In his new book, The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America’s Promise, MSNBC’s sole conservative, morning-show host Joe Scarborough, explains where Republicans went wrong and how they can recover their principles and popularity. We met in New York’s P.J. Clarke’s to discuss the book, the 2008 presidential campaign, and the profile of a successful conservative in the Obama era. Gracious, good humored and garrulous, Scarborough offered opinions on Donald Rumsfeld, gay marriage, the press, John McCain, and whether or not President Obama is really the greatest candidate since Ronald Reagan. Excerpts from our conversation:
Why did you write the book?
Because the conservative movement is at such a low point right now.... Conservatives have moved away from conservatism.... We responded to the radicalism of the 1960s with our own radicalism.... After 9/11, the president had a measured policy, but by 2005 he’s talking about ending tyranny across the globe. And I just sat back and wondered where all the Republicans had gone, who in the 1990s... kept talking about avoiding military adventurism.... I think we need to conserve the taxpayers’ money, conserve our military power and conserve the environment.
“Conservatives have moved away from conservatism,” says Scarborough. “We responded to the radicalism of the 1960s with our own radicalism.”
You argue Obama’s spending will inevitably lead to a new age of conservatism. Republicans have been pretty united in opposing it and trying to rebuild their brand as fiscal conservatives. But our numbers are low and getting lower, and Obama’s remain quite high.
Again, I think most Americans know after eight years Republicans inherited a $155 billion surplus and turned it into a $1 trillion deficit. They doubled the national debt from $5.7 trillion to $11 trillion.... I think that did more to destroy the Republican brand than anything. More than Katrina. More than the war. More than the fact that the president just couldn’t communicate his vision for America.... I think the one thing that unites most Americans with conservatives is restrained spending, smaller government. We make our assumptions based on spending as little of the taxpayers’ dollars as we possibly can. That doesn’t mean you engage in a false economy.... But let’s have a reasoned approach instead of having Barney Frank and Chris Dodd giving money to the banks and then calling the bank CEOs to their committees demanding they give out loans to people who can’t afford to repay the loans and start the same process we started in 1999.
Which was the bigger mistake? Going into Iraq in the first place? Or not sending enough troops?
The biggest mistake was going in there with insufficient force; allowing the looting to take place. Donald Rumsfeld’s light-footprint approach was about as disastrous as any military policy we’ve had.
Do you agree that hanging onto Rumsfeld that long was one of President Bush’s biggest mistakes?
Oh, my God, yes. Senator McCain got that right early on. He got Petraeus right as well.... When I hear conservatives attacking Colin Powell, saying he’s not a true conservative, Powell who... was pleading with the president to send more troops.... I tell you what, if Bush had listened to Colin Powell from the beginning, conservatives who loathe Colin Powell would probably still be in power.
Describe the profile of a successful conservative in the Obama era in substance and style.
Republicans who bring up Reagan always talk about the ideology, but they forget about the temperament.... For the most part, Americans are looking for someone who defines the middle of American political thought. In 2008, [Obama] actually seemed like the safer choice than John McCain because in many cases he sounded more confident in how he’d handle the economy than a guy who had been in Washington a long time, who might be too old for the challenges, who said on the day that Lehman Brothers crashed that the fundamentals of the economy were strong.
President Obama was a very skillful candidate and ran a very disciplined campaign. I think they ran a remarkable campaign, but I still don’t know how good of a candidate Barack Obama is. There was a month and a half, from the Berlin speech forward, when for the first time in his political career he was put back on his heels. And he responded horribly, every day. He stammered, in debates he just sat there.... Get him off the teleprompter and I just don’t know how good a politician he is.
I think that was smart. This was theirs to lose. It was smart to rope-a-dope.
John McCain was burdened with eight years of Republican screwups; a right track number of nine; a Republican president with the lowest approval rating since Jimmy Carter; and an economy in freefall. And yet, despite all of that, I’m still pretty damn sure if Barack Obama hadn’t broken his pledge on public financing, and didn’t spend $639 million, I still don’t think he would have won the campaign.... If Bear Stearns had not collapsed; if Obama wasn’t able to outspend John McCain 4-1 in Virginia, 3-1 in Florida, 3-1 in Ohio, I think he probably would have lost....
[The] press... never wrote one article about the fact that Barack Obama ran the most negative campaign—objectively, if you just look at the commercials—in the history of American politics. And yet he was able to say, “this campaign is going to be different. We’re not going to get down in the mud.”
The commercial that bled McCain the most was the heath-care commercial which was, if not an out and out lie, extraordinarily misleading. And as you know very well, for the first time in a general election campaign, a Democrat was trusted more on taxes than a Republican.... You get away with what you can get away with in those 30-second ads.... But the referee is usually the media. And the media did not step up in any meaningful way.
In your environmental chapter, you start off saying McCain forgot he was an environmentalist. I understand that most of what broke through in his message was that he was for lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling, but he never mentioned lifting it without mentioning this very broad program... with all sorts of investments in green technology, from clean coal to green grids, wind, hybrids, battery-operated cars, cap and trade, nuclear.
But the only thing that broke through was “drill, baby, drill.” At the convention or wherever the cameras went, we never heard about the other things. Maybe that was the media narrowing that message down to “drill, baby, drill.” I think, though, the next candidate that represents the Republican Party is going to have to... stare down those people who think that, if you’re an environmentalist, you’re embracing Al Gore and Greenpeace.
You make the same point as McCain on gay marriage, that it should be left to the states to decide. You also apply that federalist argument to abortion. But that requires knocking down Roe... and isn’t that pro-choice advocates’ most effective attack against pro-lifers, that we want to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Sure. But I would love a Republican presidential candidate to turn to Barack Obama in 2012 and say, “do you really believe the federal government should be involved in a discussion of whether a man is born gay or learns it? If you really believe that the federal government should be involved in OB/GYN issue, then great, stay in the Democratic Party.... Does anyone presume that people in Pensacola, Florida, know what’s best for people in Vermont on these highly personal issues? I’ve got enough problems of my own, and I’ll deal with them with my family and God. I’m not staying up at night worrying about what guys in Montpelier are doing. And I don’t want the federal government worrying about that either.
Near the end of the book you say, we can’t nominate another moderate, we tried that, and McCain didn’t win. But as I read your book, with the notable exception of campaign-finance reform... I was struck by how well McCain seems to fit your idea of what a modern conservative should be. He’s one of the biggest critics of spending excesses by Democrats and Republicans. He went after corruption by Republicans and Democrats... He opposed the prescription-drug benefit. Scourge of earmarks, defender of free markets, free trader.
What can I say, I owe him an apology. Did he vote against the $7 trillion Medicare expansion?
Yes, he did.
I owe him an apology. Senator McCain, I’m sorry.
Pragmatic environmentalist. Opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment on federalist grounds. Earliest advocate for the "surge." Biggest critic of Rumsfeld and the light footprint.
Why is it then, somebody like myself, who’s obviously been the scourge of the hard right, for going after Bush on spending and Iraq... who’s followed politics as closely as I have, considers McCain to be more of a moderate along the lines of Bob Dole?
Good question. He’s a solution-driven guy, a practical guy. He builds coalitions. He’s got no problem meeting [Democrats] somewhere in the middle if they can get something done.
Yeah, immigration hurt him a lot with some of the base. We had a problem with part of the base that really got under way in the Bush era. And then you had the press, who decided not to play referee anymore.... So you had nothing but our campaign stressing these things. We had nobody else, no referee, no echo chamber.
I feel his pain. On the same day that Mark Levin savaged me on the right on his radio show, The New York Times was calling me “the leader of the Republican attack squad.” What do you do? And you’re right, you’re a man without a country.
I do remember back when he was running in 2000, and I know this contradicts everything that I’ve written about in this book, I do remember when he went after Falwell and Robertson, called them agents of intolerance, the whole South Carolina primary. I think at the time I remembered thinking the guy is obviously running as the moderate in 2000. He’s trying to go to the middle to get votes against Bush. He’s trying to play against the natural prejudices that all Republicans have to confront….And it just seemed to me that going after Christian conservatives seemed like a convenient punching bag at that stage of the campaign.
The mistake we made was naming any person by name. But he gave the speech in Virginia Beach, after South Carolina, in front of an audience of Christian conservatives, and the point was to refute the argument that Robertson and Falwell were making, and much more Robertson than Falwell—they went after McCain because of his opposition to soft money.... And they extrapolated from that that McCain was wrong on abortion and other issues. He had a pretty spotless conservative record on life issues.... The whole purpose was to make an argument to Christian conservatives over the heads of ...
And I’m just guessing, but he probably took it very personally that his quarter-century record was being twisted by a couple of these guys.
You know, also, though, he’s an Arizona guy. He’s a sailor, a Navy guy. He had no problem talking about his colorful past. Also, because he was an Arizonan who was more of an independent maverick, it was harder for him to deliver that message than for me to deliver a message, saying I’m with you, 100 percent Right to Life, 100 percent NRA, but we’ve got to... take this out of Washington, D.C. I don’t think the Christian right is going to say, Joe Scarborough is an enemy of the pro-life movement.
Anything surprise you about Obama the president that you didn’t expect from Obama the candidate?
Yeah... I’ve been really, really disappointed on the degree of partisanship. I was one of those Republicans who heard him in Iowa and was inspired... who said wouldn’t it be great if the Democrats started running guys like this, who didn’t see the world through the lens of 1968. And, talk about the alarm bills going off, the morning when I found out he selected Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, because I knew what that meant. Sure enough, he got elected and they have played hardball and have gone as far left as possible.... Having an outline for a stimulus package that Republicans say they can agree with and then sending Axelrod and Summers up to the Hill, and Democrats saying, “No, no, we’re not going to have a bipartisan bill,” and having the president back down.
He has been every bit as partisan as any president in years. I’m very critical of George W. Bush in so many ways, but [Obama] is much more partisan in his first year than George W. Bush was. I was beating the hell out of Bush in 2001 for teaming up with Ted Kennedy with this horrific education bill. He teamed up with Democrats on Medicare. He spent money and gave Democrats what they wanted for the most part. He was far more bipartisan than Barack Obama.
Let me say, though... as disappointed as I’ve been with him on domestic issues, I’ve been comforted with him keeping on Bob Gates, Petraeus. I don’t want us to stay in Afghanistan for a long time, but he’s being responsible in Afghanistan. He’s being responsible in Iraq. He’s being responsible in deciding not to release the pictures. I think he might be the first foreign-policy realist we’ve had since Bush 41.
Of course, I knock him for making promises he said he wasn’t going to break and then he’s breaking them. But, actually, I respect him for doing it.
Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Senator John McCain and senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.