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GOP can gain strength and the Senate by ‘adhering to principles,’ says Gillespie

October 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Despite the political hit Republicans took from the shutdown, former RNC chair Ed Gillespie is optimistic his party can make headway on issues like immigration reform and entitlements, and win back the majority if they can reduce friction in their coalition. Gwen Ifill talks to Gillespie about the outlook for the next election.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to politics and our series featuring Republican leaders as they consider the future of their party.

We have spoken with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Kansas Congressman and Tea Party stalwart Tim Huelskamp.

Tonight, we hear from former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Gillespie worked in the Bush White House and advised presidential nominee Mitt Romney last year. He is now chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works on elections and policy at the state level.

Thanks for joining us.

ED GILLESPIE, former Republican National Committee Chairman: Thanks for having me.

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GWEN IFILL: So, are we talking about divided government fallout here that affects one party more than the other?

ED GILLESPIE: Well, I think both parties took a hit in the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, but the Republican Party, according to all of the data, took a bigger hit, down to 28 percent approval rating or favorability rating in one survey I saw.

And, you know, we have to restore that and get our numbers back up again. I think we have an opportunity to do that between now and certainly the midterm and even more so between now and 2016.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s look backward and forward on that point. Looking back, should the shutdown have been taken off the table, the potential for shutdown?

ED GILLESPIE: I think that there’s obviously broad agreement, universal agreement in the Republican Party that we — that Obamacare is bad policy and that we need to repeal it or defund it or do whatever we can.

But it’s clear that with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a president whose signature bill it is, that we’re not going to be able to get that done with the current dynamic. I think we have to change the political environment and get more Republicans elected, so that we will be able to achieve the goal in the end.

We weren’t able to achieve the goal, and in the process I think we distracted from what we’re seeing now, which is real concern over the Affordable Care Act as it’s being implemented.

GWEN IFILL: When you say the current dynamic, do you mean the current dynamic within your party or just the current dynamic in general?

ED GILLESPIE: The current political dynamic, which is that Democrats control the Senate and have a big majority there. And, obviously, we know that president is a Democrat. And we need to — that’s the dynamic I would like to change.

GWEN IFILL: But the current dynamic in your party, which has absolutists on one end, who identify as Tea Party, and kind of practicalists like yourself — I just made that up — on your end, who are saying these are the things, we need to accomplish to grow as a party, aren’t they fundamentally in conflict?

ED GILLESPIE: There’s a difference over the tactics, Gwen.

Like I said, there’s a universal agreement on what is the policy objective. There are different opinions on how you best achieve those. And I think that over time, we’re going to be able to get to the same tactics, because I think people see that this approach that was taken here most recently didn’t have the desired effect, and we need to try a different approach.

GWEN IFILL: You do agree on — that Obamacare should be repealed. But do you agree on things like immigration reform, which some Republicans think something could be done about?

Do you agree on things like entitlement reform, which some Republicans agree something should be done about? And, if you do, if there is some area of agreement, not only among yourself, but with the other party, how do you take tactics and turn it into strategy?

ED GILLESPIE: Well, I think there’s opportunities here to talk about what we’re for.

I think talking about an immigration system that is clearly broken and having ideas on how to fix that and how to solve that, if that were to result in a bill being passed, I think that would be a good thing. And there is not universal agreement on that, as there is when it comes to repealing Obamacare.

There are divisions within the party. There are divisions within the Democratic Party on that issue, but I think it’s possible you could get a majority in the House and in the Senate and the president to sign a bill that would give us a more rational immigration system.

The things you would do to keep people out, drug dealers and folks that we don’t want coming into the country, would enable you to allow people that we do want coming in to come in. My father is an immigrant, came to the this country at the age of 9, and contributed pretty mightily to the United States in his own way, not the least of which was as an infantryman in World War II, but also a small business owner and father of six who made his first — his children the first generation to ever go to college on either side of our family.

So I think you can get some things done on immigration reform. And I think you can get some things done possibly on entitlement reform as well.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about this. You have said that the presence of the Tea Party, it’s growing pains in the party, and you would rather be growing than shrinking.


GWEN IFILL: But does the party set itself on a path to shrinkage if you can’t agree on some of these party-expanding ideas like immigration reform?

ED GILLESPIE: I think that’s — yes, I think that’s a risk, absolutely, and I think that that’s one of the things that we have to work out.

Any party in a two-party system in a country of over 300 million people is going to be a coalition by nature. And we have got some friction inside our coalition right now that needs to be worked out. And I do think that if we’re not smart about how we handle some of these issues, we may be consigned to minority status.

And, to me, I think adhering to our principles, we can do that and get a majority, win back the White House, and win control of the Senate, in the same way in the states right now, we’re doing so well. We have 30 governors, and 53 percent of Americans live in a state where there’s a Republican governor, a Republican state house and a Republican state senate, a majority.

GWEN IFILL: I will ask you about that. You worked in the White House. You have run the party. You’re now running a state leadership coalition, trying to encourage that. Is that the future for your party?

ED GILLESPIE: I believe the future of our party — I’m a big believer in a bottom-up party.

I think that we have a lot of have a lot of very effective governors and lieutenant governors, attorneys general, state house and state Senate leaders who are putting forward some very good ideas that are having an impact on people’s lives in a positive way. That’s why their numbers are so good.

And they talk in a way, Gwen, that I think resonates with people. You’re much more likely to hear Republicans in the states talking about affordable housing and — and improving our schools and giving everyone a chance to — for upward mobility, in a way that you don’t often hear.

And I think it’s — in some ways, it’s not fair, because these are governors, so they can set their own agenda. In Washington, we only have one branch of the legislative — or one chamber of the legislative branch. We’re inherently in the position of saying no to what the president is proposing.

But, at the same time, I think it’s helpful for folks in Washington, D.C., Republicans in Washington, D.C., to listen to how Republicans in the states are talking about these issues and embrace some of that language.

GWEN IFILL: Does Washington get in the way of that?

ED GILLESPIE: I think, sometimes, it does.

I think that’s true, again, on both — on both parties. The higher up you go in the political process, the more polarizing things get anyway. You know, there are — someone said one time there aren’t Democratic potholes or Republican potholes. You know, when you’re at the more local level, it’s less polarizing.

But I do think that how we talk about issues and what people hear coming out of Washington, D.C., is not as appealing as what they’re hearing coming out of state capitals.

GWEN IFILL: Ed Gillespie of the Republican State Leadership Committee now, thank you so much for joining us.

ED GILLESPIE: Thanks for having me.