“Eisenhower Is Looking Pretty Damn Good”: A Conversation With Joe Scarborough

He likes Ike.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Women In Communications

MSNBC host and former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough has just released The Right Path, a history of the post-New Deal Republican Party that pays tribute to the guys who could win presidential elections. Well, to two of them. In Scarborough’s telling, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan proved that Republicans win by bending with history, not declaring war on the social welfare state, but moving to the the center. You know, like he wants them to now.

“I wasn’t going to write a political manifesto,” says Scarborough. “I wasn’t going to do a 12-point policy platform. Explain how a guy like Eisenhower is looking pretty damn good.”

Dave Weigel: You’re making an argument for the greatness of Dwight Eisenhower, and that seems to be coming into vogue. Did you see National Review’s cover story on Eisenhower a few months back?

Joe Scarborough: I called Kevin Williamson after I read it, and said, “Buddy, you lifted that straight from my book.” I was afraid to make the argument, you know? If I cheer for the Red Sox instead of the Braves, that’s proof I’m a RINO. I was expecting certain people in the blogosphere to lash out for even daring to suggest that Ike was a conservative role model. I was relieved to see that article, relieved for the party, because when you talk about National Review, that’s a magazine started specifically in opposition to Eisenhower.

DW: But I think the conservative argument, then and now, was that if you take power and don’t unravel the New Deal, you’re enabling it. Do you disagree with that? 

JS: That actually is a lesson. You could choose to have eight more years of Democratic rule from 1953 to 1961, or have a Republican push in his own way against liberal expansionism. The New Deal was already worn into the fabric of American culture. I also draw comparisons to Reagan—that thought, from 1965, that Medicare and Medicaid were socialist abominations? That never once made it into the campaigns Reagan ran in 1976 and 1980. He never talked about the need to abolish Medicare. Reagan understood Medicare had become important to American society and culture. Margaret Thatcher, one of my heroes, who saved Great Britain, Thatcher knew she could do just about anything but change the National Health Service. The lesson that Ike teaches Republicans even today is you gotta pick your battles. You gotta choose what battles you can win. 

DW: And the “there you go again” moment in the Reagan-Carter debate was started by Carter referring to Reagan’s old opposition to Medicare.

JS: And what did Reagan do in 1982, 1983? He went into a deal with [Rep. Dan] Rostenkowski to do what? Save Social Security. You don’t hear that in 30-second commercials from people who are identifying themselves with Reagan.

DW: In Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day, your 2004 book, you do argue that the Republican Party had lost its way because it took power but kept spending money and expanding social programs.* Isn’t that what the conservatives are saying?

JS: That’s the difference between this and 2004 book. I was very critical of big-government Republicanism. My message is not that we need to meet in the mushy middle, but that we need to be conservative temperamentally. Bush cut taxes, he led us in wars, he raised discretionary domestic spending, he ended up adding $700 billion liability to Medicare. My argument was: If we Republicans can’t stand up to big-government liberalism when we have a monopoly in D.C., when can we? A lot of these people who wouldn’t stand up in 2005 were attacking me for not being conservative, because I was attacking Bush.

DW: But Bush did run as a different kind of Republican in 2000, and he did win two elections. Why isn’t this a tribute to three presidents, not just two?

JS: I’ve already written a book on Bush. I think, temperamentally, when Bush ran in 2000, he struck the right tone. He would campaign where Republicans didn’t camapign. I remember Rove saying Bush would have never been elected if Gingrich was still speaker. And you remember that presidential debate where he talked about desiring a humble foreign policy? I liked the irony in that statement. Unfortunately he governed as a big-government Republican. But I’ve written that book, I didn’t feel like swinging at him back again.

DW: So when do you use the power you have to roll back the New Deal?

JS: The time to push is when you have the monopoly. Republicans didn’t do it. Now you have a Democrat in the White House, you have Harry Reid running the Senate, and you don’t have a viable plan B to shutting down Obamacare. Running the ball up the middle on fourth and 41 doesn’t make you more of a man. Charles Krauthammer and I were talking about this as the shutdown was going on, just confounded by these people engaging in the little big strategy. Other people were blaming the Republicans in the Senate, saying if we stood shoulder to shoulder we could have won. That would be like Reagan caving to Tip O’Neill if he’d been saying, “You got to give up your tax cuts.” Anyone who thinks that would happen—who thinks Obama would give up his signature achievement—is a rookie or an amateur. I think, hopefully, they learned the same lesson we House Republicans did in 1995–1996.

DW: Did they? Do the Republicans you talk to say that? You can find plenty of conservatives arguing that Ken Cuccinelli got close in Virginia because of Obamacare, so the party needs to keep running on Obamacare.

JS: There are a few people on Twitter who say, “Oh, gee, this proves we were right to shut down the government.” No, it doesn’t. I was just at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Arizona, and everybody out there, donors, are at the same conclusion. The GOP’s numbers will stay low, we’re going to have to come up with something to run on. The governors—it was shocking to me not even how frustrated they were but how critical they are about the Republican establishment.

DW: Speaking of that, speaking of Washington, what did you make of the Senate Democrats’ move to limit the filibuster?

JS: I unfortunately am old enough to have seen this happen during different cycles. While Republicans were blocking every nominee to the D.C. Circuit, I was sitting there thinking, “Fine, you can do that, but don’t you realize they will one day turn it around on us?” So I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Unlike Obama and Reid and Biden in 2005, I don’t think it’s trampling on the Constitution, and the second Republicans take control of the Senate, they will start with the same rules.

DW: But what do you make of it as policy?

JS: I have always believed that the president of the United States should be able to appoint who the president wants to appoint to the court system. If there are extreme instances, the other party has the right to refuse consent, and if the nominee has failings, that’s when the minority party steps in. But I like seeing the president of the United States put in who they want. A formative experience for me early on was the Bork hearings, and I personally think Bork was treated in a disgusting manner. I watched Democrats derail Republican nominees; then, in the past couple of years, Republicans in the Senate have taken that to a new level. I understand why Democrats did what they did, but there’s such a high level of distrust. When Trent Lott was GOP majority leader and Clinton was president, they’d pick up the phone and apologize and work through it.

DW: In the short term, though, can Republicans win the next election by promising to undo Obamacare? Or could they sort of follow in the Ike mold, and adapt to circumstances but get the most conservative reforms they can?

JS: If the Republicans take control of both chambers, and they’ve got a great chance to repeal Obamacare, I still agree with the governors—we need some sort of health care reform, drastic reform that bends the cost curve as I don’t think Obamacare will do in the out-years. Republicans should do something that works and put Dems in red states, like [Mary] Landrieu, [Kay] Hagan, [Mark] Pryor, in trouble. They should try to cobble together a majority to amend ACA aggressively. They can go ahead and start with getting rid of the Capitol Hill exemption, start with an amendment that changes the threshold for employers from 30 to 50 hours, and also work with the number of employees, move that up a little more. If we don’t overreach, and we understand that politics is the art of the possible, then we have a great chance to win, but we’ve got to stop simply saying no. The Washington GOP is too fixated on blocking everything Obama has done.

DW: In the meantime, should Republican governors accept the Medicaid expansion?

JS: It was the right thing for [John] Kasich to do in Ohio. Scott Walker, I don’t think he did it, but I think he’s working aggressively to find his own solution. In Florida you had a governor who wanted to expand Medicaid, but [Senate President Don Gaetz] sat down and showed me the numbers, and said it looks good for three years and here’s what it eats up.* So I’m not going to guess what governors in different states should do.

DW: In Double Down, we learn that the first lady watches Morning Joe on the treadmill in the morning. What do you think of the people who ostensibly run the country watching the commentary on your show? Do you think it should influence them?

JS: We’ve heard from people in the Senate. I know Valerie [Jarrett] and [David] Axelrod watch it, I had heard that first lady watched it, and I didn’t think the president watched it until the fifth time he told me “I don’t watch your show.” I said, “If you don’t, you’re the only policy leader in this town who doesn’t.” We don’t really think about it. Occasionally I get an email from Valerie saying “You’re not really fair about it today,” but obviously it doesn’t have an impact on us. 

DW: Right, but should they be so closely watching what people say about them? Should they look outside the bubble?

JS: I think the reason they watch the show, and I think the reason Republicans on the Hill watch the show, is you have me coming at this as a small-government conservative, and you’ve got a roundtable on both sides. So at the White House, I’ve heard of a time they watched the show 6 to 9 and at 10 they had a communication meeting and could sense where the direction of the news was going that day. Now, a lot of that is self-fulfilling. Politico bounces ideas off what they see on the show, and I’ve heard people from major newspapers say after the show they get called in and get their assignments.

DW: But when we’re speaking about the bubble—what do people get wrong if they get self-satisfying news from one place? What does that do for conservatives, for example?

JS: Oh, God! You know the thing is, the coverage during the government shutdown was self-fulfilling, and what stunned me was a lot of us learned from Romney’s loss was we had become what we used to deride on the left. We’d become this movement that had become an echo chamber. We’d go to these websites that show Romney up 11 points, and winning Ohio, and how anyone who attacked Clint Eastwood at RNC was a RINO. We supposedly learned our lesson from that. We conservatives used to laugh at that mentality. I remember in 1988, everybody saying Dukakis is gonna kill Bush. I remember in 2004 all these commentators saying Kerry’s going to win it all. Now we’re the insulated ones. We lived inside this echo chamber during the Romney camapign, and I’ll be damned if we didn’t do the same thing during the shutdown. Anyone—Tom Coburn, for God’s sake—who spoke against it was a RINO.

*Correction, Nov. 25, 2013: This post originally misstated the title of Joe Scarborough’s 2004 book as Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day. Also, this post originally misidentified Don Gaetz as Senate majority leader, and David Weigel misspelled his last name.