From Dole to Clinton: Why One Man Changed Sides
Robert Ellsworth, three-term Republican congressman, former ambassador to NATO and the man who ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1988, has switched sides. After endorsing Clinton, Ellsworth discusses how the Republicans have lost their soul, what's wrong with the neocons and why he has faith in Hillary.
The National Interest: Even though you're a lifelong Republican, you endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Is that a vote against McCain?
Robert F. Ellsworth: No. And this is not a completely unleavened acceptance of all of Clinton's policy views, but rather my personal assessment of her nerve, her strength, her boldness and her interest in learning and growing. Most importantly, the world is going to give us a lot of surprises in the coming years that will threaten our national interests. We need someone to react to them in a constructive and positive way. What we don't want is another Bush-like reaction to 9/11. President Bush's reaction was awkward and ill judged and ill informed. And I think all the candidates agree about that.
TNI: And how do you feel about Hillary Clinton's foreign-policy advisory team-Albright, Holbrooke and others who appear to be pro-nation building and pro-intervention?
RFE: I'm not worried. They may be their views, but I don't think they will affect Clinton's response to surprises.
TNI: Are you concerned about the neocons participating in McCain's campaign?
RFE: The neocons were part of the great problem of the Bush administration. The president was much too accommodating of their views that were destructive to the United States. But I'm less concerned about them playing a role in the next administration because I don't think a Republican is going to win. It is a party that has lost its soul.
TNI: How have they lost their soul?
RFE: First Iraq. It was a crazy war policy. And worse, the Republicans have not admitted that it was a mistake and taken corrective steps. Don't get me wrong, I don't countenance the idea of cutting and running. We need to stabilize the country and the region through our political and military presence. But the attack on Iraq was not a conservative, prudent, Republican-type policy.
Their other failing is in fiscal responsibility-or should I say irresponsibility. They have been flippant, casual and unconcerned about the growth of the deficit.
TNI: You seem to think we're facing some enormous problems and that there hasn't been much debate.
RFE: Yes, there don't seem to be that many issues where there are differences between the candidates and so room for debate. People haven't taken sharp, clear positions. Their views are rather blurred and relatively unspecific. And they need to be paying attention to two issues.
One is the important shift taking place, where the economic and military power of the United States is declining in comparison to that of China and Russia: China is rising because of its strong economy and trade surplus; Russia because of its oil wealth.
The other is the drive of Iran to dominate the Middle East. They're determined to reestablish themselves as the dominant power in that part of the world. They're determined to do it by equipping themselves with nuclear weapons.
If people don't begin to think seriously about these issues, our national security will be squandered.
Ike's Granddaughter Speaks
Prominent foreign-policy expert Susan Eisenhower expands on her editorial in the Washington Post about why she supports Obama, what's wrong with the Republican Party and what we can learn from her grandfather. TNI Executive Editor Justine Rosenthal sits down with the lifelong Republican.
Can you explain why you, as a lifelong Republican, are supporting Obama?
I certainly haven't deserted the party, but I find it sobering and sad that today's Republican party isn't interested in engaging my wing of that party. The modern Republican party started in 1952 with the election of my grandfather. He reenergized a party that was intimately associated with the Depression. He hitched his 5 stars to that party. And made it a go-to-place for sound, progressive ideas. We had a winning formula. Republicans may still win elections but more and more we are appealing to a narrowing group of Americans. We are certainly not expanding our message to capture the middle. It is distressing to see the Republican party becoming marginalized.
Is your endorsement of Obama a reflection of an anti-McCain position?
It's not as clear-cut as that. I am endorsing Barak Obama but if he does not win the Democratic nomination, that opens everything back up. I made the comment in Newsweek last May that right now, politics is a buyer's market. A lot of people will put their party affiliations aside in this presidential election. If Obama does not win the nomination, we will all have to see how the debate on the issues pans out, especially because Hillary Clinton and John McCain have similar positions on a number of fronts.
The media has argued that conservative Republican voters may stay at home on election day if McCain wins the nomination. But are they missing the story? Will many Republicans who feel the way you do vote instead for the Democratic candidate?
I'm a real admirer of McCain. He has taken principled positions on issues like the Geneva Conventions where his voice has been indispensible. But the real question is who will speak for the middle ground? The number of independent voters has continued to go up, and that's because, to use a Nixonian phrase, no one is speaking to the silent majority. It will be interesting to see what strategy McCain develops to speak to the country in a general election. I'm supporting Obama if he wins the nomination but in the end those at the center have a well-known set of moderate views. Whoever captures that middle ground wins the election. And the issues on which McCain has been a strong moral voice are just not the only issues out there, or the only issues that matter.
This is a fascinating election. It's the first election, I think, since the end of the cold war in which we've had any debate about the future. There is a diversity of viewpoints among the candidates. And it's about time.
If Obama does not win this election, the debate in our own country about how to shape our future will be less sharp and less important. I think if Clinton or McCain wins, that will have been a vote to defer our debate for another four years. We simply cannot afford another four years without significant movement on issues that may mean squandering the country for future generations.
Is your disillusionment with the Republican Party then, or with the candidates?
It's hard to discern a dividing line between the two. The candidates are largely a reflection of the changing nature of the Republican party. The diversity of opinion between the Republican candidates indicates a party with many faces and impulses rather than a coherent set of policies and goals for the future. The party has not found an identity around which to coalesce. And divisions in the party have been brought into sharp relief by the neocons. They hold a worldview that is vastly different from the traditional fiscal and social conservative strains of the party. And it is now a party that largely does not reflect my viewpoint. I regard myself as an Eisenhower republican which is commensurate with fiscal responsibility, measured interest-based approaches to foreign policy, social justice and inclusion, as well as a tradition of religion and public life as separate and distinct.
You mentioned in your Washington Post editorial that "We have been living in a zero-sum political environment where all heads have been lowered to avert being lopped off by angry, noisy extremists." Are you referring to the neoconservatives?
I was discussing the fact that there are now people who are unwilling to have reason and debate infused into politics. Instead, emotion and self-reinforcing views are pervading politics. We do not even have a collective agreement of the facts. People feel compelled to push a worldview rather than examining the facts. And this is critically important. Huge issues will reach a crisis point in the next one to three decades. We cannot afford to tackle these issues without an understanding of the nature of the problems at hand.
For example, there are some people who still debate whether or not we have climate change. If we do, it suggests a very different energy policy than the one we have now. It's great that we are pushing money towards renewables, but nuclear energy is the most important element of any energy policy designed to address climate change. While President Bush has rightfully promoted nuclear energy for the last six years, he has not gone far enough. We need an energy policy that is very different than the one we have now. In the end, this is about understanding that we cannot simply think about national security, or energy policy, we need to have an integrated way of looking at these issues because they interlock.