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Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol on the Iowa Caucus last night

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HH: About the only one of our regular wise men I didn’t speak to last night was Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, because he was on the Fox set all night long. I talked to Fred Barnes instead from the Weekly Standard, and just about every other D.C. inside guy. Bill Kristol, welcome. Can Rick Santorum be the next president?

BK: Sure. Absolutely. I think he could win the nomination, and could win the presidency, and might well be a pretty good president.

HH: Would you have said that six months ago?

BK: I probably wouldn’t have, but that probably reflects more on me and on my being, like everyone, like so many other people, a little bit too taken, caught up in polling, and taking a snapshot view of things, instead of thinking dynamically. Well, I would say in my own defense, I’ve always thought this was an incredibly fluid and volatile, and wide open race, that there was always a chance of one of the sort of someone in the back of the pack surging. Others have, obviously, and Santorum surged last and at the right time, and got the votes. And now, it’s a real race with Romney, I think. There can still be other surges and other falls, but I think they’re two pretty formidable characters, actually, to have as the two leaders coming out of Iowa.

HH: So do I. How much is it 1976 all over again, although Mitt Romney isn’t an incumbent president like Gerald Ford, but very much a mid-Western Republican in the model of Gerald Ford, whereas Rick Santorum, very much a Reagan insurgent in the form of the ’76 Reagan, not the one we remember as president, but as the 1976 conservative challenger?

BK: Yeah, that’s an interesting analogy. I had thought of the opposite, the other party also from ’76. Santorum, I think, a rise, coming from nowhere in Iowa, should be Carter, actually, in ’76 on the Democratic side, surprising everyone else. Yeah, there’s a little bit of Reagan there, and I suppose Reagan could have won in ’76 if he had of course made his move in the primaries earlier. He surged against Ford, but it was late, and Ford had won I think, what, the first eight or nine primaries by that time?

HH: Yup, yup.

BK: But I mean, it’s just impressive if you just step back, and from all the day to day, and from all the complicated pros and cons of each of the candidates, and just what Santorum did was just impressive. I mean, how many times does that happen in American politics, where someone two or three weeks before a major primary, a major election, has been not just behind, but in low single digits, and ends up at 25% of the vote, jumping over the former Speaker of the House, and the current Governor of Texas, and Ron Paul, and falling 8 votes short of the frontrunner, Mitt Romney. It’s just an impressive achievement of campaigning, and it tells me that the people who say oh, we can’t win the general election, or oh, we can’t adjust now to his new status, and figure out how to put together a 50 state campaign, those are going to be challenges, obviously. And I wouldn’t, I’m not saying he’s the favorite or anything, but people are too quick to assume that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

HH: I went last night with great satisfaction and published the seven transcripts we had of Rick Santorum from this campaign season, in each one of which he is very fearlessly conservative on every traditional issue you could possibly want. And he raised a little bit of money each time he came on, you know, plug www.ricksantorum.com, and he ran on nothing, proving what Sasha Issenberg wrote in his book about Rick Perry, that all the rules about earned media are different, Bill Kristol, because you and I have to provide content 24 hours a day, seven days a week via our websites, and we need to write about something. And so there, as opposed to the old days, when the New York Times filled up usually by Noon on any given day, and that might be it, except for whatever the Washington Post wrote.

BK: Well, I totally agree with that, and also, I was struck just being out here in Iowa for the day before the Caucus, you know, some of the old rules on the other hand about Iowa, I think, do hold, which is for better or worse, that people talk to each other. He did do the retail thing here, which everyone had assumed, I guess I had, too, a little bit was out of date, and now it was all a matter of TV debates and talk radio and the internet. And he was, spent an awful lot of time here. And I think that was rewarded in Iowa. Now that’s, of course, not something he can do in any other state, and that’s for me the question, obviously. Is his message compelling enough? He got a lot of reward here for a combination of message and pure just being here, and being attentive and caring about Iowa. Watching his speech, though, last night, made me think he could do it.

HH: Oh, wow. Yeah.

BK: That was impressive.

HH: It was.

BK: That was professional, a presidential level speech in terms of the presentation of himself, the presentation of his views on issues, of his own philosophy, and the tying together of the biography and the positions. It was an impressive performance. Romney, I thought, you know, was an adequate speech, it was really a version of his stump speech, certainly laid out the case against Obama. He could learn something from Santorum in sort of trying together the sort of personal narrative and the narrative of why he should be president.

HH: You know, stepping back, Bill Kristol, what’s amazing, Barack Obama’s father was born outside of this country, Mitt Romney’s father was born outside of this country, Rick Santorum’s father was born outside of this country. All three of those men had nothing when they started, nothing at all. Now President Obama’s father ended with not much, either, but Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney’s parents built lives and decent amounts of income and wealth to give their kids a start. But it’s a really remarkable country that the three people left standing after the rise of modern technology all have their roots outside of the United States in one generation.

BK: You know, I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s an awfully good point. And you can even extend the point and just think about Newt Gingrich, an adopted kid…

HH: Yup.

BK: …Bill Clinton, obviously, a kind of problematic childhood. I mean, the degree to which one worries in the U.S. these days that there’s no more social mobility, no more upward mobility, no more chance for people to make it, and obviously, we have…

HH: Rick Perry coming from a dirt poor farm…Rick Perry had nothing.

BK: Yup.

HH: I don’t know about Michele Bachmann’s roots. All right, so that’s our glowing pat our country on the back. Let’s talk now about the reality, which is what Rick Santorum doesn’t have, to my knowledge, are guys who will write seven figure checks, many of them, into superpacs to do what is necessary to beat Barack Obama. Will that come in time for him to be competitive in Florida? And will it continue in time for the Republican Party to be competitive through the summer and the fall if he does get traction?

BK: Look, I think if he gets traction, if he’s the nominee, he can unite the party, just as Romney could. I’m not really too worried about that. In terms of the nomination, I agree it’s a big question. We will see. I think a lot depends, to state the obvious, on next week. I mean, some people have come out of Iowa and not gotten much of a bump in New Hampshire. And it becomes sort of one note wonders in Iowa – Huckabeee, not quite fair, he won some later primaries, but still basically Huckabee’s high water mark was Iowa. That could be the case with Santorum. I’m not convinced it will be, but it could be. Or does he really take momentum into New Hampshire? Does he do well in the debates Saturday and Sunday? Does he run second or third and become the alternative to Romney, perhaps win South Carolina against Romney, and really, that we have, as you sort of said, a ’76 Ford-Reagan kind of long campaign between the two of them. Now that did some damage to Ford in ’76. On the other hand, Ford did come back from 30 points down and almost beat Jimmy Carter…

HH: Yup.

BK: …in what was looking to be a horrible year. Obama-Clinton had a very long primary in 2008, and Obama won the presidency after that.

HH: Yes.

BK: So I’m not scared of a healthy competition between the two. And I think actually to their credit, both Romney and Santorum would seem to want to make it a fairly high level competition. I don’t see them screaming at each other or anything.

HH: No, and I think they’re going to talk a lot about very serious…I wrote this morning about Iran’s threat against our aircraft carrier…

BK: Yeah, I saw that.

HH: And Afghanistan, the idea that we would trade Gitmo, the Guardian story, I’m stunned by both of those. I hope they dominate the debate. But I tend to believe that Romney and Santorum will react the same way to both stories, don’t you?

BK: Yes, and in fact, one of the big stories of last night, of course, is that for all the hoopla about Ron Paul, and for all that he does tap into some Republican sentiment on some issues, he got 21% of the vote. 79% of the voters of Iowa, or 77 or 78% basically voted for candidates who have the classic Reaganite strong America-internationalist-hawkish view of the world, and in fact who haven’t been shy about it. If anything, Santorum, of all the second tier candidates, has been the most forthright.

HH: Yup.

BK: …on dealing with Iran, the most forthright in not cutting, not gutting our Defense budget, the most forthright in being serious about the threat of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. And Romney’s been strong on that, too.

HH: Yeah, Bill, I believe that listeners…

BK: So that really heartens me.

HH: I often have cited to people Romney’s speech to the Citadel where he calls for going from 9 to 15 ships per year building to get back to 322 ships, or whatever the number is. Santorum is the same way. I think the United States loves being the number one military power in the world, and that we don’t talk about enough. What do you think?

BK: Well, I very much agree, as you know, I mean A) I don’t think it’s just a matter of obviously we love it, but also, we…you know, people, Americans understand how important it is to the overall well-being of the world, and of ourselves, and of our future. I think one of the impressive things about Santorum’s speech last night was his attempt to integrate their economic policy, the debt, foreign policy, values, the family. He has a sense of what makes America special, what makes America great, and it’s the combination of all those things, that it’s not simply being friendly to business on the one hand, or simply being a place with strong family values on the other. He really, I think, I hope the candidates do spend more time trying to integrate those messages. And the other thing with Santorum’s speech, not to obsess about it, but I thought it was striking. I mean, you could easily have imagined him just coming down, God, he must be exhausted, and just sort of being exhilarated and thanking everyone, and being very buoyant, and not trying to say something serious. But it was impressive that he tried to say something, and he did say something serious. And I thought it was an impressive vision of American exceptionalism and American leadership.

HH: Well said, and absolutely correct. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, thank you, Bill.

End of interview.

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