BPR editor Ben Wofford sat down with Paul Begala, Democratic strategist, chief adviser for Priorities USA Action, and adviser to former President Bill Clinton.
Brown Political Review: Suppose that, instead of hiring Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign had hired you, what strategy would you have adopted Day One? What’s your critique of what they’re doing right now?
Paul Begala: First off, it’s always organ grinder, not the monkey. It’s always the candidate, not the strategist. I think the problem with the Romney campaign is Romney. It’s not Stuart Stevens, it’s not the pollster, it’s not the under-assault press spokesman, it’s Mitt. And here’s the problem: what he could have, and I think should have done, is run as a new kind of Republican, a more moderate, Mitt Romney-esque-from-Massachusetts Republican. I think he should have broken with the general or at least one of the major tenets of Bush’s economic strategy, which plainly failed, the Republicans know it failed, and run as a new republican. But he didn’t do it.
I suspect it’s two things: I think he’s actually committed to elitist economics. And he has certainly waffled on other issues, but they tend to be social: abortion rights, gay rights, gun control. I can’t find a lot of waffle on this Keynesian economic agenda. He seems to have been very consistent, from his business life to his time in Massachusetts to his time as a candidate for president. But that’s been a problem. It’s a Keynesian economic agenda the country doesn’t want by right of just the economic data.
This should’ve been a pretty good year to be a Republican candidate. It’s supposed to be the challenger when the incumbent president is saddled with 8% unemployment and declining median family income. Romney’s problem is Romney. He actually is an economic elitist. He actually thinks, as he told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, that it is fair for him to pay 14% on $13 million dollars in income, which he made without working, whereas a working person has got to pay a much higher rate on the income of his or her labor.
BPR: You’ve written about the circumstances in 2004 and about how the tables may have been set for Kerry to win. We sometimes hear a Romney-Kerry comparison thrown about. You write about the nightmare of trying to advise the Kerry campaign in some of your books. Is there any truth to that comparison?
Begala: History never repeats itself. But we all reason by analogy. I think this reelection is much more like Bush’s in ’04 than it is like Clinton’s in ’96 or Reagan’s in ’84. The most important reason is that when Bush was up for re-election, it was a war-time election, and the Democrats nominated a war hero. We flirted with Howard Dean, but we married John Kerry. And it was sensible. Howard Dean was exciting, he was certainly giving voice to the most powerful anti-Bush elements and emotion that we had, but then people settled down. We said, ‘yeah, it’s a wartime election – we have a war hero. And he voted for the war, which we hated, but let’s not overthink this. Let’s run the war hero during the wartime election.’
What did Bush do? He and his allies destroyed Kerry’s appeal as a war hero; I think, dishonestly. But they certainly did it effectively. And we were left with not much, and I think this is the same thing. It’s an economic-based election and the Republicans flirted with every manner of exciting anti-Obama extremist, but settled in for someone they weren’t really in love with. But they said, ‘let’s not overthink this; we got a CEO businessman in an economic crisis – let’s run him.’
The problem is, with a sharp look at the facts of his record, we’ve done a pretty effective job of exposing Romney as somebody who’s not a fan of the middle class. So he can’t run on his business record anymore – he rarely mentions it.
BPR: You’ve defended Leader Reid’s comments about Mitt Romney’s tax returns. Price Waterhouse Cooper’s prepared what is, supposedly, legal proof that Romney didn’t in fact pay lower than 13% at any point in the last twenty years. Is it now fair to say that Reid was over the line?
Begala: Not at all. Of course it’s not legal proof at all. It’s an assertion from accounting firm being paid by Mitt Romney. I’m sure there are a lot of good people at PWC, and they do a fine job, but I don’t think they covered themselves in the recent economic crisis, nor did any of the big accounting firms. So, no. The only thing we know is that whatever is in those returns is so damaging that Romney won’t release it. I think the American people have a right to know what it is.
I think Reid was just reporting what a credible person had told him. But it’s the most sensible explanation. Think of Occam’s razor: when confronted with a choice, choose the most obvious. Doctors who are diagnosing patients, when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras. So, when a multi-multi-millionaire refuses to release his taxes, and we know from the one release he’s made, now two, that he’s paid a lower rate than many working people – just 14% – what do you suppose is in those returns that he is hiding?
We know he is a man of impeccable personal moral probity. So I’m not worried that there are sleazy investments in that sense. I think he’s a very, very upstanding man, so it’s not like he’s hiding tawdry investments in, you know, guns for sell.
It is, I think, the most obvious choice. The most obvious explanation is that he paid little or no taxes in some or all of those years, and he won’t tell us. With all due respect to Price Waterhouse Cooper’s, they’re paid by Mitt Romney. I’d rather let the voters take a look at them themselves. He should release at least as much tax information to get the White House that he’d have to release if he had to get a mortgage for a suburban house. It’s really unconscionable.
I’m really casting about for more plausible theories. I’ve heard other theories, but I don’t believe them. They’re less obvious.
For what other reasons would the guy hide his tax returns? Keep in mind: this is what he is running on! John McCain only released two years of tax returns and I didn’t scream and yell about it. John McCain wasn’t really running on his business achievements. His wife’s a really able businesswoman. But that was okay with me, two years. I’d rather they have four, but I did not make it a big deal; most democrats did not. Because John McCain is a war hero, he’s an American patriot, and he wasn’t really running saying, “I’ve got the business experience.”
When Romney is running, it’s a businessman – we want to know everything about his business deals. How did he make his money? What did he pay on that income? Where has he been investing it? It’s important what little we get from the one or two years he’s released. We know his trusts have had investments from the Chinese National Oil Company, and it’s in Swiss banks, and Cayman Island banks, and Luxembourg and some bunker corporation in, I think, Bermuda. What is that? Why is he doing that? I think we know! Sounds like tax avoidance to me.
BPR: Do you have any thoughts on Citizens United?
Begala: I think it was wrong constitutionally and wrong theologically. I believe, as a person of faith, that human beings are created by God. As an American, I believe that the Declaration is right: they’re endowed by God with certain unalienable rights. Corporations are not created by God. They’re created by human beings. They’re a creature of – they’re legal fiction, which is very useful for organizing and consolidating and amassing wealth. They are really useful entities, but they’re not people.
Mitt Romney is wrong and Citizens United is wrong. A corporation ought not to have the same free speech rights as a person. They simply ought not. And they don’t, actually! Commercial speech has never been recognized to be as free as political speech. But now the Supreme Court says that corporations can participate in political speech. I think it’s terrible.
I advise the biggest Pro-Obama SuperPac, and yet I would like to live in a world without SuperPacs. I’d be happy to work myself out of a job because I think unlimited money is not good for the system.
BPR: Do you think that the president could have won without a SuperPAC?
Begala: I don’t know. I’m too biased to be able to give you a fair assessment of the truth of that. But I know this: I want to live in a world without SuperPACs, but I want live in a world without nuclear weapons, too. But as long as they exist, if Chairman Khrushchev is going to have nuclear weapons, then I want to make sure President Kennedy has them as well.
Our SuperPAC is dwarfed in size. We had some real success, but not as much money. But I think we’ve done a more effective job with less money framing the election and in deciding that Romney business record. I’d like to see it go to a time where we didn’t have SuperPacs at all – where campaigns were either publicly financed or financed by small donations.
I think the president’s model is better than ours. Our model has been, “Oh, give me a million bucks – I’d be glad to take it.” Jeffrey Katzenberg gave me two million bucks. I’m thrilled, honored to take it, and to use it to help re-elect the president. But his model is better where he has millions of donors giving in $25, $35 dollars.
BPR: Norman Ornstein said to us that even though he pointed the finger at the GOP for the polarization in the last ten years, the biggest risk of the Republicans’ political strategy, i.e. SuperPACs, was that Democrats might become just as effective with them. How can the Democrats be opposed to it much longer when they realize they can win with Citizens United on their side?
Begala: I don’t think that the fact that America has more accurate, lethal nuclear weapons is a bad thing. I think nobody should have them. Our PAC has been more effective, and I really admire Norm Ornstein, I think he’s a great guy, and I think his latest book is a really important one, but the fact that we’ve been successful with less money – with a lot less money – is testament to a couple things.
First off, money is not always outcome-determinative. It helps! But it’s not always outcome-determinative. Second – messaging, story-telling, targeting strategy matters work, and our messaging has worked because it’s been accurate, it’s been emotional, it’s been targeted. I don’t want critique our rivals on the other side, but I think they’re a little less focused and a lot less successful.
The New York Times had a feature about the SuperPAC that you work for saying that its biggest weakness was fundraising. Could that have been foreseen being founded by two deputy aides with no fundraising experience?
I had never raised money before, either. And I want to be open-minded to our critics and listen and learn from them. I think the biggest problem we have had – there are more of them than there are of us. In other words, I’m glad that there are some millionaire liberals that have decided to give us money. There are a whole lot more millionaire conservatives who want to support the Republican SuperPACs – that’s the biggest difference. You have to hunt where the ducks are at. The ducks are more in Riddle’s pond than they are in mine. Sheldon Adelson alone has donated far more than our entire SuperPAC has raised. According to published reports, they say he’s raised $70 million so far. We’ve raised $40-45. That’s number one.
Number two: Democrats have this ambivalence – as I do, about SuperPACs. So it is a more difficult sell right there. I go to people and say, “Look, I don’t like this vehicle, but we need to use it and I need your help.” That’s kind of a complicated, contradictory message. I’m not going to lie to people and tell them that I think this is the greatest thing in the world. So a lot of us, myself included, had to overcome our ambivalence about this.
Third, everybody who has done it told me this – I talked to a lot of very experienced fundraisers, who all told me the same thing – that Democratic giving is on a graph that looks like a hockey stick. The same as the Al Gore chart on Google, or the chart of health care spending over the span of your life. It just takes off at the end. That’s what we’re seeing right now. It’s starting to come in pretty substantially. I have seen this in other campaigns. Even though I was not the fundraiser, I was campaign manager. I think that’s been part of it. So now, with relation to what’s involved, Democrats are rallying to the cause.
BPR: It seems that there are two competing theories about political consulting. We hear from the same people that candidates have ephemeral qualities they have “presence”, they’re “compelling”, they’re “persuasive”. Where do you draw the line between science and art in politics?
Begala: It’s a combination, isn’t it? It’s a blend. It’s perhaps like cooking or architecture – if you don’t have the science right, you can’t possibly do it. If you don’t have enough of the art, enough of the sense of poetry, you won’t do it, either. It’s a combination.
I think the best – well, strategist’s the first thing in my life, is James Cargo, and James is very much a student of the game. I was on the phone with him this morning, and we were having this really arcane debate about the right way to ask people in a poll whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. There’s myriad different ways of doing it. And one school of thought says, “Are you a Democrat, are you a Republican, or are you an independent?” You ask that question that way. Part of the first thing: “Are you a Democrat, or a Republican, or what?” So it’s not offering them ‘independent’, which has a much higher appeal than either of the labels you put. He’s very much in tune with the game. He is very much an intellectual. At the same time he has the best gut I’ve ever seen. He could see or hear something and immediately know how it’s going to resonate with the kinds of voters we’re trying to reach. So it’s a little of both.
I, of course, am a professional political consultant. I applaud, and like, and admire the professionalization of political consulting. It used to be that your brother-in-law ran the campaign, or your brother. Bobby Kennedy ran Jackie Kennedy’s campaign, and it worked out great, but not everybody has Bobby Kennedy as a brother, or Sark Shriver’s brother-in-law. Some people don’t have that kind of talent in the gene pool. For a professional political consultant, your ideal goal is to win within the bounds of laws and ethics. If you win, and keep within those bounds, you develop enough of a reputation that you’ll get another job. I think that’s channeling the incentives in the right way.
There’s always a risk in doing or saying something during the campaign that makes it impossible for you to govern. That is on my mind, but it’s much more on the minds of the candidates. When I worked for President Clinton, he was the governor, once in a while he would turn to me if I was suggesting something that was a little too hot, and he would say, “You know, Paulie, we might win, and then where would we be?” as a reminder. Don’t say anything in the campaign that’ll make it impossible for you to govern.
All that comes with experience because if you want to be in this for a long time, if you want to be a professional, you actually are much more rewarded in the long game. And if it’s your brother, you might do or say things that are too extreme. You might get too carried away with the moment. Whereas if you really want do this for ten or twenty years, if you’re smart, you don’t want do anything in a campaign that’ll tarnish you forever. There are people who have run ads with racial overtones, for example. And I hope people who do that have a hard time getting a job in the next campaign. It’s usually not in my party, so I can’t really say.
BPR: Drew Westin, who wrote The Political Brain, which President Clinton has been an admirer of, has an approach in which he puts voters in fMRI machines and develops messaging strategies. Is that the future of political consulting?
Begala: It may be a part of it! There’s nothing wrong with it. I know Drew, and he’s a friend of mine, and I think highly of him and am quite a fan of his work. But it can never simply be science – it will also have to be art. I think Drew understands. Story-telling and narrative matter. One of the things he’s learned from science is that good political messaging is not just pinball.
I think that’s part of Romney’s problem: he does a poll. He’s a data-driven guy. He’s not a very poetic guy, and that’s okay – that’s how God made him. But he gets the data back and the data says, “Say this about taxes, say this about national security, say this about abortion.” He says all those things and he hits like a pinball, hitting each post just right and trying to ring up the points. But it doesn’t add up to a coherent whole. It doesn’t add up to a story. And it doesn’t have the same emotional pop.
I’m a very big believer in narrative. If you look what our strategy and our SuperPac has been with Mitt Romney, you get to tell a story of who this man is. And we have tried to avoid any personal attacks – I don’t think he’s a bad person. He’s obviously a superior husband, father, grandfather in his personal life. It’s really admirable. We’ve never attacked his personal life. But his business record, his political record, his agenda as president? All fit a narrative of a guy who really doesn’t understand how good he’s got it and doesn’t understand how rough other people have it. And really thinks the best way to move the country forward is to focus all the rewards on a few. It happens to be people just like him. It’s amazing.
What he says to his fellow billionaires is that the best thing you can do to help your country in a time of crisis is to pay less taxes. Come one! JFK went to his fellow millionaires – actually, he cut taxes, to tell you the truth – but he asked for sacrifices from everybody. Bill Clinton certainly asked for sacrifice from upper income Americans – and middle-class Americans, for that matter.
I think that Romney is an example of someone who, if you only have a mechanistic view of politics, will lose. I actually do think that Westin, if you talk to him, you read the book, for all the science that undergirds his theories – and it’s impressive science – he ultimately comes back to, “You have to tell a story.” It has to be a narrative, and I totally believe that.
BPR: Some people think Obama owes his entire bounce to Clinton’s speech at the DNC. What do you make of his enormous popularity? Is this the beginning of the first sketch of Clinton’s long-term legacy?
Begala: I can’t foresee the future. I think he was a great president. Of course, I served him, so I’m biased. One of the things Hillary used to say twenty years ago was, “Your problem is, Bill, that you make it look too easy.” I think it’s true. When we had him as a president, a lot of Americans took him for granted. They looked at it and said, “Well, how hard could it be to bring peace and prosperity in the greatest economic boom we’ve ever had in our history?” And to fight and win a war without losing a soldier. That’s pretty impressive. And yet he made it look so easy.
In the eight years that followed him, we came to see that actually it’s pretty tough. I spent the day with him, that day when he did the speech, so I went over it with him, and I knew what he was trying to do. What he wanted to do was the hardest piece of it that no one else was doing – to actually walk you through the last three and a half years and make the case that these have been very good and successful policies that President Obama has brought to the country. That’s tough to do. When 60% of the Americans think we’re moving in the wrong direction, to stand up and say, “Actually, you don’t know the whole story. Sit down for an hour and let me tell you about it.” That’s really difficult. It’s very politically courageous because the conventional strategy would’ve been to do what every other speaker did at the Democratic convention – to stand up and say the Republicans stink. Make it a choice, not a referendum, every strategist will say.
Clinton really wanted to defend and celebrate the Obama democratic record, and he did. I was so proud of it. When he finished, Alex Castellanos, a big Republicsn, who used to work for Mitt Romney and is very close to Mitt, sat on CNN – on air and said, “I think that speech just re-elected Barack Obama.” It’s only been a couple of weeks, but it looks like that prediction is holding up.
BPR: Will the Republican Party be more or less conservative in twenty years? If that’s too far in the future, then how do you expect the GOP to react if Romney can’t pull it out?
Begala: The problem they have is that this is an increasingly diverse country. It is also increasingly progressive on social issues. Their party is less diverse and less progressive over time. So they’re moving in the wrong direction. Their party’s becoming more and more white as the country becomes more and more polyglot, and it is becoming more and more white when it comes to special social issues. Someone has to break that fever. In my party, I think Clinton did that. I think Clinton stood up in the late 80′s and said, “We’ve moved too far to the left, let’s move to the center”. Some republican is going to be smart enough to do that. But I think their problem is followership as much as leadership. I think that’s why so many talented Republicans chose not to run for president. They’re captives now of the most extreme elements of their party, and that’s never good for any political party. They’ll either have to reform or die. They’ll have to moderate or die.
I bet you a six pack of beer that if President Obama is re-elected, the lesson the republicans will take is, “We should be more conservative. We should’ve nominated Paul Ryan to be the president or the vice-president.” And that’s the wrong lesson. They’ve veered so hard from their moderate, middle-class roots that the party would be unrecognizable to Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. I can’t imagine any of the three of them looking at today’s Republican party and saying, “Oh, I’m on the line-up.”
The country needs two vibrant parties, and I guess we have them. I was part, and a proud part, of the Democratic modernization, and the republicans need a modernizer. They don’t need a Reagan, actually. They need a Clinton. And I don’t know where that person is going to come from.
BPR: What was one thing you didn’t know about working in the White House that you couldn’t know until you did it?
BPR: Just how very difficult it is to prioritize because everything is a 10. I heard the phrase, and thought maybe it was a cliché when President Kennedy said, “To govern is to choose.” That’s one of the most powerful things that I experienced. You have such a finite amount of time in your own day, and most importantly, the president’s day. There are only so many things you can spend time on or focus his attention on. Making those decisions of what to bring to the president or what to focus your own time on is incredibly difficult. Everything that gets to the White House gets there because some other agency couldn’t do it itself.
I think we have a very able federal government. I bet you that this president has actually not spent too much time on the drought. I think the agricultural bureau and the agricultural secretary have handled it very well. Good for them. But that means that the only things that get to the president are just too intractable or complicated or interdisciplinary for some particular cabinet member to handle. I guess that was my thing – just how when everything seems like its A-1 priority, to really ruthlessly focus attention and get priorities.