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Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
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HH: Joined now by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. You can read Chris’ The Fix once or twice a day if you’ll just send him an email, Chris.Cillizza@washingtonpost.com, indispensable reading. Chris, a good August to you. I haven’t talked to you this month. I’ve been on vacation, and it’s good to catch back up.

CC: Hugh, it is good. I’ve been kind of in and around, but not here, so always good to talk to you.

HH: Well, let me start by playing a little clip of Jay Carney from the White House press center earlier today, talking about the President’s not State of the Union address, this is just a joint address to Congress. Here is cut number 5.

NOD: The President is requesting this time to address a joint session of Congress, at the same time Republicans are holding a debate. Would you describe that timing as coincidental?

JC: I was already asked this, actually, the first question by Darlene. And I think I answered it. It is coincidental. There is, we, the President committed to speaking next week after the Labor Day holiday, and immediately upon Congress’ return, and there are a lot of factors that go into scheduling a speech before Congress, a joint session speech. And again, you can’t, you can never find a perfect time. There are major events that occur on television, there are other issues that you have to deal with as well as Congressional scheduling, and the President’s scheduling. So as I just noted, there are many channels, there are many opportunities for people to watch the President, and obviously an opportunity for people to watch the debate. And I leave the network involved here, can decide how it wants to deal.

HH: Chris Cillizza, do you for a moment believe this was a coincidence?

CC: No.

HH: (laughing)

CC: I mean, no. You know, Hugh, I wrote about this today, but I said look, there…at this level of politics, right, we’re talking about the highest level. I’m talking about the presidency, as well as the race to nominate someone against him. There are not coincidences like this. This debate has been on the books for quite some time. When Mitt Romney announced that he was going to say something about the economy on September 6th, there was plenty of writing about the fact that now September 6th and September 7th were taken, because of the debate. They knew what they were doing here. I think they knew that they believe that they wanted to force people to make a decision both in terms of what they were watching, as well as try to draw a contrast. You know, I think the White House viewed it, and probably still continues to view it, as a beneficial contest for them, the President talking about jobs and the economy in a very formal setting, while Republicans are debating in a much more free-wheeling setting where we assume that there’ll be some, you know, certainly some attacks on President Obama, but they’ll probably attack one another a little bit, too, that they like that contrast. So no, I don’t buy that this was just a happy coincidence. And I’d say this if it was a Republican in the White House and Democrats debating. There aren’t coincidences like this as this moment.

HH: I’ve been talking about it all day, and people are mad, and people think it’s childish for him to have done this. But they are applauding John Boehner’s decision to say no.

CC: Right.

HH: Late this afternoon, if people are just joining us, the Speaker of the House sent him back a letter and said as such, on behalf of the bipartisan leadership and membership of both the House and the Senate, I respectfully invite you to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, September 8th, in the House chamber. I think Boehner is not going to be played for a political fool by the President, with whom he went ten rounds in early August.

CC: Well, and that’s, you know, I think the real question now, Hugh, is how the White House responds. So do they push forward, that, which could be tough. I mean, if Boehner says we’re not doing it, they may not…

HH: Yeah.

CC: You’ve got to have the House available in order to do it.

HH: And it’s a co-equal branch of government.

CC: Right.

HH: You don’t get to go up there and say I’m coming.

CC: So I think the options are do you move it? Or do you an address in the Oval Office or something like that. I mean, obviously, the President doesn’t have to speak, doesn’t have to address a joint session of Congress. So, but you know, look. I think one thing about this that’s worth remembering is because the White House is doing this, I do think it is more likely, no matter how this ends up, that we’re going to focus on the strategy of when they pick the date, as opposed to what’s actually in the proposal, in the jobs plan. So you know, you get into a process debate. I generally think politicians like to stay away from process debates, and we reporters like to try and drag them into them. But this is now a process debate over the when and the where and the how. And I think the White House would prefer it to be a policy debate over what the President is going to lay out in this speech, sometime next week.

HH: When we come back from break, we’ll talk about what he could actually propose. But Chris, you know, if he goes to Thursday night, it’s up against the first NFL game. So no one will watch him.

CC: I know. I mean, talk about going up Wednesday night against the debate, I’ll obviously be tuned into the debate and the President, but man, there’s a whole lot bigger audience for an NFL game than there is for a debate, Republican or Democratic.

HH: I’ll be right back, America.

– – – –

HH: Chris, the name Sasha Issenberg came to my attention today.

CC: Yes.

HH: And I was reading Kevin Arnovitz, of all places, over at ESPN, where the Inside the NBA writer compares Issenberg’s assessment of the Perry campaign to money ball and baseball and the Dallas Mavericks.

CC: Yup.

HH: What do you know about this? And what do you think about it?

CC: Well, let me preface it by saying Sasha is a personal friend, and I have actually been, he and I, along with two other reporters, actually made a pilgrimage out to Richard Ben Cramer’s house, the guy who wrote What It Takes, the famous book about the 1988 presidential campaign.

HH: In Maryland?

CC: Yes.

HH: Does he live out in Maryland somewhere?

CC: Yes. So we’ve spent, like…we’ve spent time in an un-air conditioned car in August driving out there. But look, if you have these kind of metrics, I feel like baseball, what money ball did for baseball, I think that’s what Sasha’s trying to do for politics, which is for a very long time, you had politics based on feel, you know, what the campaign consultant feels, what they’ve done before, what the candidate feels, not on kind of metrics, on what are sort of the measurables, like are we basing what’s a good campaign or what’s a bad campaign on the wrong things. So I mean, look, Sasha’s a brilliant guy. I’m excited. I’ve not read, yet, but I’m excited to read the book. And I do think that there is, it is ripe to start looking…look, one great thing about politics that we have in common with sports, right, is that there is statistics and lots of history. And I think it is worth looking through that and saying are we making assumptions about things – this person can’t win, this person can win, based on the wrong criteria? And I think that’s what he’s trying to do.

HH: You know, we’re going to get Sasha’s phone number from you before you go away today…

CC: Yes, absolutely. You should talk to him. Fascinating.

HH: So we can track him down. But there’s one thing he wrote in an email to this ESPN reporter. The same problem of trying to institutionalize competitive advantage holds in politics even more than sports. If everyone realizes that direct mail volume shooter are overvalued, that’s unlikely to remain a proprietary finding for too long. And this sort of brings me to where we are in 2012. In 2008, Team Obama figured out social media.

CC: Yup.

HH: They ran rings around McCain, but that’s not saying much. The only guy who likes McCain’s campaign was my friend, Coach Jerry. This year, everybody knows social media. I’d argue that there’s some advantages on the Republican side going forward. What’s the new, big thing, Chris Cillizza?

CC: Well, you know, I feel like we had sort of money in ’04 on the web, and in ’08, as you point out, Hugh, we had social media. I don’t know. If I knew, I’d be smarter and richer than I currently am. I think we’re still waiting, we’re still waiting, I would say, for web video to replace television, or anything to replace television, and that’s the hard thing, I feel like. We spend all this time figuring out what the next big thing is, but there is a lot of focus still, and I think rightly so, on raising money and putting it on television, because that’s still the thing that we know works.

HH: Sure. Absolutely the case.

CC: I mean…so I honestly don’t know the answer. I’m interested to kind of figure it out as we go. I have a feeling it will have to do, again, probably with social media, Hugh, and using it as an organizing tool. Whether Republicans can match Obama there, look. I think as you said, Obama ran circles around them in ’08, but one reason he did that, I would say, is he raised $750 million dollars while John McCain was taking public financing. So Barack Obama had the ability to run a Rolls-Royce campaign on every single level – you know, traditional turnout, social media turnout, they could do everything they wanted, and McCain couldn’t.

HH: There are two things…two things could change. One, the superpac, the amount of money that go into that. We saw that with the Huntsman campaign opening up Destiny, or whatever they’re calling that.

CC: And they now all, you know, Huntsman, Perry, Bachmann, and Romney all have at least one affiliated superpac that’s going to frankly do their dirty work on television and attack their opponents, would be my guess.

HH: And with extraordinary amounts of money. And Romney, probably better funded than anyone unless Team Huntsman gets the Huntsman fortune to open up and pour in.

CC: Yup, yup.

HH: So that’s number one. Number two is whoever can successfully hack the Cupertino headquarters of Apple, and oblige their candidate’s face to show up on every iPad the night before the election, that might work. Go ahead.

CC: Just the branding genius behind it. That’s the other thing. I think, you know, we’re moving into an age of branding. Can politicians turn themselves into brands in the way that Steve Jobs turned Apple and every product that they produce out. It’s cultural currency.

HH: What is the brand of Rick Perry, and what is the brand of Mitt Romney, the two frontrunners?

CC: Sure. Romney, I think, is sort or corporate competence. This is a guy who I think most people think could do the job, but is he too corporate? Perry, kind of, authenticity, I think, at the core of it, but with the question of is he too authentic? You know, is he too authentic to sell? Neither of them, interestingly, though Perry probably has more of it. You know, the thing that I always find fascinating with Apple is they somehow made electronics cool, that it was cool to have them, that if you had an iPod, you were cool. If you had something else, you weren’t. Rick Perry, I guess, is the closest thing to cool we have in the race, though I’m not sure if he meets it. Mitt Romney is not cool, and I say this as someone who is decidedly uncool myself.

HH: But I do point out the authentic term you came up with.

CC: Yeah.

HH: Did you watch Joe Scarborough this morning rip…

CC: I didn’t. I did not.

HH: Okay, here’s just a little bit of it, cut number 4.

JS: And Rick Perry, by the way,

MB: OH, this is…

JS: This is, you know, you and I called him a dime store conservative.

MB: And that’s one way of putting it.

JS: …several weeks ago, because we have these in the South, people that were Democrats, the Democrats’ Democrat while Democrats were in charge of the South. Then when Republicans became in charge of the South, we saw this happen, they all went from being liberal to conservative. Here’s a guy that ran Al Gore’s campaign in 1988….

HH: All right, now Chris, I can’t play the whole thing. It goes on for almost three minutes. He rips into Perry. This is Joe Scarborough.

CC: Yup.

HH: Now Joe’s no conservative anymore. He’s an MSNBC talking head with whom you often appear, but he’s not a movement conservative. But is he going after that authenticity brand?

CC: I mean, I get Joe’s point, which is like, look, Rick Perry was the guy who was Gore’s campaign chairman in ’88 in Texas. And I mean, I get all of those things. You know, obviously the Daily Caller wrote yesterday about this letter in which he praises, Perry praises Hillary Clinton’s health care plan. But I would say his journey, ideologically, or at least party wise, in terms of, it’s not that different, Hugh, from lots and lots of Republicans in the South. Remember, before 1994, Democrats were still in control of most offices, federal and otherwise, in the South. So I don’t know if it plays. I tend to be skeptical that things that happened decades ago will play. I think the bigger problem for Perry could be this book that he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and those sorts of things. I tend to think people are, they get that things that happened twenty years ago, you don’t necessarily always have to answer to.

HH: One more short segment with Chris Cillizza when I come back.

– – – –

HH: Okay, Chris, I think that both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney did the same thing. They started center or center-right, and they moved conservative for the next 20 years, from ’94. However, Mitt Romney got hit with flip-flopper, and Rick Perry hasn’t been hit with that. Why is that?

CC: That’s a really good question. I think some of it is that Romney’s was, in people’s mind, more abrupt than Perry’s. Romney also came into the race with less conservative credibility. Now again, Hugh, to your point, I mean, that’s kind of this indistinct thing, conservative credibility. But Perry, when he got into the race, there were no doubts about whether he was conservative enough. Remember from the start of the 2008 race, the issue that Romney had to deal with was this is a guy who ran kind of as a moderate Republican against Ted Kennedy, who had governed, I wouldn’t say this as a conservative, I wouldn’t say as a moderate, but probably not as a conservative, either. He had governed in a very blue state. Why that question existed more for Romney than it does for Perry, I don’t know. But maybe some of it’s just tonal, that Perry looks and sounds more like a movement conservative than Mitt Romney does.

HH: That might be it.

CC: I honestly don’t know the answer.

HH: I believe it’s because of the abortion issue, that if you change on that one, as Romney did…

CC: Because it’s so deeply, supporting Gore is one thing, but…

HH: Yeah, but you could be a pro-life Democrat, as Rick Perry always was. But if you evolve on abortion, then the elite media calls you a flip-flopper, because you changed from the position they hold dearest. Last quick question, I don’t ask you to slag on your buddies at the paper, but Dana Milbank today wrote, “Rick Perry is a theocrat.” That’s just astonishing, Chris Cillizza. Have you talked to Dana about this yet?

CC: I haven’t, but he is my friend. But you know, he has very hard and fast opinions, Hugh. You know that.

HH: But do you think, let me ask you. Do you think Rick Perry’s a theocrat?

CC: I guess how do you define that?

HH: I define it as someone who thinks that religious law ought to trump civil law.

CC: I guess I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, I think he and Bachmann both put their, have their religious views inform their political views. They’ve said as much. I don’t know if they put one in front of the other, and I guess I’m not, I don’t know either well enough to say that they do or they don’t. That would be my answer.

HH: Last thought. Barack Obama has clearly said many times his religious views inform his political views, but no one ever calls him a theocrat. It is really a mugging in the public square. Bill Keller did it at the New York Times last week, and dangerous, thin ice for people to throw that stuff around in America. Chris, always a pleasure, last quick question, is Sarah Palin getting in?

CC: I wish I knew. Can I say 51% yes, 49% no?

HH: Okay, we’ll check back next week. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, always a pleasure, get your Fix from The Fix, Chris.Cillizza@washingtonpost.com.

End of interview.

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