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John Podhoretz reflects on what happened in the election, and the journey in the wilderness ahead for the GOP

Monday, November 17, 2008

HH: I am joined by John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary Magazine. John Podhoretz, what happened to the Republicans so dominant in 2004, on their back in 2008?

JP: War? A war that wasn’t won in time for the American people to lose patience with it. I’m very much of the opinion that it is impossible to understand the politics of the last four years without understanding the effect of a war that seems to be moving towards stalemate, particularly one that was not supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people. I mean, by the time the 2006 election had rolled around, the war was already longer than the Korean conflict. Right now, it’s longer than World War II. I think that’s the nature of the conflict that was being fought. But it was a great deal to ask of the American people, and they lost patience with it. And once they lost patience and confidence in the government’s ability to prosecute the war effectively, everything else rolled down the hill.

HH: And so are we feeling a little bit like conservative supporters of Churchill did in 1945, having won the war and being turned out?

JP: Well, I don’t really think so, because my sense is that there is such a thing as being too long in power. I mean, there is a way in which you could look at this and say one way or another, Republicans were the dominant political force in the United States over the last fourteen years, since 1994, Democrats fighting sort of a rear guard action in some ways. And the results were mixed, let’s face it. The Gingrich revolution didn’t quite pan out, Bush did a heroic job keeping us safe after 9/11, but there were problems on the domestic front. And then you have this sort of perfect economic cataclysm happening in the last months before the election. In some ways, the margin of 6.2, 6.3 percent that Obama enjoys, you could say given the severity of the economic problem as it seems to be developing, it was probably a very lucky thing for Republicans, that it if had been two months longer, it’s doubtful McCain would have gotten 42% of the vote, that this was the nature of the circumstance. He didn’t really have anything to say about the economic crisis.

HH: Now John Podhoretz, our friend, Michael Barone, has counseled that we got slaughtered among young people, 66-32%, and that this ought to give any Republican or center-right conservative great pause if that solidifies into a pattern. Do you fear that it will?

JP: Obviously, obviously that’s the case. I mean, obviously you can’t lose the future, and it is a fact that whatever the Republican Party is or has been, or whatever its candidates are or have been, they are not a traditionalist party, may have some difficulties dealing with youth when youth becomes sort of resurgent and interested in playing a significant role in the political process.

HH: So how do you advise Republicans to deal with this demographic winter that they’re facing?

JP: The only advice I can give, which isn’t really advice, I’m not in the habit of sort of giving…or I’m now out of the business of giving Republicans advice since I wrote a whole book giving them advice on how to defeat Hillary Clinton. So I don’t think anybody should listen to my partisan advice. My advice in generally is that there will always be a divide in this country between the politics of optimism and the politics of pessimism. And to the extent that the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, one or the other frames the future as something that will be better, smarter, wiser and more dynamic than the past, that party will be the party that will prevail and will dominate. Optimism about the American experiment, optimism about America’s role in the world, optimism about the core American values, and optimism about the world as opposed to the pessimism of a certain type of traditional conservatism, and the pessimism of the contemporary Democratic Party, and contemporary liberalism, more generally, which is we’re on a downward slope, things are worse than they used to be, and they’re only going to get worse, our environment is going to kill us, our policies are killing us, life is unfair, we don’t have enough health care. All of this framed appropriately and understood is an attack on the country, and on where it is and on the system that has gotten us to this point. If Republicans can recapture the notion that they are the party of the future, they’ll win. If they appear to be the party of the past, they will lose. Obama, by definition, looks, I mean, you can almost say demographically, it was a perfect election for Democrats, because not only does he look like, did he make Democrats look like the party of the future, he is the future. He’s 47 years old, McCain was 72, he’s young and dynamic, and has an interesting ethnic makeup that is more heterogeneous of the sort that American seems to be moving toward. So that is the mission for anybody, for any political party, to own the future.

HH: Now let me ask you, John Podhoretz, I am an optimist by nature. It’s a completely…I cannot not be an optimist. But at the same time, I’m deeply pessimistic about the world because of the nature of the al Qaeda problem and Islamist fanaticism. Can Republicans ever be Reagan given their reality, or conservatives, given the realism with which they look at the threat out there?

JP: Why not? I mean, you know, there was arguably a worse threat from the Soviet Union.

HH: Do you think so? I don’t think so.

JP: Well, I think that there’s a lot to be said for…the pessimism isn’t about the future of the planet in that sense. Optimism and pessimism is about the United States itself, not about the threats and challenges that are opposed to it from outside. It’s a question of whether these parties make the case to the American people that the country that they live in, and the things that they do, and the future that they have, is something enviable and worth fighting for and worth defending and worth praising and not worth looking a gift horse in the mouth, and that the country does not need wholesale social or political revision in order to make it better and fairer and nicer and cleaner. So in that sense, the threats from the outside don’t really play a part in this, in my understanding of this.

– – – –

HH: John, the Latino vote had gotten up to 44% for Republicans under W.’s second run. It dropped precipitously this time. What if anything ought Republicans to do about that?

JP: Well, I mean, I think the answer is obvious. Immigration reform, or anti-immigration sentiment, is a political and demographic disaster for the GOP. And people are going to scream and holler and shout and yell about how awful it is that I’m saying this, and what about illegals and everything is terrible and blah, blah, blah. And that’s fine. And so you can ride that into oblivion if you wish. It’s demonstrably A) in my view, it’s demonstrably not true, and yet even if it were true, it’s like fighting a rear guard action against the future once again.

HH: All right, on that note, let me switch over to a couple of current issues. Hillary Clinton appears to be poised to become Secretary of State. What do you make of that?

JP: Interesting, unexpected, possibly politically very clever, possibly too clever by half. I don’t know that we know enough to know. We don’t know enough about this guy to know what on Earth he means or intends by this decision. What is striking, however, is how, this is going to sound like a weird thing, but how political…he’s only made two or three appointments, but how political the appointments are, that is to say he’s picked a Congressman to be his chief of staff, he may well be picking a Senator to be his Secretary of State as opposed to say a former diplomat or somebody like that. It’s always an interesting question about whether or not a president decides to rely on elected officials to staff his cabinet. There are plusses and minuses to that, and I think the minuses sort of outweigh the plusses, because such people have their own constituencies, they have their own ambitions. You can’t entirely trust that their actions are going to be selflessly devoted to the furtherance of the administration’s goals, and not to the furtherance of their own. But we’ll have to see.

HH: Let me ask you, John, if that happens, obviously the Governor of New York appoints Hillary’s replacement, and there is a special election in two years as opposed to four years. Does Rudy Giuliani come to mind as the obvious choice for Republicans to pull for getting into that race? Or do you want him to run for Governor?

JP: He’ll never do it. I don’t think he’ll run for either slot. The governorship of New York state is not a very good job, and he doesn’t want to be a Senator. So I would actually be surprised if he ran, being, by the way, being the Republican governor of New York State with a, for the first time in a hundred years now, both of the houses of the legislature are controlled by the Democratic Party. That will effectively paralyze even the most effective Republican governor, and paralyze a lot of effective Democratic governors. It paralyzed Eliot Spitzer, the now-ousted governor who obviously was a man of extremely problematic character and made a lot of big mistakes, but one of the mistakes that he made was getting crosswise of the state legislature. So I don’t think Rudy would want the job. And if he were asking me, I would tell him to stay away from it.

HH: Is there anyone in New York Republican politics who is competitive for that job, because obviously getting a New York Senate seat in even moderate Republican hands would be extraordinary, and not to be expected in my lifetime.

JP: Not that I can think of, but you know, it’s a weird state, and it’s not as though the Democrats have great standing, either. It was a Democratic state for a long time, and then Pataki, George Pataki ousted Mario Cuomo. You can’t really tell what’s going to go on in a state like New York. The national trends may be lagging indicators. The disastrous condition of the state, which you have no idea how perilous things are going to get here with the economic downturn.

HH: Oh, I do because we’re in California, which is probably even worse if that’s possible.

JP: No, no, no, because New York’s entire budget depends on financial transactions.

HH: Oh, that’s true.

JP: And the money spun off of Wall Street. And so there could be a $40 billion dollar shortfall, something like unheard of at a state level, a state of that size.

HH: That is remarkable.

JP: And at this, it will be inhospitable for business, and even a liberal Democrat will start cutting taxes pretty soon.

HH: John Podhoretz from, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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