Transcription – Charlie Cook Interview

Q: Let’s talk about the leading Democratic candidates. I’ll just say their name and you react however you think would be most helpful. I want to start with the early front-runner who then ceased to be the front-runner and then went on to come back, and that is John Kerry.

COOK: You know, Kerry, in those days, just had — seemed to have an inability to connect with people. You know, there was an aloofness, a distance that just — he couldn’t seem to get beyond. And you know, people want to — he couldn’t [00:27:00] project any sort of warmth at all. And that, I think, always held him back. Because I think people want to like their presidential candidates, and they want to bond with them. And many, many years later, I was in a couple venues where he — with him, and one — we got a chance to talk. And the guy was capable of being very warm and generous and, you know, where — you know, he had that ability but just didn’t project it. And in fact, in a funny way — although John Kerry and Bob Dole are obviously very, very different people, but in private, Bob Dole is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet, and just so warm and engaging, but he always — during his active political career, that never came through. Never, ever came through. [00:28:00] And I’d say, conversely, as a candidate, President Obama comes across as very warm and gregarious, but has very, very few good friends, very narrow circle, doesn’t really seem to like to be around people. So sometimes there are just some very strong disconnects in terms of interpersonal relationships and personality: very, very big gaps between the real person and the persona that’s projected. And I think that was a real problem for Kerry as well.

Q: He did a really bold thing as a candidate when he was basically running out of money because of Dean’s ascendance, and that was he loaned his campaign $6.5 million, which gave him the money he could use in Iowa to run a campaign there. Is that kind of risk-taking, so to speak, consistent with what you know of Kerry?

COOK: Well, people [00:29:00] who had watched Kerry — I guess I started watching him when he first ran, he was lieutenant governor first running for the U. S. Senate. And you know, the joke always used to be that the most dangerous place in the world was between John Kerry and a TV camera. And you know, that he was always so nakedly ambitious that, you know, here he was finally getting his chance to run for President, and, you know, this Howard Dean guy that nobody’d ever heard of was suddenly catching on. And you know, he and his wife had the money — why not? And, you know, he was able to keep his campaign on life support until Dean ended up self-destructing. So it turned out to be, you know, a pretty smart investment after all. But I’m sure, you know, at the time, you know, he had no way of knowing but it turned out [00:30:00] to be a pretty smart thing to do.

Q: Now Richard Gephardt.

COOK: You know, I think Gephardt — you know, in his mind ’88 was probably his year. And that was the year when he probably thought he should have won the nomination, and had he won the nomination, who knows. He had to have been a better candidate than Michael Dukakis. So 2004 was just sort of — I think he was trying to put it all together again and just never was able to make it work like ’88. I mean, you know, ’88 was probably his year. And it came and went and didn’t — everything didn’t connect for him, and so it just wasn’t working out.

Q: Joe Lieberman.

COOK: Well, I think Joe Lieberman had — [00:31:00] you know, I think people respect independence to a point, but I think that independence — that he so closely aligned himself with — I think he created a distance that… it had a — he created some real problems. Actually, I think I’m — now that I’m thinking about it, I think I’m thinking more about 2008, actually. But where he — he damaged himself with the party a great deal. He really did. And I’m not sure it was a really realistic expectation to do it. And that there’s not a real place for, you know, the kind of moderation that Joe Lieberman represented.

Q: [00:32:00] And then someone who, like Dean, was kind of a surprise at how well he did was John Edwards.

COOK: Yeah. It’s — I think Edwards, you can be too slick. You can be — I think there was just a huge — a huge and growing inauthenticity problem. Who are you? And you’re — that whole bit where they found some outtakes off a satellite feed of him combing his hair and stuff that — it reinforced the very worst stereotypes of Edwards. And… it was pretty bad. But I — you know, go back and look at Iowa, he came awfully close.

Q: Now, the start of 2004, the war in Iraq is [00:33:00] becoming fodder for critics of the war. You’ve got a number of Democratic primary and caucuses kind of crammed into the first couple months of the year. Was there anything about that — the change in the process that front-loaded it so much? The many, many debates among the Democrats — any features of that primary campaign (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)?

COOK: Well, you know, we say there were a lot of debates, but, you know, compared to, you know, 2012 Republican — I mean, there are a lot of things that we can say, and they were true in the context of, say, 2004, but in retrospect seemed less important because things got so much more so, you know, on others. I mean, it’s kind of like, you know, we can talk about bitter partisanship in the Clinton administration, but heck, [00:34:00] it was nothing like the partisanship that we saw during President George W. Bush’s administration, which, in turn, that paled in comparison to the kind of polarization under the Obama administration. So things getting constantly ratcheted up. And so statements that were maybe technically accurate at that time looked somewhat more pale in retrospect.

Q: Similarly, the front-load idea, I guess, which only got worse and worse – but after Kerry won Iowa — which, again, I think was a bold move, to get that deeply invested in Iowa, spending his own money — after he won there, was there any way for him to lose the nomination?

COOK: I’m trying to replay in my mind kind of the sequence.

Q: Well, Iowa, New Hampshire.

COOK: Yeah. No, the thing is, after — after the Dean — I mean, [00:35:00] Howard Dean started faltering before the scream, and while the scream was kind of an exclamation point, it started faltering before. And I remember going to a Dean event a couple of days before the caucus, and it was in Council Bluffs, Iowa. And somebody on the Dean campaign thought it was a great idea to give all the people that had, you know, at their own expense come to Iowa from all over the country to campaign for Dean — to give them some signature piece of clothing to show, “Here’s somebody that came from Boston” or whatever. And I’m trying to remember, it was like yellow hats or red hats —

Q: Orange baseball caps.

COOK: Orange baseball caps. That’s exactly right. That somebody thought that was a good idea, when [00:36:00] — and I remember going to this rally; it was at a gymnasium in Council Bluffs, and I actually vividly remember because Peter Jennings, the ABC anchor, was there, and I remember he came over and we talked for a few minutes. But it — and all this sea of orange hats crowded around, up front, near the stage, for Dean getting ready to speak. And I guess they saw it as solidarity, but Iowans said, “Look at all these out-of-staters intruding on our process.” And the Dean campaign sort of didn’t really realize that they were really antagonizing the people they needed to support — needed their support. And a lot of times people just don’t think through how certain things are going to be perceived. So that I think, you know, the Dean campaign was a little over-engineered, [00:37:00] went a little bit too far, and didn’t match up with what could have been his potential. I mean, I think voters ended up going to Kerry, but it was clearly after having more seriously entertained the thought of going with Dean.

Q: Well, there are Dean people who will say that it was essentially a conspiracy — an agreement, a consensus among the more established candidates to gang up on Dean and sort of smother his candidacy in its cradle because he was so far outside the party mainstream. Have you seen any evidence of that?

COOK: I wouldn’t disagree with that. I mean, I think that the establishment found Howard Dean very threatening, and they were afraid that it could be a latter-day George McGovern and could drag the party [00:38:00] down. And you know, I mean, heck, here we are in October of — talking in October of 2013. I hear a lot of Republicans saying the very same thing about Ted Cruz. My God, this guy could drag us down — take a winnable election and make it not so winnable. So, oh, I think it absolutely — but I mean, I don’t think it was a conspiracy so much as an establishment that recoiled at the idea of Howard Dean, that didn’t — that thought it would be bad, and ganged up on him. You saw that in 2012 in the Republican Party. Look how the establishment was afraid of and ganged up on Newt Gingrich. You know. I mean, a lot of them knew Newt [00:39:00] very, very well. And they thought, “You know what, wow, if Newt Gingrich is the nominee, that’ll be a disaster.” And as a result they started going after him. Got to make sure — you know, “Don’t know who the nominee’s going to be, but it really can’t be Newt” was what a lot of Republican establishment people felt, and they did their best to undercut him, and it worked pretty well. I mean, that’s why these candidates who go overboard baiting the establishment and running against the establishment run some real risks, because you know, usually the establishment has the last laugh, and they did with Howard Dean, they did with Newt Gingrich, and my prediction would be they will with Ted Cruz.

Q: Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Bush is facing no opposition for re-nomination. [00:40:00] Which, when you think about it, a number of recent presidents had, and it really hurt Ford, Carter, the first Bush. Clinton got through the re-nomination without a, having to fight for it —

COOK: Well, that — oh, Clinton, yes, yes, yes.

Q: But for a president in that situation, they can raise all kinds of money for the purpose of winning the nomination, which meant that Bush had a huge war chest when Kerry was basically broke.