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Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz on the presidential race a week out from Iowa, and the impact of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan

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HH: Joined now by John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary Magazine. John, a Happy New Year to you.

JP: Happy New Year, Hugh.

HH: Before we get to Pakistan, let’s talk a little politics. I…can Rudy recover? He’s gone to Iowa today, so I can’t fathom why, but that’s good news, I think. There must be signs of life in him in Iowa.

JP: I mean, he probably can recover. I mean, the fact is that if he were…it seems to me if he were in the final meltdown, his numbers would be dropping more. And he seems to have hit a kind of floor at around 20%. And the truth is, if he sustained that nationally, and the field remained where it was, he’s probably end up winning the nomination. So you know, I can’t imagine it’s going to be static like that. Here’s the interesting thing about politics and how it works. My theory of why Rudy was going to end up being the nominee was that because it seemed in particular that he and John McCain, for two years, were essentially atop the Republican polls, you know, in these sort of popularity contests, each splitting about, together splitting about 60% of the primary voters, according to these, you know, these popularity polls. So their candidacies had much the same logic. So it seemed to me one was going to survive and not the other in the end, and that you know, if Rudy melted down, McCain would be the beneficiary. If McCain melted down, Rudy would be the beneficiary. Well, it looked like McCain had melted down this summer, and therefore, it seemed to me like Rudy was the guy who was going to pick up the pieces and get enough people to go forward. Well now, it appears as though it’s possible that in New Hampshire, because Rudy has gotten weaker, McCain has gotten stronger. You could have the incredible irony that McCain didn’t choke and go out of business this summer when his campaign hit a huge bump, and that Rudy’s weakness has now benefited McCain. So that’s what this long, long, long primary season may have given us.

HH: Now let me try out a theory on you…

JP: Yeah.

HH: …which is based only on my own experience and people that I talk to. I love Rudy Giuliani. I think he’ll make a magnificent candidate and a president. I really don’t like John McCain at all. I mean, if he’s the nominee, I’ll support him, because he’s not a party guy. He’s an anti-party guy. Rudy’s a party guy, and so if Romney blows up, and I don’t see that happening, but if he did, I’ll go over there and work for Rudy. Do you suppose that Rudy’s second wind would come from being the stop McCain candidate?

JP: No, I don’t see that, because I think your attitude toward McCain is not a majority attitude. That is to say I think you really have to be a deep follower of politics to come to the attitude that you do about McCain, who after all, is you know, an American hero, and he was right on the surge, and there are only a few things one needs to know about McCain. I have great difficulties with him on policy and things that he’s done, but I don’t see that Rudy ends up being the stop McCain guy. I think in the end, there’ll be one of the two of them who will essentially be the war candidate, for want of a better word. Romney hasn’t run as that, obviously Huckabee is not running as that…

HH: (laughing)

JP: Thompson’s candidacy hasn’t in the end been about anything. Rather than running as a war candidate, he was talking about, you know, how we need to say, do something about entitlements, which seems a bizarre decision not only at the time, but in retrospect, given how wonderfully well that worked for George W. Bush in 2005.

HH: Right.

JP: So you know, there’s going to be a guy who the logic of whose candidacy, you know, figuring that this all goes to February, there’ll be a guy, the logic of his candidacy is he is the guy to fight the war on terror, a guy who may be, like Huckabee, is a social conservative, and then you have Romney who will sort of be the guy who isn’t either. Let’s say…I don’t know, that’s my take on where things are.

HH: Objectively, putting aside who you want to win, who do you think is actually better skilled to conduct the war on terror, Giuliani or McCain?

JP: Well, I don’t know about…I mean, I trust Giuliani’s judgment more than McCain’s, in the sense that I think he would come at it from the right angle, and that you know, McCain is often sidelined or sideswiped by personal quirks, I would say, that he gets ornery about. And you know, the thing about McCain is that he, and the thing about Giuliani is that he is a fighter, you know…

HH: He likes to fight.

JP: He goes after his enemies, and you know, McCain’s problem is that he has a certain hunger to go after his friends. That’s the McCain problem.

HH: Oh, that’s well put. That is very well put. Now I know Rudy’s not, he’s vulnerable on the immigration issue. But John McCain’s more vulnerable on the immigration issue. And it was McCain-Kennedy, after all. That’s why I think you also, I think you underestimate…maybe there aren’t a lot of people like me who are Gang of 14 outraged, but there are a whole bunch of people in Republican primaries that are McCain-Kennedy outraged.

JP: Look, I mean, you have to say that the story, you know, if the story of the last six weeks hadn’t been Huckabee, the story of the last six weeks would be McCain. I mean, Huckabee crowded out the McCain resurgence, but there’s no denying that McCain has essentially come back from the dead. And that means something. You know, that can’t be written off.

HH: It can’t be written off, but I think you’re underestimating, John Podhoretz, what the party people who live out here in Redland think about John McCain.

– – – –

HH: John, before we turn to Pakistan, how are you liking your new duties at Commentary?

JP: They’re great. Actually, my title is editorial director. I will be editor in 2009. I’m now running the website, and sort of working on the transition. It’s great. It’s great.

HH: Contentions has really become quite a fine blog. I don’t know how you chose to assemble the team you did, but well done.

JP: Well, thank you very much, and it’s, you know, it’s very exciting, it’s a different kind of blog, it’s a slightly more serious group blog, and I hope people will go take a look at it at

HH: I love the fact that Max Boot, one of your bloggers, is crossing swords with Andrew McCarthy, one of your old colleagues at over Pakistan…

JP: Right.

HH: …because it’s important that this be understood. But are you surprised, John Podhoretz, at the general surprise that six years and a quarter after 9/11, that al Qaeda wanted to kill Benazir Bhutto?

JP: No, I’m not surprised, and as I said in a blog item yesterday that got picked up all over the place, you know, the key thing is that events like this, unforeseen events, unpredictable events, remind us that this is the issue of our time. And you know, we have this very peculiar thing that happened with the rise of Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary, where suddenly, we weren’t talking about anything real. We were talking about a lot of vapor. And on the Democratic side, you have, you know, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sort of debating whose health care plan was not going to cover, or was going to cover more people, or many people. And you know, we’re in a war. We’re in a war in Iraq, we’re in a war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, a nuclear country on Afghanistan’s border where al Qaeda seems to be operating with impunity is now, has the potential to flip over into Islamic extremist hands, which would be the single most dangerous event probably since the Cuban Missile Crisis, I would think.

HH: Yup, yup.

JP: I mean, we are…and somehow, you know, the American political system is just hungry to descend into vapidity. And the world is not going to allow us to descend into vapidity, because in the end, the American people are going to have to decide who is more trustworthy between the two candidates who are nominated for president, who is the one who will keep American safer?

HH: The precariousness of the situation in Pakistan, it never got much attention. It was almost a soap opera treatment of a malignancy that can only be described in the most harsh terms. But do you think it will be sustained, John Podhoretz, the attention to Pakistan?

JP: I suspect that it will. I mean, I don’t know, it’s hard to know how much effect it will have on the primary process. I mean, I think that the weirdness of what’s happened with the Iowa Caucus coming just before, just after New Year’s is that ordinarily, it’s a week before the Iowa Caucus, there would be a debate this week.

HH: Yup, yup.

JP: And an hour of the debate would be spent on Pakistan.

HH: Right.

JP: And that’s true for the Democrats as well. So suddenly, the most important issue of the moment, candidates are sort of issuing statements, and then going on about their business with their final statements, and their two minute advertisements. And this is what campaigning was supposed to be about. So now this completely bollixed up process has now led to a peculiar moment of silence, when we actually could have had a substantive debate on an issue of the moment, of that second.

HH: Yup.

JP: And now, we’re not having it.

HH: And it goes back to the utter silliness of the YouBoob debate, and the Des Moines Register moderator who would not allow anyone to discuss anything of importance.

JP: Right.

HH: It really does underscore how the media and the parties of these states have put us in a bad situation. But stepping back from the political side of it, what do you think America ought to do? It comes down to do we cut off Musharraf and pray for the best, because we’re unpopular, because he’s a son of a gun, or do we stand with the army as the only institution which might be revived in a rapidly…Mark Steyn on this program yesterday pointed that true that decade to decade, Pakistan becomes worse and more unstable.

JP: Right. Well, I mean, I’m not an expert on Pakistan, and I defer to people whose wisdom is greater than mine. I would imagine that there is a combination of the two that can be reached and achieved, which is to say that it is clear that Musharraf has overreached in his unwillingness to come up with a sensible and coherent method of allowing power to expand outward. He tightened, retracted, he caused this two months of chaos that has allowed al Qaeda to figure out how to strike at Benazir Bhutto. Now if he had gone with the plan that he and Bhutto, which I guess helped engineered by the United States, had devised of a kind of joint protectorate system, in which power would devolve from him to her, after which there would be elections. That would have been more sensible, and he just didn’t, he couldn’t let go. He couldn’t give up the reigns of power, and now he’s discredited, we’re discredited. This opposition figure, who seems to be party to Islamic extremism, is now the only viable option against Musharraf. We don’t seem to have a lot of good choices. But as Max Boot points out, on Contentions, the simple fact of the matter is that while polls suggest a certain level of sympathy for Osama bin Laden in an Islamic nationalist way, polls in Pakistan also suggest a high degree of desire for Westernizing democratic methods. And this is a literate, this is a very divided, very complicated country, but it has a literate Westernized elite that does not wish to be subsumed into the Sunni extremist totalitarian quagmire. And we have to use them, somehow, as a bulwark against that happening.

HH: Does this give Iran the opportunity, John Podhoretz, to sort of hunker down and gallop ahead with their bomb plans, pointing out the fact that the Sunni extremists who want to take over Pakistan will have 90 waiting for them?

JP: I mean, why does Iran need a pretext?

HH: That’s true.

JP: You know, between…the CIA already gave them the pretext.

HH: You’re right. You’re right. John Podhoretz, thanks for spending time with us. Congratulations on Commentary Magazine and the blog, Contentions. We’ll talk again in the new year. Have a great start to it.

End of interview.


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