Transcription – Charlie Cook Interview

COOK: And I think that reflects — you know, you show me someone who’s got people that have been with him or her from the get-go, where people have looked at this person up close and said, “You know what, I want to stick with this person.” This is [01:08:00] as opposed to, you know, as you say, just hiring on whoever the latest gunslingers are. And you know, I think there’s a lot to that. And I think — I always thought that what was interesting was that in some key roles, George W. Bush had people who had never worked for any other Republican before. And Mark McKinnon doing his media — Mark had never worked for a Republican before. He was a Democrat. You know, that — to get someone to come — Matthew Dowd, same thing. To get someone to cross sides of the street to work for you, that shows that some people had watched you for a long time and liked what they saw. And you know, I think that was [01:09:00] certainly the case there, where he clearly earned loyalty from people and returned it.

Q: Did Kerry have strengths as a candidate, or was his vote basically anti-Bush?

COOK: Oh, I think that that ’04 campaign — you know, in ’04, certainly the ’06 midterm election, very, very much — I mean, he just sort of had, you know, for the specter of Iraq as a political issue rising. In ’06 it was just in full bloom. And it was very polarizing. And I think that’s why — we were talking earlier about how for the Bush campaign, undecided voters, President Bush wasn’t going to get many of those people. You know, independent voters that weren’t already with him, they weren’t going to come his way. And that’s why it was [01:10:00] so essential for them to crank up just extraordinary turnout among Republicans, because if he had to rely on swing voters to win that election, it wasn’t going to happen.

Q: Well, one group that Bush had had some success with as a governor, not so much in 2000 but really went after in 2004, was Latino voters.

COOK: Got 44% of the vote. And to me — well, first of all, you had a candidate that could speak some Spanish and that ran original Spanish-language advertising. And in other words, advertising that was designed for Latino audiences. Well, I’ll give you an example. A more modern example is 2012 Obama-Romney. Obama campaign would recruit [01:11:00] Colorado Latino leaders to cut ads for Colorado television, aimed at Latino voters, in Spanish. OK?

Q: Mm-hmm.

COOK: The Romney campaign — up until towards the end, all of their Spanish-language ads were simply English ads that were re-dubbed into Spanish. Now, which one’s going to be more effective? And I remember the first time I ever met Karen Hughes was back in their headquarters in Austin, and she was very proud of showing what they had done in the reelection campaign as governor and what they were planning to do in 2000 for going after the Latino vote. And then they amped it up much more for 2004. And this is the mistake that Republicans, I think, are making now. It’s — they don’t need to win [01:12:00] the Latino vote; just don’t lose it horrifically. I mean, George W. Bush got 44% of the Latino vote, and man, that was enough to — I mean, it was enough. And now — what did Obama get, 71% of the Latino vote? And that you can’t get hammered like that if you’re a Republican with the share of the minority vote getting higher and higher. And so, you know, you asked earlier about strengths and weaknesses: I think President Bush, and I’d give Karl Rove credit here too, it’s — they knew and said very clearly that the Republican Party needed to become more attractive to minority voters in general, and specifically with Latino voters. And warned, you know, “If you start pushing this immigration stuff, you’re going to kill the Republican Party.” Which is absolutely true. [01:13:00] And it’s an argument that they temporarily won for a while, but as soon as they were off the scene, the Republican Party started going back to some of its bad habits, and you saw what happened in 2012.

Q: What’s your — thinking of some of the key people in the Bush campaign that we were referring to, but can you talk some about Karl Rove? What is it that made him such a prominent poli– and still is, prominent political strategist?

COOK: To me you had, you know — he’s a very bright guy, but there’s a lot of very bright people in politics. But I think that he became a real student in presidential elections. I mean, really started taking them apart and reverse-engineering campaigns. And I think he had put a lot more thought into — what does it take [01:14:00] to win the presidency, then I think a lot of other presidential campaign consultants, advisers, staff had done otherwise. And I know that sounds really simple, but, you know, Karl was a direct mail consultant in Austin, Texas. And he wasn’t — you know, kind of go back some — he wasn’t a huge figure in the Republican political consulting circles. I mean, they kind of knew who Karl was, but he wasn’t, “Aha, I’m running for president; I got to go get Karl Rove.” No, he wasn’t on any of those lists. But there he sat and studied and studied and took apart so that when he got his shot to manage a presidential campaign, boy, he did it really, really well. Because I mean, it was something that he had done [01:15:00] in his head over and over and over again, and did it extraordinarily well. And you’ve got to — you know, I think the only fault I would put out was, you know, I think — and Lord knows he didn’t get a chance to pick the title for books that were written about him, but you know, when you have books like Bush’s Brain and people saying “boy genius” and all of that, pretty soon principals are always going to get — that does — that does bother him, that when any kind of staff adviser or consultant takes too high of a profile, bad things generally happen. And so other than taking on a somewhat larger profile than he probably should have — but I thought he was fantastic in 2000 and [01:16:00] particularly in 2004. I think in 2004 — and I’d say 2004 for Bush and 2012 for Obama — those were very lose-able races. And had Kerry run a better campaign, President Bush might have come up short in 2004. And had Romney run a better campaign, I’m convinced that the outcome in 2012 could have been different.

Q: How about Ken Mehlman?

COOK: Ken was smart, serious. Well, still is. And it was interesting: his personality is very, very different from Karl’s. And as a result, you could see sort of [01:17:00] how they made a pretty good team. And I’m throwing Jack Oliver behind Ken Mehlman, who was more the money guy. But Ken was — Ken’s very businesslike, very corporate, very well-organized, very (inaudible). You know, where you could have seen Ken as a, you know, a corporate executive in any big company. And I might have a hard time seeing Karl necessarily in that job. You know? Karl’s more of an innovator and thinker and all of that, but for executing, you know, you want to have a Ken there to do the execution.

Q: And they worked together well.

COOK: Yeah. Yeah. From what I could tell, yes, very much so.

Q: Now, one difference between campaigns then and now is that in that year, for the general election, both Kerry and Bush took the public money, [01:18:00] which was $75 million.

COOK: Back when that was real money.

Q: Back when that was real money. But the Democratic convention was four weeks earlier, so in effect the Democrats had to make that $75 million last three months and Republicans only two months. Did you see ways in which that made a difference in terms of the quality of the campaigns they were able to run?

COOK: Well, I think it did put the Kerry campaign at a real disadvantage, and I don’t think it was accidental. I mean, I think it was yet one of those things that Karl Rove 12 years earlier, 16 years earlier, 8 years earlier, was sort of looking at — when do parties have conventions and when is the maximum utility, and when do you — you know, and I think he kind of gamed it out, and that the party that [01:19:00] has the last convention — that all parties typically get a boost, and the one that comes last is more likely to have a lasting boost, and that if you had it where it was basically dropping you out at Labor Day as opposed to in the middle of the summer when not a lot of people were paying a lot of attention and people were on vacation and stuff, my guess is the genesis of that idea was long before the date of the Republican convention was announced. And that’s just something that I think Karl’s devious mind kind of came up with. And maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but I bet that’s the case.

Q: It was Rove-ian even if it wasn’t Rove.

COOK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: There were Congressional elections going on, and historically — I mean, back to FDR, I think, or presidents after FDR, a president’s party, [01:20:00] even when he’s getting reelected, tended not to do all that well in the Congressional elections. He actually tended to lose states in the Senate, at least. Bush — well, you’ll remember this better than I — in the Congressional elections that year, the Republicans did pretty well.

COOK: Yeah, well, they held their own. Picked up — actually picked up, what, three Senate seats and picked up two House seats, which is unusual, to have a — given the size differential of the Senate and the House, to have a bigger difference in the Senate than the House is somewhat unusual. But the thing is that’s funny about — I mean, the Senate is always — you always have to ask yourself what happened six years earlier, because that’s where the playing — the table is set or the playing field is set, six years earlier. So it’s always a response, so that if one party has a fabulous selection one year, [01:21:00] six years later they’re set up for a fall. And so — as opposed to the House, where it’s just every single time. But yeah, I think it was — and whether you’re looking at the Nixon landslide in ’72 or Reagan’s landslide in ’84, you know, they typically are lonely landslides. And it is what it is, and that’s — part of it is the presidential campaign, they are focused on one thing: winning the presidency.

Q: There is a quote that’s been attributed to Bush where he told Rove, “I don’t want a lonely landslide. I don’t want what Nixon had, I don’t want what Reagan had –”

COOK: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

Q: “– (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) Eisenhower.” Did that translate into an effort to make it a party victory on the Bush campaign’s part, rather than a solo victory?