George Will joined me for a wide-ranging conversation on Presidents Reagan and Obama, America and the GOP’s future, Jeb Bush and Terry francona.
HH: On a day with Nicholas Kristof amd Anne Applebaum and Jonathan Alter and Stephen Hayes, I’m so pleased to welcome now George Will, who is perhaps America’s most respected syndicated columnist, Fox News contributor, Washington Post syndicate. George, we have a lot to talk about. Welcome, it’s great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
GW: Glad to be with you.
HH: Can we at least begin by agreeing that Terry Francona is the best manager in baseball?
GW: No, we can’t. Next?
GW: (laughing) Nice try.
HH: Okay, I was going to slip that by. Who is better than Terry?
GW: Mike Scioscia, if his players will stay healthy.
HH: Oh, you’ve got my producer, he’s got his arms in the air. That’s a bad choice here.
HH: But you know, Francona has rehabbed everybody. He turns .300 pitchers into 17 game winners.
GW: Good. That means he’s a good pitching coach.
HH: All right, let’s get to the serious stuff.
GW: That is the serious stuff.
HH: Well, this is the stuff that matters, I agree. You’re not an Indians fan. You’re a Cubs fan, right?
HH: And the futility that I have lived with is greater than the futility that you have lived with.
HH: Well, because Cleveland sports includes more than just the Indians. We haven’t won anything in 50 years.
GW: Well, this is true.
HH: Okay. I began with Nicholas Kristof today, and I want to begin with you where I ended with him. Does Hillary Clinton have a legitimate claim based upon her record at State on being the leader of the free world come 2017?
GW: Well, first of all, ask yourself if there is anything that can be accurately called the free world anymore given that Europe is incapable of decisive action. You know, Henry Kissinger once famously said if I want to talk to Europe, who do I call? What’s the number?
GW: Europe remains today a political, not a political expression, but a mere geographical expression. With regard to Hillary Clinton, name one region. Never mind. Name one country with whom we have better relations now than we did in 2008, just one.
HH: Nicholas Kristof argued Burma.
GW: Okay, give him Burma. Change the name, but give him Burma. It’s not even called Burma anymore.
HH: You’re right. You’re right. I agree.
GW: Look at the flashpoints around the world. The 38th Parallel of North Korea may still be the most dangerous place in the world. On the water and over the water, in the airspace over the China seas, China and Japan are dancing perilously close to armed conflict. Syria, we’re watching the man we said must go seems to be determined to stay and seems to be winning the war. Iran is proceeding without any measurable diminution of its pace toward nuclear weapons. Where is the success?
HH: Oh, I agree with this. But she is nevertheless, I asked Dana Milbank this, and he said her great accomplishment was making herself the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination in 2016.
GW: Well, on the other hand, you could say that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And since she’s the only candidate they have, they’ve decided she’s Talleyrand.
HH: That’s very well put. So do you think after a bit, she considers that this might not be the best idea for her to take this record into the arena?
GW: I think it’s distinctly possible. Political people are proud people. And she cannot relish the possibility of a second defeat. She lost in 2008 when she was not the prohibitive favorite, certainly the heavy favorite. In 2016, she will be the prohibitive favorite, and therefore will suffer all the deeper humiliation if she loses. She has to consider that possibility.
HH: Now George Will, I want to switch to the crisis of the day, which is Ukraine. And what I have been debating with my lefty friends today, Kristof and Alter, is that we are underestimating the depth of the darkness descending in Crimea. Does the West, I remember very well when President Reagan, whom I served, became president. You met with him in the Oval Office. You wrote a famous column about his brown suit. I don’t know if anyone else remembers this, but that he was comfortable being in his brown suit. I don’t know that anyone in the White House has anything approaching a vision of how bad this is for the Crimea. Do you?
GW: I don’t think they do, because they really think we all share the same values. Poor Mr. Kerry, an adequate Senator, but a terrible historian, said what they’ve done is a 19th Century act, as though somehow after the 19th Century, armies quit crossing international borders. He evidently missed the 20th Century when he was studying at Yale, assuming he studied when he was at Yale. I mean, this is, that’s not so alarming, the fact that he missed the 20th Century. What is alarming is the assumption that somehow the world in the last generation changed in a fundamental way. Mankind has been troubled by wars for several millennia, and that all stopped, according to the Obama administration. We reached a new sunny upland, a new plateau of happiness, and it’s just not the way the world is.
HH: It’s not the way the world is, but the Hagel budget proposed for the Department of Defense on Monday in spectacularly poor timing assumes that that’s where we are going. Is that budget dead on arrival? Can you imagine that we will build down our military with the world as it appears this week and indeed this year?
GW: Well, there are two things that have to be said about that. First, it probably was time to rethink the long-standing, many decades commitment to having a military prepared and able to fight two major regional conflicts at once. I don’t think we were really able to do that. I’m not sure we ought to configure, still configure our forces to do that. On the other hand, as you say, the timing is terrible, but this is what happens when the welfare state begins to swallow all the revenues of the government. For a welfare state, demography is destiny. The great demographic fact about our country is the population is aging. The welfare state exists to transfer wealth from the working young and middle aged to the retired elderly in pensions and medical care. Every day, 10,000 more Baby Boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. This is swallowing the government. It is swallowing all discretionary spending, which is now the lowest level as a percentage of the budget and of GDP in probably 50 years. And it is ultimately crowding out Defense, the one absolutely central function of the central government.
HH: Now you were a young man when you sat down with President Reagan, and the great turn happened in 1981. Do you think, in your bones, that such a great turn can happen again?
GW: Well, as Ronald Reagan used to say, never say never, but it gets more and more difficult to do that now that we have committed through improvident promises to ourselves of welfare state benefits enormous calls on the future productivity of the country. It’s very hard to take back entitlements, that is what are considered rights by people. And if you say look, we have to moderate the largesse of the welfare state in order to prepare for a problem that may be over the horizon, people will say well, that’s over the horizon. I want my welfare check now.
HH: Is there any way to make the argument, like Paul Ryan has made, that if you make those entitlement changes ten years distant, if you change Social Security for those who are 56 and younger, that the country will buy into it? In other words, is the country on the same page on the improvident commitments it has made as you are?
GW: I think it is. I mean, when you ask young people, they think that the likelihood of their seeing Social Security is vanishingly small. They know in their bones that they’re going to get a lot less from the federal government than they’re paying into the federal government now to support the elderly, who are after a lifetime of accumulation more prosperous than any other cohort in the country. The young people understand that the welfare is a regressive transfer of wealth to the elderly, to the affluent elderly.
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HH: As we went to break at the last segment, George Will, you heard our acknowledgement of our relationship with Hillsdale College and Dr. Larry Arnn, and I know you know of them and cherish what they do. There’s a generation of young people who are showing up, who were born way after Reagan left office, and many of them have served in the war. Doesn’t that encourage you in the least when you look at people like Tom Cotton and Mike Pompeo and Ron DeSantis? These are all three Harvard Law grads who are also combat veterans, that there might be a new greatest generation rising?
GW: I do. I am hopeful about this. When I outline the many problems, the structural problems we have because of mistakes of previous generations have made, I don’t mean to despair. I mean, the American people are not fools. The American people are very public-spirited. And young people particularly are congenitally hopeful about the future. But they see the clouds that are gathering, and they know that those clouds are lowering most over their heads. And I see a general skepticism about the government as it now is on young people, a general openness to, I don’t want to oversell this, but a kind of more libertarian approach to life that is simply the proposition that before the government restricts the freedom of the individual or of two individuals contracting with one another, it ought to have a good reason. That’s all they’re asking. It’s not dogmatism, but it’s a libertarian impulse. And I see this gathering strength, and it’s a very hopeful phenomenon.
HH: So who gathers that in? Who speaks for that, because I agree with you about this, and you know, I think Tom Cotton speaks for that, and I think there are people like Cory Gardner in Colorado, and there are a lot of great, young people. But who does the GOP rally around between now and, I know this is a long three years ahead of us, and I’ll come back after the break and talk to you about that, but who carries that banner effectively, in your view?
GW: Well, I think Paul Ryan’s been around the track and has done more to turn conservative impulse and philosophy into practical programs than anyone else right now. He has an old school age friend out in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, the governor out there, who’s doing the same thing. I think the American people instinctively over the years have favored governors as presidents, because they run something larger than a Senate office. And they don’t confuse, as Senators do, saying something with doing something. I mean, Senators raise their hand and say yes for model cities, and they expect model cities to happen. It isn’t that way.
HH: Do you look at Jeb Bush and see someone who can carry that banner, or someone who’s crippled by the name?
GW: Both. I think he has admitted that the name is a handicap because the Bush brand has been damaged. On the other hand, he’s a terrifically talented man who was a governor of a very complicated state, and who as governor devoted a disproportionate share of his time to an extremely important matter, and that is education, grades K-12, which if it fails, everything fails in this country. So he certainly ought to be in the mix.
HH: Have you paid much attention to the Common Core controversy which has got him by the ankles?
GW: I have paid attention to it. I think he’s mistaken. I understand the Common Core people. I know it’s worrying them. They’re right to be worried about the mediocrity of our education. I happen to think, however, that it’s just the thin end of an enormous federal wedge and a terrible mistake.
HH: So what’s your advice to Jeb about that?
GW: Tiptoe away from it. Scott Walker improvidently and early sort of embraced it, and I think he’s tiptoeing at the moment. You know, when Ronald Reagan convened in 1983 the famous study Nation At Risk…
GW: It contained a wonderful sentence that’s worth recalling. He said if any foreign power imposed upon us the educational mediocrity we have imposed on ourselves, we would consider it an act of war. So the advocates of the Common Core and we who oppose it are united in understanding we’ve got a problem.
HH: If it is understood as a floor and not a ceiling, and power over it is genuinely local as opposed to federalized, does it then, can it be rebranded and retooled?
GW: I’m skeptical, because I don’t think it can be kept local. And I don’t think it can be kept minimal for two reasons. They say it’s not a curriculum. Well, standards breed the alignment of tests with it, and the alignment of the SAT and the ACT tests. And that in turn requires curricula to be aligned. So you add that to the simple metabolic urge of the Washington bureaucracy to extend its control, and you have dynamite.
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HH: George Will, for years you labored in the exile at ABC every weekend doing your best to push that rock up the mountain, Sisyphus at work. And now you’re at Fox News where you’re a little bit unburdened of having to carry the whole load. What’s the difference, from your perspective, of working in the one as opposed to the latter? I know you have fun friends in both.
GW: I do, and I have got no bitterness at all about ABC, which treated me very well. The fact is that Fox News is a news organization. It’s hot all the time, 24 hours a day. If there’s a revolution going on in Tahrir Square, you turn on Fox, you see it live at any time. And it’s just has a consequent energy to it. People say gosh, it’s full of right wingers. Well, let’s see, Charles Lane, Washington Post, these are some of the people I appear on Special Report with, Charles Lane of the Washington Post, Julie Pace who covers the White House for AP, Peter Baker, covers the White House for the New York Times, stop me when I get to the right wingers, Kirsten Powers, used to work in a Democratic administration, she’s a liberal columnist, Mara Liasson of National Public Radio, on and on…
HH: Juan Williams, you betcha. You’ve got a score of center-left and lefty people who are there.
GW: Exactly. Someone asked me what does Fox feel like, and I said it’s like Southwest Airlines. You get on Southwest Airlines, the planes are new, everyone’s happy, they’re at the top of the heap, but they still think of themselves as insurgents. It’s a great spirit.
HH: And now I want to go to that question about President Reagan, with whom you spent a lot of time. And I go back to that first interview which was really, because I was young and new in Washington when you wrote that. And the present president, who you have been observing at close range for five years now, what is their essential difference, because the one knew where he was going, and this one appears to be rudderless.
GW: Well, Ronald Reagan knew exactly what he wanted to do. Remember in 1976, he ran for the Republican nomination against incumbent President Gerald Ford, running against détente, running against Kissingerism, that is Ronald Reagan said we have been trying to manage the Cold War, I want to end it. And he set out with a very long-headed, multi-faceted plan to do that. It involved pressure on our, economic pressure on the Soviet Union by getting the Saudis to help run down energy prices, it meant challenging them to an arms race they could not conceivably win with Strategic Defense Initiative, many facets, long-headed, the patience of politics. Mr. Obama simply wants to get along with everybody. He really does seem to believe that we all are basically partners in this world, that there’s no zero sum game involved in diplomacy. Well, as he’s learning otherwise, there is.
HH: When Reagan swept in, he also brought along an extremely talented team with George Schultz and Ed Meese and Jim Baker and National Security Advisor Allen and national security advisors, you know, you just name it. They were all there. Does the Republican Party have that bench in waiting?
GW: That’s a good question. The Republican Party is more interesting, to put it politely, on foreign policy than it used to be because heterodoxy has come to the Republican Party. You’ve got people ranging from Lindsey Graham and John McCain at one end, the sort of neo-conservative end of the spectrum, to Rand Paul and others who are more skeptical about the interventionist impulse on the other. It’s a much more complicated Republican rainbow of opinion, but I think in the end, somewhere in that mix, there’s got to be a variety of talented people.
HH: If Mitch McConnell is successful and the Senate Republicans are successful in seizing a majority, and it looks very good right now, is there a big deal to be had in the final two years? Or will it be rule by decree from 1600?
GW: It won’t be rule by decree, because I don’t think you’ll get a big deal, because Barack Obama did not go into politics to shrink the government. He went into politics to expand the government on every front as an instrument for the redistribution of wealth. I got that. I understand that. That’s not going to change, even if he has no control of either house of Congress. But what Republicans controlling the Senate can do is make those bills passed by the conservative House come to a vote in the Senate, and by coming to a vote, force Democrats to vote on them.
HH: You are a traditional conservative. If Mitch McConnell were simply to say as payback for Harry Reid’s fracturing of a great institution we will confirm no judges in 2015 and 2016, including Supreme Court vacancies, that would be a radical thing. Would you support such a thing?
GW: I’d be reluctant to. I think presidents are owed varying degrees of deference for their nominees. When they nominate them to the executive branch, broad deference is in order, because those people are to carry out his policy, and they leave when he leaves. The judicial branch is different. They don’t carry out his policies, and they don’t leave when he leaves. So you need a higher degree of scrutiny and less deference is owed. But it seems to me still it is a Constitutional duty of presidents with the advice and consent of the Senate to staff the judicial branch of government. And we can’t have a dysfunctional judiciary.
HH: Let me close, though, by talking about the fact that he’s been a radical in his use of executive power in ways that George W. Bush would never have dreamed of, and the Obamacare serial improvisation.is evidence of that. If one of the five center-right Republican justices were to retire from the bench or leave because of incapacity in the next two years, he would fundamentally remake the American judiciary. Isn’t that worth waiting two years for?
GW: If one of the five conservatives on the Court were to retire, or Heaven forbid, die, that would be an occasion where Republicans have to think very hard whether this president in the waning days of what looks increasingly like a failed presidency, with the country having withdrawn confidence from this president, which it is in the process of doing, whether they should proceed with confirmation.
HH: When you say withdraw, and last question, when you say withdraw in confidence, our friends on the left will bristle, and they’ll say he just won reelection. On what do you base that, George Will?
GW: Well, A) the fact that he’s had the worst first year of a second term than any president since Richard Nixon in 1973. Second, the fact that the polls are unambiguous and emphatic, they are saying that the country now has him in the mid to low 40s in job approval, and modern history tells us that when presidents get into that range, they very rarely come back.
HH: George Will, thank you for your time. I bid you pay attention to young Mr. Salazar on the Indians staff, a future Cy Young winner who deserves your attention.
GW: Yeah, remember 1954.
HH: No, 1948’s the last time we won. Thank you, George Will.
End of interview.