Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of ed gillespie
interviews: ed gillespie
I do believe that the center-right is the prevailing worldview today in America, and I believe that the left and the liberal approach to governments  has been rejected by a vast majority of Americans.

What are your first vivid political memories?

... I grew up in a Democratic household. I'm an Irish-Catholic from New Jersey who was born in 1961, the year JFK was inaugurated. It was all but stamped on my birth certificate, "Democrat." And so it was interesting for me to find myself very enamored of a Republican president, but Ronald Reagan was someone I thought captured the spirit of America. I went to work for a Democratic member of Congress who was a Reagan Democrat, Andy Ireland. In 1984, he changed parties and ran as a Republican for the first time in his Florida district. And I changed and ran his campaign in three out of the four counties. And that's how I became a Republican.

And I think he and I probably typify a lot of what was going on in the country at that time. [We] saw the Democrats leaving the Democratic Party, or, as he put it, the Democratic Party had left them, and ethnic Catholic Democrats in the Northeast and industrial Midwest were doing much the same thing.

Why is it such a surprise to people in the blue states, people in the media, that this was all going on? It seems to be such a surprise now, but it's actually been going on for a while.

There are spurts of it where you have talk of realignment. There was talk at the time in 1985 of a realignment because of Ronald Reagan. But if you look at the trend line, it's been an ongoing process going back to [Sen. Barry] Goldwater's defeat. It led to an intellectual realignment of the two parties. ... Reagan expedited it. I think President Bush has expedited it again.

[What's happened] is that the political parties are reaching equilibrium. This was the first election in which there were an equal number of Republicans to Democrats who voted in the presidential election. Thirty-seven percent of the electorate were Democrats, and 37 percent of the electorate were Republicans. Just in 2000, there was a four-point advantage to the Democrats. And what we've seen is the Democrat line coming down, the Republican line going up. They've crossed in this election; they've reached parity. Independents obviously [have been] rising as well over the past two decades.

What has happened? Is it, as James Carville said on election night, that the Republicans have won the argument? Or is it more people are being enfranchised in the political process?

Well, both things are happening. People are being enfranchised in the political process. The fact is that we as a party at the Republican National Committee registered 3.4 million new voters in the past two years and brought them into the political process. The president won by 3.5 million votes.

Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) from 2003 to 2005, Gillespie has had a long career with the Republican Party, including as a congressional aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey; as a "principal drafter" of the Republican Contract with America; and as a campaign adviser to President Bush. Gillespie says that when he became RNC chairman, Karl Rove told him his most important job would be to "close the gap between registered Republicans and registered Democrats," and in that they succeeded. Here, Gillespie explains why he thinks Republicans are outpacing Democrats nationally and examines Rove's role in building Republican momentum. "Karl conceived of an election that was designed to bring more people into our party … and get them out to vote, and do that with a bottom-up structure, a grassroots structure" he says. He also talks about the party's goals for continuing to build on that growth. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 21, 2005.

So it's partly that, but it's also partly the fact that I do believe that the center-right is the prevailing worldview today in America, and I believe that the left and the liberal approach to government that was personified in this election by John Kerry has been rejected by a vast majority of Americans.

How do you define a conservative, politically?

Obviously, from my perspective, George W. Bush personifies that, which is to say a stout approach to our national security and winning the war on terror and a clear understanding of what that requires, an approach to government when it comes to domestic policy that tries to tear down barriers to entry.

... Look at what the president is doing in terms of encouraging home ownership, getting more people into homes: Under this president, the highest percentage of minorities own their own homes than ever in our nation's history. The highest percentage of African Americans own their own homes today than ever in our nation's history. ...

At the same time, the president is the one who has put forward the greatest level of funding for historically black colleges and universities. He's tearing down barriers to entry when it comes to trying to allow for greater choice in education in the inner cities. [He's] tearing down barriers to entry for our health care by allowing for associated health plans, [allowing] small businesses to provide group insurance to their employees in the way big businesses do, and allowing for people to have their own medical savings accounts. [He's tearing down] barriers to entry to our retirement funds by allowing for personal retirement accounts with the Social Security system.

To me, that is what is most invigorating about the president's approach and where our party is today. When he talks about an ownership society, to me what that is, it is tearing down barriers to entry. …

So for years and years and years, in my understanding and awareness of political nomenclature, Republicanism was kind of synonymous with big business. ... How did it happen that Republicanism became something people could sign up for?

Well, I think the Republican Party is the more populist party. I think one of the problems the Democrats have today is that they are an elitist party. That is personified in their instance by people like [Fahrenheit 911 filmmaker] Michael Moore and others in the entertainment industry who seem to have a pretty healthy disdain for the broader electorate. ...

I don't believe we're the party of big business. I believe we're the party of small business. Again, the president [is] trying to tear down barriers to entry [for] more people and more entrepreneurs to get into small business ventures and ownership. ... This is the president who enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, which I think you're seeing the benefit of today. These CEOs and corporate boards that were bilking American shareholders and employees out of billions of dollars, that's been stopped on this president's watch. Some pretty vigorous opposition to that by big business, but the president did what he knew to be right in our public interest.

... We are in favor of greater free markets. That doesn't mean unregulated; it means freer markets. We're in favor of not a laissez-faire approach, as perhaps was the case in the '30s. [We are] trying to help people and empower people and individuals to prosper. It's not just "If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime." Sometimes you need to provide a tax break for the reel, and maybe a government subsidy to buy the rod, and help bring that person into the process. ...

So how do you get that message [across to the people]? ... How did it happen? Tell me the story.

... I think it happened partly as a result of their party moving left. Politics swings like a pendulum. Our party may have swung too far right at various times. It swings back towards the center a little bit. Their party, the lessons they seem to have taken from a number of repeated electoral losses, is that they need to move further to the left, not back toward the center.

And I think that as they do that, they become a more elitist, more liberal, more angry party. The Democratic Party is getting very angry, and that came through clearly in this election. As they get more elitist, more liberal, more angry, they get smaller. And as they get smaller, they get more elitist, more liberal and more angry. It seems to be a downward spiral. Bill Clinton tapped the brakes on that for two terms by appealing to the middle of the electorate, but he seems to have been an aberration.

So let's go back and join your personal political journey. ... What happens to you? What do you do on your journey to the top?

Well, I worked for Congressman Ireland. ... He was re-elected in 1984, part of the Reagan landslide. I wanted to be a press secretary and deal with the reporters. … I found an opening: a freshman member of Congress from Texas who was looking for a press secretary. And it turned out he was Congressman Dick Armey, who had just been elected. I worked for him for over 10 years, from his first month in office through the end of his first year as the first Republican majority leader in 40 years, and [I] did that in a number of capacities: I was the staff director of the Joint Economic Committee when he was the ranking Republican on that committee. When he became chairman of the House Republican Conference, a leadership position he won by four votes, I was the director of communications policy for him.

From that point, I helped write the Contract with America that [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey spearheaded. I was in charge of selling the Contract with America as the communications director for the House Republican Conference. It was a House Republican document. ... Haley Barbour, who was then the RNC chairman, felt that I did good work and asked me to come over to the Republican National Committee in 1996 to be the director of communications in congressional affairs during the Dole campaign in '96, which we obviously lost. …

In 2000, I was working for [Ohio] Congressman John Kasich, who was the chairman of the House Budget Committee. He was considering running for president, but decided against it. ... It was at that time that I started to talk to the folks in the Bush campaign in Austin. My wife [Cathy Gillespie] had known Karl Rove. She's a political operative in her own right. ... She and Karl had worked on a campaign in Texas back in 1984. She introduced me to Karl, and he asked me to serve as an informal adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign from Washington, which I did. And then Karen Hughes asked me to run the [program for the] convention in Philadelphia, everything you saw from the Pledge of Allegiance to Chaka Khan at the end of the night.

So I got to working with the campaign in Austin. They needed some help in the home stretch. In September, Karen went on the plane full time with then-Gov. Bush, and so I kind of held down the fort in Austin and worked on the campaign in 2000 for the president.

In 2002, I was general strategist for Elizabeth Dole's history-making Senate campaign in North Carolina. She was the first woman ever elected senator from that state. And not too long after that, the president asked me if I would lead the party in this cycle, which I was very honored to do, and [I'm] now wrapping up my tenure as chairman. …

… What's going on inside the Republican Party [in 1994]? What's the kind of turbo thrust that gets everything moving?

Well, there are a couple things. One is that President Clinton, in his first two years of his term, did not govern as he had campaigned. He didn't govern as a New Democrat. He allowed the congressional Democratic leadership to pull him to the left. If you look at what he did in that first term, one of his first actions was the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" [policy], which was a compromise, if you remember, from changing the policy towards gays in the military. A lot of people don't remember him campaigning on that. …

Then [he proposed the formation] of a government-run health care system, which was a shock to the system to a lot of people. But he really got gummed up in the summer of 1994 over the crime bill, essentially a gun-control measure, which hurt him with a lot of his own Democrats in rural parts of the country. And so there was a dynamic that "This guy's not governing the way he led us to believe he would govern; he's moved too far to the left." So there was some backlash building across the country. Democrats could feel it.

Democrats in tough districts and in rural parts of the country were distancing themselves from Bill Clinton by the beginning of 1994. But I think there was a sense amongst the House Republicans especially that we didn't just want to be opposed to Bill Clinton; that we wanted to tell the country what we were for and to brand ourselves in a more positive manner.

And so we put forward these 10 items that had been ... bottled up from consideration in the House under 40 years of Democratic leadership. Even as a partisan Republican, I'm not sure a 40-year run is healthy for either party. By the end of 40 years, it had become a very autocratic institution. They weren't allowing things to come up for votes that most Americans thought probably should have been considered: a balanced budget amendment; consideration of some welfare reform and some crime legislation and tax relief; institutional changes in the House, like a ban on proxy voting and term limits on committee chairs.

And so it was a very appealing, positive agenda. We put it together, and we called it the Contract with America, because we said, "We pledge that we will bring these things up for vote," but not pledge to pass them, because first of all, three of them were constitutional amendments which would require two-thirds of the House to pass. But also we knew that all you can promise when you're in control is to schedule these things in the first 100 days, and if we didn't do it, throw us out.

We signed this contract, and those were the terms of the contract. And it empowered people; it gave people a sense that they had leverage in the political process, which they [did]. ... And it really resonated. The Democrats miscalculated. They thought that it was a mistake. I remember Tony Coelho, who had been chairman of the Democratic Congressional Committee, he said, "This is like manna from heaven." And they just didn't understand the wave that was building out there and how we had tapped into it and had used the contract as a catalyst for momentum for that wave.

... This seems to me to be a critical moment in an historic timeline. Is it?

It is. It's a major change, a major shift. The House had seemed out of reach for four decades for Republicans. To win back the House was a major shift in the political dynamics in this country. Frankly, I thought we would have lost the House by now. I think that this leadership and the leadership of the House has been very sophisticated and very responsive to the needs of their members. …

But when you look at all that has happened since then in terms of policy, in terms of welfare reform, in terms of anti-crime legislation, in terms of tax relief and national security policies, having the House in Republican hands for over a decade now has been a huge factor in the direction of our country.

... And in purely political terms, [it has been a major factor] in the culmination of the most recent reincarnation of the Republican Party: the seizing of the White House, the Senate, the agenda in effect, right? It had to start somewhere, and it probably started there.

It did start there, but again, Newt Gingrich, who is much maligned, deserves a lot of credit for understanding that we as a party could not just be an anti-government party. We had to be a party for the little guy, a populist party, an anti-big government party, but that we [also] had to have policies that we were for in government. And we had to be for an agenda that was positive in the views of the American people.

I think that President Bush has broadened that even [further]. His acceptance speech was a pivotal moment and a seminal moment in this campaign because he laid out a very detailed and specific and positive agenda of tax simplification and health savings accounts and more affordable health care and improving our high schools and the way we've been improving our elementary schools. So on education and health care and jobs and Social Security reform, retirement savings, a vigorous national security approach -- he put out an agenda that allowed us to run in the last two months of the election on his policies. That was important.

[What did you know about Karl Rove before you met him?]

Well, my wife, Cathy Gillespie, worked for Joe Barton, who was running for Congress in 1984. ... She was his first paid employee. She headed up Aggies for Barton. She was at Texas A&M, and Karl was the consultant for that campaign. Karl would call her at 6:30 in the morning at her college apartment. Her roommates would get mad at him because it was not a campaign headquarters; it was a college apartment at 6:30 on a Saturday. But Karl was in constant motion.

He had a great reputation in the state for being the premier Republican strategist. If you were a candidate, then you had Karl Rove as your consultant. So that was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. I did not know him then; I just knew of him because I ran my boss's primary in Texas in 1986 when he ran for re-election. I was very involved in Texas politics as a press secretary for Dick Armey at the time. But Karl had a fantastic reputation as being very effective and [for] understanding the demographic changes that were taking place in Texas and how best to capitalize on those.

It wasn't long before he linked up with George W. Bush, who was an incredible talent. I don't want to be disrespectful of the president of the United States, but as a political person, one of the things I appreciated about this president, in the past year especially, is he is a fantastic candidate. A lot of people talk about all of the nuts and bolts of "How did our side beat their side?" Well, it starts with the fact that our candidate beat their candidate. George W. Bush is not only a great president; he was a great candidate. [He] worked very hard and very effectively, and really connected with people.

I think Karl Rove saw that in George W. Bush early on and understood the impact that he could have on Texas politics and probably on national politics. I don't know that firsthand, but I suspect that to be the case.

In my understanding of it, the shift of Texas from Democrat to Republican, even Yellow Dog Democrat to Republican, might be the bellwether for the shift of what happened [nationally]. ...

Well, if you remember, it was not so long ago that it was conventional wisdom that no Democrat could win the White House without winning Texas. It's why LBJ was on the ticket. It's why Lloyd Bentsen was on the ticket. [Now] the starting supposition for any Democrat is you cede Texas to the Republicans. ... Two generations essentially saw that change. Texas is now a cornerstone of the electoral college for Republicans.

When do you come across George W. Bush? When do you get a sense that this guy has a political future? …

I first saw him when I was with Haley Barbour at the Republican National Committee. Haley felt we were a party of governors and was very inclusive of the governors as a national party chair. He was in many ways less focused on the congressional leadership than he was on the governors. So we did a lot of things with the Republican Governors Association.

I remember the first time when Gov. Bush walked in to a meeting with the other governors. A couple things I remember about it: He came in -- there was no flying wedge like you see with other governors; there was no trail of aides behind him. He walked in by himself. He went over and poured himself a cup of coffee and wandered over. But other governors started to gravitate toward him. He was a presence. He was a commanding presence. Big-state governors tend to be that way anyway. If you're a governor of a big state, people sense your presence a little bit, even your fellow governors. But he was very unassuming.

Then I met him in '99 when I went with John Kasich to the Governor's Mansion in Austin. John Kasich, with whom I was working at the time, and I had breakfast with Gov. Bush and Karl. Karl and I did not talk much. Not only did we not talk much to one another; we didn't talk much at the breakfast. It was principally John Kasich as chairman of the Budget Committee talking to Gov. Bush as governor of a big state about issues like Medicaid and things in the budget, and also about politics, and [they] kind of sized each other up a little bit.

Then the governor took Kasich and me through a little tour of the Governor's Mansion. He was very gracious and gregarious, and I just thought very impressive. I remember thinking then -- because he had not made up his mind to run for president; Kasich was considering it -- I remember thinking at the time, "I hope he doesn't." (Laughs.)

But John Kasich ended up not running, and one of the reasons was because once Bush got in, he just took all the air out of the room, stripped all the low-hanging fruit off the trees in terms of the money in the party. But then he proved himself to be a very strong candidate. …

And then when I went to Austin and worked on the campaign, I got to meet him. Someone asked me one time, a reporter said, "How does President Bush demand such loyalty from you all?" I said, "He doesn't demand it; he commands it." He doesn't tell you, "You've got to be loyal to me." You just don't want to let him down. …

When he calls Karl Rove "the architect," what does he mean?

... I don't want to speak for the president, but I think what he means, what I see in that, is that Karl conceived of an election that was designed to bring more people into our party, designed to increase our percentages in nontraditional Republican voting demographics, like Hispanic voters and women and African Americans, where we had a sizable gain, and at the same time enfranchise more naturally Republican voters and "lazy Republicans," as we call them in the parlance, into the process and get them out to vote, and do that with a bottom-up structure, a grassroots structure.

My predecessor from a while back, for the former President Bush, Lee Atwater, once said, "The sign of a good campaign is how many people it can absorb." And the Bush-Cheney campaign absorbed an incredible amount of people. Ken Mehlman deserves the credit for that: 1.2 million volunteers in 15 states. And I've got to tell you, those volunteers, they were not treated like volunteers; they were treated like full-time employees.

When you were a volunteer for the Bush-Cheney campaign, you came in the morning; you had a supervisor who gave you a list of calls to make and a time to do it in. And if you were goofing off and you weren't doing it, then you weren't really volunteering, and we didn't need you. Our volunteers were incredibly dedicated. I spent the last three weeks of the campaign traveling to the phone banks and the volunteer centers around the country, and they were so energized. They were inspirational to me. They would work 25 to 30 hours a week on the phone bank, walking neighborhoods over the weekend on top of their 40-hour job. They were incredibly dedicated and committed.

But they were absorbed into the organization as though they were employees, and that is an incredible feat. It's something that's never been done by our party, and it is remarkable. Karl conceived of it; Ken implemented it. And Karl conceived of the idea, I think, of going into these growth areas, exurban areas, and bolstering and running up our numbers in some of those places.

On Election Day in 2000, where were you? How did you think it was going to turn out? How surprised were you by how close it was?

I was surprised by how close it was. We felt very good about the election going into Election Day and the weekend before. I was in Austin and on the phone quite a bit with the networks. I was the one who was talking to the "nets" about calling Florida, calling Pennsylvania, calling Ohio. Why were they waiting so long to call Ohio? They called Florida before the panhandle had closed and the numbers had come in, which is a Republican area. I was making the case that they needed to pull Florida down from being called.

So I was in fairly constant communication with all the broadcasting, cable networks. Cathy and I were out in front of the Governor's Mansion where all of the staff had assembled, waiting for the governor to come out to make his acceptance speech. We learned from Don Evans, I think at about 4:00 in the morning, that that wasn't going to come.

[We] went back to the hotel ... and wandered back to the campaign about 10:00 a.m. … And slowly, throughout the course of that day, it began to dawn on me that this was going to be a longer process than I had initially thought. I never envisioned it running 60 days, I guess it was. And then I went to a meeting right after lunch, and some of the lawyers were in there. And it's the first time I remember them talking about dimpled chads and swinging-door chads and pregnant chads. That was the first time I had heard chads, and I heard a lot more after that.

So that began a long process. I stayed in the campaign headquarters for a while. Tucker Eskew went down to Palm Beach County, which was where it really first started. And then [then-Gov. Bush's Chief of Staff] Joe Allbaugh asked me to go down to Florida about three weeks into it to link up with Ted Olsen, who was our attorney to file Bush v. Gore. And I was at the courthouse when we filed and had worked with Ted in briefing the media on the filing. I thought I was done at that point, after we filed. And I flew back home to rejoin my wife and children. They were very excited. And I was home for a day when Joe Allbaugh called me again and said that I needed to go down to Miami-Dade [County], that they were beginning a recount there.

And so I had a tearful good-bye to my children again, got on a plane and went to Miami for what I thought would be a couple days, ended up being a couple weeks. I finished out the duration [of the recount] on the ground at Miami-Dade.

And when the Supreme Court announcement came, where were you? What happened?

At that time, I had come home to Cathy and the kids. I think it was about two or three days before the Supreme Court announcement came. ... So I was home the night of the announcement.


It was just relief. It was less exhilaration. I remember we celebrated election night a year later here in Washington for a lot of us, because we never had that catharsis, that moment of exhilaration where "We won!" We had it, and it was taken away. We had it in the campaign headquarters on election night when President Bush was called the winner, but it was fleeting. And then we just got into a grind, and what was supposed to be the finish line of a marathon became another marathon. It was more a matter of relief than exhilaration. …

So when you rejoin the team, when the president asks you to go to the RNC, what's the plan, as you understand it? ...

Well, the plan was pretty clear. I said to Karl when I first got there, "What do you think is the most important thing the RNC chairman can do in the course of the next two years?" And he said, "Close the gap between registered Republicans and registered Democrats." And that's where I put my focus, along with being a messenger. ...

One of the things about working for this president is, you don't wake up every day and wonder, "What are we for today?" You know what this president is for. People would say, "Well, what's he for?" I would say, "Look at what he says." We all know what he's for. We know where the president stands when it comes to winning the war on terror. We know his view in terms of fostering democracy and freedom in the Middle East as central to reducing terrorist threats over the course of the future. We know where he stands in terms of tax relief and accountability in our schools. And we also know where he stands in terms of the tone. ...

Does it feel to you like you were part of what a lot of people talk about as an historic moment, that the shift has finally happened? [Now] at least as many people are identified as Republican as Democrat. Perhaps this is it for the Democrats as a major force for a decade at least, and maybe a generation.

I do believe this was an historic election. And we were very clear -- this was a "bright line" election. There were very clear choices for the American people. We had in John Kerry a classic liberal Democrat. People [will] say, "Well, that's a personal attack." It's not a personal attack. He is a Massachusetts Democrat who has a record of voting consistently for more government and higher taxes and against important weapons programs. [He has] represented the views of the people of Massachusetts for 20 years. That's a statement of fact.

The president is a conservative-right, or a center-right, Republican. That's a statement of fact as well. There are some things where he has pushed his party to the middle. On education funding, but with accountability, and in some other areas where we've seen in terms of Medicare, providing a prescription drug benefit, the president has governed in a center-right manner.

But I do think that this was a moment in time where the two parties were crystallized in their approach to government, and it was a clear choice for the American people, and the preponderance of them came down on the side of the center-right approach and rejected the left in this election.

Where were you on that afternoon of Election Day [2004], where the exit polls are saying, "The president is in some trouble; Kerry is way up"? How did you hear about it? How did you deal with it?

I got an e-mail. I was in my office, and it was like a punch in the stomach, because ... I just felt like, "How could this be?" I always knew in the course of this campaign that we could lose, but I never felt we would lose. I always felt we would win. One of the greatest things about this campaign to me was that it felt the same when we were eight points down as it did when we were eight points up. I just had confidence that at the end of the day we were going to do well.

In fact, I had an e-mail exchange with Karl the day before where he and I had agreed that the president would win 51-48, get 286 electoral college votes, that he would win Iowa and New Mexico, probably lose New Hampshire and win Florida by five, and Ohio would be closer. I felt like we had a good handle on the nature of this race from the outset and at the close, so I was surprised.

But then when we started to hear some of the underlying data that didn't support the top line -- for example, they had the president losing the popular vote by two percentage points, but winning 42 percent of Hispanics. You can't do both. That was incongruous. They had us losing Wisconsin, but winning Catholics there by 10 percentage points. Look at the percentage of the population in Wisconsin that are Catholic voters; there's no way you can have that. That's a disparity that doesn't hold up. They had 68 percent or 58 percent of the electorate [listed as] women, which is too high a percentage of the electorate to be women voters.

So all those things started to give me pause and made me realize that they had been wrong when I did Elizabeth Dole's campaign in '02. The exit surveys had her losing by six percentage points. She won by nine, the highest margin in 26 years in North Carolina. In 2000, the exits had the president losing significantly to Al Gore. So this was the third cycle in a row where the exits were wrong and skewed against the Republicans.

And what was the mood when the exits were floating around before you knew the facts underneath?

Concern. Not quite despair, because I think there was a sense that, having been through it in 2000 and a lot of us in '02, because Elizabeth Dole's race was not an aberration -- they had Wayne Allard losing [his Senate race] by 10; he won by 10 in Colorado. There were a number of Republican senators who were down in the exits and won pretty big on election night, so we felt like early exits are often wrong anyway, and [we'll] wait to see. But it was dispiriting. …

Our reports from the field in terms of turnout in our key targeted precincts and how we were doing in early precincts gave me reason to believe we were actually going to do pretty well, and especially in Florida. The media should do what the political PACs do, which is actually look at where people are voting as opposed to a model and what people you select to talk to on the way out of the voting booth say. ...

This idea of metrics, by the way, is just fascinating. Has it always existed in politics?

It's always existed. You always have vote goals. … I don't think metrics have ever been so carefully measured and calibrated as they were in this election. The Bush-Cheney campaign had precinct chairs in counties in target states where we haven't had Republican Party chairs in decades. Ken Mehlman ran the president's re-election the way you'd run a city council race -- down to the precinct level. Like I say, it is a testament to Ken, the way he managed all of that. Ken is one of the greatest campaign managers I've ever seen.

Where were you that night when victory becomes apparent to you?

I was at the Reagan Center. It was where we had the rally and where the president was slated to speak, to give his victory speech. I was feeling pretty good by about 8:30. I felt like we had won. I was starting to get a little frustrated by 10:30. As I recall, we had a couple of networks that had called Ohio but not Nevada, and a couple of "nets" that called Nevada and not Ohio. Neither would put the two together, which would have put us over the top, which, again, I find frustrating. …

So what's the lesson in all of this? What have you learned? Where does everything stand now?

Well, I think there are a couple things. One, I do believe that the country has reached a point where we have the right mix of private and individual and government involvement. ... There's a comfort level there, and also an understanding of what we're going to have to do as a nation to prevail in the war on terror . ... It's not a war that we were looking for; it was a war declared on us. But it is a war. So I think there's a pretty clear consensus on where we are as a country, both in terms of domestic policy and our national security. I do think that the president, in his tone, in his approach, appeals to Americans. …

I don't think we're as divided as many in the elite would have us believe. I think there are a lot of people out there -- obviously 48 percent of the electorate -- who voted for John Kerry. I don't believe 48 percent of the electorate want George Bush to fail. I think that they want the president of the United States to succeed.

I'm a dedicated Republican and a proud party man. Had John Kerry been elected, I would do everything I could in '08 to make sure he was defeated, but I would have hoped that he would make it tough for us. I don't have it in me. I'm an American first, and I think that's how most people are.

Are the president and Karl Rove looking forward, planning for [the future] of Republican Party [beyond the next midterm elections]?

Well, again, I don't want to speak for Karl or for the president. That's not my job as a party chairman -- certainly not as an outgoing party chairman, especially. But there is a sense among us, many of us who are in leadership positions in the Republican Party, that we have a unique opportunity, that we can build on the gains we made with traditionally non-Republican voting groups.

We increased our share of the Jewish vote from 19 percent to 24 percent. I think we can go further. We increased our share of the Hispanic vote from 35 percent to 44 percent. I think we can go further. We increased our share of the African American vote from 8.5 percent to 11 percent. I think we can go much further. I think we can double that here in a very short time frame. So I think the key for us is not only to continue to maintain energy amongst our rank-and-file Republicans, but to bring more people into the party. I believe the Republican Party today is the natural majority party. It won't always be.

Karl talks about a durable majority, not a permanent majority. The fact is, the two-party system serves our country well. I'm a strong believer in the two-party system. I think the Democratic Party makes us better as a party, and we make them better as a party. Having two major parties is a good thing. Coke makes Pepsi better; Pepsi makes Coke better, more competitive, more responsive.

One of the political scientists ... said, "You go through periods in the American political process where one party is the sun party and the other party is the moon party, and the moon party tends to gravitate around the sun party." We're in a period where the Republican Party is the sun party and the Democratic Party is the moon party. There was a long period, starting with Franklin Roosevelt through LBJ, where the Democratic Party was the sun party and the Republican Party was the moon party. But where we are today I think is that our party is the natural governing majority for most Americans and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

home · introduction · the mastermind · republican party · interviews
texas · join the discussion · producer's chat · teacher's guide
tapes & transcript · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted april 12, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation