Republican Strategist Denounces Party’s Response to COVID-19

Republican strategist Stuart Stevens has advised key GOP campaigns like Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. Now he has written a mea culpa for the Washington Post, laying the blame for what he calls President Trump’s failed response to today’s pandemic at the feet of all Republicans. He addresses this and discusses his new book, “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, our next guest is top Republican strategist Stuart Stevens. He is known for advising key campaigns, like Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. And he’s now written a powerful mea culpa for “The Washington Post,” placing the blame for President Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus squarely on the shoulders of all Republicans. Our Michel Martin talks to him about his new book, which is called “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.” Stevens says he’s given up any hope of the party changing any time soon.


MICHEL MARTIN: Stuart Stevens, thanks so much for talking with us.


MARTIN: I don’t think it’s a secret that a lot of members of the Democratic opposition, certainly a lot of independent scientists, and, frankly, a lot of analysts around the world have been critical of the way the Trump administration has handled this current crisis. And you wrote a piece, a very provocative piece, I have to say, for “The Washington Post” saying: “Don’t just blame President Trump. Blame me” — I’m reading here — “and all the other Republicans who aided and abetted, and, yes, benefited from protecting a political party that’s become dangerous to America. Some of us knew better. But we built this moment and then we looked the other way.” Those are some pretty strong words. So let’s take it step by step. First of all, why do you say blame you?

STEVENS: Well, look, for 30 years, I have been helping elect Republicans. I have elected, helped Republican governors and senators in over half the country. So I think one of the principles of Republicans used to be that we believe in personal responsibility. And that’s totally gone out the window now. We’re against personal responsibility. But it seems to me, if we’re going to return to that, the first step is personal responsibility. And I can’t say this just happened. I was part of it. I was deep into the machine, working five presidential campaigns for Republicans. So I was there. I saw it. I would like to have done things differently in retrospect, but can only move forward.

MARTIN: Let’s talk about the coronavirus pandemic specifically. How are your observations about the state of Republican Party relevant to what’s going on now? What’s the connection?

STEVENS: Well, I think the Republican Party has failed tremendously on this. The idea that, somehow, when you look at these polls, that more Republicans aren’t believing the reality than Democrats, it’s insane. And it’s because, when Trump is out there saying crazy stuff, there’s really nothing you can do about Trump. But you have to go out and tell the truth. And Republican leaders should have been out there earlier. It’s just — I look at this chloroquine as an example. And it means something to me because I had a very, very bad case of malaria. In fact , I wrote a book called “Malaria Dreams,” where I took chloroquine. So the idea that this very powerful, potentially dangerous drug has somehow become a political issue is just so sort of a perfect little metaphor for our moment. I mean, we have pretty safe drugs in America because we have a system that works. So, somehow, we’re saying we shouldn’t trust the FDA, that we should listen to Donald Trump or Sean Hannity about what drugs to take? I mean, that’s a short walk to Jim Jones.

MARTIN: But how do you see the state of the Republican Party, as you see it, affecting the government’s ability to deal with this crisis?

STEVENS: What we most need now in these moments of crisis is a sense of what can be agreed-upon truth. And Trump is and the Republican Party has assaulted the concept of truth like nothing else in our modern politics. So, just at the moment when we want — we need to believe someone, we need to believe experts, we have had this unprecedented assault on what are facts, I mean, talking about alternative facts. And I think that’s incredibly dangerous. I mean, it is what happens in Russia. It’s what happens in totalitarian societies, where you believe the government — it’s “1984.” Who do you believe? So I think that, in itself, we’re sort of reaping this terrible sowing of mistrust among all our institutions.

MARTIN: There was this recovery bill. It was passed by enormous margins. Does that suggest anything to you, that perhaps the Republicans are able to work with Democrats, that the parties are able to work together on recovery efforts?

STEVENS: I think there was a unity of fear, a unity driven by fear. I thought it was very positive that that passed 97-0. I think that’s the sort of thing that begins to reinstall — reinstill faith in government, which is critical at this moment. I think it’s going to be woefully inadequate. I’m personally — and I’m no expert — but a pessimism on where this is going. So I thought that was positive, yes. I think it would have been very negative had that passed by party-line votes or one vote or two votes. So I put that in the positive side. Look, these are not dumb people in the U.S. Senate. They can read, and they understand math, and they can look at this, and they’re all talking to medical experts themselves. So they may not go out there and contradict Trump every day, though they know they should. But when it comes down to it, they know they had to vote for something that would help people, if, for nothing else, to save their own skins, because this thing is going to move out of New York, I think, into rural states very quickly. You see it Louisiana. And I look at my home state of Mississippi, and I have very foreboding feelings about it. I mean, you have a collapsing for many, many, many years rural health care system that much has been written about, and little done about. You have the most unhealthy collection of citizens in the nation. And I think it’s a potentially catastrophic mix. Hopefully, it’ll get slowed down enough to be able to take care of it.

MARTIN: How did this start, in your view? How did this whole fixation on elitism, this turning away from science and from fact, how did this, start in your view?

STEVENS: Well, in my view, the original sin of the modern Republican Party is race, because if you go back to Eisenhower, in 1956, Eisenhower got almost 40 percent of the black vote. You go to go to Goldwater, that dropped to 7 percent. And it never really came back. So, for the last — since ’64, Republicans really have been marketing to primarily white voters. So, what does that mean? It means you get really good at a very homogeneous group of voters. So it used to be the largest group of white voters were non-college- educated white voters. Now, that’s declining, but it’s become this sort of belief in the Republican Party that, somehow, to connect to these voters who are less educated, that we have to pretend that education is bad. And I don’t think it used to be that way. I mean, Roosevelt seemed to get a lot of working-class voters, and he was very well-educated. And he didn’t go out and attack universities. And it’s completely phony. I mean, you have some of the best-educated people in the world, like Ted Cruz or Senator Hawley from Missouri, talking about elitists. I mean, it’s ridiculous. But it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean, we actually have now this belief that is I think broadening that college are places that indoctrinate students in some left-wing philosophy. And history will tell us, any time you have a movement that attacks education, be it the Red Guard, nothing good happens. We should value education and aspire to education. And that’s, I think, a dramatic wrong turn the country has — the Republican Party has taken.

MARTIN: Well, why did you participate in this all these years?

STEVENS: Well, that question really led me to write this book. And it’s a very troubling question to me, and I don’t really have a good answer. I think that, when you’re involved in something like this, particularly on the end of politics — I was in the campaign part of politics. I never worked in government. So I was really about winning. And, to be honest, I was really good at winning. I won more races than just about anybody out there, helped in races, more. And there’s a certain intoxication that comes with that. You don’t really question it. I found, after the Romney campaign, where we lost — I worked for the Bush campaign, where we won — that I did a lot more reflection on why we lost than why we won. And when you win, you just kind of roll into the next race. And it is tribal. You have a comfortable place in the tribe. You’re well-compensated. People know who you are. You’re good at what you do. There’s something about that is just very comfortable.

MARTIN: Did you not any see of these things before, when you were working with some of your candidates? Like, one of the — I can’t help but notice that some of the candidates that you helped get elected have been on the forefront of some of these movements. I mean, one of your congressional candidates was one of the top sort of defenders of President Trump during the impeachment hearings, OK, a very aggressive defender, was very much pushed out front because of her aggressiveness. Why do you think you see things so differently than they do? I mean, did this never come up when you’re having all those hours together plotting strategy and figuring out what they’re going to do?

STEVENS: Well, you know, there was sort of an agreement that there was a set of beliefs, that we might disagree on this or that issue, but there was a sort of fundamental set of beliefs. So, what would that be? Personal responsibility, character counts, deficit matters, strong on Russia, pro-legal immigration. I mean, Ronald Reagan announced in front of the Statue of Liberty. He signed a bill to make everyone in the country before 1983 legal. So, when you had those sort of belief in that set of core beliefs, it made differences on issues less dramatic, because everyone’s going to disagree on issues, OK? I mean, sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, I don’t agree with my family on everything. But, look, it’s easy not to be self-reflective.

MARTIN: Well, I’m going to go back to something you said at the beginning, though, is race being the original sin of the Republican Party. Even Ronald Reagan, who was a person who obviously was a person who deeply liked people and had a great sympathy for people, I mean, he had a campaign announcement in Philadelphia, Mississippi, I mean, please, where three civil rights workers were viciously murdered. And George H.W. Bush, I mean, I don’t think anybody would think that man’s a card-carrying racist, but then here he is with the Willie Horton ad. So, the fact of the matter is, race has been used by the Republican Party for an awfully long time. And my question is, why? I mean, does nobody think that would be destructive at some point? Nobody would think that would become kind of a tiger whose tail you can’t — you can’t hold on to? Nobody ever thought that?

STEVENS: What became the sort of truism inside the Republican Party that the reason African-Americans didn’t vote for Republicans is that Republicans just weren’t good at talking to African-Americans. And I write about this a lot in my book, that it was a communication problem, that they just didn’t understand what we were saying, that there was a deep entrepreneurial spirit in the African-American community. They had this deep sort of love of family, a lot of them were culturally conservative. We could bond with them. We just had to learn how to talk to them. And I think that was a complete myth. I think African-Americans understood what Republicans were saying very clearly. And they responded. And I think there’s been this reluctance to address the core issues of sort of policy that have not favored African-Americans that Republicans still continue. So, what is our solution? Our solution is payroll tax cuts, when many people aren’t benefiting by that. So, I think it’s a whole combination of issues that really goes to a reluctance to address fundamental policy issues that are not appealing to many of those who are the most disadvantaged in our society.

MARTIN: And now you have got, of course, the whole FOX News media industrial complex kind of organized around kind of the conservative media industrial complex to amplify that message, something that…


STEVENS: Look at Lindsey Graham in the last week talking about how nurses, if they were paid $25,000 — $25 an hour, might not come to work, I mean, in this bill. Is there anything more insulting imaginable, the idea that some — it’s this sort of feeling that people don’t want to work. I don’t think that’s true. I think people do want to work. And I think nurses — the idea that Lindsey Graham would go out and say that, it’s just one of these moments when sort of — Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe was when a politician tells the truth. And that’s just sort of a classic moment of that. It just reflects a deep- held belief.

MARTIN: Well, why, though, do these candidates continue to get elected? I mean, presumably, there are nurses in South Carolina, right, who might object to these comments? Presumably, there are medical professionals. I mean, you have heard the president the other day in his daily briefings…


MARTIN: … suggest that medical personnel were somehow hiding or hoarding or backdooring these medical supplies. Presumably, these are — some of these folks voted for President Trump, which actually leads me to my question, which is, how do you explain the president’s current approval rating? I mean, it’s the highest it’s been since he took office. How do you understand that?

STEVENS: Well, if you look around the world, all of these leaders in these countries who have been besieged COVID-19 are doing well in polls. I mean, in Italy, the government is at 70 percent, and they are dying like flies. I think that’s just a natural belief that we have to pull together, sort of a reflection of foreign policy ends at water’s edge sort of thing. I mean, we forget Bush went up originally after Katrina. I think that that is just sort of something that’s very — it’s not American, but we see it across the world. I think it’s very human to want to pull together. And Trump is the president, so you want to support the president. But at the same time, you see him losing to Biden by almost 10 points in these polls. So I don’t really think it means anything.

MARTIN: Do you have any hope that enough people agree with you that a change will occur? What would you like to see going forward?

STEVENS: I have pretty much given up hope on that. I mean, I think that we saw, in impeachment, the inability for anyone but Mitt Romney to really look at the truth. And there’s no question that if Barack Obama had been accused of this and had done this stuff, they would have impeached him in a second. So the idea that the Republican Party as an institution is going to reform itself based on any sort of standards of principle or morality, I think we just have to abandon. We can’t believe that. I think the only thing that will change the Republican Party is utter terror. And that terror will come when they start to lose. So, of the Americans under 15, the majority are nonwhite. So there’s some reason to believe that those 15-year-olds are going to become 18-year-olds and remain nonwhite. And that’s sort of like a very, very dark sign for the Republican Party, because it has really sort of embraced becoming a white grievance party, in a way that would have been unimaginable to me not very long ago. So, I think, when the Republican Party can’t win anymore — and we have lost seven out of the last eight popular votes. I mean, I worked for Bush in 2004. It’s last time since ’88 that we won the popular vote. So I think that only losing is going to force the party to change.

MARTIN: Stuart Stevens, thanks so much for talking with us today.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, who says this pandemic be an opportunity to restore democratic leadership. She also speaks with a sociologist and the host of “Couples Therapy” about the consequences a quarantine has on those affected by domestic violence. Michel Martin speaks with Republican strategist Stuart Stevens about his denouncement of the Party.