‘Morning Joe’ host Joe Scarborough

The Morning Joe host and former GOP congressman from Florida weighs in on campaign finance reform, whether there’s room in the GOP for moderates and why the Washington of the 1990s is so different from Washington today.

Before he became host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough represented Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives for four terms, with assignments that included the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. He was also one of the GOP freshmen legislators dubbed the "New Federalists." After leaving office, he served on President Bush's Council on the 21st Century Workforce and practiced law with Florida's oldest firm. Scarborough was publisher-editor of The Florida Sun newspaper and is author of Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day and The Last Best Hope.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we’ll look ahead to the most important day on the election calendar so far this year. They call it Super Tuesday, and Joe Scarborough, the host of NBC’s “Morning Joe,” is doing a job every day that I think I can safely say he enjoys a bit more than his time in Congress – who knows?

Tonight, though, he joins us from New York. Joe, it’s always good to see you. Good to have you on the program.

Joe Scarborough: Tavis, it’s always great talking to you.

Tavis: Am I right about that? Are you enjoying this now more than your time in Congress, or is there ever a morning when you wish you were not on the set and in the well, so to speak?

Scarborough: Well, despite the fact that I’ve got to wake up around 4:00, 4:15 every morning, commute about an hour into work, have to be on the air three hours without a teleprompter, talking, and as you know, shuffling a lot of guests, no, there is never a day that I wish I were still in the well of Congress with 435 members.

It was a great time to be there, but the Washington even of the 1990s is different from the Washington of today. I’ve got a lot of respect for people that still climb into the arena and fight that battle, but it is so divided that it seems like it’s very, very discouraging.

Tavis: Since you went there, let’s start with that, because every day there seems to be somebody new. One day is Evan Bayh; one day it’s Olympia Snowe. The list goes on and on and on. I’ve lost count now. You do this stuff every day, much better than I do, so I’ve lost count, I know you have not, of the number of persons in both House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, who said they’re not going to run this time, and of course that calculus will in part determine who has a shot at holding on or regaining leadership.

But what’s your sense of the vitriol and the partisan nature in Washington, as you say and others have said, that is worse now than it’s ever been?

Scarborough: Yeah, can you believe that? Bill Clinton and I actually, we get together and talk. Outsiders will hear us talking about the good old days of the 1990s when we passed welfare reform and we balanced the budget, created 20 million new jobs, won wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As a country, we all came together, and people stop and laugh and say, “Well, yeah, but isn’t that also the same time that you guys impeached Clinton?” and we laugh and say, “Yeah, that is the case, but at the same time, even while that was going on, we were working behind the scenes to do the business that needed to be done for America.”

That’s just not happening in Washington right now. Look at Olympia Snowe. This past week Olympia Snowe announced that she was going to be leaving Congress. She’d been in the House, then moved over to the Senate. She was one of the few moderate Republicans left and yet there were a lot of conservatives on the far right cheering her departure.

Why? Well, because they didn’t think she was sufficiently conservative, didn’t think she was sufficiently loyal. She actually voted with the Republican Party 76 percent of the time on all votes and on the vote that they thought was the most important over the past three years, on the president’s healthcare reform bill, she voted against the president’s healthcare reform bill.

Yet they’re cheering that she’s leaving town. It reminds me of what Haley Barbour once said when he came on the show – I couldn’t get a presidential candidate to say they were glad that Olympia Snowe was a Republican.

Then I asked Haley Barbour, he goes, “Hell, yeah, I’m glad she was a Republican. I wish Jim Jeffords was still a Republican, because even on his most liberal day he was more conservative than what was going to replace him.”

But it seems the extremes on both sides don’t understand that. Bob Kerrey – now, Bob, I know he’s not a hero of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but he’s running for senator in a very conservative state – in Nebraska.

The vitriol and the hatred that has been leveled against him by people on the left, one very prominent blogger, a guy that’s considered one of the most powerful bloggers on the left, had a two-word statement to Senator Kerrey when he announced that he was running again, and the second word was “you.” (Laughter) I won’t tell you what the first word was, because I know that your mom watches the show every night.

But can you imagine a Democrat doing that to a war hero, a guy that left his leg on the battlefield, a guy that’s tried to work across the aisle, just like can you believe that conservatives are cheering Olympia Snowe – listen, if you’re a Republican like I am, Olympia Snowe’s about as good as it gets in the state of Maine, and it’s just this – it’s zero-sum game politics right now.

It’s hateful and it’s leading us down a path where a lot of really great men and women just don’t want to climb into the arena and fight that fight anymore.

Tavis: You’ve said two or three things I want to go back and try to unpack or get you to unpack, if I can. In no particular order, let me just be forthright and to the point – disabuse me of this notion, if you can, that there is any, any space left in this hour for moderates in your part.

Scarborough: Oh, I think we’re going to see what happens in Massachusetts with Scott Brown. Scott Brown is more conservative, I would say, than most New England Republicans of 10, 15 years ago.

At the same time, he’s made some votes against his party. The Tea Partiers hate him. He gets hate mail from people on the far right. They say a lot of nasty things about him. He’s got a battle against Elizabeth Warren, who I think – both Elizabeth and Scott are good friends of us and friends of the show. That’s going to be a great race.

We’ll see if he can win, but it’s getting more difficult by the day to be a moderate Republican. I know you remember this – back in the 1990s you had a lot of progressives on the left who just said forget Middle America. We’re not going to win these battles over God and guns and gays and this and that and the other.

I actually remember a chairman of the Democratic National Congressional Committee just saying, “We’re throwing rural America back to the Republicans. We’re never going to win it.”

You had Howard Dean, a progressive from Vermont, and Rahm Emanuel, a moderate from Chicago, saying, “No, we’re going to do a 50-state strategy and we’re going to do everything we can to win those areas back. Democrats made that call, and that’s why the Democrats took over Congress in 2006. That’s why Barack Obama got a lot of swing voters in Iowa and other states in 2008.

That’s because Democrats figured out, finally, that they couldn’t be a national party without winning in red state America. I don’t think the Republican Party’s figured that out yet. If we get hammered in 2012 in the race for the White House and the race for the House and the race for the Senate, if we lose Maine and some other states, I think a lot more Republicans are going to start speaking up against some of the more extreme elements out there.

Tavis: If I said to you if that hammering takes place it’s going to happen because conservatives, the Republican Party, more broadly, tried to hang its hat on these social issues and that’s where they lost it, if I said that to you, you’d agree or disagree with my assessment in advance of November?

Scarborough: Well, a month ago I would have disagreed with you. Today, (laughter) I would agree with you 100 percent. This past month has been – and I was saying it this morning on the show – this has been the worst month for the Republican Party since August of 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned, and I mean that.

Tavis: Wow, wow, wow, wow.

Scarborough: We have allowed ourselves to be defined as a party of contraception. We’re debating something that should have actually been closed in 1965. You have Rick Santorum saying – and he was the frontrunner when he started saying these things – that contraception is bad and he’s going to use his presidential platform to speak out about it.

You had the frontrunner talking about how JFK make him want to “throw up on his sweater vest,” because John Kennedy was talking about the separation of church and state. You had the frontrunner talking about how President Obama was, quote, “a snob” because he believed that children should end up going to college if that was a possibility.

It was aspirational, and it’s what the American dream is, in part, about. So this has been a very, very bad month. You add, of course, the Rush Limbaugh dust-up over the past week, and you even have people like my wife, a pro-life, conservative Republican who has never voted for a Democrat before in any national election, I hear her talking to her friends on the phone, saying, “What’s up with our party?

“Fix the economy. Leave us alone. We will take whatever birth control pills or whatever that we want to take.” It is astounding to Republican women, to conservative Republican women. I would suggest my wife’s more conservative than me.

It is astounding to a lot of Republican women and Independents and some Democrats that Republicans have gone down this rabbit trail over the past month. It is bad news for this party.

Tavis: Since you went there, let me get your take on this new terminology that we are hearing every day, the so-called “war on women.” You’ll recall 10 years ago or so we were declaring it the year of the woman, the year of the woman, given that there were so many women running for and being successfully elected to Congress.

So 10 years ago we’re looking at the year of the woman. Now we’ve gone from that to a war on women. I raise that in part because I’m headed to your way in New York in just about a week and a half to moderate a conversation on the campus of NYU about women, children and poverty with an all-woman panel.

I’m doing it for C-SPAN and of course for three nights here on PBS, and we’re talking about women, children and poverty, but we’re doing it – I couldn’t have timed this any better – we’re doing it against the backdrop of this so-called war on women.

You’ve just listed a few people who got caught up in this over the last week or so. Is there a war on women right now, given what you’re seeing?

Scarborough: Well, I think there are parts of the Republican Party that don’t understand that talk about contraception, insults, not only pushes away Democratic women and Independent women, but also Republican women as well, and to be blunt, there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party that don’t understand there’s very conservative, pro-life women out there as well who sometimes don’t feel like they’re as represented by the Democratic Party as they would like to be.

That said, you actually have right now, unfortunately, again, and most of the people in the Republican Party that I’ve spoken to in Washington, D.C. don’t like this fact, you have a small segment of the party that seem to aggressively be going after the rights of women

(Laughs) We’re not even talking about abortion rights. Again, we’re talking about contraception rights, an issue that was settled in the mid-’60s with Griswold vs. Connecticut. It is astounding to a lot of – a PEW poll shows 99 percent of women have taken birth control, some sort of birth control in their life.

The fact that the frontrunner of the Republican Party is saying, quote, “It is wrong,” and promising to use his presidential campaign to right that wrong, that’s very disturbing.

You look at the new “NBC News,” “Wall Street Journal” polls that came out today – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that President Obama has a 50 percent approval rating right now. That he’s got a 6 percent lead against Mitt Romney, and even higher against Rick Santorum, when just a couple of weeks ago the president was tied or behind both of those candidates in nationwide Gallup polls.

The president is ahead by double digits in Virginia. He’s ahead by double digits in Ohio. It’s not up to me to decide tonight on this show whether the Republican Party looks like it’s conducting a war against women. You can look at those poll numbers and you can see that swing voters, independents and women especially feel that way.

That is a real problem for the Republican Party and it’s a wrong that they’re going to have to right.

Tavis: Since you went there, talking about the primary campaign, and obviously tomorrow, Tuesday, is Super Tuesday, as we said earlier, let me just ask you forthright whether or not it is not the case that this race would already be over were it not for these super-PAC mack daddies, these super-PAC pimp daddies, (laughter) these super-PAC my daddy – pick a phrase.

But were it not for these handful of people running these super-PACs and pumping all this money in, tell me this race wouldn’t already be over.

Scarborough: Yes, and as you know very well you’re going to now have these super-mack PAC daddies on both sides, and I think it’s something we’re going to have to deal with for the next couple of years.

No, there’s no doubt about it – Rick Santorum would be out of the race right now if he didn’t have somebody that was funding a super-PAC. Newt Gingrich would have left the race a long time ago if he didn’t have a supporter out of Las Vegas that was supporting his campaign.

Mitt Romney may not have been in as strong a position as he is today if he weren’t able to go after Newt Gingrich with 30-second super-PAC spots, and go after Rick Santorum and everybody else that stood in his way – Rick Perry.

So there’s no doubt about it, super-PACs have fundamentally altered the nature of the campaign.

It’s dragged it out, it’s made it more negative, and it’s made campaigning less transparent so you don’t know exactly where the attack ads are coming from. It’s not good for the Republican Party, the Democratic Party or the country in general.

Tavis: So let me ask you then what we do about that, because I think you’re right about it. I think it’s wrong on both sides. I’m as upset with Barack Obama, the president, for embracing this nonsense as I am with the folk on the right.

I think it’s wrong across the board. That’s my own sense of it. But what do we do about it?

Scarborough: Well, I think it’s up to the United States Congress and the president of the United States, after this election, to pass some form of campaign finance reform that the Supreme Court will not overturn or rule to be unconstitutional.

There has to be a way to draft a bill that will prevent a billionaire from being able to write $10 million checks at a time to keep a campaign going that doesn’t have the support of individual Americans.

I’m not a huge fan of individual limits to campaigns. I’m just not. I think people should be able to give what they want to give straight to the campaign. You have to be transparent immediately, you scan that check, it goes up online immediately so you know who is supporting what campaign. I think that’s the most transparent way to go.

That said, one of the benefits of having spending limits is you get to see which candidates have a broad base of support. Right now you’ve got candidates that again, are still in this race, despite the fact that without that money they might be down in single digits.

It’s something that the next Congress and this president is going to have to take care of. President Obama had promised that he was going to abide by public financing in 2008. Then he figured out he could raise more money than McCain, so he said never mind and he flip-flopped on that.

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Scarborough: Then he promised, though, even though he raised up more money than Bush and Kerry combined four years earlier, he was going to push for campaign finance reform, that never happened. Four years later, the same thing is happening.

I’m hoping that this president, if he is reelected, in January of 2013 will finally turn to campaign finance reform and go after it aggressively and work with Congress to get a campaign finance reform bill that’ll drain the swamp of this super-PAC money, first of all, but secondly pass the Supreme Court’s sniff test.

Tavis: But tell me why it is that you believe that’s even possible, much less probable, when the president that you’re referencing now a year ago chastised the U.S. Supreme Court sitting on the front row on the well of the House for the decision on Citizens United.

He slaps them all upside the head on the front row and then a year later he does a 180. Now you actually believe that he might come back after being reelected and get serious about campaign finance? (Laughter) Are you serious? Put down the crack pipe, Joe.

Scarborough: Tavis, yeah, I know this’ll shock you, Tavis – he’s not running for reelection. That makes things (laughter) – that makes things much more hopeful, that after two tries, this president will actually move towards real campaign finance reform.

But no, he’s got as cynical a record on campaign finance reform as anybody in modern American political history, but that said, if he gets reelected, in ’13, he’s not running again, and maybe he can get something through Congress.

Tavis: All right. So what’s your sense of what tomorrow means? I thought to ask you what might happen; who cares, on a certain level, what happens tomorrow, because whatever happens, it ain’t going to be over. This thing is going to go on for a little bit longer.

But what’s your sense of what tomorrow means? What are you looking at in terms of key states and key races and key outcomes?

Scarborough: Well, everybody’s going to be looking at Ohio, and I think that really is important. At the end of the night, Mitt Romney’s going to win more delegates than Rick Santorum. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

The polls are breaking Mitt Romney’s way. I personally believe this, Tavis – I believe that it’s a fait accompli now, that you actually had a chance of a Rick Santorum upset in Michigan and a possible run all the way to the nomination in Tampa if instead of focusing on my wife’s birth control pills he had decided to focus instead on our neighbors and jobs and the economy.

Instead of focusing on JFK’s separation of church and state speech he decided to focus on education and training and healthcare reform. But he didn’t do any of that, so he let Mitt Romney back into the race, and I think now you’re going to see a Romney win in Ohio.

If it is even close in Ohio, Romney’s going to pick up more delegates because the Santorum team screwed up, quite frankly, and he didn’t get delegates in all the congressional districts.

So the big question is how big of a delegate win will it be for Mitt Romney? If Romney wins Ohio, I’ll just say it right now – this race is over. It’s just all a matter of math. We’re going to be counting delegates all the way to Tampa, but at the end of the day, Mitt Romney wins.

This despite the fact that the man who’s been campaigning against Barack Obama’s individual mandate in the healthcare reform plan over the past six months was just revealed this past weekend to have actually supported a national individual mandate back in 2009 in an op-ed piece he wrote for “USA Today.”

These are not happy times to be a Republican, Tavis. We’ve got a frontrunner that says one thing one week and another the next week, and it’s causing a lot of conservatives and a lot of Republicans in Washington real concern.

Tavis: So the conventional wisdom is that there are a lot of Republicans, obviously, who aren’t altogether fond of Mr. Romney, but if he in fact is the nominee the party will rally around him and support him.

I’m not so sure I believe that. I think Mr. Obama has an enthusiasm gap problem. I think Mr. Romney, if he’s the presumptive nominee, has an enthusiasm gap problem. Is there any way, I ask Joe Scarborough, that you see the party in truth, in earnest, really rallying around Mr. Romney to make this race competitive, assuming that he’s the nominee?

Scarborough: I really do not, I do not see the Republican base getting excited about Mitt Romney. And there’s an important thing to remember about Republicans. Republicans –

Tavis: But Joe, Joe, Joe – but Joe, Joe, they might not like Romney, but they hate Barack Obama. Even their hatred of Obama won’t rally them around Mr. Obama (sic)?

Scarborough: Well, you could have said the same thing about the Republican base in 1996. They loathed Bill Clinton, but did people get excited about Bob Dole? No. Did they get excited about Bob Dole in 2008, even though they loathed Barack Obama? No. They just didn’t do it.

As you know, Tavis, campaigns are won when you have somebody that can excite the base. It’s not just enough to have a Republican say, “I don’t like Barack Obama. I’m going to go vote for Mitt Romney.”

You’ve got to have a candidate that gets people so excited that they’re willing to make phone calls for Mitt Romney, they’re willing to knock on their neighbors’ doors for Mitt Romney, they’re willing to pass out bumper stickers and signs that they have in the back of their van in church parking lots, which I’ve seen in years past for the Republican candidate.

I don’t see that happening for Mitt Romney because he’s flip-flopped on social issues, he’s flip-flopped on education issues, he’s flip-flopped on healthcare issues, he’s flip-flopped on just about every issue there is out there. Now, listen – does that mean that Mitt Romney can’t win this race? No, it doesn’t mean that.

But Republicans win when they nominate conservatives, real conservatives, like let’s say Ronald Reagan, obviously, George W. Bush was considered a real conservative in 2000. That energized the base.

People like Romney, like McCain, like Dole, like Gerald Ford, like George H. W. Bush, they usually don’t win close elections.

Tavis: When I said, “Rally around Mr. Obama,” I meant, of course, “Rally around Mr. Romney.” Did they hate the president enough to rally around Romney? I think you got my point.

Scarborough: Right.

Tavis: Joe got it, anyway (laughs) and answered the question, which I appreciate.

So Joe, I say this all the time to my friends. Whether one agrees or disagrees with everything you have to say, there is nobody covering politics these days anywhere on television who is more earnest and more honest than you are, and that’s why I’m always delighted to have you on this program.

Scarborough: Oh, thanks.

Tavis: So thanks for your time, my friend.

Scarborough: Oh, I love talking to you, and we can’t wait to see you in New York soon.

Tavis: See you soon. Take care, Joe.

Scarborough: All right, thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 2, 2012 at 1:47 pm