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New York Times’ Ross Douthat on Republicans’ messaging problem.

Thursday, January 17, 2013
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HH: Happy to welcome for the first time in 2013 Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times, author of Bad Religion. Ross, Happy New Year, it’s great to have you back.

RD: Happy New Year to you, Hugh. It’s great to be here.

HH: Now Ross, today, many of the Republicans are leaving Washington, D.C. and heading to Williamsburg, and they’re doing it for the Republican retreat that’s going to unfold there in the next couple of days. And I hope many of them are listening on 1260 AM, or when they get down to Norfolk, or listening on my affiliate down there on Hampton Roads, whatever they are, what’s your advice to them?

RD: Think strategically?

HH: Now unpack that. I echo that, but I think they are lost when it comes to communications. And I wonder if you concur, and if so, how do you fix that?

RD: Well, I think the party’s problem, or at least the Congressional party’s problem right now is that they’re stuck looking for a level of leverage that they just aren’t going to have until the party actually wins a national election. And so right now, we’re set up for this dynamic where you have a series of these sort of moments like the fiscal cliff, like the looming debt ceiling fight, and then the government shutdown right and so on, where Congressional Republicans try to extract big concessions from the White House, and then ultimately have to sort of whittle their demands down and not get much of anything. And then it’s on to the next crisis. And meanwhile, the White House can sort of put pressure on House Republicans from the outside on issues like, we see it with gun control today, we’ll see it with immigration soon enough, where they can sort of feed the impression that they have public opinion on their side, and House Republicans are isolated and so on. And I mean, what the party should do is try and actually take the initiative on some of these issues, and you know, try and isolate the White House, and sort of recognize that you’re not going to do really big things in the next two years on things like entitlements and debt and so on. What you’re trying to do is sort of outflank the White House politically in order to be more successful politically in 2014 and 2016.

HH: Sure, I think we’re kind of in the Dunkirk phase of the Republican party, which is they’ve suffered a strategic defeat, and I didn’t see it coming. I thought they were going to win. I was completely wrong about the election. They haven’t really evacuated, yet, and they haven’t started to figure out how to do any flanking, much less go over to the offensive. But every single day, the President’s just relentless, Ross, he never stops. And I don’t know that they’ve internalized, yet, that in this day and age, you can’t take 12 weeks off, which they just did.

RD: Right, well, they also don’t have, you know, I mean, this is the problem with only controlling the House of Representatives. You don’t have a national spokesman who can go toe to toe with the President, right? I mean, the most popular Republican leaders right now are governors from Bobby Jindal to Bob McDonnell to Chris Christie to whomever. But those aren’t figures who can speak for the Congressional party. And in cases like Chris Christie, they’re often picking fights with the Congressional party in order to help themselves win reelection. So you’re left with sort of, even with the best communication strategy in the world, John Boehner is still John Boehner. He’s not the president of the United States. But I think your analogy is right on. I mean, I think Republicans, I think Obama has grasped the reality of the next two years, right, which is that in an ideal world, he would get Republican buy in for something that he wants to do on immigration, gun control, climate change and so on. But if he can’t get that, he’s happy to just sort of stay on the offensive, and always be saying look, we want to do something, Republicans want to stop it, so you know, the end game being let’s take back the House in 2014.

HH: That’s it. I think he has begun the 2014 campaign, that he’s running a four year legislative cycle, and that he realizes the only way he can repair what is in my opinion a disaster Obamacare is to reclaim the House so that he can pass them. It’s the only way to do it in reconciliation, so he’s just going to campaign for two years. And I don’t think the Republicans are prepared for that. So now I want to ask you about the flanking maneuver. Tuesday of next week is the 40th anniversary of Roe V. Wade. I began the show talking to Dr. Al Mohler, and I’m asking a lot of people this. What do you think the Republicans, or any political leader, ought to do on that 40th anniversary? Ought they to talk about the 55 million children who are not here? Or ought they not to raise it, because it’s a divisive social issue?

RD: I think it’s tricky, because it is a divisive social issue. Like all important issues, it divides people. But I think there is actually room there for Republicans to sort of take advantage of something Obama himself actually tried to campaign on in 2008 and then sort of let drop. If you flash back four years, you’ll remember that Obama spent a lot of time talking about finding common ground on abortion, right, and saying well, we can all agree that abortion rates should be lower, and we should encourage adoption and so on. And there was supposed to be, I think, a sort of White House initiative on this front that started to get off the ground but didn’t, in part because liberals couldn’t agree on whether the group would be in favor of reducing abortion rates or just reducing “the demand” for abortion, right, sort of this sticking point where liberals don’t want to always acknowledge that you want rates to go down overall. But in any case, I think there’s actually room for Republicans on the anniversary of Roe to come out and say look, here’s a sort of conservative idea for reducing the abortion rate, and what happened to White House leadership on this front?

HH: I agree. I hope they do that. Last question, and this is sort of my roundabout way of asking you who communicates better, if you could go to dinner with any of the four national Republicans you could pick, just to go out and chat about things, who are the four most interesting Republicans?

RD: The four most interesting national Republicans, I think I would probably, yeah, these sound like predictable answers, but I think the most interesting people outside of Washington right now are probably, and they’re coming from slightly different wings of the party, are probably Jindal and Christie…

HH: Yup.

RD: And then in Washington, I mean, everyone would say Ryan and Rubio. But I think Ryan and Rubio are good choices. I’d also say, actually, Bob Corker in the Senate.

HH: Oh, interesting.

RD: …has become a sort of interesting figure in terms of he’s been somebody who is trying to figure out what you might say the flanking maneuver should be. He proposed one of the more plausible alternative deals in the fiscal cliff negotiations, he has an important position now on the Foreign Relations Committee. So he’s one other name I’d float.

HH: Yeah, that is the list. Add Walker, and maybe Kasich, and then these are your communicators. And they ought to just have them everywhere all the time, talking to the intermediaries and directly to the public. I hope our conservatives that are going down to Williamsburg listen. Ross Douthat of the New York Times, look forward to many conversations in 2013. If you haven’t already read Bad Religion, America, you ought to start your year by doing so.

End of interview.

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