Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of christine todd whitman
interviews: christine todd whitman
[Karl Rove's] done a brilliant job for what he's supposed to do, which is to ensure that the president has a Republican Congress and was re-elected.  And he did all those things exceedingly well. My fear is, at what cost to governance, and what cost to the future of the party?

... Can you talk some about the [Sen. Barry] Goldwater nomination and campaign? In your political education, and in terms of what's happened in the country, how important was that nomination?

That was the beginning, I think, of what we see now manifesting itself. I mean, obviously the party went hard right to Goldwater, took a terrific beating in that year and came back with Nixon. But the seeds had been planted, and the idea of the Southern strategy really started with Goldwater. It didn't start with Nixon; it started with Goldwater.

Barry Goldwater had been very supportive of civil rights throughout his career prior to his run for the presidency … but he chose in that year to vote against the Civil Rights Bill, which was, if you look at his record, out of step with his record. He did that very consciously, I believe, in order to appeal to dissatisfied Southern Democrats. And that was kind of the beginning of the idea of taking some of these very, very emotional issues and using them for a political end, an elective end.

… A lot of people say the Goldwater campaign was the Woodstock [moment for conservatives].

Well, certainly his supporters were enormously fervent. It was the first time, too, that I had run into people -- and I had been around campaigns all my life growing up -- who were so fervent and such believers and looked with disdain on anyone who wasn't. You always had people who believed deeply in candidates, and you'd had good rivalries, but not to the point where there was this kind of a bitter, harsh edge to it. We had a group in New Jersey who, with no irony, called themselves "rat finks." I mean, what that exactly meant I don't know, but those were the Goldwater supporters in New Jersey, and if you weren't 100 percent with them, they really didn't want you.

And in our state, which is a very moderate state, that was kind of the beginning of conservative candidates who would take on incumbent Republicans in primaries and defeat them, and then go on to huge defeats in the general election. But there was a mind-set that you'd rather have somebody who was against you 100 percent of the time, a Democrat, than a Republican who would be with you 85 percent of the time. If it wasn't 100 percent with them, they didn't want them there.

It seems like this argument between the Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans was this kind of dividing line, North and South. Was it more than that?

Well, I think it ideologically went West as well, and it wasn't just North and South. You can find pockets everywhere. If you look at the makeup of this country now, Republican/Democrat control of statehouses and things, it's absolutely even. I mean, it is dead even in control of statehouses and the legislators. ... There are 7,315 state legislators around the country, and there are only four more Republicans than there are Democrats. So that's about as even as you can get. So you find pockets everywhere.

In this interview, Whitman, who served as governor of New Jersey from 1993 to 2000 and as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2001 to 2003, makes the case for an inclusive, "big tent" Republican Party. Whitman, who is the author of It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America, argues that Karl Rove's election strategy of focusing on the social conservatives to "harden the base" was at the expense of broadening support among moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. She says that the political calculations to play to conservatives are detrimental to good governance and the Republican Party's future, and has empowered those whom she calls "social fundamentalists" to say: "We won this election for the president. We are owed the next Supreme Court justice." Whitman also expresses frustration that a lot of the work the EPA did under her tenure was not communicated, in part, because the environment as an issue "never polled high with the base." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 31, 2005.

But the bitterness, as I described in my book -- I remember from that convention scene one of our delegates, when [then-New York Gov.] Nelson Rockefeller was given time to speak, getting up on his chair and spitting at him. I mean, the booing was incredible. And I can remember the governor standing there saying, "Look, I've been given five minutes, and I'm going to take them to speak, so you do all that you want; I'm staying here until I can speak for five minutes." And I'd never seen that kind of thing before.

It was also, you got the feeling out there in San Francisco at the convention that you really weren't wanted if you weren't a Goldwater delegate. It was none of this "We're a big party, and we have a lot of different people who are still good Republicans. And sure, we're going to fight hard for our candidate, but we're all going to get together after it." It was much harder to come back together.

You know, then you morphed, and you got into the late '60s, early '70s, where you had Vietnam, and you had all that turmoil. And there just seemed to be a period of time in this country where there were a lot of hard edges, a lot of bitterness and a lot of political people paying the price for that. And that's really kind of never gone away totally. It's what concerned me about the ability to govern once you've won if, in order to win, you start appealing to very emotional issues. That makes it very hard to get back together at the end of the day.

One of the places we're watching very closely, obviously, is Texas and the way Texas shifted from being an almost exclusively Democratic state… From where you were from watching Republican politics evolve, how important was what was happening in Texas? Were you paying attention to it? Were you aware that this kind of seismic shift was taking place?

No, I wasn't really aware of what was happening in Texas. You heard more about Southern strategy, Texas being one of those Southern states, but only one of them -- obviously the biggest geographically, but when you compared it to Florida, not necessarily the biggest from a political point of view, as far as importance went.

But yes, the Southern strategy, the appeal to the disaffected Democrats, Southern Democrats, really represented a shift for the party, because … if you look at the history of civil rights, there would have been no civil rights legislation if Republicans hadn't been the ones to break the Democrat filibuster. Republicans were the ones who really enforced Brown v. the Board of Education.

And yet in this shift to appeal to dissident Southern Democrats -- many of them had been members of the Ku Klux Klan; they felt very strongly about race issues -- the Republican Party was sending a message that their heart really wasn't where their votes had been. And it was a shifting away of the perception of the party from being one that was more moderate to one that had at least harder edges to it.

Along comes Ronald Reagan and the Reagan presidency. How important ideologically as a shift, as another place in the Republican arc, was the Reagan candidacy and presidency?

Reagan was very important. He was the kind of nationally acceptable face of conservatism. He was also very smart. He was someone who, while he was a strong supporter of the anti-abortion groups, he never went and talked to them personally when they were in Washington for their big rally. He kept a distance. He talked to people; he was inclusive. He said it. He said, "You don't get to be a majority party if you're always looking for groups with whom you won't associate."

He understood it. And he was able to reach out to people and make them feel OK. Even though they may not have agreed with him on every issue, they at least felt that he would respect them, he would listen to their opinion, and they felt comfortable with him. The nickname "the Great Communicator" meant something, and he really understood what it meant, and he understood how to do it.

And if you look at the policy he drove, there are some who will say on the far left, on the Democrat side, it was a radical shift to the right. It really wasn't. And it was more reflective of where the country was. And he was able to bring people together.

… How important was the pursuit of the vital center, the pursuit of the Reagan Democrat?

Clearly it was very important to his election. But the thing about it that differentiates it from what we're seeing at the hard edges, those who I call social fundamentalists now, is they were more centrist. And while it was still further off to the right than we'd been in the past, it wasn't as extreme as what we see today. And Ronald Reagan was very -- I mean, he's the one who said the 11th commandment, "Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican." That's totally gone by the boards.

And it's interesting, because while he was important to the conservative cause because of the legitimacy he gave to conservative representation and governance, it has been interpreted by some of those who want to develop very narrow litmus tests for what makes a good Republican as this is just the cover for us to really do what we want to do, [and] that Ronald Reagan would have approved. I don't think he would have for an instant [approved of] what's going on today.

And we've had another quantum shift. But there's been a gradual movement of the country to the right, let's say. There's nothing wrong with conservativism; I mean, I'm conservative on a lot of issues. But we have seen this movement toward the more hard edge on the social issues. And I think Ronald Reagan would have been very uncomfortable with much of what he would see today.

Help me understand what the shift is about. How did it happen? When did it start? When did you first notice that the Republican Party was moving toward the hard edges, as you say?

Well, it's been really with the last couple of election cycles, because Ronald Reagan, one of the things he did do was to reach out to dissident Democrats. He was building a base. What I see happening now, and we've seen over the last maybe eight years, starting in his second term when he was no longer going to be the nominee, this idea that instead of building your base once you're in office, you harden that base.

As soon as the Supreme Court had decided that George W. Bush was to be the next president of the United States, Karl Rove focused on 4 million evangelicals who had not gone to the polls in 2000. And he felt they were Bush voters, and they should go out for him, and if he was able to capture those 4 million, that the president would be re-elected. I mean, he's done a brilliant job for what he's supposed to do, which is to ensure that the president has a Republican Congress and was re-elected. And he did all those things exceedingly well. My fear is at what cost to governance and what cost to the future of the party, because by hardening the base, by everything being aimed at that base of the evangelicals and the social fundamentalists, there was no effort to reach out to the middle.

And there are a lot of Republican voters particularly who are moderates, who don't support everything that is being talked about today. There are good conservatives who don't believe you should use the Constitution to restrict personal freedom. And yet you see in Congress today a group of representatives and senators saying to the president, the issue that he has said is one of his most important, Social Security reform, that they won't even begin to talk about it unless the president meets their test of being strong enough in his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Those two may be each very important issues, worthy of full discussion, but one should not be held hostage to the other. And I believe that one has a whole lot more importance to the country and the future of the country than the other. And he's the Republican president, yet it's Republicans who are saying, "Just because you said you support this amendment, you haven't been doing enough for it, and we're not going to discuss this other very important issue to so many people until you've satisfied us on the first one."

How much of this shift that's happening do you lay at the feet of Karl Rove?

I mean, it's not one person. Obviously there are a lot of people with whom he's been working, but Karl has really been the mastermind. And again, I give him enormous credit, because that's exactly what he was supposed to do. He has done what he was supposed to do, and he's done it brilliantly.

As everyone knew, he'd meet every week with members of the Club for Growth and other organizations, very conservative organizations, to talk to them about what should be happening and what their concerns were. That gave them a sense of empowerment that now has groups like that saying after the president's re-elect: "We won this election for the president. We are owed the next Supreme Court justice."

Well, no ideological group is ever owed a Supreme Court justice, and you shouldn't pick justices like that, nor do I think the president wants to. I firmly believe that he wants to pick justices who are not going to try to make the law, but interpret the law that are strict constructionists. Obviously, he's going to look at their record, and he's not going to pick someone who is very, very liberal. But I don't believe that the president will ever look at a potential nominee, or wants to, and say, "What's your position on Roe v. Wade?" I think that he understands that even if they answer that, they shouldn't be considered for the Supreme Court, because you should judge each case on the merits of the case.

But you have these groups now that feel empowered, and it's going to be very hard for him to get his nominees. He can't expect a free ride, because those in the Senate and the House who have come in on the last two cycles, in 2002 and 2004, largely because [of], or very much owing to, this focus on the base, that's where they are. And they are extremely conservative, some of them.

The Supreme Court says George W. Bush is the president of the United States. All of us observers believe that what's going to happen now is he's going to have to play to the center. ... When did you know that that was not actually going to be the case? I presume that you don't believe it actually was the case.

Well, I mean, certainly the president's record was one that indicated that he would be a uniter, not a divider. It became apparent very early in my time in Washington that the bitterness from the Democrat side was going to make it very difficult to reach out. I mean, there was just no question about it. That happened very early on. We saw those signs that they didn't feel he was a legitimate president. And the barriers, the walls went up. And so that part was going to be difficult.

But I think it was the way that the president chose to disengage from Kyoto. That to me was so clearly aimed at the base at, I believe, a cost, a detriment to the administration overall. To put that into some perspective, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore had first taken the idea of the Kyoto Protocol up to the Congress, the United States Senate voted it down 95 to nothing. Every year they prohibited any department or agency in government from ever implementing anything that looked like the Kyoto Protocol. It was never going to pass; it was never going to be reality for the United States. It didn't solve the major problems; it doesn't include China and India -- a whole host of reasons that it wasn't going to be.

But when the president said "We're not going to do it" as publicly as he did, he didn't differentiate between the protocol, which is a treaty, and the process in which the rest of the world had been engaged for the previous 10 years, in which they were very vested. He didn't say, "I think there's an issue here, and we're going to stay involved with you, but this protocol doesn't solve the problem." He was very, very abrupt, and "This is it; we're out of it, and we're not going to regulate carbon. No questions asked. It's bad for our economy."

And the problem I had with that is that domestic politics and the rest of the world are very important to the other leaders, as important to them as our domestic policies are to us, politics are to us. And it made them difficult. I mean, look at [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair now. He's having to fight to convince people that his support of the president in Iraq was correct, and a lot of what they call at him is climate change. It's an enormous issue for the rest of the world. And the president could have said, "I'm not going to support this treaty, no way, no how, but we will continue to work with you."

The irony here is this administration is spending more money on climate change research and development than any administration in all the rest of the industrialized world combined. He has called for an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas and intensity. He has said he believes the issue is an important one. We have treaties -- bilateral, multilateral -- with most, if not all, of the developed nations of the world to work on climate change and ... a whole host of the hydrogen fuel cell, a whole host of approaches to it, but we don't talk about it, because the base doesn't like it. The base didn't like Kyoto. They felt ... climate change [was] a red herring; it's not real. And they think it's just the rest of the world's attempt to slow down our economy.

And so because of that, on the one hand, we were very abrupt and said -- we were aiming at the base saying: "Don't worry. We're not going to be engaged in this. We're not going to let the rest of the world push us around." On the other hand, we're going ahead and doing things with the rest of the world, but we're not getting any credit with the rest of the world for that, and making it difficult for our allies to be as supportive as they would like to be.

Whose idea would that be?

I don't know. It was a political calculation made in the White House, and I don't know how that was made. I mean, it wasn't made just by the political shop, I'm sure. There would be others involved.

Let's back up for just a minute. How did you find yourself running the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]? ...

The vice president-elect at that point called. I had known him [from] a long time ago, when I'd first been in Washington. ... He called and asked, and I actually said, "How about Commerce or U.N.?" Anything but EPA. It's pretty hard to say no when a vice president-elect and a president-elect ask you to be part of the national team. And I met with the president -- the president and I are exactly in the same place as to the kinds of things we could do with the environment and the Environmental Protection Agency, moving environmental protection forward but not having it be just marked by how many regulations you passed or your success looked at by how many fines and fees you've levied; rather, is the environment getting cleaner? A unique idea, but one we thought was important. And I agree with the president completely on that.

And so I looked forward to being able to help him expand his base while not scaring the Republicans who were those who just hate the idea of environment, and they hate the idea of regulation.

I had an early meeting on the Hill with some of the Western congressmen, the caucus, and they looked at me, and they said, "If we ever see a good editorial in The New York Times about environmental policy from this administration, we'll know we might as well have a Democrat." And, you know, when it's that kind of attitude going in, it's a little tough.

The partisanship for the Democrats was just vicious, as we saw on arsenic and the early decision made there, which was just way out of proportion to what was happening. And they knew it. But it was very, very bitter. So you had that. You had Republicans who just didn't like the Environmental Protection Agency -- I mean, really had a visceral reaction. It's probably the most hated part of government, I think.

And then you had the environmentalists who didn't think we were going to do anything right; the business community, some of those in the business community who didn't want any kind of regulations either; and a White House that wanted to see -- the president very much wanted to see environmental improvement, but at the same time had to be concerned about the re-election and the base and not doing anything that was going to really disturb that.

In fact, again, another one of those frustrations: This administration has promulgated a regulation that goes right at the heart of the base, goes right at regulating tractors and bulldozers and backhoes and things, which are the ranchers and the construction workers and builders, and you'd think that was the base. And yet they have come out -- and we did it while I was there, signed by my successor as administrator -- with the strictest regulation ever on cleaning up those engines. And they're enormous sources of pollution. And it was contrary to what anyone thought the administration would do, but we don't talk about it, because it is contrary to what a lot of the base would want.

So there's a little bit of public relations in operation here that's separate or divorced from the reality.

There is.

And there's a saying in your book, and a phrase that I've heard you say, about where Karl Rove said --

"You're one of the three Cabinet officers --" It was after I had met with the president and the vice president down in Washington and accepted the position. And he took me aside and said, "You're going to be one of three Cabinet officers that can really have an impact [on] the re-elect." And my perception of that was that there was an opportunity here, again, to expand the base. … But it became pretty clear that no, the idea was not to expand the base, but rather to harden the base that we had, and therefore to be very, very careful about what was done and how regulations were done.

Is that what he was actually saying to you?

I think so. I don't know. I had initially assumed that it was going to be to expand that base. But as I say, since even the really good things that we did were never promoted in the way that would lead to that kind of expansion, made people feel comfortable -- I would travel the country and have people come up to me saying: "You know, I'm a Republican, but I care about the environment. What's this administration doing?" And I'd have to tick all the good things we'd done. And they'd say, "Oh, gee, I didn't know that."

Now, part of that was the media wasn't all that keen to talk about it. They don't talk about the environment a lot. It's complicated; it's not easy; doesn't lend itself to sound bites. And you had some of the environmental groups who were absolutely bound and determined they weren't going to give him a good mark, no matter what we did.

But you also had an administration that was reluctant. [Environment] never polled high with the base. The base basically said they don't care about it, and so it was never high on the list of things that you communicated.

When you talk about the base, describe the base you are talking about.

Well, to me, the base was those 4 million evangelicals and the evangelicals who did vote for him, as well as the 4 million who had not voted for him. Karl has been pretty open, or was pretty open early on, I guess, in the administration, saying that that was where his focus was. And you certainly saw that, again, with the weekly luncheon meetings that he had with members of some of the most conservative groups, and giving them a feeling of empowerment which you're now seeing being played out when you have people that think SpongeBob SquarePants is a bigger threat to the future of this country than tax reform, because they get all caught up in that, and that's where their focus is. That, I think, is going to be difficult for the president. And that's one of the concerns that I have. His ability to be the kind of leader he's going to want to be I think in some instances is going to be stymied by his own party. ...

What did you notice from inside as this administration got ready for the 2004 election? What was the orientation?

I didn't really see things change a lot. And of course you remember I left in 2003, because it was only fair to the president you didn't leave in the middle of the campaign. So I left just before it.

But it was just frustrating, because I thought we had a tale to tell in the environment, and it was clear that that was not going to be something of great interest, to make an understatement. It was frustrating personally because we were being beaten up so badly, and I was going out there to tell people what the administration had done, but there was no backup from them -- and understandably to a degree, because you only have certain issues that you can push if you're running for office, and that was clearly not going to be one of them. And it was one that scared the base.

Although when the campaign started, I was asked to [stump], and I went out to the state of Washington to announce the fact that there would be an environmental group that was going to go around and speak out on the president's environmental record. So I did do that for them when the campaign first kicked off, but I never heard about what the group did after that.

It was, without question, when I look back at it, one of the great super-hyper-micromanaged kind of campaigns I've ever seen.

It was extraordinarily well orchestrated. I mean, you did see that. It was extraordinarily well orchestrated, well coordinated, single message. You know, this White House was very coordinated, and it was very message-oriented from the very beginning as to how things would be communicated. And that was not inappropriate. I mean, it's the president whose policy is being implemented, and so the White House has a right to make sure that that policy is being communicated in the way that they want it communicated.

It was interesting to see what a tight rein they had on the campaign and how well orchestrated it was. Again, it worked brilliantly the way they did it, but it was a different level of control than you'd seen before. Part of that is a general sophistication of politics now, and the political process. The Kerry campaign hadn't quite gotten that sophisticated, I guess, but the Bush campaign was very, very disciplined.

Some of it is also a conscious decision, it seems to me -- you've alluded to this already -- which is certain messages, even though they're positive messages, were not going to play; certain other things we're going to do for purely political reasons; certain things we're going to target and move in -- the gay marriage initiatives being placed, as they were, right before social conservatives. That's a really sophisticated --

Oh, it was very, very sophisticated. But if you look also, it was interesting: The campaign spent about $200 million up and through the primaries, up until about August to the convention. You get to the convention; the president and John Kerry were locked in a dead heat in the polls. Could not get any separation. I mean, Kerry came out of his convention with no bounce, but for all that money spent, no separation.

We get to the convention, the prime-time speakers are [former New York City Mayor] Rudy Guiliani, [California Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger, [New York Gov.] George Pataki, [Sen.] John McCain, and he gets an 11-point bounce, the biggest separation that you've had in the entire campaign. Then things go back to the same old messages, and it tightens up again.

And you get to the end where Ohio and Florida [are] so critical [and] important. And yes, they got the gay marriage amendment ban on the Ohio ballot. But also, when the president campaigned in those places, he didn't campaign with [Focus on the Family founder] James Dobson -- he campaigned with Rudy Giuliani; he campaigned with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There was a very sophisticated understanding of the importance of bringing moderates to the fore, real members of the party -- and they do represent a very important part of the party. I mean, people have said, "Oh, you're just being used, and it's a shell game, and you're shields for this administration." That's not true. And I don't think you could tell either George Pataki, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rudy Giuliani that they were just shields, that they weren't sophisticated enough to know when they didn't represent a big constituency bloc. They did, and it was important to get them out. And that to me was a reaffirmation and a recognition on the part of the campaign that you couldn't do it without those moderates.

What are RINOs?

Republicans In Name Only. And that's the description of moderates, really, by those who I call social fundamentalists, the people [who], as I said before, would, it seems to me, rather have someone who votes against them 100 percent of the time than someone who's with them 85 percent of the time.

It's the groups that will mount a primary campaign against [Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter, saying at the time not just that they want to defeat Specter, but they were sending a message to the other moderates in the Senate -- Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins [of Maine] -- that they'd better get with the program or they were next.

Those are the people who describe other Republicans as RINO, and they seem to have a focus on ridding the party of those people.

Where did this come from? Why is this happening?

Again, it's something, as you pointed out, you go back to Goldwater, and you start to see the nascent birth of this kind of movement and attitude. And it has grown over time. And I think part of it is being exacerbated because [of] these groups who have been so empowered over the last four years. And even though the president isn't a bigot, and he isn't someone I would call a social fundamentalist -- but they have been led to believe that they really are the ones who are responsible for the president's re-election and feel that they are owed a great deal because of that. And that has emboldened them.

You have a group that's called the Club for Growth which has a no-new-taxes pledge. And you know, I cut taxes over 50 times in the state of New Jersey; I never signed the no-new-taxes pledge, and they would never support me. And you look at them and you say -- to me it's a little mindless to sign something that's that absolute. I can understand where it came from -- people frustrated with taxes, ever-increasing taxes, and they say, "OK, darn it, we want everyone to say they'll never raise a tax."

Signing a pledge like that, though, means that you can't be creative -- if there's a tax you could eliminate and raise another slightly to make it more equitable, but eliminate a whole other tax at the same time, and you can't do that because you've signed a pledge not knowing what circumstances are. I think it comes perhaps from a deep distrust of elected officials, people who will make promises during campaigns and then walk away from them. And so therefore you sign a pledge, and that will lock you in.

And I also believe it comes, particularly nowadays, since Sept. 11, from a feeling that people have that the world's changing too fast: "I can't control anything; I don't even know where it's safe to go traveling anymore." When people offer you a simple, definitive sound bite, you say, "Yeah, that's something certain in my life, something I can control." And they don't really think about it very deeply because they've got so many other things they've got to worry about. They've got to worry about making the rent and clothing their kids and a whole host of things that are important to them.

So when someone throws out that red meat -- and that's unfortunately what you do when you're solidifying your base; you try to gin them up and get them excited, and the way you get them excited tends to be with the more controversial issues. And again, the Democrats do the same thing on the left. They have the same challenges, I believe, on the left as Republicans have on the right. It's one of those situations where it starts to feed on itself.

We heard a lot after the last election, after the results, we heard the word "mandate"; we heard lots of people say "Republican hegemony." We heard everybody say the Democrats were about to be a marginalized party, that there will be Republicans certainly in federal offices for the next generation. Do you believe that?

No, I think the majority was very slim. I mean, I will say that I think redistricting has made things a lot more problematic in the sense that it's much harder to get rid of incumbents. And Republicans control now, so that does give them a leg up. But when you look at this president's re-elect numbers, he was elected by less than three percentage points, his margin of victory. Bill Clinton was elected by eight, Ronald Reagan by 18, Richard Nixon by 23 points. Even Harry Truman beat Tom Dewey by a greater margin than this president beat John Kerry.

Now, yes, you can say he got more votes than anybody who's ever run for president, but the same could be said about John Kerry. He did as well. He had more people voting, more people out there. And while it was a very historic election because it did bring in -- for the first time since FDR, an incumbent president brought in more senators than congressmen, the actual fact is that the margin was very, very close. And as I had mentioned earlier, if you look at statehouses across the country, you look at legislators across the country, this country is almost evenly split. ...

And so to me, it says if you're Republican and you care about the future of the party, don't take this plurality as being such a big one. And in fact, Paul Wyrick, who is one of the more conservative of the grassroots organizers, sent the very same message about two weeks ago. He said, "You know, Republicans have been winning since '94, but by slim majorities; they'd better recognize that losing even one faction of the coalition could end it all." And I don't think he meant that the RINOs were part of that, but he's got to remember that moderates are very much a part of that, because without the moderates, John Kerry would have taken the oath of office on Jan. 20. Without the moderates, Republicans wouldn't have control of the Senate and the House.

So as I look at 2006 and 2008, I'm thinking about there is no --

Right. It's the first time since 1952 that neither party has had an incumbent, that there is no incumbent running -- no president running for re-election, no vice president who's ready to stand up and get the nomination. And so it's a perfect time for both parties to take a deep look at themselves, a deep, hard look and decide where they're going to go.

And when the Republicans look at themselves, what are the factions? Describe for me for a second what we look at in this potential food fight inside the Republican Party anyway.

I think the biggest fight you're going to have is between the moderates and those whom I describe as the social fundamentalists on the right. And that's part of the problem, too. It used to be that for Republicans, you ran to the right in primaries, toward the center for the general election; Democrats ran to the left in primaries, and to the center during general elections. And that was OK when the right and left weren't so far apart. Now they've gotten so far apart that the ability to come back, that center, is still lost. You can't get back very far, and especially when your focus is just on hardening your base. Whether it be social fundamentalists or the labor unions, if that's what you're after, then you're just going to speak to their issues and not to the broader set of issues that might be of interest to the rest of those moderates in the country.

But I think for the Republicans, it's going to be between those who want only ideological purists -- those people who say if you believe in choice you're not a good Republican; if you believe in even a discussion on embryonic stem cell you're not a good Republican; if you believe the government has a role to protect the environment, you're not a good Republican, and the list goes on -- it's going to be those people against moderates who say, "Look, we used to pride ourselves in the early '90s on being the big tent under Ronald Reagan." It was the big-tent theory, meaning that you could have people who were conservative, moderate, liberal. All believed in the same set of principles; they interpreted them differently, but they were all part of the Republican Party.

The president calls Karl Rove "the architect" and credits him with designing what turns out to be a base strategy. Can you govern from only a base strategy?

I don't think so. And that's what is very concern[ing] to me, because as an elected official, you're not representing just the base; you're representing all the people who elected you. And the president recognized that. He said it in his acceptance speech. He said it in his inaugural address. I mean, he wants to bring people together. I just believe that he's going to have an exceedingly hard time, because you've got people in the Congress who are standing up saying: "No, it's our turn now. This is our agenda. You may want some of these things, but we're not going to give them to you until you do some other things that we think are more important on issues that are divisive." The gay marriage -- I know lots of conservative pro-life people who don't believe you should use the Constitution to restrict individual freedoms. We've only done it once before, and that was Prohibition.

And so they're good conservatives, but they don't believe in the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and they would be determined to be not good conservatives by this group.

How mean-spirited is it inside this White House -- not necessarily the president, who we know is more of an ameliorator. How tough is it?

I didn't find it mean-spirited from the White House. I mean, occasionally there would be one or two people. But no, it wasn't mean-spirited within the White House. We all got along. We were able to make policy. We disagreed, but, you know, that's the way things are, and that's the way they work in any administration. It's more outside the White House. It's on the Hill, and it's with some of these socially fundamentalists groups that are out there and supporting candidates, and the ones who throw the rhetoric around.

So the challenge for this White House now, right now, before 2006, understanding that they have about 18 months to get it rolling before the midterms, on the major issues that they've articulated -- Social Security, tort reform, tax reform -- what are they up against? How do they make this happen? How does this White House make it happen?

It's going to be tough, because I don't think you're going to find many Democrats who are going to be willing to work out coalitions. And so what you're going to have to do is you're going to have to get those Republicans in line as a solid bloc. And they're going to require a pretty high price, I think.

Like what?

Well, as I said, those who were saying, "We demand the next Supreme Court justice; we demand that you actually meet our test for what's acceptable and supportive of a constitutional ban on gay marriage," they're coming up with a bunch of litmus tests for the president, as they have for the rest of us over time, and that's going to be difficult.

My frustration with all of this is that it's the people who lose, the public who loses, because as you get these really hard ideological divides growing up, it makes it so much harder to get a discussion going, and so much harder to make the kinds of deals that are necessary to get some of these big programs and problems through. The president proposed an energy proposal; we haven't even begun to have it discussed. I mean, it's an enormous issue. He did it four years ago, and people said, "Well, he didn't push it hard enough." Well, you know, once you put [it] out there and [have] done it, that should be big enough and significant enough that Republicans and Democrats will be willing to work together. They don't even like each other anymore. And within the caucuses there are starting to be those divides.

You have [Georgia Gov.] Zell Miller who wrote a book on the Democrat side, A National Party No More, saying his party had moved so far to the left it had left him behind. So it's happening everywhere. It's almost as if we're moving toward the parliamentary party approach, where parties are absolute, and their discipline is absolute, and you can actually have your seat taken away from you if you don't vote with the party. Discipline is that strict. That will never work in a country like this, and we'd better be concerned about it.

We've been to Texas; we've been everywhere. Lots of people say what Rove did was he swallowed the bitter pill in the first term. He knew he had to do some bad stuff to keep the conservatives in line. So first term was really all about let's marginalize EPA, let's talk about gay initiatives and all that stuff, let's do all the bad stuff, and let's move more toward the center in the second term. Any sense from where you're sitting and the observations you've made that that's likely to be what's really going to happen?

I think they've created a monster in many ways, because of that focus during the first term on the base and on those hot-button issues, they brought in a number of senators. When you have a United States senator who says that if you allow gay marriage, that means you're going to have to have your children accept the fact that a man can marry a box turtle -- I mean, it's mind-boggling to me. And a very intelligent man said that, but that's the mind-set.

When you have someone who has come into office now who says that any doctor, whoever performs an abortion should get the death penalty, that's pretty extreme. Again, important issues perhaps that need a lot of discussion, [but] I would say that probably the majority of the American people would say they care more about tax reform and Social Security reform and Medicare and Medicaid reform than they do about those issues. But they still can believe passionately about those issues.

I think in many ways they're going to find that it's not going to be so easy to move back to the center, because these people feel very empowered. They know this is the president's last term. He is not going to be re-elected, and ... he can have a big impact on their re-election if he comes in to work for them. There's been redistricting now. They're pretty locked into those districts. They don't have to compromise. They don't feel they have to compromise.

And since they were elected and encouraged to be elected on some of these very harsh principles, they're going to look and say: "Well, why should I change? I'm going to be here. You're going to leave; I'm going to be here. This is my district. I won being this way, so there's nothing in it for me to change."

It's a great image, the idea that they created a monster. The unintended consequences --

The unintended consequences, I think, are going to be a problem. …

Is it your sense that ... they really are hopeful about laying down a Republican legacy for a long, long time? ...

I think the president really wants to leave a policy legacy. He wants to leave it internationally, and he wants to leave it domestically, and he always has. That's been his focus. It's interesting; Bob Novak wrote a column not too long ago saying, "Is the president moving to the middle?," as if that was the worst thing he could say, saying that there were all these signs from things that the White House had been saying that they might be trying to move to the middle. And that was scaring the conservatives.

That's ridiculous. This is their president. He is probably, as I indicated in the book, the most conservative president on social issues that I've known. But I still support him because of the other issues that are out there. The litmus test is going to get very, very hard for even the president to meet. And it's going to thwart what I believe is a sincere desire on his part to leave an important legacy in policy issues.

You talked about perhaps losing friends because of the book. Why? Who?

This book is about the future of the party; it's not about the president or a critique of the presidency. And I really don't do that. But any administration is going to be uncomfortable with somebody who says everything wasn't perfect; that they personally had problems with them. And so I just don't expect the same kind of reception that I've gotten in the past in Washington, and that's understandable. But I hope they will understand ultimately that I care deeply about the future of this country, and I think the Republican Party is important to that. And therefore I care deeply about the Republican Party, and that's why I wrote the book, and that's why I have the Web site. I have a Web site there that's mypartytoo.com, in order to give people, moderates, a place to go, a place to get reinforcement and to support other moderate candidates around the country, starting at the grassroots level.

We've got to be as good at starting at the grassroots level as the social fundamentalists have been over the last 10 years.

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posted april 12, 2005

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