Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson analyzes New Hampshire and worries about aspects of John McCain
HH: Joined now by Washington Post columnist and former President Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson, author of Heroic Conservatism. Michael, welcome back, good to speak with you today.
MG: Great to be with you again.
HH: Now your column today is on yesterday’s results. Let’s summarize your surprise, or lack thereof, at the Hillary Clinton-John McCain win.
MG: Well, on the Clinton side, I was shocked. I traveled with Obama the last couple of days of the New Hampshire campaign. I’ve been on winning campaigns, I’ve been on losing campaigns. This felt like a winning campaign. You know, the level of enthusiasm, young voters, new, you know, independents, new people to the process. And then, it turned out that Hillary was able to turn out herself the traditional Democrats, the union people, women, the normal rank and file of the Democratic Party. And it made all the difference.
HH: Do you think that Obama can get his mojo back? Or is it gone?
MG: Well, the one difference from some of these other soaring candidates of the past, maybe Bradley or Tsongas or some other…that did not represent the establishment of the Democratic Party, one advantage Obama has is African-American voters. So when he goes into South Carolina, about 47% of Democrats in that state that will vote in the primary are probably African-American. And I think that that probably helps him. But you know, I think this does prove, though, that his voters, which were in New Hampshire, men more highly educated, and independents, there are quite as many of them in the Democratic primaries as Hillary’s people, and it’s going to be tough.
HH: Do you think they’ll try for a Michigan turnout? Or are they just going to skip Michigan and head to South Carolina, Michael Gerson?
MG: You mean Obama?
MG: Yeah, you know, I’m not sure. I don’t have a particularly good feel on their strategy, except that they feel pretty confident, from what I know about South Carolina, more than Michigan. Michigan is, given the profile of Hillary voters, is closer to a state that she would do very well in, like Pennsylvania or other places like that. I think he’d have a better chance in South Carolina.
HH: Let’s turn to the Republicans. You wrote this morning, “Republicans were supposed to return to a miniaturized version of Reaganism. The narrow box of predictable anti-government orthodoxy, which would have turned out to be a political coffin,” you wrote.
HH: “Instead, the two hottest Republican candidates are downright heterodox.”
HH: “Mike Huckabee pushes an unapologetic economic populism, and John McCain, with his heretical stands on global warming and immigration, also presents a conservative message that is reformulated, not just reconstituted.” First of all, specifically, why is John McCain’s immigration position heretical?
MG: Well, given the currents of the Republican Party, it’s heretical. It’s closer to President Bush’s position, honestly, than it is to, say, Romney’s position, that he’s staked out, at least his current position. And you know, it allows a path to citizenship for a lot of people who are here, if they meet certain conditions, which is really the dividing line in the debate. Now McCain has shifted his position somewhat, and he very much wants now to get the situation controlled at the border before you proceed with any kind of process that would incorporate illegals in giving them the possibility of citizenship. So that’s a divide. I think that McCain sometimes enjoys being heterodox on these issues. He likes to be a little off-beat, and it’s benefited him, I believe. I mean, people view that as authentic.
HH: He lost badly in Iowa, and he did not win the conservative vote in New Hampshire. He won New Hampshire on the strength of independent votes, Michael Gerson. That’s the exact opposite of what your former boss did in 2000.
MG: Well, that’s true.
HH: Can you…
MG: And against McCain, because McCain had similar appeal when he won New Hampshire by 19 points against George W. Bush. And Bush really rallied the conservative base in South Carolina and other places. But this is a different election. Right now, I think the real question moving forward is will McCain be able to rally those people who don’t like Huckabee, and don’t like Giuliani, and really be a consensus candidate. He’s the only candidate now who has the ability, or the prospect of winning this thing early. I’m not sure it’s going to happen. It would mean he’d have to do well in Michigan, it would mean that he’d have to do well in a few places immediately after that. And I’m not sure whether that’s going to happen or not, but he is the only one that I think could do it at this point.
HH: Now Michael Gerson, you observed from the White House the battles over McCain-Feingold, and especially the Gang of 14. You know he voted against the Bush tax cuts. I admire John McCain a lot. I don’t like him at all. I mean, I really don’t like him. And as a result, you know, I will grudgingly throw in if he’s the nominee, but I don’t want to abandon my conservative Reagan-Bush coalition to John McCain’s leadership. Is this something you hear a lot from people?
MG: Well, it is on a couple of issues. I think the main policy problem John McCain has is that I don’t think there’s much evidence that he’s a convert on the pro-growth economic philosophy. When he opposed the Bush tax cuts, it wasn’t just that there was not offsets, and not sufficient cuts. He used our class warfare arguments, it’ll only benefit the top 1% and other things. I don’t think he buys the kind of supply side ideology that has really determined American economic policies the last 25 years, particularly under both Reagan and the current President Bush. And so that is, I think, the real problem. I mean, he has a soft spot for regulation in his record. He also is not really a supply-sider.
HH: And he’s also…do you think of him as an originalist? I won’t put words in your mouth, but the Gang of 14 struck me as being a non-originalist taking care of the perks of the Senate, as opposed to someone concerned with Constitutional processes, as did McCain-Feingold, which was a gagging of 1st Amendment rights.
MG: Yeah, no, I agree with that, but I don’t believe that McCain-Feingold is going to be a huge political issue. It certainly may be an ideological objection. But you know, McCain, though, to be fair, I believe on social policy and on judges has been conventionally conservative over the years. He has a pretty good record in the same way that Bob Dole had a pretty good record, not that he looks like he’s deeply engaged in these issues. I don’t know how much he cares about them. But he’s generally voted the right way.
HH: Well, you just mentioned the D word, Bob Dole. And I get the sense that we’re getting fed another Bob Dole, that we’re being rushed to a John McCain candidacy that will represent exactly what Bob Dole did in 1996, which is the oldest guy in the room, has been around the longest, gets to get the Republican nomination, even though it means certain electoral doom.
MG: Right. Well, I’ve known both of them. I worked for Dole in ’96 in the doomed campaign. But I think that John McCain has stronger political skills than Bob Dole does. I think he does have the ability to reach out to independents who like…
HH: Is age an issue, Michael Gerson?
MG: Well, I think more energy may be the issue. I’m not sure age. In some of these debates, I believe, just personal opinion, I think that he didn’t look on top of his game, and that’s shown in a couple of settings. But you know, in those last days up in New Hampshire, by every account, and I just saw him once, I mean, he was in the zone, and very engaged, and energetic.
HH: And on that note, Michael Gerson, we’ll check back with you as the race progresses, from the Washingtonpost.com, author of Heroic Conservatism.
End of interview.