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National Review’s Jim Geraghty conducts his post-mortem on the GOP, and where they go next.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008
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HH: Pleased to welcome back James Geraghty of Nationalreview.com. Jim writes the Campaign Spot blog there, widely respected as one of the most knowing observers of Republican politics and electoral combat in the United States. Jim, welcome back, we haven’t talked since the election. Why did the Republicans get blown out?

JG: Last week on the National Review cruise, my slogan to most people was whatever your theory on McCain’s loss, it’s probably right, because there was an across the board, you look at every demographic, he underperformed Bush’s 2004 performance amongst women, but he also did it amongst men. He did it amongst blacks, and also amongst whites, and also amongst Hispanics. Two key points though, the first is if you’re a conservative, and it looked like there really were Obamacons, and there really was a certain lack of turnout amongst key conservative groups, what was John McCain going to do for you? You know, it was a tough question to answer. You mostly were voting to stop Obama. And the second thing was the economic crisis, and the way McCain handled it was absolutely nothing reassuring whatsoever about saying I’m going to suspend my campaign, and then two minutes later suddenly saying oh no, I’m not going to suspend my campaign, let’s go forward with the debate, et cetera. So that may have been the key moment that hurt him. But look, in the end, this was a confused campaign that didn’t have a theme, didn’t have a narrative, and the guys on the other side, you know, had the wind at their backs.

HH: Now in terms of that, though, was there an overwhelming incapacity within the Republicans to move this electorate because of what they had become, and something that they’re going to have to change if they’re going to reconnect with those ten million voters that switched sides? And I say that because George Bush won by three million votes, Barack Obama won by six and a half million votes. That’s a big swing of votes.

JG: It is, and there were a lot of people who voted for Bush in 2004 who stayed home, and a certain number of new folks came out for Obama. I think that one of the numbers that jumped out at me early on was the number of people who thought McCain would not cut their taxes, but Obama would. And the percentage for Obama was much higher. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but when people really believed that the Democrats were the tax-cutting party, that is a sign that things have gone so far off the rails, that you are going off the cliff and crashing the Hindenburg into the Titanic. You are completely lost at that moment. And look, that was a sign of everything from Bridge To Nowhere to high spending to the botched response to Katrina to not finding WMD. The bottom line was that the Republican Party did not have credibility with the voters on all kinds of issues, and it bleeds over from one issue to another. If they don’t think that you are serious about having good competent managers in government, and you see people like Brownie, or you see Harriet Miers trying to get onto the Supreme Court, or not to bring up sore issues, but you know, various other things where there were people in the Bush administration who just didn’t do a particularly solid job – Scott McClellan, to use a puerilian example. People just don’t believe you as being very serious about anything else, and John McCain, for better or for worse, always was, did turn out to be the establishment candidate.

HH: Will simple distance from W.’s administration reenergize the Republicans?

JG: A little bit. And one of the great things, you know, actually it was a very happy cruise. I hope it’s as happy as the Hugh Hewitt cruises that you guys put together, which was to say that people kind of had this sense, there’s this sudden recognition that hey, we did stick up for a lot of stuff that really wasn’t conservative, and really wasn’t in keeping with our values, but deep down was, you know, well, Bush was our guy, or McCain was our guy, and people kind of held their tongues and nodded and went along with it. And now you’re outside of government and outside of power, you can call every issue that comes down the pike as you see it. There’s no need to say…one of the most cheering remarks, I heard this first from a friend after the election, and then quite a bit on the cruise, think of all the bad decisions by a President McCain that you and I are not going to have to defend from now on.

HH: True enough, but in terms of getting back to the White House, because national security and economic prosperity and freedom matters, that sounds to me like a stand pat and things will getter hand, which I think is disastrous. What do you think?

JG: I very much agree with that, and I very much like what Ramesh Ponnuru and some of the other folks are saying. I think the thing that is most disturbing to me about 2006 and 2004, it’s not any particular race or gender demographic, but independents. And just, you, now, two straight cycles that the Republicans have just gotten thrashed amongst this group. And I think part of the problem is you look at the top issues of independents, and you look at the top issues of the conservative base, and there’s much less overlap than there used to be. In 2004, terrorism was very high on the list of both of these groups. Independents really aren’t paying an enormous amount of attention to that issue anymore. They’re very worried about health care, and it’s very tough to get the Republican base jazzed up and excited about discussing health care, unless the context is we don’t want Hillary Care. Conservatives are better at talking about what they’re opposed than what they actually support. Also, I think to a certain extent, when John McCain said the fundamentals of our economy are strong, I think a lot of conservatives kind of nodded and got the gist of it, which was that look, the unemployment rate going up a few percentage points is not the end of the world. But I think a lot of independents look at other indicators and basically said oh my goodness, we’re in a terrible situation. And when once Wall Street, the banks started collapsing, people sensed it really was not, the fundamentals weren’t strong.

– – – –

HH: Jim, I do want to talk with you about some specific demographics. The Republican ticket and Republicans across the board got hammered by young voters, 66-32%. Why and what can the GOP do about that?

JG: Well, I think the first thing which kind of stands out when you look at the two candidates is it helps to have a candidate who is much closer to that demographic than the other guy. And you know, when you have one guy who is 46, and one guy who is 72, the age difference is glaring. Now I saw John McCain do fantastic amongst a group of college students at a MTV forum up in New Hampshire earlier, you know, I guess now a year and a half ago. So I thought he was going to do a better job than that of connecting, and not seeming like this out of touch grandfatherly figure. I think to a certain extent, it would help to have younger faces in positions, in significant positions in the party. And when I say young, I mean, I think Eric Cantor strikes, fits in as a younger guy. The other thing is, though, is like I said, we were talking about this before the break, there’s a temptation to talk about the issues and address things from the perspective of the conservative base. And while I would never urge any Republican to ignore the conservative base, you have to start pitching yourself to voters who aren’t with you. And what is a Republican president or a Republican Congress going to do for a young voter? How are their policies going to improve an economy and create a better job market so that when you’re getting out of college, you’re more likely to have more options? I mean, to a certain extent, I think the Republican Party got certainly both intellectually flabby, and dare I say, rhetorically flabby. A couple of times, I had said that John McCain spoke as if everybody in the room already agreed with him. He spoke about earmarks and said that they were bad, but he never explained why earmarks helped corrupt the entire democratic process. One of his best statements was when he said, he quoted Tom Coburn and said they’re a gateway drug. You kind of need to say, I think Republicans need to get back into the habit of explaining why their policies are superior, instead of just kind of assuming that everybody in the room already knows it.

HH: Did the technology gap cripple Republicans with the young demographic?

JG: Somewhat. I’m a little bit skeptical of this being some sort of silver bullet. I think that there’s a lot of folks who you and I really respect, and who are good folks, but who really kind of see this as a, the perfect solution, and that if they just get a lot more money, we’re going to see, to these folks and these technology consultants, you’re going to see a much more effective party. Look, you need to have a presence on Facebook and my My Space, and it’s good to have Twitter feeds and all that stuff, and I write primarily a campaign blog, which clearly is in response to a technologically changed world. But to give one example, there was one guy who was complaining that one of McCain’s ads when talking about small business depicted a barber shop. And he said that these days, tech start ups are the new small business, and I kind of thought that was a little not seeing the forest for the trees. So always embrace this stuff, there are a whole bunch of guys like Patrick Ruffini who you’ve had on your show, and John Henke and Patrick Hynes and all kinds of smart guys in these areas that I always listen to. But I wouldn’t fool myself into thinking that if you have a bigger, better website, you’re going to suddenly have a very dramatic influx of enthusiasm and funds and everything you need to win a campaign.

HH: W. in 2004 got up to 44% of the Latino vote in America. That dropped precipitously, and completely destructively for Republican hopes in places like Colorado and New Mexico and Nevada. What does the GOP have to do about the Latino vote?

JG: Well, I think one of the…what you’ve cited was a good indicator. The one that really blew my mind was the number of young Cubans who voted for Obama. I’m pretty sure that he carried them, and he carried them pretty handily. Now older Cubans obviously went heavily for McCain, but think about it. This was a presidential candidate who had promised to hold unconditional face to face meetings with Raul Castro. And before the election, I would have told you that kills you in South Florida. And for that demographic, Cuba policy is not the mover and shaker that it used to be. For this demographic, you’re talking to the guy who’s very much secure the border, very much opposed to various amnesty proposals. But I noticed when Obama put up a really egregious ad that not merely associated McCain with Rush Limbaugh, and we know that these guys disagree on that issue very strongly, but quoted Limbaugh out of context. This was a Spanish language ad. There was a need for both McCain, and I think all of the Republicans to stand up and roar that that was outrageous, and this is a party built upon the fundamentals of family and tradition and of thrift and hard work. Was it Tito the construction worker the average American who kept showing up at McCain events and stuff?

HH: Yes.

JG: I think we needed to see more of those, and to say look, this is the party for you. I thought one of the best speeches in the 2004 convention was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s where he talked about the dream of him coming as an immigrant, and everything that America represented. Look, I’m a tough border security guy. I want to see the illegal immigration problem dealt with as quickly as possible. But let’s never lose touch with that, with relating to immigrants and that stuff. I really think that at times, it’s not that Hispanics and Latino voters are single issue voters, but on the other hand, if they give off any whiff of Tom Tancredoism, if you give any whiff of go back to where you came from, or his snide comments that Miami is a third world country or stuff like that, look, they’re never going to vote for you. The moment you give off a whiff of condescension or hatred, you put somebody in the other guy’s column probably for the rest of their life.

– – – –

HH: Jim, who are the GOP’s leaders? Who will you stop and listen to when they speak going forward?

JG: That’s a really good question. I think Sarah Palin has to be at the top of a short list. I enjoyed both minutes of her comments at the Republican Governors Association. I think the field is fairly open. On the National Review cruise, I got to hear from, actually I got to host a panel with Mitt Romney, who is still one of those guys who you almost wish we could have a shadow cabinet, and make this guy the shadow Treasury secretary to whoever Obama puts in that position, because he speaks with great clarity on that. Fred Thompson was also on the cruise, and he’s one of those guys who kind of is this, the guy you want to check in with every once in a while, who you kind of have this sense that he’s been around a long time, and he has a great way of just kind of cutting through the haze on a whole bunch of these issues. I’m just getting e-mails from Dick Armey, who’s really doing a kind of rail against the auto industry bailout, and that’s pretty good. You’ll notice, I’m not really mentioning people in Congress other than maybe Eric Cantor, and I understand Paul Ryan is a guy who really gets to the nuts and bolts of economics, and can put that in clear terms. So those are a few names out there. But I’ve got to tell you, it’s a fairly wide open stage, and I think the great news for any rising Republican star, either in Washington or in the states, is look, this is the window. If you shine and you really get results, and you demonstrate that you can articulate the conservative message in a ground breaking way, people will be drawn to you.

HH: You didn’t mention Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty or Bobby Jindal.

JG: All of those guys are good, and I don’t mean to leave any of them off. I think Jindal has said that he’s not interested in pursuing the presidency. So that may have been the usually standard oh, it’s too early type talk. But I think, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did not pursue this kind of frontrunner status that’s almost kind of being thrust upon him. Pawlenty I like a great deal, and he’s one of those guys who kind of was under the radar for a little bit, and so definitely will keep an eye on him. And Newt is the ideas factory. Newt is a one man think tank who constantly is giving ideas and stuff. If he’s…he has said he’s not interested in running for RNC chair, am I correct?

HH: Yes.

JG: Okay, he’s a guy I would still like to be touch with whoever that person is, and still periodically giving them a memo once a week of here are three ideas.

HH: All right, thirty seconds, who are the most important conservative intellectuals?

JG: Keep an eye on the ones, let me put it this way, David Brooks does them no favors by praising them, but the guys who David Brooks calls the reformers – the Ramesh Ponnurus, Ross Douthats, Reihan Salam, even David Frum. Every two pages, I think David Frum is onto something, and then the third page, I think he’s on something. But every once in a while, a broken clock can be right twice a day. Even he can have the occasional right idea.

HH: Jim Geraghty of Nationalreview.com, thank you, friend.

End of interview.

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