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Karl Rove analyzes GOP chances in the House and Senate this fall.

Saturday, March 8, 2008
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HH: We begin with a bang. Karl Rove, former assistant to the President, director of two completely successful presidential campaigns, Karl, good to have you back.

KR: Great to be on, Hugh. Sorry I’m stuck in traffic in downtown D.C. behind an automobile accident.

HH: Well, your phone’s working, so that’s all we care about.

KR: (laughing)

HH: Karl, let me ask you, I’ve seen you on talking big picture at 30,000 feet. If you were going to go into a meeting with a bunch of Congressional candidates, both Republicans in marginal districts, and challengers who are going after a seat that we lost in ’06, it’s a tough environment, what would you be telling them to do right now?

KR: I’d tell them to be committed to conducting a campaign of contrasts. They’re going to be successful only if they are able and willing to go in and point out where they stand, what they believe in, and then in an appropriate way, contrast it with the actions, views and values of their opponents.

HH: And of course, those opponents are all betting on the fact that the recession is going to be in full swing, or at least believed to be in full swing, and that we’ll be tired of Iraq. Are you saying defend the economic policies of the administration? Defend the war in Iraq?

KR: Well, you know what? I think that what people ought to defend is what they believe ought to be done in the years to come. I mean, this is…every election is prospective not retrospective. It’s about what’s coming, not what is happening right now. And so people ought to say look, here’s what I would do, when America’s confronted with a threat like Islamic fascism, I’m for fighting and beating it. And when we at home have problems with our economy, I’m for cutting taxes, restraining spending, and making certain that the economy has a real big chance to grow. And I mean if they do that, if they basically say look, I’m going to engage on the issues and share what I believe…and look, the other side is counting on pessimism. They’re counting on defeatism. They’re counting on the economy being bad, and Iraq going south. And that’s not a good campaign foundation. I mean, you know, we’re an optimistic people, and saying we can succeed at home and abroad is a far more powerful message.

HH: Now Karl Rove, do you think the Republicans can get their majority back in the House?

KR: You know, I think we can make gains this time. I’m not certain I see eighteen. I think it depends on the quality of the candidates, and I think it depends on how conditions are eight months from now as the election approaches. One thing that really concerns me, though, about our Republicans is that we can get back, but only if we have the courage to stand up and grab hold of a couple of issues that we, in most elections, have difficulty talking about. In this election, people are going to want us to talk about Iraq, which I think a lot of our candidates are comfortable talking about. They’re going to want us to talk about taxes and spending. But one issue that we’re uncomfortable talking about that they want to hear from us on is health care. And our candidates better get comfortable and fluid and fluent in talking about this issue in ways that ordinary people can understand and applaud. Otherwise, we’ll be left with one answer, which is more government. And you know, something generally beats nothing.

HH: Well, talk to us a little bit, Karl, again, with that Congressional candidate in mind, about the key elements of a Republican approach to health care.

KR: Well, you know what? We’ve got it embodied in legislation that has been advanced in Congress by Republican members. For example, Republicans believe that we ought to be able to save tax free for our out-of-pocket medical expenses. You get to save tax free for your retirement and for your kids education expenses. Why not allow people to save tax free for their out-of-pocket medical expenses? Republicans have advanced the idea of saying look, everybody who gets health insurance, regardless of whether they’re getting it from their company or out of their own pocket, ought to get a big tax deduction. You know, we wanted to encourage people to own homes, so we said if you own a home and pay a mortgage, you get a big tax deduction. Well, that’s the same about, you know, whether you get it from your employer or out of your own pocket, if you’ve got health insurance, we’ll give you a deduction on your taxes. Small businesses are getting screwed. I mean, small business has to pay on a very small risk pool. They don’t get the discounts the big boys get. Why don’t we allow small business to band together, to share the risk, you know, guys who own McDonalds, or people who own garden shops, or you name it. Left handed orthodontists who play golf on almost every Thursdays, anybody who wants to get together and share their risk can get the discounts that the big boys get ought to be able to do it. We believe in that.

HH: What’s the best response to, you know, we’ve got vague rhetoric coming from both Senator Clinton, Senator Obama and a lot of the House leadership, Senate leadership on the Democratic side. Do you recommend that people go after that single-payer phantom?

KR: You know, the choice that we face as a country, are we going to have a health care system that looks like America, innovative, dynamic, competitive and progressive, or are we going to look more like England, Canada and the European countries where it’s single-payer, the government makes the decisions and runs it all? And that’s the choice. And the American people by instinct want to be in charge of their health care. They want their doctor and them to make the decisions, not the government.

HH: Now Karl, you ran the President’s campaign in ’04. A lot of the points from then were wait until people open their 401K statements are going to be hitting bottom, wait until they see the price of gas. How does a Republican sitting here in the spring of 2008, anticipate high gas prices and low 401K balances in the fall?

KR: Well look, first of all, don’t bet against the American economy. I think we’re going to find that markets go up, markets go down, but over the long haul, in our dynamic economy, as long as we keep those sources, and protect those sources of dynamic energy, we’re going to do just fine. So I think people ought to say look, we’re concerned about what keeps America’s economy growing. And what keeps America’s economy growing is a strong private sector, not more government, not more taxes, not more regulation. With regard to high energy prices, look, we need to advance a comprehensive energy approach that relies upon technology, and invests in the kind of things that are going to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. And frankly, we’re doing that right now, and people ought to be heralding it, and pledging to sustain it. We are investigating all kinds of interesting commercial technology, cellulostic ethanol, lithium ion batteries, wind, solar, you name it. The government and the private sector in the United States are looking into these kind of things to figure out what can we do to get energy that makes us less dependent upon foreign sources of energy, and at the same time, uses the energy in far more efficient and effective ways. And you know, the Democrats’ answer to…you know, I used to think their answer to energy prices was higher energy prices. Weren’t these the people talking about higher gas taxes and so forth? Well, you know, we’ve now got the market, because of competitive pressures and lack of supply, driving the price up. We ought to be looking to create more supplies of different kinds of energy in order to reduce the price.

HH: Now Karl Rove, what’s your advice on trying to tie an individual Democratic House member or challenger to Nancy Pelosi? Do they get easily stapled to her? Or do they get a pass because they’re a blue dog Democrat?

KR: No, no. Look, she’s tough. She is hard. And as a result, she’s got a lot of so-called moderate and conservative Democrats to do bad things. I mean, you take a look at their budget. There were a handful of blue dogs who broke from her on the budget. But most of the moderate and conservative Democrats voted with them for the biggest tax increase in American history, and one of the largest expansions of domestic spending in history. One of the first votes of virtually every singe, if not every singe Democrat voted for was to take away the right of working people to a secret ballot in a union election. And you know, you bet, she is, boy, when it came to all those votes to cause us to prematurely withdraw from Iraq without regard to the consequences to America or the conditions on the ground, I mean, you know, you can hold people accountable for those things. When she was out there saying we want to, right now, we’re in a big battle over should we take away the power of intelligence agencies to listen in and start new investigations of new terrorist entities in dangerous parts of the world. And she says you know, we don’t really need to worry about that right now, because what we really need to worry about is carving out an opportunity for personal injury trial lawyers to sue companies that participate with the government in keeping the country secure. I mean, yeah, you bet you can tie House members to Nancy Pelosi. And San Francisco style liberalism is not particularly well received in most parts of the country.

HH: Now what about the immigration issue, Karl Rove? How should House members or House would-be members on the Republican side talk about that?

KR: Look, first of all, I know this is a contentious issue that has a lot of Republicans divided. The first thing people ought to do is they ought to recognize what’s being done on the Border. I think most of your listeners would be shocked to understand that last year, their government apprehended and returned back across the Border 1.3 million illegal aliens. I think they’d be shocked to know that the practice of some thirty years of catch and release, where we took other than Mexicans and if we caught them inside the United States, we released them on their own recognizance and asked them to show up for a court date, and 92% of them didn’t show up. That went on for decades. That ended the week of July 16, 2002, because we built enough facilities to hold them, and sped up the process to move them out of the country so that we were able to hold every one of them and have ever since then. I think people need to know we’re doubling the size of the Border Patrol and tripling its budget.

HH: Does that overcome the suspicion, though, that a lot of conservatives have about whether or not the Congress is serious? The Z Visa nightmare?

KR: Look, I don’t know, but first, let’s talk about the facts. I mean, the facts ought to reassure people. I’ll tell you, I go around the country, and the issue of immigration comes up, and I say to people look, I want you to fix in your mind how many people you think your government arrested last year, apprehended and moved out of the country. And you’d be shocked. Some people say it’s a matter of several hundred people. Some suggest it’s a matter of several thousand. Generally, when people start quoting figures of a hundred or two hundred or three hundred thousand, there are a lot of raised eyebrows and laughter and nervous chuckles in the room. And when you tell them that it’s 1.3 million, there’s a lot of shock.

– – – –

HH: I’d rather take a garbled Karl Rove than anybody else talking about American politics. Karl, it’s a tough, tough way to go in the United States Senate for Republicans this year. I had Mitch McConnell on this week, and the math is just not good. What do you see happening there?

KR: Well, the math is not good, and it’s not good because the success six years ago, we won a lot of seats. So we have twice as many seats to defend as the Democrats do, and unfortunately, we’ve had some retirements. We lost a Senator in Colorado who’s retiring, we have Pete Domenici, who’s a wonderful Senator, who if he were on the ballot again, he’d get 2/4rds or ¾ of the vote in New Mexico. But he’s got a terrible illness and has to retire. John Warner, who’s retiring, all three of those seats are going to be very tough contests for us. But look, the key in the Senate is we’re 51-49, we’ve got to keep as many of our troubled incumbents in Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine, and we’ve got to look aggressively for some pick up opportunities in order to minimize our decline, because there’s a big difference between 49 and 42, or even 49 and 45. As you know in the Senate, it takes 40 votes to block a really bad idea, and the last line of defense we have is 40 Republicans in the Senate blocking a really bad idea. And that means you’ve got to have more than 40 Republicans.

HH: Well, let’s talk specifically about Virginia, because it’s so close to top of shelf. It should be our seat, it’s a red state. Jim Gilmore, though, going against a very popular Mark Warner…

KR: Right.

HH: How do you see Gilmore winning that seat?

KR: Well, first of all, Gilmore has a primary, so he’s got a little bit, he’s got to get past a very aggressive conservative state delegate, the lower house in the Virginia Legislature. But look, that’s the nature of our problem. Mark Warner is a very popular moderate Democrat who governed deliberately as a moderate Democrat, and who, while he would go to Washington and become a more liberal vote than he was as governor in Virginia, is nonetheless pretty popular. And it’s going to take a very focused and determined effort that says here’s where I stand, and here’s where he stands, and you need to decide who’s in keeping with the values of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

HH: And what about New Hampshire? John Sununu’s a great American, a very good Senator, but that state’s just changing, Karl Rove. Can it be returned to the red column?

KR: Oh, yeah, it can, and Sununu can do it. That race is interesting to me, because it’s bouncing all around. These polls…and sometimes, it’s the same pollster separated by a matter of a couple of months shows the race either John ahead or John way behind. But look, this is a state that traditionally takes its time in making up its mind. It’s a quirky state, as you know, and John fits the state like a glove. He is a strong fiscal conservative, he’s a very thoughtful guy, and yeah, I feel good about it, provided he’s got adequate resources, and a well organized campaign for the last couple of months.

HH: I’m feeling pretty good about Norm Coleman. He was just out in Southern California with Congressman John Campbell raising some money, and I got a chance to chat with him. Al Franken, though, is pretty tough. How do you run against a comedian, Karl Rove?

KR: Treat what he has said in the past. Shine a spotlight on it, and treat it seriously. I mean, the guy is, Al Franken is a vicious little guy who says ugly things about lots of people, including a lot of Democrats. I’ve met the guy one time. I was at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner a number of years ago, four or five years ago, I’d never met him before. He was sitting at a nearby table. He saw me, he jumped up, ran over, introduced himself, and said I’m Al Franken, and I hate you, and you hate me. And I said Mr. Franken, with all due respect, I don’t hate you. I don’t know you. And he looked terribly disappointed that I wasn’t willing to return his, you know, angry little denunciation right there. He proceeded to go over and do the same thing to Paul Wolfowitz, who was less charitable in his response.

HH: You see, I don’t think that flies in American politics, does it, Karl?

KR: No, it doesn’t, and look, he’s got lots of that. I mean, this guy is an angry guy, and he has said some pretty vicious things about a wide variety of people. And look, he either meant it or he didn’t. And if he did, you know, the Nordic peoples of Minnesota, we Nordic peoples don’t like that kind of thing.

HH: Now you’re a Coloradan originally. We like Bob Schaffer…

KR: Yes, but I’m Norwegian, of Norwegian descent, so I feel close to the people of Minnesota.

HH: (laughing) You probably do ice fishing. We like Bob Schaffer a lot here, but that’s a tough state. And Doc Allard’s a tough act to follow. How do you win in Colorado with it’s so deep purple?

KR: Well, you know what? It is a Republican leaning state, but it is up for grabs. The interesting thing is that the worst thing for the Democrats to do is to nominate a bolder liberal. And guess what? They’re nominating a bolder liberal. And Schaffer is, as you know, he’s a maverick. He’s a conservative, but he’s a thoughtful guy. He figures out where he’s going to be. There’s no dictating to him. And Coloradans appreciate that kind of independence. So I feel good about that one. If he gets enough resources and runs a disciplined campaign, it is a Colorado independent minded conservative versus a doctrinaire, bolder, Granola liberal. And in that kind of contest, the Republican can win.

HH: Now my audience in Portland is going to be mad at me if I don’t ask you about Gordon Smith, even though I don’t know much about Oregon politics. What do you think about that?

KR: I like Gordon personally. I don’t agree with him sometimes, but again, that may stand him in good stead in Oregon. It is a state which leans Democrat, and yet he has been able to win twice, and it’s because he again is independent minded, and fits the state. So the Democrats did not come up with a tier one or tier two or even tier three candidate. They got a couple of midgets fighting it out in the primary. Gordon’s going to have a tough contest, because that’s the nature of the state, but I feel pretty good about it.

HH: Are we allowed to use the word midget anymore on radio, Karl? Have you checked with the FCC? I’m not…

KR: I don’t know. I don’t know. I thought we…

HH: I want to go to Louisiana at the risk…

KR: I was talking about it in the political sense.

HH: (laughing) John Kennedy, our own John Kennedy, is running in Louisiana.

KR: I love it, man. I love it. This guy is a remarkable guy.

HH: That is our one pick up, right?

KR: Pardon me?

HH: Is that our one pick up?

KR: No, no. It’s not the only pick up, but I mean, it depends on candidate recruitment in a couple of other states. But I’ve got to tell you, this is one impressive guy. He was elected, as you know, as a Democrat, a state treasurer, he was a conservative, fiscal and social conservative, elected as state treasurer, and he’s a reformer, because Louisiana politics, you may have heard this, has a little bit of corruption in it. And he came into office, and he started taking on all the power brokers on their shady deals and their sweetheart arrangements. And they threatened to cut off his power in the legislature, and he stood up to them. And when he got ready to run for reelection, a lot of people were encouraging him to think about running as a Republican for the Senate in 2008. But first, he had to face reelection in 2007. And people talked to him and said, you know, John, you ought to run for reelection as a Democrat, and then switch parties after you’re successfully reelected. And he said you know what? I’m not comfortable being a Democrat, and I’m not comfortable doing something that’s phony. So he announced for reelection as state treasurer as a Republican, and drew no opposition. Nobody, Republican or Democrat, opposed him, and he was reelected without opposition, led the Republican ticket. I’ve got to tell you, and he’s an impressive guy. He knows the state budget inside out, he’s got really good fiscal conservative credentials, and he’s not the most charismatic looking guy. He looks more like Rove and Hewitt than he does the original John Kennedy. But he’s a very impressive and very authentic and very credible individual.

HH: A minute left, Karl Rove. I’ll do one presidential…you always talk presidential politics on Fox, so I don’t want to bore people out. But how much trouble is Barack Obama in because of Tony Rezko?

KR: You know, we don’t know, but it could be a lot. This, to me, is really remarkable, the kid glove treatment that he’s received on this. I mean, here’s a guy who we still don’t know how many fundraisers, he refuses to say how many fundraisers he hosted. He had a sweetheart deal on a land purchase deal that stinks, and you know, we’ll see. But it’s…the press cannot avoid giving this coverage now, because of the corruption case involving Mr. Rezko.

HH: Karl Rove, always a great pleasure to cove the waterfront with you. Look forward to the next time.

End of interview.

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