7:23 am Aug. 17, 2011
A conversation with Salon news editor Steve Kornacki about the very angry-sounding Republicans who are running for president.
Josh Benson: Could you please explain what it means that people like Karl Rove sounding the alarm already about the conservativeness of certain Republican presidential candidates?
Steve Kornacki: Well for Rove in particular there may be a unique factor: The Bush 43 crowd apparently doesn't care for Perry (Bush's one-time LG and successor as governor) at all. So in that sense, it's not surprising that Rove is out there now suggesting that Perry isn't cutting it as a presidential candidate.
However, in general, Rove seems to be one of a growing number of G.O.P. elites (opinion-shapers in the party) who are publicly expressing reservations about Perry. And many of them have no obvious personal ax to grind. Like, for instance, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which came down pretty hard on Perry on Monday, just after his announcement weekend.
The significance is that Perry (supposedly) was going to be the G.O.P's white knight: someone who could bond with the party base the way Bachmann can but who is savvy enough about it that he doesn't get caricatured as a crazy. But the sounds we're hearing now from the elites suggest that Perry, in their view, is close to becoming just another Bachmann, and not someone they can rally around.
This is what threatening violence against the Fed chairman will do.
Josh: But how surprising is it, really, if he's implying that the chairman of the Fed ought to be strung up? Can this possibly be shocking material from a guy who traffics in secession threats?
Steve: Right. Alex Pareene wrote about this, and made a really good point: Perry's penchant for this sort of thing is well-established, and we shouldn't be surprised. I think the thought that some people (me included) had was that he's won three gubernatorial elections in the country's second-largest state, so he's probably got some skills that Bachmann, tucked away in her Republican-friendly slice of Minnesota, hasn't had to develop. But I'm thinking I was wrong to give him that benefit of the doubt.
Josh: So actually, could that be the reason Perry seems to be spooking WSJ-minded people in a way that Bachmann never did? Because they think she can't win the nomination but he can?
Steve: I think so. Although Bachmann is starting to spook them too, now that she's taken the lead in Iowa and won the straw poll there. The WSJ came down hard on her in that same editorial. It's interesting to watch an outlet like the Journal (or Fox) deal with someone like her. Until now, promoting her has mostly been good for them, because she has such natural appeal to their audience. So they've helped her become a name and mostly spared her criticism. I remember the WSJ running a long and friendly interview with Bachmann a few months ago, where she was talking about reading Ludwig von Mises at the beach.
But now they're seeing that they created a bit of a monster. She's now in first place in Iowa, on the back of all the credulous attention she's gotten. There is now a real scenario in which she wins the caucuses there, causes serious trouble for the G.O.P. in subsequent contest, and maybe (probably not, but maybe) walks off with the nomination.
That would be a disaster for the party. So now they're getting a little aggressive, trying to make sure their Bachmann problem doesn't get out of control.
But with Perry, it's more immediate. There's no doubt that he has a chance to win the nomination. The party elites need to decide pretty quickly what they make of him and how to react. He still could win them (or a good enough chunk of them) over, but he's not off to a good start.
Josh: So when is it time for them just to rally around Mitt Romney? They're not organically enthusiastic about him, but pretty soon he'll be all they've got, in terms of people capable of winning a general election. I mean, there's no realistic chance that any other actual contender is coming into the race at this point, is there?
Steve: So I wrote a piece yesterday with the headline "Sorry, GOP, this is the field you're stuck with," or something like that. Because, I figured, it's time to finally give up on the Christie idea and Jeb Bush just isn't budging. And Palin—well, forget it. So who's left?
There's Paul Ryan, who is now the subject of stories telling us that he's really looking at it. And nothing his office said today made me think the stories are B.S. So maybe he'll get in.
But I think that's it. If not him, I can't see anyone else jumping in now. And if he does, my instinct is to say he won't be able to put it all together. He's a member of the House with a politically poisonous Medicare plan.
Josh: What does it tell us about this group of candidates that if Ryan (Bill Kristol's favorite prospective candidate) got in today, he'd be cast as the marketable moderate, by virtue of the fact that he's less scary to non-Southerners than Perry is? I mean, yes, candidates from both parties are always red-meaty and ideological in the primaries before turn back into regular Americans in the general. But is there not something to the notion that this G.O.P. field is actually a bit ... extreme?
Steve: I think there is, and it's a reflection of where the party is now. I saw someone (forgot who) say something like this the other day: A moderate in today's G.O.P. is defined a conservative we all think is faking it. On paper, Romney is just about as far to the right as anyone now. But he gets a pass (more or less) because it's assumed he doesn't really mean most of what he says.
For what it's worth, I still think he's the guy.
Josh: It's a pretty astounding feat of pure politics that he's in a position to be the guy next year, with the Tea Party ascendant, given what he was in Massachusetts. But that transformation took some time, right? It started when he was still governor and continued right through the last presidential cycle and into this one.
How difficult will it be, by comparison, for him to cater to the Tea Party in the primary (never mind "corporations are people") and then run as an un-scary candidate in the general? I mean, he can't really get to the general and just say, "Ha ha, oh, you really think I said that thing about cutting entitlements to avoid closing corporate tax loopholes? Listen, that's just the story the liberal media wants to tell you."
Steve: That's why he's being so inconspicuous now. I think the key for him is to be as vague as possible—to endorse the Tea Party-right's broad views ("I agree that ObamaCare is a bad thing!") without getting into the nitty-gritty. What he's banking on is that the elites will eventually realize he's their best option and will then come up with the right stories to tell the base. The key moment for Mitt, I keep saying, is when Sean Hannity says, "You know, I don't like what he did with health care in Massachusetts, but I'll tell you what: With President Romney, we could repeal ObamaCare." That's the sort of thing that, I think, will bring enough of the base around when it counts.
Josh: What result are Obama's people rooting for, do you think? What is the best (realistic) way this could all play out, from their perspective?
Steve: I think they'd take (in order) Bachmann, Perry, Ryan, then Mitt. Mitt, I think, could win (against Obama) in the current climate. For a while, I believed Perry could too, but I'm having my doubts now about him. Bachmann I think loses almost virtually any circumstance. Ryan: well, forget Ryan for now. Let's see how he's received if he actually starts making moves.
Josh: Ah, right. OK, so Mitt. We are assured that Obama will not under any circumstances try to pain him as "weird." So what's the gameplan? Any lessons from Massachusetts (Ted Kennedy?) on Mitt-beating?
Steve: The best thing that Kennedy had in '94 was Mitt's business record at Bain, taking over companies and cutting costs by firing workers, being cheap on benefits, etc. And I would think that in the environment of '12, with Mitt playing the businessman card and promising to create jobs, those old Kennedy ads could be recycled to great effect: "Yeah, he knows how to make businesses profitable ... by firing workers!"
Josh: You know, Rudy Giuliani has not ruled out a run.
Steve: Yep, I hear he's got a great New Hampshire strategy...