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National Review editor Rich Lowry on the magazine’s endorsement today of Mitt Romney

Tuesday, December 11, 2007
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HH: We lead off with a newsmaker today, National Review endorsing Mitt Romney on a cover story that has sent shock waves across the Republican national primary electorate. Joined now by the editor of National Review, Rich Lowry. Rich, good to have you, thanks for joining me.

RL: Hey, Hugh, thanks for having me.

HH: Take me inside first the process by which National Review arrived at its endorsement.

RL: (laughing) I don’t know, Hugh. It’s a really tightly held process here. It’s like selecting the Pope. We can’t reveal too much, but…

HH: How many people got a say in this?

RL: Well, it’s our senior editors, our publisher, our president and our Washington editor and myself. And we’ve been talking about it the last two weeks or so, just because this is our, through the quirks of our publication schedule, this is our last issue before people vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. So if we were going to have a say, this had to be it. So it really forced us to think about this seriously, as I hope other conservatives now are thinking about it seriously. And I think once you really consider it closely, Mitt Romney is the best choice.

HH: Now tell me, was there division among the senior members of the board who made this decision?

RL: You know, there was some. We have a couple of Rudy supporters, most prominently Rick Brookhiser, you know, who’s going to, he is for Rudy, has been for Rudy for two years or so, or more, ever since 9/11, and that’s where he is, and that’s where he’s going to stay. But outside of that, we coalesced around a pretty good consensus, because as I said, once you really consider it closely, I think the merits of Mitt Romney become pretty evident.

HH: And we’ll get to those in just a couple more questions. William F. Buckley, does he participate in this?

RL: Well, you know, technically, he doesn’t have a role anymore, because he no longer edits the magazine, obviously, or owns it. But you know, he obviously was clued in on this, and signed off on it.

HH: And does he approve of Romney as well?

RL: Yeah, I haven’t talked to him in depth, you know, about his feelings about the candidates, but he was certainly on board National Review endorsing Romney.

HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about why. Give us sort of the big three reasons why Romney over everyone else.

RL: Well, there are a couple of things, Hugh. One, as I think you know very well, the primary vehicle of conservative public policy success in the United States the last thirty, forty years has been this coalition that we have, and that National Review had a big, historic role in helping form, of free market conservatives, social conservatives, and national security hawks. You need all three. If we don’t have all three, the Republicans aren’t going to win elections, and we’re not going to achieve any conservative goals. So I think that immediately takes off the table, even though they have their virtues and merits, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee, who have problems at sort of opposite ends of that coalition. Rudy, obviously, the social conservatives, Huckabee with economic, and maybe even foreign policy conservatives. So then you’re down to three, and I think between McCain, Thompson and Romney, I think Romney is the stand out there. He agrees with us on pretty much everything now. Now of course, he changed on some issues, and that’s been very emphasized in this campaign, I think somewhat unfairly. Everyone has moved to the right in this race, and that’s a good thing. Mike Huckabee, as we speak, is scrambling to the right in this race. So the question is, one, if you look at Romney’s record in 1994, when he was running against Ted Kennedy, that was a pretty conservative campaign, certainly in the context of Massachusetts, where he was in favor of welfare reform, and a whole host of other conservative initiatives. The big thing where he changed is abortion. And I think he’s very up front about that. And the question conservatives have to have is do you believe him? Do you trust him? And I do. I don’t think he’s going to switch back. I think he’s one of us on that issue now. And if you put that all together, together with his record as a businessman, a family man, a governor in a liberal state, I think he’s got a very good package there.

HH: Now last week, Romney gave a speech, Faith In America. I thought it was objectively a great speech, given who liked it. And the people who he touched with it are the people he needed to reach. Was the speech part of the conversation at National Review? I can’t imagine it was, but I want to check, given your deadlines, et cetera.

RL: Oh, it was. I mean, it wasn’t the hugest consideration, but look, that was a big moment for Romney. And you know, if he had stumbled and fallen flat, we, you know, some of us might have said uh, do we really want to pull the trigger on this? But it was a big occasion, and he rose to it. So that did play a role. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was a consideration.

HH: Now what about management experience? A lot of people think technocratic and not connecting with people.

RL: Yeah.

HH: How did you guys overcome that concern?

RL: Well, you know, he obviously does have that technocratic edge to him. I think it’s good, because people are looking for competence this time around. And I think when it comes to executive experience, you know, Mitt and Rudy have the most impressive records there, and for reasons we already talked about, I think Mitt is preferable to Rudy, and a better general election candidate than Rudy. But we do, you know, we do have some advice for Mitt in this editorial. And it really is, he has to show people there is a there there. He is not just a hollow robot of a candidate. I believe he does have a political soul, we saw it in that College Station speech where he showed some passion and emotion. And I think he needs to let loose a little bit more. I don’t know whether he’s over-coached, or whether he’s over-cautious, just given we live in a YouTube era, and what happened to his Dad. In this presidential race, he needs to let people see his core a little bit more, because he does care about this country with a passion. And I just think people need to see that.

HH: Rich Lowry, let’s talk about the electoral map. Obviously, to win in ’08, Republicans either need to keep everything that Bush won in ’04, or they have to add some states. Where does Romney expand the map for Republicans?

RL: I’m not sure he expands the map much. And you know, I don’t know whether there’s much map expanding to be had from any of these guys. And that’s part of Rudy’s argument, of course, is that they can expand the map, or at least make Democrats expend resources in states where they wouldn’t otherwise. But if you look at those polls in those kind of states that the Rudy people tout they’ll be competitive in, like California, he still loses. It just that he loses by less of a margin than another more traditional conservative might. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t get you anything.

HH: That’s right.

RL: That doesn’t get you any electoral votes. So I think Mitt, I’m not sure he expands the map, but he has a much better chance of holding the map.

HH: I think he does take Michigan and make it competitive. I think he can take Minnesota that extra step that it needs, and Wisconsin the same way, that that Upper Midwestern roots…

RL: It could be. Yeah, they talk about the Upper Midwest, and that he could have some appeal to that vote, those sort of folks. I haven’t thought about that much, whether that’s the case.

HH: Let’s talk about Mike Huckabee for a moment. Does…obviously, National Review is going to be delivered by the Romney people to every doorstep in Iowa, I think, over the next couple of weeks, and that will matter to Iowa conservatives. But Mike Huckabee’s boomlet, we’ve got to talk about it. To what do you attribute it?

RL: Well, it’s a couple of things. One, there’s obviously a kind of a built-in constituency in Iowa for a real social conservative purist with a religious edge, you know? It’s why Pat Robertson got about 25% there, it’s why Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, if you add up their vote in 2000, you know, running against George W. Bush, a social conservative Evangelical himself, they got about, you know, 25% of the vote. So there’s a built-in Huck vote there. Now the thing is, is that he’s obviously expanded well beyond that at the moment. And I think it’s because he’s likable, he’s a good campaigner, and he is filling this vacuum that has always been in this race, you know, the Bill Frist, George Allen, Fred Thompson vacuum, you know, that seemed like Fred was going to fill for a while, until he disappointed once he got in. Now the thing is, if he holds that vacuum, he’s going to be a real formidable candidate. But it could be, and we’ve had these boomlets for various candidates as we’ve gone through, and when people really focus on them, like they did with Fred, it’s like oh, maybe I’m not so excited about him after all. I believe, I can’t guarantee, but I believe that process will also take place with Huckabee. We just need to see where he hits his plateau, and I think he’s going to come off of that.

HH: Now obviously, there’s a Des Moines Register debate tomorrow, and there’s also a Meet the Press date for Mitt Romney with Tim Russert on Sunday. After that, given that we’re into the two weeks before Christmas and New Year’s, does anyone pay any attention to anything after this?

RL: Yeah, you know, I think people will. I just think people will be doing some multi-tasking, obviously. That’s preparing for the holidays, and shopping, and all the rest of it. So I don’t think it goes totally dark. And I do think people will still be paying attention. But we’re in uncharted territory. And I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to your question.

HH: And in terms of the economic instability we have around us, the Dow plunged 300 points today, because they wanted a half basis point, not a quarter basis point. And people are, the Wall Street Journal wrote a big story yesterday about this could be another S&L situation, or a tech boom bubble bust sort of thing. Does that play to Romney…

RL: It does.

HH: …and to his economic experience?

RL: I think it does, and that’s something that people haven’t talked a lot about. The war on terror was obviously, and it deserves to be, a huge issue in this campaign, but it dominated the…and until a couple of weeks ago, it dominated this race. Now we’re in kind of this sort of religious war, social conservative fight. But the thing that may be animating the average voter more when we get into next year is those kind of economic issues. And this is, you know, this is, I think, one of Romney’s strengths, not just because he was an effective businessman, but you know, he was an effective manager of the Olympics. This is something he cares a lot about, economic growth, that he has very strong views on, and I think he has much more credibility than some of the other candidates on this stuff.

HH: Quick last question, Rich Lowry, did Romney have a tough time selling the National Review editorial board on his chops on the war on terror?

RL: Well, we were a little concerned about some of the wiggle he demonstrated every now and then on Iraq. But at the end of the day, I think his views on foreign policy, on the war on terror, are right in the conservative mainstream. I think that’s true of the three other major candidates. I might except Mike Huckabee. And the question then becomes how do you execute? Do you have skills to do this job?

HH: And obviously, you think National Review thinks he does. Thank you very much, Rich Lowry.

End of interview.

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