The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza on the campaigns, and how the media covers them.
HH: Once a quarter, I like to settle in for a chat with Ryan Lizza, who is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, since he sits astride the great center-left divide in Washington, D.C. And Ryan Lizza, welcome back, Merry Christmas to you.
RL: And Merry Christmas to you. Thanks for having me.
HH: I want to go back to start with you to a column, a little blog post you wrote in November 11th, where you said, “This could be an eight state election – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and New Mexico.” And I thought this was one of the smartest things I’ve seen written, because I agree with this. In those eight states…
HH: Who runs better for the Republicans – Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney?
RL: Now some of the pollsters say be wary of these polls this far out. But the ones that I’ve seen, and Ron Brownstein wrote a good column about this, the ones that I’ve seen is that Romney is stronger among the groups that will be important for, that the Republicans and Democrats will really fight over, and two groups for Obama – one, college-educated whites, a very important part of the Democratic constituency these days, and Hispanics. If the Republicans can cut into Obama’s share of the Hispanic vote, and his share of college-educated whites, they can beat him. And the polls that we’ve seen so far, if you look at the cross-tabs, Romney does far, far better among the college-educated whites at least.
HH: Now what I can’t…
RL: So you can imagine a Romney/Rubio ticket as being demographically very solid.
HH: That’s it.
RL: Now it may be a little too early to say this.
HH: That’s it.
RL: Gingrich is just sort of getting some altitude here, so maybe he’ll improve with those groups. But you can see why Romney would be appealing to sort of moderate, college-educated whites who are a little frustrated with Obama.
HH: Yeah, I do believe it. But in those eight states at least, and possibly Pennsylvania as number nine.
HH: It’s hard to imagine any of the Republicans, with the possible exception of Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and not in the other states, running better than Romney. That’s just pure pragmatic politics.
RL: I agree with you.
HH: Now let’s turn to Newt.
RL: I mean, I agree with you there, and I hope we’re going to talk about Gingrich, because…
HH: We are. We are. Now I love the Speaker. He’s been on the show 20 times. I can do opposition research myself on the Speaker, and I have.
HH: I have played him different quotes from my show to him, saying look, you said this on this time, and this on this time, how does that add up? But he’s a great intellectual, public intellectual. But I think he’s in a tailspin, Ryan Lizza. I think the campaign is actually over based upon what he said on Monday, which is this.
NG: I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to then listen to him. And I’ll give you $10, not $10,000 that he won’t take the offer.
HH: Now Ryan, over at The New Yorker, you have listed the top ten conservative nastygrams delivered from pretty key influencers against Newt. And those were mostly, I think, compiled before he attacked capitalism on Monday.
RL: They were, because yeah, I didn’t include Krauthammer and some others that went after him on that. Now wait, so…and believe me, those were not hard to find. All you had to do is open up the op-ed pages of the Times and the Post and go to National Review Online. But wait, can I, I want to rise to defend Gingrich on this quote.
RL: Because…and maybe someone’s pointed this out already, but yes, if you listen to what he’s saying, isn’t it look, Mitt Romney, the way I got my money from Freddie Mac was just as legitimate as the way you got your money? In other words, we both went out there, there are lots of ways to make money, and you may not like the way I got mine, and so I’ll give mine back when you give yours back. Wasn’t he saying, wait a minute, couldn’t you make a case that that’s what he was saying, and not that he was actually criticizing capitalism, but just sort of saying in capitalism, we make money in all kinds of ways?
HH: In the rules of evidence, that which follows almost immediately after the fact is the most probative. Here’s what Brit Hume said not very long, and this is Brit Hume. This may be the most respected talking head on the right who’s a genuine television presence. And here’s what Brit Hume said after Newt’s comments on Monday.
BH: Newt Gingrich’s response to Mitt Romney’s assertion that Gingrich should return the money he received as a consultant for Freddie Mac is deeply telling. Romney, Gingrich suggested, should give back the money he earned from his years at Bain Capital, where, said Gingrich, Romney bankrupted companies and laid off workers. Just think about that. Gingrich was paid for “strategic advice” by a government-sponsored loan company which used its government-granted competitive advantage to help build a bad mortgage house of cards that nearly brought down the entire U.S. economy when the bubble popped in 2008. Romney ran a private investment firm that acquired numerous companies in an effort to make money by making them more profitable. In some cases, there were layoffs. And some companies failed. But numerous others, including the office supply chain Staples, grew into large enterprises that created thousands of jobs. This is the kind of free market, risk-taking capitalism that most people who call themselves conservatives applaud. Indeed, attacking Mitt Romney for engaging in it has been a staple of the left’s critique of Romney for years. So why would Newt Gingrich resort to it? Does he really believe that what he did for Freddie Mac is similar to what Romney did at Bain? Probably not. But when Newt Gingrich feels threatened or upstaged, he sometimes reaches for whatever weapons comes to hand and just starts swinging. Just ask Paul Ryan.
HH: To that, we would add, Ryan, had you heard that?
RL: I actually hadn’t heard that. No, I hadn’t. I’d seen it referenced here and there, but I hadn’t heard the whole clip
HH: Have you ever heard Brit Hume take that tone on anything?
RL: No, he’s usually a pretty subdued guy, isn’t he? And usually doesn’t pick sides in these kinds of fights like that.
HH: In that same show, again, very close to the moment that Newt issued his statement, Krauthammer said only a socialist would say that. And today, George Will wrote, “We should not expect Gingrich to understand that which Bain does until he understands that his work for Freddie Mac was not, as he laughably insists, in the private sector.” So what is it about that comment do you, Ryan Lizza, think drives those of us on the center-right very, very much…
RL: Well, I probably can’t say it any better than you’ve just laid it out there. People are viewing that as an attack on capitalism, an attack on the free market system, and that’s not a smart thing to do in a Republican primary. But can I just, one thing about Gingrich that has just sort of shocked me, and maybe I should have realized this, but the level of hostility towards this guy from frankly the Washington Republican establishment, is off the charts. I’ve been, I don’t get out much. I have two small kids. But I’ve been going to a few holiday parties here in D.C., and all the conversations, of course, are about Gingrich. And I mean, there are Republicans in this town who are saying that they would vote for Obama before they would vote for Newt Gingrich in a general election.
RL: And so this may be something you can help me understand. There’s a major mismatch here between, for lack of better words, the Republican establishment and the people who are telling pollsters that they like Newt better than Romney.
HH: What’s interesting, Ryan, I think there are two camps. They’re, you know, Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn, neither of whom fit the term Washington insider…
RL: Right, right.
HH: Both has lacerated Newt Gingrich on ideas. Then, there is that great silence from everyone who served with him in Congress. I guess John Boehner broke that silence with Mike Allen today. I haven’t read it, yet. I was told by Chris Cillizza that Boehner damned with feint praise today. So there is a Beltway hostility, but there is a public intellectual hostility that I think goes to his ideas, which are not, in the final analysis, conservative.
RL: And a lot of conservative intellectuals don’t respect him, and think he’s been all over the place, and he latches onto whatever the hot, new thing is, and then drops it two seconds later, and doesn’t have an attention span.
HH: And I’ll come back and defend him after the break.
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HH: What are you working on for your next big, long piece, Ryan?
RL: Actually, I’m working on something, I’m sort of, I guess I’m sort of zigging while everyone is zagging. I’m working on something about Obama.
HH: Oh, interesting. Okay.
RL: And something that hopefully will be out next month if I can get my act together.
HH: Just a little inside baseball, how do they allocate your budget of time at The New Yorker, because you write these pieces on the web which I always read, but then it’s a magazine…
HH: And it needs its magazine writers.
RL: You know, like everyone else, we’re doing more on our website. And so they’ve asked me to do more in between these longer pieces, kind of stay in the conversation on a daily or a weekly basis, and do a little bit more blogging and Tweeting like everyone else.
HH: You’re Tweeting a lot, and I’m following that.
HH: I love that, in fact. But I wonder, do they count that at The New Yorker?
RL: No. No, I don’t think I get any credit for that.
HH: You see, but that is…
RL: I keep waiting for Twitter to send me a check, but nothing’s come yet.
HH: But that’s how one builds brand now. I mean..
HH: I do not follow people who do not Tweet a lot. So you and Weigel and John Podhoretz, and Chris Cillizza and Guy Benson, if you’re not in the fray a lot, I’m just not going to pay much attention to you.
RL: That’s really interesting that you said that, because I didn’t get on Twitter until I think late summer, early fall. And so I didn’t really understand it, and it was this whole world going on that I wasn’t a part of. And I realized very quickly that what you just said there is correct, that most of the insider political community is getting the majority of their news from Twitter, they’re using the people they follow as their aggregators, to tell them what to look at. And it’s changed everyone’s media habits. Everyone who covers politics, it’s changed our media habits really, really fast.
HH: Profoundly. In fact, on the Saturday night debate, which I watched from start to finish, there was no need for a spin room. The spin room might as well have been a graveyard…
RL: Yeah, exactly.
HH: Because it had been spun by the time they were done.
RL: And it’s immediate.
RL: And it’s fascinating. You can sit on there, and you access to the thoughts of a lot of really interesting political professionals and reporters. And now granted, a lot of what goes on in Twitter is a little snarky and sarcastic, and sometimes, I think it brings out the worst in some of us. But it makes watching these debates and political events a lot more fun, like watching it with a huge circle of friends and enemies, and politically sophisticated people.
HH: Yeah, there are certain events, like debates, and I assume like the Super Bowl, or anything around which there is a large community, that will now be mediated by Twitter. That doesn’t happen with an event like Gingrich, where then a Hume comes along or a Krauthammer, and there’s a string of developments that involves it.’
HH: But if there’s a major audience issue, I think they’re going to start assigning from the dailies. People have to cover it.
RL: Sure. Like the State of the Union, I’m sure will be…I wasn’t on Twitter last year during the state of the union, but I assume I will be this year unless I’m in the chamber itself, where they don’t let you and your laptop in there.
HH: Let me ask you in terms of your friends inside the Beltway who are lefties.
HH: Who do they want the Republicans to nominate? In your heart of hearts, honestly…
RL: Oh, I mean, there’s just no doubt about it. You know, I was at the White House Christmas party the other night, and sort of the print media. And you can’t find a Democrat in Washington who thinks that Newt Gingrich would be a better candidate, would be more likely to beat Obama than Romney. I mean, it’s just, I’ve searched for these people. I’ve searched for the counter argument here, the sort of person who’s thinking outside the box and says oh, wait a second, actually Gingrich would be tougher to beat. You can’t find that person.
HH: You know, my friend, Lee Habeeb, is the guy you’ve got to talk to, the vice president of content at Salem, because he’s a true believer in all things Newt, and has a pretty good argument about that. But it’s a, it’s not easy for me to absorb, because I’ve just been following Newt for a long time, and I think…
RL: And that, I think there could be a presidential election where Newt would be better than Romney. But to me, the structure of this election, where you have a weak incumbent, who is beatable, and you want the race to be about him and his record, you want, I mean, forget about ideology. Just talking pure politics, you want to nominate the person who is the most generic person who can who…and so the race won’t be about that person. It’ll be about the President. And if Newt is the nominee on the Republican side, the race will be about Newt.
HH: Yes, and it will also not be a string of debates as long as this one. Did the Republicans make a mistake in putting up 25 debates?
RL: You know, someone said the other day we didn’t actually have that many more, that many fewer the last time around. But for whatever reason, these debates have been everything in this campaign, right? I mean, they have, every debate has basically changed the fundamentals of the race. And I think so. I think that both parties have let their nominating process get a little out of control, a little bit too, you know, there’s always this yin and yang between having a top-heavy controlled primary, and just sort of letting the grassroots do it, and the interest groups, and there are a lot of interest groups in both parties, and they all want to have these candidates.
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HH: Spending this hour with Chris Cillizza and Ryan Lizza, the ‘Lizzas. Chris started the hour, Ryan Lizza finishing it with me from the New Yorker, where he is the Washington correspondent. Ryan…
RL: So little know, wait, Hugh, little known fact about me and Chris is that our children, or our second child, my second child, I think his first, born on the same day at the same hospital.
HH: Oh, my goodness. That could have been a baby swap.
RL: It could have been. I was walking down the hall and I saw a cart going down the hall that said Cillizza, and I said wait a second, they’ve got my name wrong. And sure enough, it was Chris’ child, not mine.
HH: Yeah, Duane just said that’s more Z’s than should be allowed outside the Czech Republic. And I said more than a Scrabble game.
HH: That’s a lot of Z’s running around that nursery. Hey, in terms of Mitt Romney now, I was one of the people on the Twitter feed that thought the $10,000 dollar deal wasn’t that big. I was in the Barone camp.
HH: I said yeah, it’s a gaffe, but let’s not downgrade gaffes. It’s not Poland is free, it’s not it’s a global test. Some people thought it was going to be the end of all days. A.B. Stoddard from The Hill thought this would be an anchor around Mitt Romney’s neck forever. And so explain that to me, Ryan. Why, yeah, he’s a rich guy. Did anyone not know that?
RL: So here’s my…a couple of things. One, the familiar argument, it plays into a narrative that is out there about him. So that makes it kind of newsworthy. But I think if I’m honest, I think part of it is a slightly lazy press corps. And it’s a whole lot easier for the press to obsess about a funny line that you know the DNC is going to pounce on, and you know sort of gets at this rich guy issue with Romney. It’s a lot easier and more fun for the press to write those stories than it is to write the stories about really, what I thought were the most substantive things in the debate – one, Gingrich’s obsession with the Palestinians being an invented people, two, his line about Iran, and some of the other policy issues that came up. Whether you think they were important or not, those were substantive. And those got, you know, very little attention outside of the kind of wonks on the blogs.
HH: You know, that exchange between Gingrich…
RL: And can I add one thing on that?
HH: Oh, yeah.
RL: I think part of the reason is if you, you know, most political reporters don’t feel, and I should say look, the Times did a big story on the front page about the EMP and Iran. There are obviously exceptions. But the main political press, for whatever reason, they don’t feel as qualified to weigh into those policy debates as they do to do a back and forth story about Democrats bashing Romney on the $10,000 dollar…
HH: Oh, so it’s actually kind of modesty at work?
RL: No, you know what I think it is? For a political story to take off, you’ve got to have another side bashing it. So immediately you had the DNC bashing Mitt over the $10,000 dollar thing. That creates a story. You didn’t have Democrats really bashing on the Palestinian issue, or Iran, or any of the other stuff. And that’s what drives coverage, is conflict like that. So in a weird way, it allows the DNC to decide kind of what the news is, because they’re the ones that would push the criticism that are going to create conflict stories.
HH: What was very interesting to me on the Twitter feed, you and Dan Drezner do not believe in an EMP threat, and in a very sardonic way. You guys were having some fun with those of us who do believe in an EMP threat. But my question to you is, is that the right job for the media to interpret away a foreign policy threat? Because we’ve seen that happen before.
RL: No, look. I think the Times did a pretty…look, the right way for the media to act is not like a sarcastic Tweet, right? That’s not grappling with an issue. But there have been serious pieces, like the Times did the next day on the front page that explored the issue, and looked at people who thought this was a real possibility, and others who thought it was crazy, right?
HH: Yes, but that, is it up to the media to decide that one way or the other? Or should they just be reporting what the Republican candidates…should they in any way be interpreted…
RL: No, see…look, you’ll get people who disagree with this, but I’m a big believer in a kind of journalism where you go out, obviously talk to both sides, obviously become as much of an expert on the issue as you can, but at the end of the day, try and give your readers, to try and tell you readers where the balance of evidence is on an issue. And not every issue is going to be like that, because some are too difficult to mediate. But a lot of issue are. There are a lot of issues where you can sort of come up with the truth of the issue, come out at the truth of an issue, and don’t have to just do he said/she said journalism.
HH: Let’s talk about the one aspect of the debate that did not get much coverage, and this is a huge deal, Ryan. This is very important. The downing of that drone may be the greatest blow to American national security since the Rosenbergs gave nuclear technology to the Russians, to the Soviets. Rick Perry put out there the challenge that the President blew the opportunity to destroy that technology. I don’t think anyone doubts the nature of the seriousness of this loss. But the question was raised that the President could have done something about that. That’s a huge charge. And by the way, it’s been echoed on this show by other people. I haven’t seen that anywhere covered. Have you?
RL: I haven’t seen much of that at all, actually. No, but look, this is one of those situations where had, where we are at an incredible disadvantage, because we have no idea what the details of the downing were, what the options available to the military were, right? To sit back and say with confidence that oh, we should have bombed the drone without knowing more than his public, I’m not sure that you can make that judgment.
HH: But Rick Perry did.
HH: What I’m saying is Rick Perry made this argument, and that it was not commented on. And people on my side of the aisle say that’s because the MSM, the Manhattan-Beltway media elite, will cover for Obama in what may be the most significant strategic miscue of his administration.
RL: Usually, the best explanation for why things don’t get covered, something like that doesn’t get covered, is there’s not…so if Newt Gingrich, or Romney, the two frontrunners that all the political press are focused on right now, if they had come out and echoed what Perry said, maybe you would have seen something a little big differently. Maybe the press would have delved into the argument. But unless it rises to that level, Rick Perry popping off on something isn’t news right now, because Rick Perry is not at the head of the pack anymore.
HH: Well, and here’s a counterargument.
RL: And I think it’s a horse race journalism, the obsession with the horse race journalism that drives this stuff more.
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HH: Ryan Lizza, I appreciate you coming on. I want to close by going back to that subject. In the run up to World War II, the BBC and the Times of London provided complete cover for Stanley Baldwin, and then Neville Chamberlain, in the policy of appeasement. This past week, the President of the United States was obliged to say bin Laden doesn’t think I’m an appeaser, which is a complete misreading of history. I don’t think the President understands what appeasement is. But then Rick Perry comes along, and others come along, and talk about this drone being down, and I wonder. Do you worry ever that elite media, with this President, is simply not pushing hard enough on the most important stories, and that they’re falling into BBC/Times of London land?
RL: Look, there’s…I don’t’ think this is a party thing. I think this is a power thing. And I think the Beltway media always has to be careful about not aggressively whoever is in power. And you know, there are a lot of people who thought that that was a problem in the Bush era. A lot of people who thought the run up to the Iraq war, some of the voices that were skeptical about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction capability weren’t listened to, and that the press was sort of used by the administration. So I would never say that that’s not a possibility. But specifically on the spy plane falling down? I don’t see, so far, that a spy plane being captured and not destroyed by the U.S, I don’t see the media falling down on the job there. What’s the case that they have?
HH: That they have not communicated the significance of the loss of stealth technology, and in particular, that specific drone, which is the equivalent, actually, it’s many generations ahead of the AWAC. I mean, this is enormous. This is a strategic loss, like I said, on a par with the Rosenbergs. And I just haven’t seen it reported on other than oh, they’ve got a drone, and interesting picture.
RL: Yeah, look, you might have a fair argument there. I’m not a huge defender of the day to day political press and how they cover the campaigns. There’s a huge number of issues that get completely left out. And the reasons that things get covered and others don’t, I would say, though, is not, is rarely because of ideological blinders, and is much more often because of the institutional blinders, and the way that the political press corps looks at stores and the way that they determine something is an important story or not.
HH: Last question, Ryan Lizza. The 60 Minutes interview – puff job?
RL: (laughing) You know, it was, you thought it was too soft?
HH: I thought it couldn’t even get qualified as whiffleball.
RL: You know, I think Obama, he’ll probably do some tougher stuff.
HH: But I mean, it wasn’t very tough, was it?
RL: You know, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I didn’t watch the whole thing.
HH: I wouldn’t, either.
RL: I didn’t watch the whole thing. I saw some of the excerpts, but you know, it didn’t sound like it was toughest interview ever.
HH: I hope when your turn comes, you lay the wood down. Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, thank you.
End of interview.