the G20 summit, he said he couldn’t remember in his day, they weren’t G20s. They were G7s and G8s, I guess, a summit that wasn’t arranged ahead of time that either there was an agreement, or if they weren’t going to be able to agree, that it wasn’t so visible a disagreement. But look, in this case, I hate to say, because God knows, I like to root for the U.S. at these international summits, the critics of our, especially of the QE2, of the quantitative easing by the Fed, I think are right. And it’s unfortunate that the President and the Fed have put us in a position where the rest of the world has to teach us about sane and responsible economic policies.

HH: Bill, thirty years ago, thirty years ago, I was an editorial assistant to Richard Nixon on the book, The Real War. There’s a chapter in that, and I remember discussing this distinctly with R.N., that’s titled The Summit. And his advice was you never go to the summit unless you know what’s on the other side. You’ve worked in the White House. You never go to these things unless they’re worked out before hand.

BK: It’s a little shocking. I mean, and also, its one thing. You don’t, you know, control what some of our adversaries do if it’s that kind of meeting. These are NATO allies. I mean, to not be able to send someone privately to Germany and say look, if we’re going to disagree on some economic policy issues, let’s discuss some other issues. Let’s find things we agree on. It just seems to me a failure of state craft, leaving aside even the ideological element. So what’s really sad about this administration is it’s not only that it’s got the wrong policies in lots of areas. They’re not actually that good at just doing the mechanics of foreign policy, which of course, was one of the key criticisms of the Bush administration.

HH: In the Bush administration, they had a group of people at State, Nick Burns and others, who were professionals. They drove me crazy, I don’t know what you thought about them, but they were professionals at least as to how to make the trains run. Are those people frozen out of the Obama White House?

BK: I’m not too sure what’s happened, honestly. I think, I don’t honestly know. I think with Europe especially, you know, Europe isn’t what it once was, and there are plenty of problems in Europe. But there’s a weak assistant secretary of state, he’s a nice guy, Phil Gordon, but he’s not taken seriously by the Europeans. The NSC director, I was just talking with a couple of Europeans at this conference about this, is considered to be just almost very difficult to work with. So I think for all the talk about the best and the brightest, and the professionals were coming to town, and it wasn’t those ham-handed Bush guys, the fact is just on the practical level, it’s not been a very impressive performance by this administration, except for the military, and parts of the Defense Department, where the level of performance by General Petraeus and his deputies, and just in making things work, navigating difficult waters, is just really should put the rest of the administration to shame.

HH: All right, now I want to move to politics and then to policy. Here’s the political question, Bill Kristol. Last week, Politico announced that Nancy Reagan was going to host the first Republican nominee debate at the Reagan Library in the spring of 2011, and that Politico and NBC would be asking the questions. I wrote a column that said that’s a terrible idea. Not only is it too early, but I don’t think that we should cede the right to select the Republican nominee, or at least ask those questions at the beginning, to MSM. It ought to be different kinds of journalists. And boy, I got some blowback from Beltway types. I’m curious if you were an advisor to one of the major nominees, Thune or Romney or Pawlenty, or any of the other ones, would you advise them to accept this Reagan Library invitation as it is presently cast?

BK: Absolutely not, and I think both reasons, for me, are equally important, perhaps. It is a disaster to begin the nominating process to early. One of the things we learned in this past year, can you imagine if we had to nominate all the Republican candidates a year and a half ahead of time for 2010?

HH: Yup, yup.

BK: Well, Charlie Crist would be running for Senate in Florida, and Marco Rubio never would have been able to get off the ground. And this is true in many, many other states. And it’s especially true for the Congressional candidates. One of the great things about this next two years, next year and a half at least, if we have a wide open Republican field. And these candidates can get out there and make their case. They should debate a lot. They should not begin in April with a debate, as you say, hosted by NBC, the parent company of MSNBC. And it’s just too early anyway. I would put everything off until August-September. And I would certainly agree with your point. I mean, you could host the debate in California. You live right near the Reagan Library. What are they getting, what, are they going to fly in some NBC guy and Politico guy? It’s really ridiculous.

HH: Well, my idea was that they go to the Heritage Foundation. And if they want to have some forums on these big issues, that you know, you could put the Standard together with the Examiner, and do 6th floor Heritage Foundation conversations.

BK: Yeah.

HH: Not debates, they don’t need to club each other.

BK: Right. Absolutely right. I totally agree. And it’s really important. And also, you make a, you’re hinting at a bigger point that I just want to make explicit. This is a…for years, Republicans have dutifully nominated their candidate really in accordance, I would say, with the establishment’s general view of how this process should work. And whether a schedule, or who debates whom, who hosts the debates, it’s very important to rethink all of that this year. But I think your point is good. Why should there be debates? Let’s have forums. Let’s have plenty of visibility. God know with new media, these candidates aren’t going to have a chance, aren’t going to lack a chance to make their case and to answer questions in a million different ways and forums – town halls, virtual town halls, online, etc. And that will be healthy. That will be good. And we shouldn’t force them into some artificial hour and a half thing where the premium is on some stupid gotcha question, and picking fights among them.

HH: Amen. Now I want to move on to the key debate in the spring ought to be between the Congress and the President.

BK: Correct.

HH: And Speaker-designate Boehner has really two choices. He can begin a compromise position that will tread water for two years and stop the damage, or he can go to the mattresses. I mean, they can decide we are going to really educate the public, pass the Defense Department, pass the safety net, but go to the mattresses on spending. Bill Kristol, what do you want him to do?

BK: I want him to do the latter, and I think he will do the latter. Paul Ryan…I mean, they can do some tactical stuff first – pass some spending cuts this year that will be modest by necessity, because they’re for the rest of this year, which the President may well accept. And I think it might even get through the Senate with some Democratic support. That’s one thing. I have no problem with some $1 billion, $2 billion, $6 billion dollar spending cuts in the very short term as a very small down payment. Paul Ryan will unveil a budget around April 1st that will be, I think, the best effort, the best way for Republicans to convey their governing vision, and as an alternative to President Obama’s governing vision. And I think John Boehner understands that that’s got to be a bold document, it’s got to be different from business as usual, and I think it will be.

HH: Now in terms of the health care repeal, they will pass that out of the House, and then the Senate will sit on it. But I just want to test a proposition, Bill. The President is far weaker, politically, than he appears. It may be a broken presidency. It may be that he has no choice, because of the Senate who fear 2012, to absolutely give way to center-right governance here.

BK: I agree.

HH: Is there a chance here?

BK: Absolutely right, and I think it’s very important that Republicans not, how should I put this, pre sort of judge how far they can go and say well, there’s no point doing this, because this can’t get through the Senate, or this wouldn’t be accepted by the President. You know what? That’s really not conservatives and Republicans’ place to judge, or to prejudge. There’s no reason to preemptively not do things that are worth doing. Pass the health care repeal, and then have some Senator bring it up. If Harry Reid doesn’t want to bring it to the floor, have some Senator bring it up on the floor and say let’s debate this. And fine, if the Democrats want to defend Obamacare, let’s have ten, twenty, thirty hours of debate, very civil, courteous debate, and let’s talk about how it’s working. And then let’s see how Joe Manchin and Joe Lieberman, and some of the other Democrats up in states like Montana and Virginia vote on the repeal of Obamacare. And let’s not presume that President Obama couldn’t move to the center fairly dramatically. I think, I’m very much…I’m a little worried, and I talked to some of these Republican members. You may have had the same experience, some of these new Senators and old Senators and Congressmen. They’re almost like ahead of time, saying well, there’s no point in doing this, because it won’t end up becoming law. Let’s make the President stop it from becoming law, and maybe some of them, he’ll sign off on.

HH: I hope they follow that advice. Bill Kristol of www.weeklystandard.com, always a pleasure, William.

End of interview.

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