Transcription – Charlie Cook Interview

COOK: Yes. And let me take that two different ways. You know, the general lesson we’ve learned is that incumbent presidents with no nomination challenge, generally speaking, get reelected. And incumbent presidents who are challenged for their nomination generally lose. And as you say, there were — President Ford, ’76, [00:41:00] challenge from Reagan, and Senator [Edward] Kennedy’s challenge to President Carter in 1980, and…

Q: Pat Buchanan.

COOK: Yeah, Pat Buchanan with President George H. W. Bush in ’92, and it goes on and on. So that — and the way I used to look at it is, well, you couldn’t tell if it was the cart or the horse: was that incumbent president so weak that they would have lost anyway but so weak that they couldn’t keep an opponent out? Or did the actual challenge weaken them to the point where they weren’t getting reelected? And so that’s the way I — and I think both are very legitimate points. But watching the Obama campaign in 2012, and I think this is true of ’04 with the Bush campaign, is when you give the opportunity to start preparation for a general election [00:42:00] the day after one election and have four straight years of preparing for a one-day election, that is very, very, very strong. And, you know, looking at it in the context of 2012, Mitt Romney effectively won the Republican nomination third week of April. And so had a little bit of April, May, June, July, August, September, October, a few days of November to do what the Obama campaign had done for four years. And so now, while I think the first two about weakness and incumbent challenges — I think they’re both true, but also true, I think, that if you’ve got a White House staff and presidential reelection campaign operation that is on the ball at all with a four-year head start, [00:43:00] that is a very, very, very potent combination. And I know a lot of folks in the Bush — you know, you look back at Obama’s numbers in — approval numbers, other numbers, in September, October, November of 2011, and they did not look like they were the numbers of a president that was going to get reelected by almost 4%. And so I think of what the Bush campaign was able to do through 2001, ’02, ’03, and ’04 and expecting an opposition party to be able to replicate that in a matter of months, six months, seven months, whatever, that’s very, very, very hard. So I think that incumbent presidents have an even more significant advantage than I ever thought before. And I always knew they had an advantage. [00:44:00]

Q: The Kerry campaign was essentially broke after he wrapped up the nomination in early March. The Bush campaign had over $100 million, which was real money back then. But then you see the presence of these new 527 groups, the —

COOK: Swift Boat.

Q: — the McCain-Feingold Act that passed in ’02 banned soft money, so you now see a lot of the money that used to go to the parties, soft money, going into these independent organizations. And the Democrats had a number of them that got really active in the spring of ’04. Is that a — I mean, certainly your comments on the effect of that in ’04 are interesting, but is this a bad phenomenon?

COOK: Well, no, I think it’s horrific that you lose accountability. To me, a candidate is ultimately responsible for [00:45:00] what his or her campaign puts on the air, and has to answer for it. And these independent groups, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, it removes an accountability, and it allows for unrestrained — things go to excessive levels. For example, you know, we remember from 1988 the Willie Horton ads that were fairly thinly disguised racist in a lot of our minds. The Bush campaign never ran that ad. Never was. It was an independent group. And I seriously doubt if President George H. W. Bush would have authorized that ad. But an outside group did it. [00:46:00] And I don’t know that President George W. Bush’s campaign would have been willing to run some of the Swift Boat stuff that was run by this 527. And so it’s like, you know, we’re used to really, really tough campaign ads, but Democrat and Republican, the truly brutal ones, the vicious ones, generally don’t come from candidate committees. They generally come from third-party groups. And so, you know, in an area with a lot of excess, it’s the most excessive excess. And I think it’s unfortunate. But I think, though, that the Kerry campaign, even when the Swift Boat groups came after him — and keep in mind that, [00:47:00] you know, you go right after the Democrat convention, it — or going into the conventions, well, that whole period, John Kerry looked like he had a pretty good shot at winning. And ultimately it was very close. But their handling of the Swift Boat — I mean, I think that, you know, here is — in John Kerry, here is a guy who had shown, I think, very real bravery in combat, and the very thought that somebody would question his combat service, it was like, this is so audacious that he wasn’t going to dignify it with a defense. And you know, that’s very quaint and old-fashioned, and [00:48:00] conceivably may have cost him the presidency. Because you know, a charge that goes really unanswered for very long, it’s accepted as fact. And he… wasn’t willing to do that, or do it until it was too late and it had already — you know, I think a lot of times, arguments, things, they start off as a liquid and then start to gell and then start to solidify, and then they get rock-solid. And so you have to address these things while it’s still in a liquid or gelatinous state, before it gets rock-hard. And he didn’t do it.

Q: Kerry, on the eve of the convention, chooses as his running mate John Edwards, who essentially had been the runner-up in the nominating contest. [00:49:00] What about that selection?

COOK: (pause) You know, at the time — I don’t know. I’m trying to remember back; it’s been awhile. But I think — I don’t think a lot of people were shocked at the choice. Certainly I think Edwards would have been on most short lists. It makes you wonder how much of a due diligence was done to look at his behavior and things, but you know, it didn’t come across as, like, a nutty choice, a really highly unusual choice. I think what was unusual was there was an expectation that he would be a better debater. There was a great expectation that his experience as a trial lawyer would give him a big advantage [00:50:00] over Vice President Cheney. And it didn’t. And by a lot of accounts, Cheney won the debate. So I think it didn’t seem like that bad a idea until the debate, and then it’s like, well, shoot, if this guy can’t debate, then what the heck good is he? Because he certainly wasn’t going to bring North Carolina across.

Q: That was the odd thing to me about that choice, was that Kerry didn’t couple, of course, in Edwards, with some thought of breaking into the South.

COOK: Well, I think you — I think the South — a state’s got to be ready before a Democrat can try to — the state has to be right before a Democratic Presidential candidate can harvest it. And we’re in [00:51:00] 2013 talking, but to me, when I look at Southern states, you say, OK, what is the base Democratic vote? And you look at, OK, there’s x percentage of liberals and y percentage of minorities and z percentage of labor union members who tilt strongly Democratic, and in most Southern states — you know, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee — most Southern states, that is what it is. But in Virginia you had had a huge influx of transplants from other parts of the country who bring other voting patterns, non-Southern voting patterns, with them, and it alters the complexion of Virginia so that now, as of 2012, Virginia’s now a mid-Atlantic state. It’s not a Southern state. It’s gone for Obama twice in a row. [00:52:00] And North Carolina, particularly around the Research Triangle, it’s had a really big influx of transplants. Not as big as Virginia, and so North Carolina has not made the full transition that Virginia has, but it’s made somewhat of a transition. But it sure wasn’t ripe before 2004 yet. And I would add Georgia is one of — sort of the early part of that phase, where, you know, it’s not a mid-Atlantic state, it is still a Southern state, but if the migration patterns were to continue, at some point Georgia might still become a purple state. Now, the rest of the South, pssh, it’s not changing at all.

Q: Did Kerry have a better choice available?

COOK: Oh, I think there were some folks that thought that Gephardt might have been better in terms of — with more traditional union, [00:53:00] working-class white voters that I guess they thought Edwards would identify with, but I think Edwards was way too pretty to go after sort of working-class, downscale whites. So you know, I tend to think that people vote for president, not vice president, and that a vice presidential nominee can lose you votes, but they rarely bring a lot new to the table.

Q: Now, the two conventions that year, Democrats end of July, Republicans end of August, beginning of September — I’ll come back to that sequence in a minute, but the Democratic Convention was basically — well, you describe it. John Kerry… reporting for duty, the whole rollout of John Kerry as a war hero… [00:54:00]

COOK: Yeah, yeah. No, I’m just kind of trying to replay it in my mind, and the famous Obama speech and — oh, no, that was ’08. Never mind. That was ’08, Boston.

Q: No, that was ’04.

COOK: Oh, that was ’04. Yeah, right. That’s right. ’04.

Q: His debut.

COOK: Yeah, yeah, thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I guess my first convention was 1976, and my first Democratic convention was ’72, my first Republican was ’84, and I’ve been to all of them since. And after a while they do get together and blur — “Now, was that San Francisco or was that New Orleans?” That sort of thing. Thank you. I don’t… (pause) I’m just trying to remember what really jumped out of that. Not a lot. I’d have to go back and refresh my memory, I’m sorry.

Q: Well, that, I think, is significant, that it doesn’t stand out in memory.