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E.J. Dionne’s obit on the McCain campaign

Tuesday, April 10, 2007
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HH: Joined now by E.J. Dionne, he’s a Washington Post columnist, syndicated as well in close to a hundred papers around the United States, author of Stand Up And Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, from 2004, and the very best selling Politics Of Revenge, Why Americans Hate Politics from back in ’91. Before joining the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne had spent fourteen years with the New York Times, including stints in Paris, Rome and Beirut. He’s a ’73 grad of Harvard College, though not lucky enough to be a Winthrop House man, a Crimson guy, a Rhodes scholar, and for the first time, a guest on the Hugh Hewitt Show. E.J., welcome to the program.

EJD: It’s very good to be with you, and given how you usually feel about me, it was extremely generous to say I got it exactly right on something today on your website, so thank you.

HH: Yes, finally Ahab and the whale meet.

EJD: You know, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

HH: Well, I want to talk about McCain and the campaign generally. Let’s start there. Today, you wrote what is in essence a political obituary of John McCain. I agree with your analysis about his collapse this year. Does he make it to Iowa, E.J. Dionne, or does he withdraw before then?

EJD: Here’s…to me, the question is, and you in some ways are better able to answer it than I am, is whether he gets some kind of second wind among social conservatives who say look, we’ve had our problems with John McCain because of his attacks on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and we don’t like his support for McCain-Feingold. But he really has been quite loyal to conservative positions on social issues. And you know, he hasn’t had to change his position as Romney has, Rudy Giuliani is a social moderate to liberal, so does he get a second look? I think there’s at least a chance of that. You see some of that written about in National Review, Ramesh Ponneru’s piece is there. So I think it’s at least possible, but at the moment, obviously, he is in a very difficult circumstance, because no matter how much he’s tried to appeal to conservatives, he doesn’t seem to have won them over, and he’s obviously losing some standing in the middle and on the left, where he had so much support in 2000.

HH: Now Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard today about your piece and Frank Rich’s column today, that you guys are mad at him about the war. I thought your piece wasn’t about the war. I thought your piece was more about the fact that he just can’t get in good graces with conservatives, he’s not really a conservative. I think the war helps him, but in your opinion, E.J. Dionne, is he really a conservative? Or is he more of a nationalist?

EJD: Well, I think he is a…can you be a Teddy Roosevelt conservative? I think you can be a Teddy Roosevelt conservative. You know, I think that on a great many issues, he is conservative. He’s more conservative on spending…I mean, who am I to vouch for the credential of a conservative, but I do think he’s more conservative on spending, he’s always been a right to lifer, he’s very hard line on foreign policy, so I think there are plenty of positions that John McCain has that aren’t conservative. Historically, he hasn’t been as conservative on taxes, and obviously, he’s said global warming is a problem, which some conservatives don’t like. But there are an awful lot of core conservative issues on which he’s been on the conservative side, which is in the end why I always thought in 2000, some of that liberal support that he got in the primary period was not going to materialize, had he gotten the nomination.

HH: Well now, if there’s a pitcher’s mound in the stadium, it’s the Gang of 500, that mythical group of opinion makers in D.C., what ABC’s The Note writes about, you’re usually on it. So I want to ask you from the perspective of right there in the center of the Beltway. Who is going to be the nominee at this point, E.J? If you had to go to Vegas and put the house on someone, who would you bet the house on?

EJD: I think I would declare my opposition to gambling if I had to do that right now. On the Republican side, the…I am really mystified, because it strikes me that no one has taken off. I thought six months ago that Mitt Romney had the potential to really break through, and maybe he still does, but I think all of the flip-flop stories have been very harmful to him, you know, and he looks so sincere on the You Tube footage when he’s declaring his liberal views when he ran for governor, and I think You Tube, he’s one of those potential victims of You Tube. Rudy Giuliani, I just wonder if that’s going to play, and I know you cited John Podhoretz’ piece today. You know, I think the two issues, the three issues are his personal life, what are people in Republican primaries going to make of that, secondly, his liberalism, if I can use that term on abortion or gun control. And the third thing is I’m not sure, going back to 9/11, which implicitly is what his campaign does all the time, is exactly where Republicans are going to want to go in 2008, not that they don’t think the war on terror is serious, but I just don’t know how that works, which is why Fred Thompson suddenly opened at 12 points in that Gallup poll, because my sense is that a lot of folks on your side are still not quite happy with anybody, and they’re still looking around.

HH: Now in your column today about McCain, you did not mention McCain-Kennedy, the ill-fated Senate version of immigration reform, which was the last straw for a lot of people. E.J. Dionne, what do you think? What does E.J. Dionne think we ought to do about the 14-20 million illegal aliens in the United States?

EJD: I guess there are two things I think about this. On the one hand, I understand the frustration with illegal immigration, and I understand the problems some folks have with, you know, questions people have about what is the effect of immigration on low wage workers and the like. I think those are serious issues. On the other hand, I don’t see how as a country we are going to send folks home, and I think the economic forces will continue to push for more immigrants across the board. So in the end, with some qualms of my own, I think finding a way to legalize the status of immigrants is the only way to do it, both humanely and practically for our country, because otherwise, we’re going to have a lot of people with no rights, no formal rights, sitting in our midst, in an illegal situation. And I don’t think that can stand, and since we’re not going to, and shouldn’t deport all these people, then I think we’re going to have to find our way somehow to finding a way to legalize their status, and ultimately open up citizenship possibilities, because I don’t think we want to go down the European road and have lots and lots of people here as guest workers who don’t have some way of eventually getting citizenship rights.

HH: What do you think about the fence?

EJD: I think the fence is a symbol. It’s not at all clear to me that the fence works or does anything. I think a lot of people cast votes for the fence in Congress, not because they believe in it, but because they wanted to say we’re really serious about immigration. If somebody could show me it really had a material effect, I might feel differently about it.

HH: Now the front runners on your side of the aisle, Senators Clinton and Obama, do you think they have a coherent position on the immigration issue yet? Have you heard them articulate one?

EJD: My sense is that both of their positions come down to something around the bill that was passed the last time, but I think you know, candidates in both parties are running away from this issue, except for Tom Tancredo on the one hand, and McCain used to have a very strong position on this. But mostly, they’re running away, because this issue splits both parties. I think it splits the Republicans more deeply, but I think in the Congress, you have a number of Democrats who got elected in the last election with fairly hard positions, you know, critical positions on immigration. So my guess is they are in the general frame of we’ve got to find a way to create legal status for these millions of people, but they’re not nativists.

HH: And probably citizenship.

EJD: I’m sorry?

HH: And probably citizenship, eventually, don’t you think?

EJD: Yes. Well, as I say, I feel very strongly on the citizenship question, because whatever road we decide to go down at the end of this argument, I just think it’s very important that people who live in the United States be able to be citizens, because that’s the only way people can carry rights, and I don’t see how we can be a democratic republic without…with a lot of people within our borders who don’t carry basic citizenship rights.

HH: Future show. We’ll argue that, but I’m more in interview mode right now, so let me move back to the campaign and the rhetoric around it, and come in a different way on that. Don Imus…have you appeared on his show, E.J. Dionne?

EJD: I have not.

HH: Would you ever, after what he said this week?

EJD: Oh, I found that really troublesome. You know, I have kids who play sports, and it was just something…you know, obviously, there’s the racial element of it, but I just felt what an odd target to pick. I couldn’t…but I’m not a…you know, as I tell my conservative friends, I listen to statist radio in the morning. I usually listen to NPR.

HH: (laughing) I’m not surprised.

EJD: (laughing)

HH: Should Imus be dumped by CBS and MSNBC?

EJD: You know, I haven’t figured out my view on that. I’m really uneasy with what he said. I’m also uneasy with what he said about my friend, Gwen Ifill all those years ago.

HH: Yeah, I read her piece today, too.

EJD: IT’s a very offensive thing he said about Gwen. So I haven’t made up my mind yet.

HH: What’s really odd to me…

EJD: And since I’m not running for office, I’m allowed to say that, I think.

HH: Yeah, I’m really struck by how many journalists of the center-left are hesitant, and I think it might be a friendship deal with people like Howard Fineman, who’s a guest on this show.

EJD: Well, in my case, since I don’t know Imus, and have never been on his show, you know, I think a very strong case can be made that he should be dumped. I’m just not…you know, it seems to me when you go out there, I don’t know about you, when you write on the blog, but I think hard before I sort of go out and say something about, say, somebody should be fired. And I want to think about it more. I have a leaning in that direction, but I think you’re right. I think that he has a very big following, you know, across the political spectrum, including parts of the center-left. I mean, there was a very good argument between Clarence Page and Tom Oliphant, a very spirited argument last night on the Lehrer show, where Tom Oliphant, who is a very good liberal, has a deep fondness for Imus. He’s built those relationships.

HH: He’s been on this program a couple of times. We like Tom here as well. But I think there’s a shattering of how politics is talked about in this country, which is very, very sad, and I think Imus is part of that, and I want to go to that. Do you have a book coming out for 2007 or ’08, by the way?

EJD: I am writing a book on…actually, I should be doing that instead of being on a radio show. I am finishing a book on religion and politics. It’s been an obsession of mine, as it has of yours. You have a very good last line. I tried to find it in your book on this subject, that I very much identified with, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find the book for this show. But it’s a book on religion in politics.

HH: Probably the Embarrassed Believer.

EJD: Partly historical, partly analytical.

HH: Yeah. Well, I’ll send you one. I was reading…

EJD: No, I have a copy of it at home. I didn’t bring it into work.

HH: I was reading David Broder and Stephen Hess’ book from ’67 called The Republican Establishment.

EJD: That’s a great book, the Republican Establishment.

HH: Yes, it is. Yes, it is, and no one writes books like that, and my guess is it’s because nobody trusts anyone to be fair anymore, E.J. I mean, if you brought out a book on the Republican side, I’d read it, and I’d have my eyebrows raised the whole time. And I’m wondering, in your opinion, is it possible to writes books, from the left for the right anymore, or for the right from the left?

EJD: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if you’ve ever read my book Why Americans Hate Politics…

HH: Yes.

EJD: But my treatment of the conservative movement, I think, is quite respectful. I had a lot of…

HH: But that was ’91.

EJD: I’m sorry?

HH: That was in 1991, wasn’t it?

EJD: Yes. You’re exactly right.

HH: Yeah, that’s a long…

EJD: But I think a historical book like that, I mean, I think it’s possible…well, first of all, I think your premise is correct, if I read it right, which is this is a particularly polarized, difficult moment in our history, and so people are down each other’s throats in a way they weren’t say fifteen years ago. So I think your premise is broadly true. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s impossible for somebody to put themselves into the heads of those with whom they disagree. In fact, I think that’s kind of essential, if you’re going to understand where people are coming from. So could I write a book on the Republican Party that was something other than polemical? I think I could, but I’m not sure, to go to your other point, that I’m in quite that mood yet.

HH: Do you read a lot of the blogs?

EJD: I read a fair number of blogs, yes.

HH: Which lefty ones do you read?

EJD: The ones I read most often are Kos, Huffington and Talking Points Memo, but I look at others. I certainly read Fire Dog Lake during the Libby trial.

HH: And the Lamont campaign, probably, as well.

EJD: Yes, but mostly the Libby trial.

HH: How about on the right?

EJD: I’m a big fan of Captain Ed’s, Captain’s Quarters, I read him a lot, I look at Powerline, I have your blog sitting on my computer as we speak.

HH: Have the blogs made journalism easier or harder, E.J. Dionne?

EJD: Both. I think easier in the sense that there’s a lot of available information on the blogs. Even the most opinionated blog can either point you to things that you didn’t know about, articles you didn’t know about. During the campaign, a lot of blogs, as you know, ran campaign commercials that you might have missed in Idaho or Wyoming, or Texas or Massachusetts, and you also just get a sense of what people are thinking about, you know, what issues excite certain kinds of people. And some of the blogs do real reporting. I mean, I think that Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo has pushed along the U.S. attorney story, and did some real reporting of his own that kind of eventually worked its way into the mainstream.

HH: Now when you read the comments on those blogs, especially Huffington Post, you brought that up, don’t they appall you?

EJD: Well, I don’t like in general, whether it’s a left or right blog, I don’t like obscenity, I don’t like that kind of way of talking to each other. But I guess I don’t read the comments nearly as much as I read the bloggers themselves. I mean, I suppose if you want a pet peeve, one of my pet peeves is when bloggers go after young staffers on campaigns they are opposing, whether they’re conservative or liberal. These are 23 year old idealists, usually in a campaign, people…we should all sort of keep our…we should honor their work, and not make fun of them on blogs, or in, for that matter, in columns.

HH: Now you come out of Fall River, Massachusetts…

EJD: I do.

HH: …where I actually campaigned for Jerry Ford in ’76, which was a difficult…

EJD: That takes a lot of courage.

HH: Yeah, it did. There were a lot of dogs in Fall River, and you go to Harvard, and you go off to Oxford, so you must have been kind of liberal, or way liberal when you left Harvard. Are you less or more liberal now, E.J. Dionne, 34, 35 years later?

EJD: Well, you know, at the time I was in college, I was probably on the right wing of the left wing. I was more moderate than a lot of my friends, because I never turned on the electoral process, or became a hard core Marxist, or any of that. I was always a kind of liberal or social Democratic kind of person, so my politics aren’t that different. They’ve probably gotten harder in the Bush years for the reasons of the polarization we’ve talked about, but I’m not sure my underlying views have changed that much.

HH: Have you ever voted for a Republican for president?

EJD: No.

HH: And so you’re really center-left in the way…what do you think, and this goes back to McCain, back to your column today, what do you think happens if we lose this war? As a dyed in the wool opinion maker of the center-left, do you ever worry about that?

EJD: By the way, just on your presidential question, the one Republican I was tempted to vote for, and still admire, is Gerald Ford in 1976.

HH: Okay, that’s who I was in Fall River for.

EJD: But I just wanted to…what?

HH: That’s who I was in Fall River for, but you ended up going for Carter, huh?

EJD: Yes, I did. Fall River does have it, but Jerry Ford is somebody I still think is very special, and took over the country at a very difficult time, and did something rather remarkable. The question about losing…what constitutes losing the war, and what constitutes winning the war? I think the biggest problem for supporters of the surge and the war at this point is where do you think it ends? In other words, what is the positive outcome here? To me, the question that I can’t answer, which is why I am a skeptic about the war, is how do the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds put something together in Iraq that is, if not Democratic, of which I wish it could be, but is at least in some way an orderly result, how do they put that together? And how does our presence there allow that to happen? And you know, among those of us who are against the war, there’s…well, maybe some are, but very few are talking about having us sort of pull out tomorrow morning. It’s all a question of how do we negotiate our way out of there, how do we create a situation on the ground that’s as acceptable as possible without having us commit our troops there for five or ten years, because I do think it’s implicit in the position of supporters of the war, is that this is a five or ten year commitment that we should see through. And I think that just weakens us as a nation in the long run. I don’t see how we can do that, therefore, I am, you know, I am sympathetic to what Baker and Hamilton were trying to do, which is to find the most plausible way to reduce our commitment there, because we’ve got a lot of other problems in the world that we have to attend to.

HH: Now I don’t want to over…take advantage of your willingness to come on, but I want to pursue just a couple of questions here. Have you read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright?

EJD: I have not.

HH: How about America Alone by Mark Steyn?

EJD: I’m sorry?

HH: America Alone by Mark Steyn?

EJD: No, that I have had on my list, but I have not read it.

HH: Well, what is your sense of the enemy? I mean, that’s what…those are books about the enemy, and I’m wondering what do you think, who do you think our enemy is in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, and globally right now when it comes to Islamist jihadism?

EJD: I think some of this goes back to how you view the meaning of 9/11. Was the attack on us on 9/11 by Osama bin Laden the attack of a group that was on the rise with a long term possibility of becoming a very powerful, and building that caliphate that Osama bin Laden talks about? Or on the other hand, was it the desperate, evil, and I never had a problem with the word evil in this respect, was it a desperate, evil attack by a group that really did not have a long term future? And I think we will win this war against terrorist forces over the long run, because I don’t think they carry the war with them. I don’t think they’re going to carry the Islamic world with them, I think just as winning the Cold War took a lot of patience, containment took a lot of patience. I think with patience and diligence, we can win this. I don’t think the war in Iraq had a whole lot to do with winning this long term battle against this dangerous, but in the end, marginal group.

HH: Now numerous, do you think, are the hard core jihadis, who would, if they could, strike at Americans or Westerners generally, with the intent to kill as many as they could? How many of them do you think there are?

EJD: I don’t…I guess I’d try to make a preface of not answering questions where I honestly cannot put a number on them.

HH: How about a scale, though? Is it more than 10,000? Is it more than 100,000?

EJD: I honestly don’t…I don’t know how you count this. I also don’t know how you count people, how many sympathizers are there, how many people would actively be willing to engage in suicide attacks. I don’t know the answer to the question.

HH: Because I think this is really what divides left and right, is the understanding of the nature of the enemy, and the breadth of the threat. And what do you make of Ahmadinejad? Do you think he, if he had a nuke, he’d use it against Israel, E.J. Dionne?

EJD: I worry that he might, but I also am not sure what the internal politics of Iran is going to be in ten years. In other words, my sense of Iran is that there is a struggle going on within Iran, and it’s not like you’re talking about Iranian moderates, or something like that, but you are talking about, if you will, people who might be closer to realists versus Ahmadinejad, who obviously has an enormous interest in whipping up Iranian religious nationalism, if I can use that term, for his own purposes. So I don’t know that we know where Iran is going to be in five or ten years, and whether he will continue to hold the upper hand. There was a lot of sign of struggle inside that regime, and I certainly hope I’m right about that, and I think I’m right about that.

HH: But you do worry that if he did have a nuke, he’d use it against Israel?

EJD: Well, I would worry, I do worry about his getting a nuke. And the question is, how do we prevent that? What do we do about it? And I think, you know, the sanctions road is a road to pursue. I’m not prepared yet to say that the threat is upon us, so that as you might believe, or certainly some of my conservative friends believe that we want to sort of go after him now. I don’t think we’re at that point.

HH: So if the President came out and he said they’re there, or they’re going to be there in three months, and so tonight, I have ordered the necessary strikes on the necessary facilities, what would your reaction be the next day, E.J. Dionne?

EJD: I’d worry a lot. I’d want to know exactly what we knew, why we did this. I would worry that we are, you know, we are taking a step that again, could be dangerous to our security, because I don’t entirely agree with you that it’s a disagreement on the nature of the threat. I think it’s a disagreement on how do you go about meeting the threat. The example I keep in my head is when Harry Truman decided not to cross the Yalu River in Korea, during the Korean War, when General MacArthur wanted him to. It wasn’t because Harry Truman was pro-communist. Lord knows he helped build the alliances that led to containement, that led to victory in the Cold War. It’s that he did not think it was prudent for the United States to cross the Yalu River at that moment, and risk war with China and perhaps the Soviet Union. I think history has born out the notion that you could be tough without being reckless, and I think that’s what Harry Truman was, and I think that is the kind of policy, in a very different context, we’re looking for now.

HH: Well, I agree with that. I want to go back to that presidential announcement, though. Assuming that he satisfied you, and that you believed that the Iranians were on the brink of that kind of weaponry, would you then support a strike on that?

EJD: I don’t want to go down your hypothetical road, if you don’t mind. I want to…because it’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on in reality without going down a hypothetical road, so I’d just assume pass on the hypotheticals.

HH: All right, last question, E.J. Dionne, about George W. Bush. Do you believe that he lied and people died? Or do you think he believed what he said at the time?

EJD: I believe he believed in this policy. The part that bothers me the most is not the weapons of mass destruction, where there were a lot of people, not just in our own government, who believed that he had something. It’s on the other stuff, it’s on the implication that Saddam was somehow linked to 9/11. It was on the notion that he was close to, the implication that he was close to nuclear weapons, Secretary Rice’s statement that we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. Those really do bother me, because I really think there, to be very charitable, they were pushing the envelope on the facts that they had, and that does bother me. And I think it was dangerous for us in the long run for precisely the hypothetical that you raised earlier, which is there may well come a time when there is a threat to us, and it’s very important that the credibility of the United States be intact in those circumstances. And I think some of what was said to justify the war hurt our credibility in the long run, and we’ve got to try to figure out how to get that credibility back.

HH: When Bill Clinton and Bill Cohen launched Desert Fox, to preempt weapons of mass destruction, do you believe that they acted on the certain belief that he had weapons of mass destruction programs, and that he was trying to expand them?

EJD: Well, I think they were going…when they were, when they went after Saddam…

HH: Right, Desert Fox, ’98.

EJD: Well, I think the, as I said at the beginning, I think a lot of people believed that he had weapons of mass destruction. I think if you did a search of my own columns, I think…I didn’t sort of say it, I think I assumed it. I think a lot of people assumed he was, had some capacity. But as I say, my big issue with the administration is not on that particular point. It’s that we did not need to launch this war at a moment when inspectors were there, and had not yet found something, and all these other rationales were thrown in that simply didn’t hold up, and turned out not to be true, and about which our own intelligence agencies had raised questions.

HH: So my very last question, I’m sincere about this…

EJD: Promise?

HH: Promise. If an evil man, and you’re comfortable with the word evil, with a past record of recklessness and America hatred, is coming into possessions of weapons of mass destruction, and a president really does believe that, and does fear that they will use them or give them to people, should that president order the necessary action to prevent that enemy from obtaining those weapons?

EJD: Well, the question is what kind of action is intelligent and prudent at the time. I think if you look back in this situation, that Saddam was under considerable control. We had the inspectors in the country. I wish the President had used the power that that Congressional resolution gave him to push forward with the inspections, to put, to make sure the sanctions on this regime held, and I think we would have been very safe as a country, without starting this particular war. Again, I’m just deeply uneasy with hypothetical questions about war, because as you know as well as anybody, going to war is a very serious thing, and I don’t like to sort of declare hypothetical wars.

HH: E.J. Dionne, a real pleasure. Talk to you…I hope you’ll come back. It wasn’t that bad, was it? It wasn’t like drilling teeth.

EJD: It was very good to talk to you.

HH: Okay, E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post…

EJD: You were just buttering me up for the next time.

HH: Thank you.

EJD: Take care, bye.

End of interview.

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