Brown Political Review: What do you think was the largest factor that led to the GOP wave this year?
Joe Scarborough: Part of it was structural, particularly in the House. The way the districts are gerrymandered gives the Republicans a built in home advantage. Obviously, the President’s approval ratings being low didn’t help. There was a general unease over what was seen as a weak response to ISIS and the botched handling of the Ebola crisis at the beginning. People didn’t vote on the Ebola issue, but voted more generally on an unease with the Administration’s failure to lead. Whether it was that or other failures, Barack Obama was not a positive for a lot of Democrats, especially a year in which Republicans were competing in red states. Six years in, the political party out of power wins, and they usually win big. The fact that it took Republicans so long to close the sale shows me that they really didn’t have a compelling message that united the public. It was at the end of the day a negative vote against Barack Obama and the Democrats instead of being an affirming vote for anything Republicans claimed they stood for.
BPR: What policies do you expect to come out of this GOP-controlled Congress and states under GOP control?
JS: I want policies that I expect that they won’t touch, unfortunately. There is right now an entitlement crisis and debt crisis that is going to cripple future generations. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are talking about reforming entitlements in a meaningful way that will save future generations from having to make terrible decisions about the future of their programs. I would love for Republicans to show a bit of the populist strain that they have had in the past. [We need to] reverse the trend of income inequality that has skyrocketed over the past 15 years. I think that a lot of Americans would be impressed by a party that follows what Warren Buffet has said, which is that billionaires and millionaires should never pay less than 30 percent in taxes. Even Alan Greenspan says income inequality is one of the greatest threats to American capitalism. I think we need to reinvest in infrastructure, education, research and development, and in areas that China and our political rivals are doubling down on. I don’t think we should cut and slash all spending simply because we have an entitlement system that’s exploding and growing at unsustainable rates, but that’s exactly what is happening right now. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and unfortunately, slashing investments that will grow this economy in the future to sustain a pension system that can’t be sustained at current rates.
BPR: Are those policies in line with what might be considered conservatism?
JS: That depends on what brand of conservatism you are talking about. If you are talking about John Boehner and Mitch McConnell conservatism, probably not. If you are talking about Reagan style conservatism, that supported tax cuts for middle class Americans and small business owners, and created the earned income tax credit, I think that is in line with it. I don’t think that slashing and burning future investments is conservative, I think it’s foolhardy and it’s political nihilism.
BPR: Each party still faces significant structural and policy flaws going toward 2016. Can you lay out what those are and how party leadership should overcome them?
JS: I think two areas where Democrats are on the wrong side of history are one, energy, and the other, education. We will be the #1 producer of oil by 2020, and there is a natural gas boom. This will put the United States in a position to maintain its place as the top economy in the world. The energy revolution will help working and middle class Americans by lowering energy bills, help businesses hire new employees, and allow manufacturing to return to the United States. The fact that President Obama is talking about vetoing the Keystone pipeline, which most Americans support, shows that the Democrats are more interested in environmental symbolism than environmental and economic realities.
On education, teachers unions have been a millstone around Democrats’ necks. We spend more money per pupil on K-12 education than any nation in the world, yet we are not getting the results. I have no problem doubling down, tripling down on our education investment to make our K-12 schools the best on the planet, but we are going to have to reform our system so we are not throwing the money down the rat hole. Unfortunately, too many Democrats have just followed the teachers’ unions lines over the past 20-30 years, and have put themselves in a terrible position. I hope the unions get on the forefront of education reform, or if not, they will simply fade away.
On the Republican side, they self corrected for the most part in these midterms. They stopped nominating crazy people for Senate races, who had to go out and remind voters in 30 second ads that they are not a witch, or who tried to redefine what rape is. As the comedians say, it is pretty bad when your party has to say “how did the rape guy do?” and the response is “which one?” I think the Republicans have hopefully learned from those mistakes. I’m sure there will be a lot of extremists who rush out and say some stupid things to try to get to a certain segment of voter in the Iowa caucus. I think it will fail, because people are getting wise of that.
The second crisis that the Republican party faces is the feeling that this is a party that is out of touch with working class Americans. Sam Brownback almost lost his governors race in Kansas, and he probably would have had there not been a huge Republican wave this year. He mindlessly cut taxes for corporations and upper income residents, created a fiscal crisis in his state, and had to slash education and other valuable programs. I hope the days of Republicans just blindly cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest Americans is coming to an end, and that Republicans find a way to push for targeted tax cuts that will actually help small businesses and the working class. I would hope that the Republican party would try to reverse the trend since 1973 of average wages declining. That is really the structural crisis facing this country.
BPR: But can Republicans really cast a big tent while maintaining restrictive positions on social issues?
JS: [This year] we still saw some extreme primary candidates, but the same voters who nominated them in 2010 and 2012 rejected them this year. I’m hoping that those voters have become more pragmatic, and if they pick candidates in Presidential elections who know how to build coalitions and attract more youth and women voters, they will be in good shape. The Republican party actually did pretty well this year with youth and women voters. If the party leads with social issues, they will be painted into a corner. That’s what happened to Mark Udall in Colorado, who obsessed so much over abortion that his own voters were yelling from the audience to move on, and the Denver Post endorsed Cory Gardner. It is a warning for both Republicans and Democrats that Americans don’t want extremists on social issues.
BPR: You were a member of Congress during a period that many Americans believed was the height of partisanship. Can you compare partisanship then and now, and offer a vision of how to break gridlock?
JS: Bill Clinton could not stand the Republican Congress, and they could not stand him, and it ended in an impeachment showdown. Despite all of that, we passed a balanced budget for the first time in a generation, we passed welfare reform, regulatory reform, tax cuts, and extended the life of Medicare. We fought tooth and nail, we scratched and we clawed. And yet, when Bill Clinton is on my show now, we sit back and you would think we were in the same party. We reminisce and think about all the things we got done together. That was, as he said, because we had politicians who put their country ahead of their own party.
Bill Clinton has said that being President requires that you have a short memory. The suggestion is that Barack Obama does not have a short memory, and does not know how to make Washington work. I think that has been a real problem. Obama, McConnell, and Boehner over the past years have not wanted to get things done for various reasons. Obama’s own people have told me “the guy thinks he’s right.” He picks a position, and then keeps talking and talking until people come to him, or they don’t. Boehner and McConnell are two dealmakers who were scared to make deals, because they thought Tea Party members would throw them overboard. I’m hoping that with two years left on Barack Obama’s watch that he will be compelled to cut deals with Republicans, and I hope that Boehner and McConnell understand, and I think they do, that if Republicans just fight everything that Obama wants to do, they will lose in a big way in 2016 and Hillary Clinton will be running the country for eight years.
BPR: Why are both parties lacking depth in Presidential candidates?
JS: There is something really depressing about the prospect of having another showdown between the Clintons and the Bushes. I think it has to do with the fact that it costs billions of dollars to run for President, and you have people on Wall Street who are much more comfortable with someone like Hillary Clinton than Elizabeth Warren, or someone like Jeb Bush over Rand Paul. The Clinton and Bushes may be safe money for Wall Street and monied interests, and for people who don’t want real change in Washington.
BPR: Can you compare and contrast being a member of congress to being a news pundit. How do you feel you serve the American people now compared to then?
JS: I have a lot more influence now than I did in Congress. That’s because there are 535 members of the House and Senate, and only and handful of people on in the morning that are shaping the news of the day. Fortunately, our audience is made up of a lot of influencers who shape the debate in Washington every day. I’ve felt the responsibility to go out and say things that other people won’t say, whether its taking on the Republican party before other people feel comfortable doing it, because as a Republican, I know their tricks a bit better than the other side, or whether it’s calling out President Obama and the Democrats when others in the media may not be comfortable doing so.
BPR: What would you like to say directly to college students?
JS: You are being screwed. There is a massive income redistribution from young Americans to old Americans. We have an entitlement system that is going to cause this generation to pass a trillion dollars of debt onto the next generation of leaders. Washington is afraid to stand up and do anything about it because senior citizens vote in much higher numbers than young people. They feel the wrath of the AARP more than they fear an economic meltdown 10 years from now. I hope that young voters get more engaged, vote more, and have their voices heard more. Students who are reading this are not going to be able to pay 85% tax rates to keep Social Security solvent. If you want to destroy Social Security and Medicare, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing.
I think a sort of sclerosis has set in in Washington, and I hope that there will be a major disruption in the political process that will be started by younger voters in 2016.