Transcription – Charlie Cook Interview

Q: So if Bush had won Florida by 20,000 votes…

COOK: Yeah. Had President Bush — or had Governor Bush won Florida by 20,000 votes that were absolutely uncontested, I think the whole atmosphere of his first year in office would have been completely different. And you know, you had this sense among a lot of Democrats and a lot of liberals that he was illegitimate. That he wasn’t really elected. And obviously if you’re elected with fewer — with less than the majority or less than — with fewer popular votes, there’s going to be a little bit of that anyway, but had that not happened, I think the whole tone would have been very different. And I think that the strategy that President Bush employed [00:12:00] after he did take office was one of “act like we won big and people will treat us that way.” Which I personally think was probably the right way to do it. But that just incensed people — certain people that were going to hate him no matter what — incensed them even more. So it created a very, very odd dynamic that sort of stayed in place all the way up to 9/11.

Q: And then…?

COOK: And then — and then it was sort of like everything was sort of — kind of a hiatus for a year or so. The President’s numbers just went sky-high, and you know, if you’re in the White House for something like that, my assumption is going to be, you know, yeah, these are great numbers, but they’re not real. And we have to be prepared for the time [00:13:00] when these numbers, approval numbers are not stratospheric and that he’s back to a mere mortal again, and wage — compare a campaign with the knowledge that sooner or later things will get back to normal. Which it did. Actually, his numbers stayed up a lot longer than I think just about anybody expected, and frankly, might have stayed up longer had the whole controversy over the war in Iraq… And I remember the day after 9/11, when members of Congress, both parties, House and Senate, gathered on the steps of the Capitol Building, and they sang “God Bless America.” And I remember thinking, gosh, maybe something good is going to come out of this horrific tragedy. But pretty soon the fight over — and I don’t blame either side, but, you know, [00:14:00] should we go to war with Iraq, yes or no? comes out and basically rips things up even more than they were before. So the possibility for unity kind of went away with the debate over going to war with Iraq. And I tend to think now in 2013, my gosh, if 9/11 couldn’t bring this country and Congress together for any sustained period of time, you know, what in the world would it really take? And that’s really kind of a scary thought.

But anyway, it sort of delayed the start of the presidential campaign, because, number one — first of all, who wants to come out and say “I’m running against a president that’s got approval ratings in the 70s or 60s?” And secondly, it would be in poor taste after a national tragedy. [00:15:00] And you’re not going to get a lot of attention anyway. And so it really pushed back the real start of the Democratic campaign.

Q: Well, I was thinking as you were speaking that those unusually high approval ratings lasted all through 2002. And meanwhile, Bush is out there, I think more than any other president in history, raising money, speaking on behalf of Republican candidates in the midterm. So I’m interested in your reaction to that, but the question here is, did those new techniques that the Republicans were developing based on their disappointment with 2000 get a test-drive in the midterms?

COOK: To the extent it was, it was in very, very, very narrow test, and one that nationally you wouldn’t even notice. But I’m told there were test areas in markets [00:16:00] where they did some things. But on a widespread basis, no. And I would add, Democrat/Republican — I think President Reagan is the only president I ever saw who broke a sweat, I mean, really, on behalf of his party’s Congressional candidates. And I would say President Bush, considerably less so, but still more than — I mean, President Obama has done practically nothing for Democratic candidates. So you know, it’s all relative. But it was very, very limited, and only done to the extent of — for their own information of what works and what might not work. But presidents and presidential staffs, you know, their number one priority is reelection — [00:17:00] I mean, politically speaking. Obviously there are other objectives, policy objectives. But you know, number one, get reelected, number two, get reelected, number three, get reelected. And building up bigger numbers in Congress, you know, it would be overly generous to say that that’s a tertiary consideration.

Q: Well, but he gained back the Senate for the Republicans.

COOK: Right, but it… it was — it clearly is in the backseat. And I’ve never — again, Ronald Reagan used to do — they would line up candidates for the House and Senate in the Rose Garden, and they’d line them up one after one, film portico walks, you know, with the candidate walking alongside Ronald Reagan as if they do that, you know, pretty regularly, you know? [00:18:00] And these guys that — President Reagan wouldn’t know them from Adam. But they got their six seconds or eight seconds of tape to use in a commercial, walking across the portico. And they would drag in candidates — potential candidates into the Oval Office, and Reagan would say, “George — his name is George, right? — what — we need you to run for Congress. We — the country needs you.” And get these guys in. And that was the most proactive that I think we’d ever seen before or since. But there’s — I’ve never seen an administration, Democrat or Republican, that was overly generous with their efforts for Congressional candidates. And so President Bush, I think, was no exception.

Q: What’s up with the Democrats for — and I’m thinking in particular that, first of all, nobody knows what Gore is going to do. He sort of has a presumptive [00:19:00] claim for a rematch, but he’s off doing his own thing. But in October of ’02, there’s this vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. And you’ve got a number of Democratic members of Congress who are thinking about running for President. Does that affect their thinking about how to vote on that? I’m thinking of Kerry and Lieberman and Gephardt and…

COOK: Right. There were — well, first Gore, and then slide over to the others. I think it’s impossible for any of us to understand how horrific it must have been for Gore, losing by such a narrow margin. And where — you know, if you lose by one or two percent you can just say, “Well, you know, shoot, there was noth–” But when you lose by that narrow margin, [00:20:00] how many times does he replay that campaign in his mind? You know, “If I’d only gone to Florida one more time… why the heck did I go to x, y, or z when I could have been going down to Florida? Why did I take a day off for debate prep when I could have spent an extra day in Florida?” You know, it’s a wonder that it didn’t drive the guy absolutely out of his mind, just replaying and second-guessing himself. And so I think that’s a — that had to be an enormously psychologically damaging type thing to go through. And Democrats were… I’m trying to remember — as I remember, a lot of them were really spooked by past — I mean, first of all, Vietnam was sort of hanging over [00:21:00] the Democratic Party. And they desperately didn’t want a pre– a replay of that. And the idea, though, of — at the same time, the idea of not — you know, the Democrats that voted against the first Persian Gulf War, they thought they were really, really exposed. And then the country went into a recession right back in ’91, and President George H. W. Bush’s numbers went way down. And so the Democrats who had voted against the first Persian Gulf War kind of got off the hook, and they never paid a price for being wrong on the first Persian Gulf War. But they knew that they escaped a bullet. And so with the second one, the second war with Iraq, they were really, really scared [00:22:00] about getting burned on this. And you know, there were stories that on the way to the — Senator Paul Wellstone’s funeral of Senator Kerry telling other senators that so-and-so, one of his advisers, recommended that I vote for the war. And, I mean, there was — you know, they were like a football wide receiver hearing footsteps after getting their clock cleaned. There was a lot of that. And meanwhile, there were a lot of generals that were sending off, particularly privately, a lot of signals that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. So these Democrats were really between a rock and a hard place, and a lot of them ended up voting [00:23:00] for the war despite having very serious misgivings about it. But I think it was more politics than it was anything else.

Q: Meanwhile, John Dean is —

COOK: Howard Dean.

Q: — Howard Dean, thank you, from Vermont —

COOK: Yup.

Q: — is out there running. And even before, I think, the war became — the Iraq war became an issue.

COOK: The thing that always struck me as odd about Howard Dean is that you’d go back and look at his tenure as governor; now, I met him when he was actually chairman one term of the Democrat Governors Association. He was a very, very moderate governor. He had — I mean, by Democrat — New England Democratic standards, which admittedly is on the curve — but he was about as pro-business as a Democratic governor as New England ever is. And, you know, balanced the budget umpty-ump times, [00:24:00] and liberals in the state didn’t particularly like him. So that when he decided to run specifically as an anti-war candidate and sort of a modern-day Gene McCarthy when he could have run as a centrist governor who happens to think the war’s a bad idea, but instead running as a modern-day Gene McCarthy — I kind of wonder if he had run the first way as opposed to the second way, whether he would have done a lot better. He would have come across as a lot less threatening if he was a moderate that just thought the war was not a good idea. So I think that the Dean campaign made a mistake, not in his opposition to the war, but in [00:25:00] turning it into a crusade rather than a reasonable difference of opinion. But from a Democratic governor of the Bill Clinton sort of wing of the Democratic Party who happens to be against the war in Iraq, I think that would have been much, much, much smarter and would have paid off for him in the long haul.

Q: He was out there pretty much by himself for a while, and I don’t know that this was anything he had ever done before, but he certainly bought into the idea that the Internet could be put to political uses that nobody —

COOK: Yeah.

Q: — had ever imagined up to that time.

COOK: Yeah, Howard Dean — you know, I’d say Bush campaign ’04 but also Dean campaign ’04, and then after — after Kerry won the nomination, I think they started sort of building on what Howard Dean [00:26:00] had done. And — so that — again, this ’04 election, whether you’re looking at the Bush campaign, whether you’re looking at the Dean campaign, or for that matter the Kerry campaign, was breaking real new ground in terms of what campaigns were going to look like in the future.