Assessing The State Of The (Republican) Nation Washington Post reporter Dan Balz sizes up the state of the Republican party — including how the GOP is preparing for 2012 and how it has been affected by recent sex scandals.
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Assessing The State Of The (Republican) Nation

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Assessing The State Of The (Republican) Nation

Assessing The State Of The (Republican) Nation

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After the Republican Party's defeat last November, the party has been struggling to redefine itself. That's become more difficult in the wake of Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford's affairs, and a new Vanity Fair article about Sarah Palin that has set off a public spat within the Republican Party. The article, by Todd Purdum, describes some former McCain campaign ads as believing Palin was not prepared to be vice president. What does the Republican Party stand for now? And who are its leaders? My guest, Dan Balz is national political correspondent for the Washington Post.

Dan Balz, welcome to FRESH AIR. What do you think the John Ensign and Mark Sanford scandals do to the GOP brand, which for years has been identified with family values?

Mr. DAN BALZ (National political Correspondent, The Washington Post): Well it's - at a minimum Terry, it's an embarrassment. But it's an embarrassment that comes at a terribly difficult moment for the Republican Party. They're brand is damaged at this point, and I think anything like this, particularly the one that goes to kind of the heart of a piece of their message further damages that. I think it does that in two ways. One is, it discourages, if you will, the sort of the evangelical or social conservative base of the party. They wonder whether the people who claim to share their values actually practice those values.

That doesn't mean those people are going to defect to the Democratic Party, but it makes them somewhat less enthusiastic about getting out there and really working for Republican candidates. I think the other thing it does is it just causes the party more problem with people who have already kind of turned away from the party, those Independents and moderate swing voters that went heavily for the Democrats in both 2006 and 2008. It gives them even less reason to try to come back at this point.

GROSS: Now what about Ensign and Sanford themselves? Where do they stand on family values?

Mr. BALZ: Well, they were both proponents. I mean there's hardly a Republican, certainly a Republican who has won statewide and who may have national ambitions who doesn't in one form or another talk that talk. And you know, I don't think that either one was so heavily indentified with that. I mean certainly, Mark Sanford is better known for his economic conservatism than his social conservatism. But they certainly bought into that. They spoke about it. They defended it. And in past, they have criticized others who have strayed in the way they have now strayed - particularly, Mark Sanford did that during the Bill Clinton scandal in the 1990s.

GROSS: And one of the things Sanford said then was he accused Bill Clinton of lying about the oath to his own wife.

Mr. BALZ: Yes. And as we are seeing this week, Governor Sanford is continuing to explain his story in ways that are, you know, that suggests there's more ways in which he violated that marital oath and, you know, lied to his wife and put aside the constituents of South Carolina. So you know it's - I say, it's an embarrassment. Human beings are fallible. We all know that and Democrats are as well as Republicans, but it seems to come at a somewhat higher price for Republicans because they have made that a centerpiece of what they stand for as a party.

GROSS: You know, when I think of how the anti-gay marriage Republicans have based their position, in part, on their insistence that gay marriage will undermine heterosexual marriage, you know, it seems like some Republican elected leaders don't need any outside help when it comes to undermining their own marriages. What are you hearing behind the scenes in Republican circles about whether the family values agenda is going to work anymore, and whether it's time for the Republicans to either reconsider their views on gay marriage or at least reconsider the argument that they use about you know, undermining heterosexual marriage?

Mr. BALZ: I don't think that the Republicans can afford to abandon the family values agenda. Now, we've seen people in the past few months - Steve Schmidt, was a key advisor to Senator John McCain last year in the presidential campaign, has basically said the party needs to reevaluate its position on gay marriage. We know that younger voters are much more tolerant, particularly on gay issues, than older voters are. So that the Republicans, you know, they've got not just a short-term problem, but they've got a long-term problem in how they figure out how to address this.

GROSS: So what are you hearing behind the scenes from Republicans about where the party is heading and how they want to get out of the trouble that they appear to be in now?

Well, I think there's several aspects to it. I mean, the first is clearly they have drawn some lines with President Obama on his agenda. I mean they are betting A, that the president's economic policies will not work as effectively as he hopes they will. They are betting that he is trying to push more government on to the public than the public really is prepared to accept, in addition to the size of the stimulus and the bailouts of GM - and the bailout we know is not particularly popular - the size of the potential deficit that is being run up.

The health care plan that the president's proposing would inject government in a much more significant way in the health care industry, and the climate change bill that the House passed narrowly last week is another that has you know, significant implications for the role of government. And then you put on top of the financial regulatory reform, which certainly I think a lot of people believe is necessary, given what happened last year with the financial industry. But nonetheless, that's a lot of government that the president is asking for. I think Republicans believe that there is an opportunity for them if they can make a, kind of, a coherent case that he is doing too much. That he is putting too much government in place, that there will be an audience for that.

GROSS: Let's look at the leadership in the party now. I mean, who are the leaders? Let's start with Michael Steele. He's the head of the Republican National Committee. Does he have any actual clout within his own party now?

Mr. BALZ: Not a lot of clout and - but although, that's not that unusual for the chairman of the party. The role of the chairman of either the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee is in many ways the primary technician for the party. They are the people who have to make sure that the party has fundraising capability, that its political operation is up to speed, that the voter lists and databases are constantly updated, that the state parties have the support they need. They are rarely the people who can speak for the party with great credibility.

Now, Michael Steele has certainly had a rocky tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee. So to the extent that he might have been a, spokesman, I think he's hurt himself on that front. So no, Michael Steele is not the person who the Republicans are looking to, to be their spokesperson.

GROSS: Who really are the leaders now within the Republican Party, either the public faces or the behind the scenes people?

Mr. BALZ: Well you look in two places. One is you look at the congressional leadership. These are the people who have been at least elected by their peers within the House and Senate. So you have John Boehner in the House and you have Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Again, I would say that it's very difficult for a congressional leader to really be a national spokesperson for the party. So while both Senator McConnell and Congressman Boehner have a prominent role in articulating where Republicans are, it's very much within the context of a legislative agenda. And we know that legislative speak does not transfer well out into the rest of the country.

The second place you look for leadership is in the ranks of governors and the Republicans have some prominent and attractive governors. Governor Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, who certainly has his eye on running for president in 2012, is one. Charlie Crist, the Florida governor is another. He's going to run for the Senate in 2010. He's a big state governor. Haley Barbour in Mississippi, though that's a small state, Haley Barbour was the chairman of the Republican National Committee when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and helped bring the party back. Because of what happened to Mark Sanford, Barbour has now ascended to the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association.

And I think if not in a - in the role of candidate for 2012, because there's some speculation about that, but at a minimum, I think Haley Barbour will be somebody who will be looked to by other Republicans for guidance, for strategy, for leadership. We know he is a smart strategic thinker. We know he's been through this before. He has, you know, he has the experience to provide the party with some balance and some ballast at a time when they've got problems.

GROSS: Do you see any other governors as being either hopeful leaders of the party or hopeful presidential nominees?

Mr. BALZ: Well certainly Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. We don't know whether she's going to run again in 2010 for reelection, but she is certainly somebody who commands a significant position in the Republican Party - not an uncontroversial one by any means. But I don't think there's anybody among the ranks of governors who has more charisma and who has a kind of a more passionate following. We don't know whether she can expand out beyond that, but certainly Sarah Palin is somebody that a lot of Republicans are hoping will run for president and some Republicans are hoping will not run for president.

GROSS: You know, I really kind of half thought after the election that she would kind of officially enter the land of celebrity and give up politics. And either like do a television show or just some kind of more celebrity oriented thing. But she's staying in politics.

Mr. BALZ: Her future is very uncertain at this point, I think. But one that so many people are interested in. I'd say I don't think there's another Republican in the party who creates the, kind of, you know, electricity that she does.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Balz, national political correspondent for the Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Dan Balz, national political correspondent for the Washington Post. We're talking about the state of the Republican Party.

Do you see any splits in the Republican Party between the older and the younger generation of leadership?

Mr. BALZ: Well, I think that it's not open warfare by any means, but there is great concern within the party, Terry, that there is an older generation of leaders who need to move off the stage. I mean, if you look at who we've seen over the last six months, pushed forward - either pushed forward by the Democrats or by themselves or by the media as potential leaders. I mean, first it was Rush Limbaugh. Now, Rush Limbaugh is who he is. I mean he's a radio talk show host. He's not going to run for office. But he has been around a long time and so - but put him to the side. You know you've got Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, I say still a hero to many Republicans for bringing them to power in the 1990s, somebody who may well run in 2012 for the presidency, but also somebody who we know is a divisive figure, a polarizing figure, and has been around a long time.

Former Vice President Cheney, who's been out very strong on the issues of torture and the closing of Guantanamo and a lot of President Obama's policies on terrorism - you know, some Republicans cheer what he has done, but others say it is time to have somebody else making those same arguments. So you've got this generation who have been in power, or they've been on the public stage for a long time, who for the sake of the party being able to turn the page on all of that, need to be gently or hard way shoved aside. The problem that we've seen over the last few months is that in one way or another the newer generation of leaders has not stepped up in an effective way.

You know, you can point to Mark Sanford and John Ensign on the one hand because of problems with their private lives. But you can also point to Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, who is a very bright and able person and probably does have a bright future, but when he was asked to give the Republican response to President Obama last winter, he did not - I mean he just did a bad job and everybody knew it and he knew it. So the moment when Bobby Jindal tried to step on to the national stage he slipped and fell.

Sarah Palin has had her own problems throughout this year in establishing her political bona fides. And so there's lots of questions even among Republicans about that. You look at Jon Huntsman, an attractive Republican who might have been a comer in 2012 or beyond and he's decided to go off to China to be the U.S. Ambassador for President Obama. So the ranks keep thinning of the people who should be the next generation. So that has been I think particularly discouraging to a lot of Republicans that I've been talking to because they think well we've got - who are our future leaders and how do we get them out there? And when we get them out there, are they going to perform?

GROSS: Now, you wrote a recent article, in which you said that a lot of Republicans are wincing about some of the things Dick Cheney recently said about President Obama and the president's approach to security and dealing with, you know, alleged terrorists. But you say that Cheney is too powerful for Republicans to take him on. From what does his power emanate now? I mean, he is out of office. He's unlikely I think to run for office again.

Mr. BALZ: Well, the people who would most like him to step aside tend to be the people who work hardest as operatives to win elections. And they have a sense of the public mood and the public's desire. And in their estimation Dick Cheney is not a helpful messenger for the Republican Party of the future. But they are not of the stature that they can take him on. Elected officials are very unlikely to do that. I think that what you need is for elected officials not to say, Dick Cheney go away. Because it's very difficult to take on a former president or a former vice president if you're another Republican elected official because you just run the risk of alienating at least part of your base and you can't afford to do that, particularly if you have aspirations to run for president.

GROSS: You know, I always wonder what Republicans - and I know you can't really generalize here because every Republican is different - but what Republicans think of right wing talk radio and TV. Take Rush Limbaugh, for instance. He says some pretty extreme wild things. He's not running for office. He's not taking responsibility for running the country. He's, I mean, he's a talk show host and what he needs is an audience and ratings and saying extreme things is very good for getting audience and ratings.

Let me give you an example of one of the things that he said lately in relation to Mark Sanford's affair. He said, oh, this is almost like, I don't give a damn. And he's talking about what Sanford might be thinking, you know, this is almost like I don't give a damn. Country's going to hell in a hand basket. I just want out of here. He had just tried to fight the stimulus money coming to South Carolina. He didn't want any part of it. He lost the battle and said what the hell, the federal government is taking over. I want to enjoy life.

So, he's basically blaming the federal government and President Obama for an affair that started before Obama was even president. I mean, that's just a small example of…

Mr. BALZ: Well, it's, I mean…

GROSS: …what he said, but knowing that it's a talk show host's job to get ratings and not win elections, do you think the Republican Party - that a lot of people in the Republic Party see Rush Limbaugh and other right wing talk show hosts who say extreme things as being helpful to them or harmful to them?

Mr. BALZ: Well, the role of radio talk show host, whether it's Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, any number them, has been an essential part of how the Republicans have expanded their voice, their message and their appeal and energized at least a part of the population. I think most Republican office holders see them as they are, which is that they speak to a part of the base. They do it sometimes in ways that are outrageous that elected officials can't get away with. But again, they're not prepared to take them on, they've got to work around them.

Most of the people who want to be leaders of the Republican Party don't want to get into an argument with somebody who has an audience as big as Rush Limbaugh's and we've seen numerous examples of that. On the other hand, most smart Republicans don't think you can get elected president of the United States by speaking the way Rush Limbaugh does. But Rush, you know, the Rush Limbaugh, you know, gives demoralized Republicans, you know, some energy.

GROSS: Some Democrats have nicknamed the Republican Party the party of no, because they're saying no to everything that President Obama opposes. But what do they stand for - for instance on the economy or on health care, two of, you know, the big programs that President Obama is pushing forward on?

Mr. BALZ: Well, they stand for what they have stood for, for a quite a long time. They stand for less spending, they stand for lower taxes. And on health care, they stand for a solution to this problem of the uninsured that would rely much more heavily on market forces. I think the problem for them at this point is that those views were well articulated, certainly, in the 2008 campaign by Senator McCain and by many Republicans. And the country voted for something different.

So, now the question for the Republicans is, is it adequate, is it simply adequate to basically say no to what President Obama's doing and in essence hope that his policies fail and that the public will then turn back in their direction. But I think - let's say that were to happen. I think they're still going to have to have something that they don't yet have, which is a new version of that set of principles. They've got to adapt that to a different time and a different country.

Demographically, this is a much different country than it used to be. Geographically, things are shifting. And so the Republicans are speaking to a new audience and they've got to find a voice for that new audience.

GROSS: Well Dan Balz, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BALZ: Terry, you're more than welcome. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Dan Balz is national political correspondent for the Washington Post. He's the co-author of the book, "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election," which will be published in August. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new movie "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. This is FRESH AIR.

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