TNI: As a conservative focused squarely on smaller, less intrusive, more restrained government, and not on the cultural direction the party has taken a sharp swerve towards, how do you reconcile ideology with party loyalty?
GN: There are two kinds of social conservatives. There are people who (like the environmentalists) more or less have a faith they want to impose on everybody, they want everybody else to run around and go to church-their equivalent of recycling. But then a lot of the social conservative movement-I would argue a majority of it-simply wishes to be left alone by an aggressively annoying and secular state. Home-schoolers who want to educate their kids at home. People who don't want government schools to send your kid off to have an abortion without talking to you about it, or hand out birth control pills without talking to you about it, or doing sex education without going through you. So the parents'-rights movement of the social conservatives is completely consistent with the economic conservatives who don't want you stealing their money or running their businesses. Are there some people who get out there and sound as if the Republican Party movement was to tell other people what to do, apart from leaving them alone? Yeah, there's that kind of rhetoric. Does it show up in votes? No.
TNI: So you feel that it's just rhetoric.
GN: It's just rhetoric in the sense that the handful of guy stand up and say, "all of my people think X." It's just not true; they don't vote that way.
TNI: There will be a lot of jockeying in the months to define the message voters are sending with these midterm elections. Just what do you think they're saying?
GN: Don't do earmarks; earmarks are corrupting. Getting involved in the micromanagement of government is inherently corrupt. That's not what Congress should be doing.
TNI: What about Iraq?
GN: Well, it's a very interesting question. I need to look at the polling data more, but Iraq is a great big government program that has not worked out very well. Its proponents sound like George McGovern: "you just spent more money and redouble your efforts and hope government will work."
Foreign policy is treated differently in the United States than domestic policy, but the president needs to have the American people see that we have a policy to win and leave. He talks too much about winning and not enough about leaving. "Stay the course" when all you have is bad news all day doesn't sound reasonable to people. You need to explain: we're going to do this, this and this. The plan is what? And we're doing what? And we're going to get what out of it? I think the president needs to come up with a Vietnamization plan for Iraq that makes it clear this not some Hundred Years War.
TNI: Any other thoughts?
GN: You don't always get to win, and the Republicans now have to turn around and do a lot better.
Bruce Bartlett-a traditional Republican who dramatically broke ranks with the White House in his book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy (available here)-expresses his hope the election will become a catalyst for party renewal and redemption. In his interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, he explains why the GOP's loss this November could become its strategic gain in 2008.
TNI: You have written that a Republican defeat in the midterms could become a clarion call to a party that has diverged from its core ideals, and potentially enhance its chances for a 2008 victory. But which prominent Republicans do you see as torchbearers for these core ideals?
BB: Well, I think the political dynamics, given what happened yesterday, could create a change. As of right this moment, John McCain is still the leader, but I think he may adjust his strategy a little bit. In the last few months he's been appealing more to the Bush base of the party, and now he may distance himself a little and get back to the kind of maverick, more libertarian approach that he had previously. It may open up opportunities for new candidates to emerge. Allen, as you know, had been somebody people had talked about as a candidate. That's obviously finished. Some people like Chuck Hagel might be emboldened to take a run at the nomination. And perhaps others, I don't know.
TNI: So in your opinion, does this election signal a change in the political environment to be more hospitable to less intrusive government, more restrained spending and more restrained foreign policy?
BB: Well, it's more of a hope than an expectation, let's put it that way. In part it will depend on how the Republicans ultimately decide what the ultimate cause of their defeat was. If they decide it was just poor technical performance, and that there was nothing wrong with the issues, then they will act one way. If they decide it was all related to things like Iraq that were essentially outside their control, that's another. But if they decide it was because they were viewed as too close to the White House, too much under the thumb of the president, not showing sufficient independence, then that's another possibility.
We'll find out in coming weeks, and the critical place where this will be played out is in the leadership elections, especially in the House. I think there's going to be a strong desire to clean house and bring in an entirely new set of leaders, and we'll just have to see how that plays out.
TNI: Because there exists the possibility that Congress will not redeem itself, on either side of the aisle, what are the prospects for the emergence of an alternative conservative party facing off with an alternative liberal party? The emergence of third, fourth parties?
BB: It's always been my view that third parties per se are not viable in our system of government, because as long as the electoral college requires you to get an absolute majority, there's simply no place, you can't win with a plurality, so third parties always end up being spoilers. And what they tend to do more often than not is hurt the party that's closest to them ideologically. So, for example, Ralph Nader ended up hurting Gore and Kerry, and Perot ended up hurting the first President Bush. So, they are ultimately not viable, and you'd have to change the Constitution to make them viable.
What could happen, though, is that within each party the wings-the segments that are outside the leadership-can be rejuvenated and make more of a play for power. So I think that's where it will play out and it may lead to candidates running for president who otherwise might have considered themselves not viable. I think that's where you will see the discontent focus itself.
TNI: Any other thoughts on the elections?
BB: One thing I think that is important, and we sort of touched on it earlier, is I don't think this is all necessarily bad for the Republicans, in a sheer partisan sense. They were bound to lose sooner or later, and if you're going to lose it's better to lose in a midterm election than lose a presidential election. I think the Democrats' win this year may actually be the best thing possible for the Republican candidate in 2008 to continue to hold the White House.
People like gridlock. They like one party being in a position to check the other. And I think there's a possibility that the White House could be rejuvenated in the same sort of way that Bill Clinton was by the Republican victory in Congress in 1994. It gives them a foil, an opponent, somebody to run against the next two years. And there's also the possibility-even the likelihood that the Democrats-having been out of power for so long and being so much under the influence of the far left of their party (especially given that many of the new leaders in Congress are from the far left of the party) may come under intense pressure from their own constituency to take actions that are politically unwise. For example, bringing articles of impeachment against Bush over Iraq or whatever, which would be politically insane.
But they may have no other choice, just as the Republicans felt in 1998 they had no choice in that matter. How all this plays out is going to be fascinating to watch, but it's really hard to predict right now.
TNI: Do you think that the Democratic victory will allow the Republicans to split the blame on some of the more problematic policies-say, Iraq and the deficit.
BB: Well, possibly. It will depend a lot on the Democrats' leadership, what they decide to do. The Democrats, on both issues, have a difficult problem. For one thing, we're closer to the end of the administration than people realize. We're already into fiscal year 2007, which runs until the end of September, so the first opportunity the Democrats would have to shape policy through the budget won't even happen until October at the earliest.
They're going to be under a lot of pressure, their candidates for president, to do certain things. A number of the Democratic candidates, such as Hillary Clinton, are in the Senate, where they're in the position on a day-to-day basis to shape political strategy on legislation in ways they view as helpful to them, or harmful to their opponents. On things like the deficit, unless the Democrats are willing to go after taxes and talk explicitly about raising them, their hands are as tied as the Republicans' are. How they deal with that, and how they show some movement without losing credibility, or alienating constituencies, is to me a very difficult problem. They're going to have their hands full.