Mehlman: Bush Stresses Heartland Values

On Tuesday, July 13, the HUMAN EVENTS editorial board interviewed Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2004. What follows is an edited and excerpted transcript of the conversation. The President this week is in Minnesota, he’s in Wisconsin, he’s in West Virginia, he’s going to be down in Florida . . . a lot of the same places that John Kerry was the week before as a matter of fact. Is this the battleground of the campaign–states like Wisconsin, Minnesota–that were narrowly decided last time? KEN MEHLMAN: Probably. Obviously you don’t know. If you had told someone in even July of 2000 the two states to watch for how the election of 2000 would turn out would be West Virginia and Tennessee you wouldn’t have believed it. But certainly these are likely to be big battleground states. The President is in two places today in Marquette, Mich., population 16,000. We’re expecting a rally of 9,000 people. He’s in Duluth, Minn. These are two communities represented by Democrats who are pro-life, Democrats who reflect the mainstream, heartland values of America . . . You’ve got a Kerry-Edwards ticket, which is the most far out of the mainstream, the most liberal, the most extreme whether it’s on taxes, on defense, on social policy that we’ve ever seen. And I think it is not an accident that he’s in two communities represented by long-term Democrats [James Oberstar [Minn.] and Bart Stupak [Mich.]) who have on issues like the Laci Peterson Law and protection of pregnant women and their unborn babies, on questions of partial-birth abortion, on questions of parental consent and notification. [stood with Bush, outside of where Kerry and Edwards are. In the last week you have Kerry and Edwards talking about values in a very vague sense, and your campaign coming out with pro-life commercials and so forth. Is this because both campaigns now are targeting precisely this audience–conservative Democrats in places like Michigan and Wisconsin? KM: We believe the election is going to turn on three big issues. We think it’s going to be turned out on what kind of foreign policy should our country have when it faces the threat of international terrorism, what kind of economic policy should we have when we face true global competition, and who do you believe ought to decide the community norms in our communities around the country . . . I think that on social policies like we discussed this week, whether it’s the marriage issue, whether it’s the life issue, whether it’s the 2nd Amendment, you’ve got a ticket which is completely outside of the mainstream, who has a history of taking positions–this isn’t whether it’s pro-life or pro-choice–which are so extreme that they recognize no limit on these questions. And yet your convention speakers that you announced a couple weeks ago, they actually a lot of them agree with Kerry and Edwards on those issues. KM: Well, I don’t know first of all that they agree on the Laci Peterson Law or on these other questions. We’ve announced some of our convention speakers. There will be a broad array of convention speakers that will reflect the party generally and the most important two convention speakers—the President and Vice President–I think everyone knows where they stand . . . We’ll announce more of the speakers as we go forward. Today we announced our platform chairmen, which are Bill Frist, Gov. [Bill] Owens of Colorado, [Rep.] Melissa Hart of Pittsburgh, Pa. I’m confident that when people see this convention they will recognize it reflects our President’s compassionate conservative approach and philosophy. So that means that the platform then will not include restoration of the plan to abolish the Department of Education? KM: Uh, that is unlikely to be in the platform. We’ve just made news today. We will not call for the abolition of the Department of Education. . . . Let me just take a minute if I can and just kind of frame how we see this election because I think it’s going to be of great interest to your readers. Most presidential reelections, even the ones that we won–1984, Ronald Reagan–were not big debates on big fundamental questions. Usually those elections, 1996 Clinton, 1984 Reagan, purely turn on an assessment of how the incumbent is doing, and there’s not a big choice offered. This election will be different because a very big choice will be offered. We will offer the largest and most ideological choice the country has seen in a long time on war, on peace, and on social policy in this country. Ultimately, many of the people in this room, myself included, for many years argued that we needed to paint with bold colors and not pale pastels. This is a campaign which from the beginning has painted on those issues in bold colors . . . When this is done I want us to be in the same place that 1964 Goldwater and 1980 Reagan were for different reasons. Obviously the outcome was very different, but fundamentally they both did the same thing and that is they trained, they motivated, they mobilized, and they brought out a generation of activists-a generation of people who would write the checks, that would staff the campaigns, that would run for office, that would be involved. The reason both did so was the powers of their ideas . . . For a generation of conservatives who have said they wanted a campaign that offers a big ideological choice and that tactically is focused on the grassroots, and I’m here to say you’ve got it. Do you think this sort of bold-colors conservative message you’re talking about is capable of driving an electoral victory in places like California and New York as well as in the south? KM: In the 1984 reelection, 45% of the country self-identified as Democrat, 35% self-identified as Republicans . . . Part of why there’s the polarization, part of why you saw the red and the blue was because Republicans and Democrats are now at parity . . . One of the most interesting things to me that you are seeing is this: Step back 20 years, and what happened in a place like Texas? First the suburbs started changing. Then the rural areas started changing, and they improved their performance a bit in the cities. Ultimately Republicans became ascendant in Texas. In the 2002 Georgia gubernatorial and Senate race, what was different about those races than previous races? [1998 gubernatorial candidate] Guy Milner [R.] did very well in the suburbs of Atlanta. What’s different is that both [now-Sen.] Saxby Chambliss and [now-Gov.] Sonny Perdue came from rural Georgia. So places that had all these courthouse Democrats–they were conservatives, but they voted Democrat by tradition–suddenly voted Republican. You added the majority together, and you had a majority statewide. You’re seeing the same thing in Minnesota, in the iron range, and in places that previously were the heart of DFL country. You’re seeing it in Wisconsin, and you’re seeing it in other places, too. So I do think there’s an opportunity . . . to attract new people in, particularly people among our conservative base, if we simply paint with those bold colors. You don’t think [Kerry] got the bounce he needed out of Edwards? KM: He’s probably gotten some bounce out of Edwards . . . I ultimately think the choice of John Edwards tell you two big things about John Kerry that the public has found troubling and increasingly will find troubling . . . One, the guy is way out of the mainstream. First-most liberal U.S. senator chose the fourth-most liberal U.S. senator as his running mate. There’s never been a ticket that’s so out of the mainstream as this one. Mondale-Ferraro had more conservative lifetime [Americans for Democratic Action] ratings than Kerry-Edwards has. The Stanley Cup of liberalism has a new home . . . Second I think that it showed him to be unbelievably focused on short-term political gain rather than long-term good governing . . . [Edwards] four months ago, [Kerry said], was not ready for prime time. Now he says he’s one heartbeat away . . . The choice of Edwards has a lot less to do with his ideology or his regional appeal than it does with the fact that he will bring gobs and gobs of trial lawyer money. You’re getting buried in money right now . . . KM: When we started this campaign on May 16, 2003, one of the first things I did is I said, “We’re going to be outspent.” Everyone laughed. I wasn’t saying it to spin; I was serious. Our entire campaign is built on the premise that they’re going to have this trial lawyer money, they’re going to have the labor union money, they’re going to have the left. What that means is that we need to be more efficient with money. We are. Our last report showed us at $64 million cash on hand. We have a broad base of generous support too. We have well more than a million unique donors to the campaign. What we need to do is we need to be more efficient with our resources, and we need to have a lot of support. We are going to have both . . . The advantage they have is, George Soros writes a $15 million check. We’ve never had that [big money]the way that they have it. If you look at the 2000 and 2002 election cycle, look at the big soft money donors. Always them, not us. Aren’t there conservative billionaires out there? KM: There are, but . . . our folks who are big donors are typically motivated by the belief in the cause. Their folks are motivated by transactional considerations. If you’re motivated by transactional considerations, you can justify giving $45 million or $15 million to these groups because it’s the cost of doing business. It’s an investment. After the convention are you going to be funded by the government money or not? KM: Yes . . . I’m confident we’re both going to do it. If Kerry were to say, “We’re not,” and we figured out that we couldn’t get our message out, that it was in our interest, then we would have to look at it. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Regarding the states . . . KM: The polling has shown we’re in a strong position in Pennsylvania consistently. In a lot of these swing states, the challenge they’re going to have is, if the sitting Vice President from the state of Tennessee at a time of peace and prosperity was not able to win a state because he couldn’t convince ticket splitters to vote for him, how is the most liberal member of the United States Senate from Massachusetts going to do that? And in the case of Pennsylvania, what you’re looking at is you’re looking at a lot of pro-life, Democrat, Catholic voters, some of whom live in the northeast part of the state, some of the live around Pittsburgh, if they weren’t going to vote for Gore, why are they going to vote for Kerry? Now we lost the state obviously [in 2000], so we’re going to have to turn some of those voters, but I think that’s part of the reason. Part of the reason is the people have seen the President’s performance in the state, and they like him. That’s an example. Democrats aren’t going to get traction on the manufacturing jobs? KM: I don’t ultimately think they are because of a couple of reasons. One is I think manufacturing jobs are coming back, and two, they don’t have the solution to the problem. Medical liability is a huge issue in that state. You’ve got OB/GYNs leaving the state. It’s a crisis in the state. Are you going to want to vote for a ticket that is totally beholden to that special interest? . . . If John Kerry had his way, and you had Kyoto rules and [fuel efficiency] rules, you’d have 2.5 million fewer jobs nationally, and a lot of those would be Michigan jobs . . . .In Wisconsin we’re doing very well-a state where we lost by less than 10,000 votes. Great grassroots, great effort, and you’re seeing growth in that state. Minnesota, no Republican has won since 1972. We’re making big growth there, and I feel good about that. So those are just four examples of states where I think we have an opportunity. We lost New Mexico by less than 1,000 votes–300 votes. That’s competitive Florida has led the country economically, doing very well from an economic perspective. If Al Gore couldn’t win among those conservative Panhandle Democrats–the people that always would vote for [Sen.] Bob Graham [D.-Fla.] but then all are conservatives–how is Kerry going to win among those voters? As soon as he won his primary, [Sen.] Arlen Specter [R.-Pa.] was already distancing himself from all of Bush’s policies. Is he a plus to have on the ticket with you there? KM: Sure. The fact is that having a sitting Republican senator in a state is always a good thing for you. But people vote for the candidate. It’s useful to have everywhere, but people ultimately vote for the candidate. About a month ago, Kerry seemed to be making a play for Ohio backed up by some of these independent Democrat groups. Do you think basically that was futile? KM: I think Ohio is going to be very competitive, but again it gets to the point we said a little while ago. Ohio is a state Clinton won twice, Gore lost. Why was that? Ohio people always think of, “Well it’s just like Michigan and Pennsylvania,” but there’s a second part of Ohio too–that whole area along the Ohio River where it’s less Midwest industrial. If you look at the counties where Clinton did very well in then Gore didn’t do as well in, it’s a lot of those rural counties; it’s a lot of those river counties. How is Kerry likely to do better than Al Gore in terms of identifying with the values and needs and interests of those counties? I think it’s going to be a big challenge for him. Zell Miller said in an interview with HUMAN EVENTS that he thought the Democrats had no chance of winning any states in the South. He left Florida out of it. Do you agree with that? KM: I think it’s going to be very hard, very hard. Notwithstanding his statement that he actually has conservative values . . . the 19-year record NRA rating of an “F,” the 100% National Abortion Rights Action League rating, those kinds of things–the opposition to the death penalty, the constant carping about how our highest and best foreign policy goal ought to be the applause of foreign leaders–I don’t think those kinds of things are going to appeal to voters who are in the South and frankly are in a lot of rural places around the country. Then why aren’t you doing better than you are? KM: First of all, the country is very closely divided, and that affects everything. Secondly, we’ve had three months of the most difficult news cycle that any incumbent you can imagine. I think the fact that the President is where he is reflects an incredible buoyancy in his support. I think those are the two reasons. I think the tough news cycle we’ve had and the fact that the country is closely divided. The Hispanic vote . . . are you going to use the President’s immigration proposal at all in the election? KM: We’re not advertising on that. . . We could talk about No Child Left Behind, we could talk about Medicare prescription drugs, we could talk about the war on terror, we could talk about the fact that, whether it’s with parental consent provision before a child has access to abortion or the morning-after pill or partial-birth abortion or traditional family values that most of the values that most Latino families have in this country are not reflected in the Kerry/Edwards ticket. So you’re going to focus on social issues when it comes to Hispanics rather than advertising the guest workers program? The January 7 proposal, you’re not using that at this time? KM: At the moment we are not using that in advertising. How do you think the war is going to play out in the election? Leaving aside the war on terrorism as a whole, is the Iraq war a net positive for the President moving forward from here or is it the main drag? KM: I think it will be the net positive, and here’s why: I think the American people . . . are going to look at two people. Both of them looked at the evidence. Both of them saw that there was a threat. Both of them recognized after 9/11 that there wasn’t a lot of margin for error when it comes to threat. Both of them said we should act, except one of them continued moving forward until we accomplished out goal and protected this country and protected the world. The other one voted against our troops while they were in battle because it was politically expedient to do so and now tries to have it both ways . . . The President pointed out yesterday that you have four countries that were previous havens for terrorists–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya–places where there was an active effort by the regimes to obtain and to have weapons of mass destruction programs. Today, all four of those have regimes that are cooperative allies in the war on terror. All four of those are hunting terrorists as opposed to providing havens for those terrorists. Some people fear that the Medicare bill is going to dim a lot of conservative support. KM: I think what the people have to choose between is the most liberal member of the United States Senate who favors $900 billion of new taxes in his first 100 days, who favors weakening our national defense and deferring defending America to the whims of other nations, who receives an “F,” not a “D,” not a “C-,” but an “F” from the National Rifle Association, who has a 100% voting record from the National Abortion Rights Action League, versus a President that believes you need to cut the taxes to create prosperity, who believes in a strong and muscular national defense that puts America’s interests and needs first, and who believes in establishing and promoting a culture of life in this country, and believes that the 2nd Amendment is a fundamental individual right granted by the Constitution. I think when they can choose between those two sides, I’m confident we’re going to have a lot of supporters and I’m confident they’re going to turn out on election day.