Journalist Ron Brownstein

The National Journal Group’s editorial director, who’s been in Florida ahead of the state’s GOP presidential face-off, explains why this primary season has been the most unsettled for either party in the modern era.

As National Journal Group's editorial director, veteran journalist Ron Brownstein is in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also regularly contributes pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media. Brownstein was previously a political correspondent and columnist with the Los Angeles Times and chief political correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the author/editor of six books, including The Second Civil War.


Tavis: Ron Brownstein is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of presidential campaigns. He now serves as editorial director for the “National Journal.” He’s been in Florida over the past several days covering this race and has just returned to Washington this evening, in fact. Ron, good to have you back on the program.

Ron Brownstein: Good to be back.

Tavis: Let me start by asking you, since you just got back from Florida, whether or not these numbers – when I say “these numbers,” I’m referencing now the numbers that suggest that Mr. Romney’s going to pull this thing off – are they going to hold up?

Brownstein: It feels that way. Newt Gingrich has had a very difficult week; in many ways, almost as different as the week Romney had between New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has not put in good debate performances, and those have been the fuel of his campaign, as you know.

He seemed kind of lethargic on the stump, and all the polls, I think, are converging on a solid Romney win. We’ll see exactly how big the margin is. But Tavis, this has been arguably the most unsettled primary race for either party in the modern era.

In 2011 there were more people ahead in the voting in the national polls than in any previous year before the election in any Republican primary in modern times. We’ve never had a race where different people won Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in the Republican race. So I think this is a big moment for Romney. It reestablishes him as a front runner if he wins as big as seems possible, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the last act in this play.

Tavis: If I said to you so Romney wins, and then said, “So what,” and the “So what” means that Newt is not going to go anywhere, he has told us he’s not going to go anywhere. So Romney wins in Florida – what of it?

Brownstein: Well, what Romney is showing is that what’d they say in “Casablanca?” “The same old things apply?” Money and organization do matter. They have really pulverized Gingrich on television on Florida, outspending him, by some estimates, five to one, raising a lot of doubts about him.

But you’re right also in that I think one of the ironic or less-noticed effects of the past week, which by any measure has been pretty miserable for Gingrich, is that there is an action-reaction cycle setting in in the party that does provide him a potential foundation to come back.

As you have seen more establishment Republicans like John McCain and Bob Dole rally around Romney in a kind of action-reaction cycle, you’re seeing more of that kind of populist wing and vanguard conservative wing of the party, whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin or Herman Cain kind of rally to Gingrich’s defense.

That, I think, does give him a foundation from which to come back as the race moves towards states with a more conservative electorate than Florida, which is not among the more conservative Republican primary electorates in the country.

Tavis: Why would anybody believe that Mitt Romney can actually beat Barack Obama? I’m not suggesting that he can’t; I’m just asking why would anybody believe that he can, given that it’s so clear that he has not been able, even at this point, to rally all of his base behind him?

Brownstein: Right, no, Romney – I’m some ways, the most important things that have happened in the last few weeks, I think, for Republicans looking toward November, is seeing some of the limitations of Romney as a candidate.

He’s been much better this past week, but he has continued to struggle to answer the questions about his background at Bain, his personal wealth, his ability to relate to average Americans, which are inevitably somewhat muted in a Republican primary – much more so than they will be in a general election, where Democrats will press these issues much harder.

On the other hand, Tavis, I think there is one big, solid advantage to Romney as a potential general election candidate, which is that a lot of those upper-middle-class, socially moderate, economically slightly right of center voters who have been so important for the Democrats since 1992, the polling suggests they do see him as a plausible manager on the economy.

That white/blue collar disaffection from President Obama is real and powerful and it’ll be there for any Republican nominee. I think the upper-middle-class white voters are much more of a swing vote, and Romney starts off the race, at least, as a plausible candidate for them, I think certainly more so than Gingrich.

So that is the big advantage (unintelligible) the Republicans if he’s the nominee, but his actual performance, I think, has got to raise some concerns among them about how he’s handled these attacks, even within a Republican primary.

Tavis: Bill Clinton, as you well, know, famously said that every election is about the future, not about the past, and I think he’s right about that to some degree. But I would tweak that just a bit and say that every election is ultimately about turnout.

It doesn’t matter what your vision is, it doesn’t matter what the polls say, what matters is what the turnout is on Election Day. Here’s my thesis; tell me what you make of it. It could be nothing.

Mr. Obama clearly has an enthusiasm gap on the left. Democrats of late a little bit more buoyed after the speech the other day, but the speech was much more aspirational than anything else. We’ll talk about that, I suspect, in a moment. But he clearly has an enthusiasm gap on the left where liberals and progressives are concerned.

We’ve just discussed now the enthusiasm gap that Mr. Romney has on the right. So both guys have, if Mr. Romney is the presumptive nominee, they both have an enthusiasm gap on both sides. What gives? How’s that going to play out?

Brownstein: Well, I think you’re basically right. You could add one more point to it, which is that groups at the core of the modern democratic coalition, what I call the coalition of the ascendant, are minorities, young people and college-educated whites, especially women.

Except for that last group, the young people and the minorities are among those who are being hit the absolute hardest by the recession. The groups that Obama most needs to turn out are the groups that have suffered the most in the economy over the last few years, so that compounds the enthusiasm gap on a kind of an ideological level among liberals.

As you point out, the most conservative elements in the Republican Party are dubious of Romney. Generally speaking, the antidote to this in modern politics is the other guy. Both campaigns, I think, are relying heavily on concern about the other party to generate the turnout that they might not inspire themselves.

Certainly for Obama, the prospect of unified Republican control of the House, the Senate and the White House and what that would mean for the environment, for spending on social programs, for healthcare, should be a motivator for many Democratic constituencies, and as you know, there’s no question that a lot of Republican voters, particularly the blue collar and older whites who turned out in big numbers are 2010, are probably going to be motivated to show up and vote against President Obama again.

So each side is probably more depending on the other than on their own efforts to turn out their base in the 2012 election.

Tavis: I accept that. So Mr. Gingrich has – not that the White House needed any help on this; I don’t think the Obama campaign needs help with their opposition research – but Mr. Gingrich certainly has laid out a blueprint for how to run against Mr. Romney on this Bain question.

Brownstein: Yep.

Tavis: Is that going to be – I want to talk in a moment about the president running against Congress, but let’s talk about Bain specifically, and Romney. Is that a tactic, is that a strategy that will work for the Obama campaign?

Brownstein: Well, unquestionably, they’re going to use it. But I think the key issue is a little different than the way it’s been framed. We think about the focus on his wealth and what Bain did in destroying – whether it created or destroyed jobs – as something that’s kind of a populist argument aimed at working class voters.

I think it is going to be very difficult, if you look at the ’08 and the 2010 results, for Democrats to really make a lot of inroads back into that working class, white community. It really is not part of their coalition anymore to the degree they remember it from the ’60s, ’70s and ’50s.

The key issue for me is what do these upper-middle-class suburbanites think about? How do they interpret the Bain experience? Right now, as I said, their initial inclination is to view that Romney’s business experience does, in fact, give him a lot of credibility on managing the economy.

If you look at polling that’s been done in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Romney consistently leads Obama by a big margin among college-educated whites on who can handle the economy. The question is as they begin to process that experience, do they see it as kind of class warfare, as Republicans want them to see it, or in fact do they also view a kind of Wall Street maneuvering as something that has hurt them as well?

I think they are the key audience for that, and I honestly don’t know in the end. But I do believe ultimately how voters interpret the Bain experience will be one of the two or three critical dimensions if it is an Obama-Romney race.

Tavis: Was it politically shrewd – put another way, was it wise, to your point now, Ron, for the president to even utter that phrase, “class warfare?” He went after it pretty heads on – you might call it class warfare; I call it common sense – I’m paraphrasing what he said. Was that wise of him to say that?

Brownstein: No, I think he has to respond to that. Frames matter. You noted the Bill Clinton quote, that elections are always about the future. Not entirely true about, I think, races with incumbent presidents. A lot of that is retrospective, a judgment on the first four years.

But clearly, a portion of it the prospective judgment of who do you think has a better chance of leading us to a brighter tomorrow. I think in that context he certainly has to frame what he is doing in the context not only of fairness, but of being required to get the economy started.

There’s an argument that inequality produces or contributes to the stagnation of the economy because you don’t have enough purchasing power spread out among enough hands. So I think he’s got to frame it that way, whereas Republicans want to argue that he is kind of making an argument against success, which I think is where he has to be careful with those upper-middle-class voters.

The Democratic coalition now includes a lot of people making $125,000, $150,000, even $200,000. He won voters, as I recall, of $200,000 and above in 2008 because they are more socially liberal, and they’re also not as viscerally hostile to government as a lot of those working class whites who basically believe government is taking money from their pocket and giving it to people who don’t deserve it.

So he’s got a fine line to walk and he has to be careful about how he frames this. If Republicans successfully portray him as opposing success, it will cut into a vote that he has had, Democrats have had and that he will need.

Tavis: The flip side of that – and you sit in Washington tonight, so you know that the Occupy Wall Street movement in Washington is up and kicking again, and I suspect, as I’ve said many times, after their Winter Solstice break the Occupy movement across the country come spring will be back up in live and living color, and I think personally that’s a good thing, but that’s another conversation for another time.

The point I’m getting at here is while Mr. Romney calls it the politics of envy, might it just be the case that given how wealthy he is at this particular time, given what’s happened in the American economy, that while we don’t necessarily hate folk who are rich, might it just be the wrong time for a guy of his wealthy to be running for the White House?

Brownstein: Possibly, and not only that, but the way he made his wealth, the way he made his money. If he was someone who had gotten rich starting a manufacturing company that was building some cutting edge 21st century product, it would be a very different thing.

Don’t forget the other dimension here. You have a broad sense in the economy, I think not only in the minority community, which has suffered enormous losses of wealth, as you know and you’ve covered, from the housing bubble, not only in the working class white community, but also in that upper middle class community, which is in housing values and 401(k)s decline.

Across the board there’s a sense that Wall Street has behaved irresponsibly and that it has gotten kind of a better deal than everybody else. That everything that’s been done to fix the economy since 2008 has disproportionately benefitted the interests that broke the economy before 2008.

So Romney’s problem is not only the amount of his wealth, it’s the way he earned the money kind of brings him within range of that whole nexus of issues if the Democrats can kind of tie him to the idea of kind of manipulating, pushing paper and getting rich.

That is – interestingly, I’m surprised that Rick Santorum hasn’t made more of that argument with his own manufacturing focus. But I think that is as much the vulnerability as the – probably more the vulnerability than the sheer size of his bank account.

Tavis: So finally, Ron, back to Florida, where we began this conversation. If Mr. Romney, as expected, pulls off Florida on Tuesday night, can Mr. Gingrich hang around long enough past February to get to super Tuesday with all those Southern states, where his message with Christian conservatives and others plays well, can he hang around long enough, and if he does, what happens once we get past February?

Brownstein: You have nailed, I think, the $64,000 question. The Republican race is dividing in a manner that reflects I think the fundamental fault line in the party. The party now divides almost exactly in half between a college-plus, more affluent, more secular, more economically focused managerial wing of the party, which has rallied around Romney, and a more blue-collar, downscale, evangelical Tea Party populist wing of the party that is basically coalescing around Gingrich, although that coalition has dissipated in Florida.

If Gingrich can get to March and April, there are states where his coalition is kind of the dominant force in the local politics, in the South and in some of the Midwestern states. But he’s got to get through a very difficult month of February, where he may not win anything, and historically there have been very few candidates that have been able to go on long losing streaks and then retain viability.

Voters tend to kind of look at them as not really being credible after you’ve lost a bunch of races in a row. Hillary Clinton did it in 2008. She lost, I think, 10 in a row to Obama and came back. Gary Hart did it in ’84 to Walter Mondale, and Ronald Reagan did it in ’76.

That’s what Newt Gingrich is going to have to do. He’s going to have to figure out a way to maintain his viability and visibility long enough to get back to the states where he can begin to see his coalition, if he can hold it together, be a majority coalition.

Tavis: Ron, I’m always delighted to have you on. I, as always, appreciate your insights. Thanks for coming on.

Brownstein: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 5, 2014 at 10:24 pm