Q&A: Jim Geraghty on 'Voting to Kill'

Jim Geraghty’s new book, “Voting to Kill: How 9/11 Launched the Era of Republican Leadership,” arrives on the political scene at the very moment President Bush is trying to refocus the country’s attention on the War on Terror.

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Bush’s speeches and legislative goals have reshaped the fall agenda in Congress around anti-terrorism initiatives. With an eye on November and control of Congress at stake, Republicans are striving to differentiate themselves from Democrats. So far it seems to be working, as they’ve enjoyed a slight boost in polls.

Geraghty, a blogger for National Review Online, says the Republican Party’s real bread-and-butter issue is national security in a post-9/11 world. At a time when continued terrorist threats weigh on Americans, Geraghty argues that voters would rather have the GOP fighting terrorists.

I asked Geraghty about his new book and the national political climate. His answers are below.

Is it possible to pinpoint the moment in the 1960s or 1970s where the Democratic Party lost its nerve on issues of national security?

Most of the folks I spoke to and quote a bit in the book — Peggy Noonan, Bush campaign advertising guru Alex Castellanos, some White House strategists and advisors who asked to remain unnamed — pointed to the rise of the McGovern campaign, and the idealistic, deeply antiwar folks who joined, and ultimately took over the Democratic Party in 1972.

The fourth chapter of the book looks at terrorism, threats, and the way our political system reacted to those threats from Vietnam to September 10, 2001. The case that really stood out to me was the Iranian hostage crisis, and the sheer overwhelming impotence of the Carter White House, and by extension, the entire country at that time. Throughout the crisis, the attitude of President Carter was, “how can I negotiate a settlement that will get the hostages freed?”; it was never, “how can we inflict such devastating consequences on the hostage-takers that everyone around the world knows that they should never take an American embassy hostage?”

I think the fact that the hostage crisis is seen by many Democrats as an unavoidable tragedy, instead of a serious policy and leadership failure to protect Americans, marked a turning point in the thinking of the party.

Hawks like FDR, Truman, and JFK are revered by loads of today’s dovish Democrats. If transplanted to the modern era, would these popular Democratic figures be ostracized in the same manner that Joe Lieberman was?

That seems likely. I note that the FDR memorial on the Mall features the Roosevelt quote, “I hate war”, not “the arsenal of democracy” or any of his speeches urging the American people to fight courageously and relentlessly. Baby boomers have embraced some major historical revision, and prefer to believe that their heroes of yesteryear would agree with their views of today. I’m skeptical that John F. Kennedy would sound like Ted Kennedy if he were alive today.

This year, polls are again indicating that voters’ top concern is the economy, just as they did in 2002. Will 2006 see a similar discrepancy between what voters claim they will vote on and what they actually do?

There may. I suspect that the answers people give to pollsters on this are not quite accurate, or don’t quite reflect what is going through their heads when they go into the voting booth. Throughout 2002, the Democrats kept hearing from their pollsters and focus groups that they wanted their prescription drugs covered. And then they got thrashed on Election Day, because they were talking about grandma’s drugs while the Republican candidates were talking about establishing the Department of Homeland Security, and not giving federal employee unions a de facto veto.

In the book, I quote a Bush campaign strategist a lot, and one of the things that didn’t make the final draft was his assessment that the Democrats “keep misleading themselves.” They genuinely misperceive what the pecking order is in terms of voters’ most important issues, and what actually gets a person to show up and vote. People care about prescription drugs, but that’s not necessarily what they’re going to base their vote on. Also, they keep offering a litany of grievances, complaints that this hasn’t worked, or that is going badly, and why didn’t the President do this or that. Senior GOP strategists tend to doubt that this is what inspires people, and what gets them to say, “Yeah, I want to stand on line at the local high school on a Tuesday early in November and vote for this guy.”

For how long will terrorism be the main electoral hammer of the Republican Party? How long will it be a losing issue for Democrats?

Honestly, I suspect that so long as the war on terror is going on, it will remain a primary issue, if not the primary issue. Other issues are important, but they just don’t have the supreme, immediate life-or-death consequences the way this one does. We’ve heard that nothing focuses the mind like the hangman’s noose; nothing focuses the attention and thinking of voters like the fact that a network of homicidal maniacs is trying to kill them.

If lawmakers louse up tax policy, then my loved ones and I have less money in our pockets and we’re annoyed and bothered. If lawmakers louse up policy in fighting terrorism, then my loved ones and I may get killed. There’s no way to fix it. In the book, I quote a woman from a focus group conducted by the media who said, “It doesn’t matter how much money you have if you’re dead.”

What is the primary reason behind the Democrats’ continuing failure to find unified traction on security issues? Is it the patchwork-like nature of the party? A lack of interest?

A big part is lack of interest. This is a broad generalization, but generally, voters become Democrats because they care about abortion rights, gay rights, social spending or welfare or they’re union members, or civil rights, health care and the environment. Iraq may be a big issue for those joining the Democrats these days.

Voters become Republicans because they care about lowering taxes, reducing regulations, preserving traditional values, punishing criminals and killing foreigners who threaten Americans. That last one has always been a big one for members of the military and their families, and has only accelerated since 9/11.

A poll in January 2005 found that when asked to rank foreign policy priorities from one to ten, “dismantling the al Qaeda network” was given a ranking of 10 by 70 percent of Republicans, 55 percent of Independents, and 50 percent of Democrats. However, 62 percent of Democrats ranked “stopping the spread of AIDS worldwide” as one of their top objectives, the second highest total behind pulling the troops out of Iraq. And Byron York revealed in the run-up to the 2004 election that Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina had terrorism strikingly low on their list of priorities, near the bottom.

The Democratic party really was perfectly suited for 1990s politics — health care, education, how to spend the surplus, I-feel-your-pain pandering to soccer moms. That political landscape is gone, for the foreseeable future; the party is just having a tough, tough time adjusting.

After the 2004 elections, newly minted Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) told Tim Russert that the Democrats needed to move to the center (he had stated something similar to that in 1994). What, do you think, influenced Reid to abandon this philosophy shortly thereafter?

There’s no appetite among the party’s base for that. If you look at the post-2004 election commentary, the Democrats’ movers, shakers, and thinkers didn’t want to reach out for the middle; they mocked the middle as ignorant hateful hicks who the Democrats would not stoop so low as to appeal to. I’m sure you remember Jane Smiley writing about the “bloodlust” and “ignorance” of the Red States in Slate after Election Day. If folks like that were in charge of the Democrats’ strategies, they would be running commercials in Montana, Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri saying, “Vote for us, you ignorant, bloodthirsty hicks.”

So Reid has to pull off a balancing act, between the exurban, hawkish-instincts voters the party needs to appeal to, and the urban and university town elites who absolutely loathe them.

What school of thought will control the 2008 Democratic Primary season: the Democratic Leadership Council or the crowd? Is it possible for the two to have a compromise candidate?

The DLC has been an odd duck in its recent history. If you look back at the stands and proposals of that group and its members from about 1990 to 1994, there’s a lot of ideas that conservatives would find intriguing. Once the Republicans started enacting their agenda, and the biggest issue for them was enacted (welfare reform) the DLC become a lot more cautious. In recent years, the Deaniacs and Kossacks have turned the DLC into a scapegoat.

It seems safe to assume that in 2008, the most rightward candidate among the Democrats will not win. (That is the candidate also most likely to be closest to the political middle.) There is room for a compromise candidate; there are enough people in the party’s hierarchy, Capitol Hill, etc. realize that the country doesn’t want a Deaniac-Daily Kos President. My guess is Hillary is the most likely compromise candidate.

More to the point: Who is winning the battle between the DLC types and the constituency? In 2004, the DLC side seemed to win with John Kerry (D-Mass.) securing the nomination instead of former Gov. Howard Dean (D-VT). From that point on, where is the trend going?

The DLC has been wiped out, for now. We may see it make a comeback, depending on how 2006 goes. My guess is that there are two likely scenarios, if we assume that Hillary gets the nomination. If Hillary wins, the Deaniacs get a seat at the table in a Hillary Clinton administration, and are fairly happy.

But, if Hillary cannot turn any red state into a blue one — king at the map, there’s no easy or automatic states that will flip — and 2008 sees a victory by President Giuliani, or President Romney or Allen or McCain, then we will see an all-out furious tantrum by the far-left wing of the party. They’ll be convinced that Clinton was too much of a triangulator, too much of a sellout to win and they will demand a “pure” candidate in 2008. And then, I suspect, the “pure” candidacy of Dean or a Dean-type would get a McGovern-style walloping by the incumbent Republican president, and then, I suspect, you would begin to see serious discussions of whether the Democrats were still relevant to the national debate.

What is the best barometer by which to demonstrate that terrorism is at or near the front of voters’ minds this fall?

Well, Republicans are campaigning on it, placing the issue front and center. This would suggest they’re seeing something in their polling, or focus groups that this is something the voters respond to.

We will see how the legislative fights go this fall, but it’s interesting that Democrats want to campaign on Iraq, but are, at least on the campaign trail, avoiding talking about NSA wiretapping, the treatment and interrogation of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, etc.

The Republicans might still have a tough Election Day 2006. But we have seen some movement in the numbers in the past month, suggesting to me that the London airliner bombing plot, the anniversary of 9/11, maybe even the “Path to 9/11” miniseries have had an impact on the public’s thinking. Voters tend to periodically forget that we’re at war for a while, and then events wake them up again.

How might the Democrats convince voters that people like Michael Moore and George Soros are not their policy makers?

Denounce them when they say something stupid.

Republicans who hurt their party tend to find themselves radioactive quite quickly. Ann Coulter had her column dropped by National Review after calling for forced conversions of Muslims to Christianity. When Congressman John Cooksey, R-La., said, “If I see someone come in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt [wrapped] around [it], that guy needs to be pulled over and checked, ” White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said Cooksey should watch what he says and that there’s “never a time” for his comments. When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson made their infamous comments about “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians” who helped 9/11 happen, they lost whatever influence they had outside the core of the religious right.
It doesn’t quite relate to terrorism, but when Trent Lott said his infamous comments about Strom Thurmond, he found himself getting a lot of criticism from conservatives and other Republicans, including President Bush.

Some on the right complain about this trait, lamenting that we “eat our own.” Frankly, I like that conservatives will criticize a stupid comment, even if it comes from someone they usually agree with.

Republican consultant Fred Wszolek says that the GOP will have to have a “complete generational turnover for [the anti-Social Security stigma] to lessen. How long could it take for Democrats to regain legitimacy on security issues?

It depends on the decisions they make in the coming years. Could be as soon as 2008, but I doubt it. My guess is the party needs to nominate a Dean type, the Kossacks’ dream candidate, and then see him crash on the rocks in a McGovern-style debacle to realize, “oh, those stands just aren’t going to get us a majority.”

Of course, some will still blame Diebold.

If you were an Evan Bayh type, or some sort of Democrat who was or is serious about the war on terrorism, you may want to gamble and sit out 2008, and wait for the seemingly inevitable electoral disaster that’s just down the road to pass. Then, when your party is really in the wilderness and looking for a leader, you come out and offer a new course that combines social liberalism, economic populism, and generally hawkish policies, picking on the GOP’s blind spots — Saudi Arabia, racial profiling in airport security, a tougher line with Pakistan. In 2012, you would be the real Bill Clinton 2.0 after the second coming of the Dukakis Debacle.

How much of the Left’s dovish behavior boils down to partisanship?

The reaction to Clinton’s military efforts is an interesting contrast, but Clinton knew how to fight wars in ways that would avoid antagonizing his party too much — all air power, no ground troops, and often, no discernable national interest. One of the fascinating portions of that chapter covering recent history was looking back at Kosovo, and seeing the number of mistakes, often-fatal missed bombing runs, ineffective efforts against Serbian military hardware, etc. We hear about everything that goes wrong in Iraq today, but the current effort is a well-oiled machine compared to Wes Clark’s management of Kosovo. Yet the public remembers little, if anything about the war in Kosovo.

A lot of this comes down to one’s worldview. Democrats are not terribly comfortable with the concept that some people are just irredeemably evil, incapable of reaching a compromise, and need to be killed to prevent them from killing others.

Look at Hollywood clichés — when we see evil, it comes from very familiar, reassuring forms to the typical lefty — bloodthirsty military types, evil conspiracies, the CIA, giant evil corporations and their rich, greedy, cackling CEOs, corrupt cops, renegade spies, white supremacists, etc. These are all villains that the worldview of the left is comfortable with. When evil comes along in the form of a bin Laden, a Saddam, an Ahmedinijad or Nasrallah, the left isn’t quite sure how to denounce them. They’ve imbibed deeply from the cup of multiculturalism, and anti-colonialist resistance, and moral relativism. They also have this lingering fondness for romantic revolutionaries like Che; this is why Michael Moore calls Abu Zarqawi and his thugs “the Minutemen, the revolution.”

The right, on the other hand, sees these guys as just plain evil. The left raises a stink over whether al-Qaeda and its like-minded supporters meet the technical definition of an Islamist “fascist”; the right sees an embrace of violence, a cult of personality, a ruthless brutality that shows no mercy to civilians and distinctive facial hair and says, “yup, they’re fascists.”

Conservatives don’t really spend a lot of time asking, “why do they hate us?” or lose much sleep over it. As far as many conservatives — and a lot of fairly apolitical Americans — see it, we’re good, they’re evil, so obviously they will hate us.


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