Fred Barnes, Fox News political analyst and executive editor of The Weekly Standard, recently addressed a John Locke Foundation Headliner luncheon in Raleigh. He also discussed the 2008 presidential campaign with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Go to http://www.carolinajournal.com/cjradio/ to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: This has to be one of the strangest races you’ve ever seen.
Barnes: Well, it’s one of the most exciting ones, particularly if you’re a Democrat, because you have two candidates that have lasted a long time, which is good. We need longer primaries, not ones that just end on some artificial Super Tuesday, you know, three weeks into the voting. This one has lasted a long time. We’ve learned a lot more about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Barack Obama is going to win, but only after quite an endurance test. And I think that’s good for the voters.
Kokai: Looking back six months or so, would anyone have expected this race to be where it is now?
Barnes: Nobody would have. And, in fact, that led to a fundamental mistake by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She made no planning for any primaries and, in particular, any caucuses, after Super Tuesday on February 5. Well, there were a lot that came after that, including North Carolina, and these have been the ones that have been decisive. She thought she’d have had it locked up by then. The Barack Obama campaign, however, figured that it might go longer, and they had made plans for the later primaries and caucuses, and that’s one of the major reasons they prevailed.
Kokai: How about on the Republican side? How did John McCain get to be where he is today?
Barnes: John McCain’s strategy was basically based on the hope that the other candidates’ strategies would fail, and they did. You know, look at Mitt Romney. He was supposed to soar by winning the early primaries and the Iowa caucuses and then in New Hampshire. He lost in both. McCain had nothing to do with it. It was Mike Huckabee who knocked off Romney in Iowa. And, remember, Rudy Giuliani, he was banking on Florida lifting him into the pack as a contender. It didn’t. Mike Huckabee was hoping to expand his campaign beyond merely evangelical Christians. He failed. Fred Thompson never got off the ground. So all their strategies failed, and McCain was the last man standing.
Kokai: One of the big decisions for both campaigns now is selection of a running mate. You’ve written that Barack Obama should under no circumstances make Hillary Clinton his candidate for vice president.
Barnes: Well, he shouldn’t for a couple of reasons. One is he didn’t want to. He doesn’t trust her. He trusts her husband even less. I think he recognizes it would be a dysfunctional White House if that ticket happened to win, with Hillary. The rival camp, with a national organization of its own, right there in the West Wing of the White House, with Barack Obama, if he’s elected president. And then I don’t think it improves the ticket. I think what he needs to do is win — make sure he wins — Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. So when you look at Ohio and Pennsylvania, there are popular Democratic governors there: Ted Strickland in Ohio, Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania. It makes a lot more sense to pick one of them.
Kokai: How about John McCain’s vice presidential pick?
Barnes: You know, McCain really has limited choices. His vice presidential pick will be very closely watched. He is 71 [and] would be 72, if elected, when inaugurated. So there’s more than a usual chance of his being a one-term president. And he is a cancer survivor as well. So I think he needs to pick somebody … the first thing, of course, is someone who is a plausible president, somebody who you and I will say, “Okay, he or she could be president.” Mitt Romney, I think, fits that bill. And then he wants somebody who may help in a state, or at least not detract from the campaign. … A pro-choice Republican would divide the party. You don’t want to do that. So that sort of eliminates people like Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania.
It’s hard for him to pick. There are two ways: it’s a Romney, who could step right in as president, or you throw the long ball and pick one of the exciting younger Republicans, like Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana — only been there a few months — or someone like Eric Cantor, the rising star among Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Kokai: Once both parties are ready for the fall campaign, what are the main themes you see ahead?
Barnes: Well, I think there are going to be two things. One, on the Democratic side, and we hear it already: John McCain, third Bush term. They’re going to stick with that as long as they can, and they can probably stick with it right through Nov. 4. So it’s a little hard to make that case against McCain, who split with conservatives and Republicans and the Bush administration so many times, but, in other words, that’s their case.
And McCain is going to do a couple things. One, stress foreign and national-security policy — his strength, Obama’s weakness. And, secondly, argue that the policies that are being proposed by … Barack Obama are ones that are inappropriate for an economic downturn. They want to raise taxes and limit or shut down trade with a lot of countries. This is what Herbert Hoover did. And it’s a case that I think McCain will have to make strongly. He’s not quite as comfortable in discussing domestic issues as he is foreign policy issues, but he’ll need to.
Kokai: Ever since the 2006 elections, we’ve heard predictions that 2008 would be a Democratic year. What do you think about that projection?
Barnes: It looks that way now. The election is Nov. 4. A lot can happen between [now and] then. I’ve always said the future in politics is never a straight-line projection of the present. So things can happen. Campaigns matter. If McCain has a good campaign, then he will do — attract one group in particular that we know is not excited about Barack Obama, and that’s working-class Democrats, particularly whites and Hispanics, that have gone out of their way not to vote for him in the primaries. They vote for Hillary Clinton, I suspect not because she’s their cup of tea but because he isn’t, for sure, their cup of tea.
This is a group that has been unmoored in American politics for decades now. Republicans failed to wrap them up and create a realignment that made Republicans the majority party, and there they are out there again, uncomfortable with the Democrats and available to McCain. But he’s going to have to track, really go after them with culturally conservative issues. And, like his foreign policy thing sounds good, but if he spends a lot of time talking about dealing with global warming, he’ll just drive them away.
Kokai: Conservatives have been pretty gloomy over the past couple of years. Are they overly pessimistic about the November election?
Barnes: Well, no, I don’t think so. I mean, Republicans have clearly stained their blotter through a lot of reasons, being in favor of sometimes out of control spending. You know, there are House Republicans who are now in jail still, and there have been a lot of scandals and so on. So they hurt themselves. The Bush administration got America involved in what has turned out to be an unpopular war — I think a correct decision on their part, but it’s not popular. Americans are very impatient with wars that drag on. We know that. And 2008 does look like a Democratic year.
Here is what I think is the good news, though, for conservatives and Republicans, and that is the cycles now are going to be much shorter. People get news so much faster. Everybody is getting it from the Internet now. Even cable news may be a thing of the past in a few years, as people don’t wait for something on television. They get their news off the Internet. And I think the Democrats, their problem is they haven’t rethought anything. Bill Clinton did for a while, and now they’re back to the standard liberal approach that has been favored by every Democratic presidential candidate going back to George McGovern and even earlier. It’s European social democracy. It’s higher taxes. It’s the nanny state. It’s more government, more regulation, and, basically, less freedom. It has created economic stagnation in Europe, and I think it will here.
So, if you need — and, indeed, you do need — a failed Democratic president to bring Republicans back into a commanding position, I think they’ll get one sooner rather than later.