Is President Bush's conservative agenda alienating too many moderate Republicans? Could John Kerry have done a better job on environmental issues during the campaign? Should 527 political organizations be regulated like PACs? Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman joins OnPoint to discuss these and other top political issues.
Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Our guest today is Mr. Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee and former political director at the White House. Also with us is Darren Samuelsohn, the senior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Mr. Mehlman thanks for being here.
Ken Mehlman: Thanks a lot, thanks for the opportunity.
Colin Sullivan: Can you first explain the difference between what your job was at the White House and what you do now at the RNC?
Ken Mehlman: I was the political director at the White House and my job there was to help look after the president's political interests, to help coordinate where the president traveled on behalf of candidates, to help make sure that administration resources, where appropriate, were there for those candidates, to help look after policy issues that came up that had a political impact, to advise the policymakers on that. My job now is chairman of the Republican Party. So obviously I was the president's campaign manager too. I try very hard to help look after the president's interest, but my mission is now broader to working with Republicans in the House, in the Senate, in the states. To make sure Republicans are elected and to help make sure the Republican agenda is accomplished.
Colin Sullivan: Some environmental critics especially, have been critical of the Republican Party, especially given the vote last week on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Being the party of energy development over environmental protection, what's your reaction to that?
Ken Mehlman: I would disagree with that. I think that's a false choice. I think in fact we can promote policies, this president is promoting policies that both increase the amount of energy that's available in our country and also promote and protect the environment. You mentioned last week's vote, that'll reduce American dependency on oil from the Middle East. That's a good thing. The president's put forward an energy plan that focuses on increasing renewals, renewables, excuse me. That's focused on increasing the amount of solar power we do. It's focused on the energy right here at home we can create. So I think that too often in Washington things are seen as a false choice between two things. That if you're creative and if you focus on results, can both be accomplished in this case, both increasing the abundance of the energy supply and also making sure we protect the environment.
Colin Sullivan: How do you change that image though? I mean especially if you're trying to raise awareness among, bring more young voters into the Republican Party, which you've said several times. How do you, I mean you do have an image problem on the environment. How do you do that?
Ken Mehlman: We talk about issues. For instance, we talk about the fact that this is a president that wants to promote something called Clear Skies. It will make the environment cleaner. It'll make the air cleaner. It will also create incentives for folks that own facilities to improve and update those facilities. We talk about what we did with Healthy Forests, where you had environmental rules that actually hurt the environment. Very often in Washington people think about things in terms of bureaucracy rather than results. If you're young or you're old or you're any age and you want results on the environment our party and our president and the leaders in Congress have policies that'll produce cleaner air, that'll produce an increased focus on renewables, that'll improve our environment rather than just creating more bureaucracy, in many cases that more bureaucracy, creating disincentives to improving the environment.
Darren Samuelsohn: Mr. Mehlman one of the things that you're constantly trying to battle, I guess, is moderate Republicans however. You lost, I think, seven moderate Republicans in the Arctic refuge vote. How do you reach out to them as well? You have people like Christie Todd Whitman, the former EPA administrator in the Bush administration, who has criticized the administration for being too conservative on a lot of things and possibly losing some of the moderates.
Ken Mehlman: Well I would disagree with the premise of the question. First of all, I'm the chairman of the Republican Party. I don't battle with moderate Republicans. I embrace them because they're part of our party, but if you look at what happened in the last elections it's true that we increased our support among conservatives. We also increased our support among African-Americans, among Latinos, among Jewish Americans, among women, in the suburbs, in major cities. The fact is that we did much better than we had done four years before winning the votes of so-called moderates. So I like Christie Whitman. I think she was a good governor. I think she was a good EPA administrator. I would respectfully disagree with her political analysis. I think that the victory this president had, the three-and-a-half-million vote victory, was in part because of the result that we were simultaneously able to motivate more conservatives to participate and to persuade more ticket splitters to support the president.
Darren Samuelsohn: Can I get you to actually, let's take a look at something that Christie Whitman said --
Ken Mehlman: Sure.
Darren Samuelsohn: On our show --
Ken Mehlman: Absolutely.
Darren Samuelsohn: A couple of days ago and get your feedback on that.
Ken Mehlman: I look forward to it.
Christie Whitman: Well first of all, that isn't really what the book is about. The book is about the future and the book is about the party and the nature of politics in our country today and the way people get into their bunkers so fast and the animosity that is there because we are focusing more and more on the partisan base rather than reaching out, both parties are doing it, reaching out to the middle and bringing the center in.
Darren Samuelsohn: Are Republicans going toward their bunkers on this one?
Ken Mehlman: Again, I think that the facts disprove that argument. Look at what happened in 2004. Look at the governor's own state of New Jersey, a state that, while we lost the past time, we got 300,000 more votes than we got in 2000. Whereas John Kerry's number, it was pretty similar to Al Gore's number. The fact is, what this last campaign proved, if it proved anything, it is that a compassionate conservative like President Bush is simultaneously able to motivate more conservatives and Republicans to participate while also bringing new faces and new voices into the party. And I think that the key is coming up with creative and effective policies that accomplish those goals.
Darren Samuelsohn: Don't moderates though, on some occasions, they could be stumbling blocks, I guess, to try and move the president's agenda. Aren't there three parties, I guess, you could say on Capitol Hill?
Ken Mehlman: I don't think so. I think that in fact our party, we're proud of the fact that our party is a big-tent party, as Lee Atwater used to say, or the party of the open door, which is how we described it in this past convention in our platform. The fact is, the Republican Party is the proud home to moderate Republicans. It's home to people like Michael Bloomberg. It's the proud home to Christie Whitman. It's the proud home to George Pataki. It's the proud home to Mayor Giuliani, and it's also the proud home to Senator Sessions of Alabama and that's the way we want to keep it because we focus on what we agree on and we don't have specific litmus tests.
Colin Sullivan: Does that mean there's room for regulating carbon dioxide in the Republican Party?
Ken Mehlman: Well, within the Republican Party there absolutely is room for it. Certainly we believe, and the president believes and I believe as an environmental lawyer myself, that the proposed regulations of carbon dioxide would've been very counterproductive, would have actually hurt our economy, would've actually potentially hurt the environment,and there are much more effective ways to clean our air. So while in the party there's a dispute about that, certainly the president, as the leader of our party, takes a position that says we can clean the air in a better way and I think he's right as an environmental lawyer myself.
Colin Sullivan: If we can, you talked about the 2004 presidential campaign a little bit. A lot of people think John Kerry wasn't aggressive enough on the environment. Were you, as the political director at the time, were you concerned that Kerry was going to come out more aggressively on the environment? Did you have a strategy in place to counteract that if he did, if he made it a big issue in the campaign?
Ken Mehlman: I think if you look at the story of '00 and '04, both elections, what you find is that the approach the president takes on the environment, which is to improve the environment while also respecting local control and respecting the fact that it's going to require people in the states to make decisions rather than a command-and-control regime from Washington, is politically the right approach. If you think about it if you look at places that voted differently in '00 and '04 than they have historically voted, a West Virginia, which historically has been a Democratic, but now is doing better for Republicans. Places like eastern Washington and Oregon where Republicans did much better. Part of the reason for that, I think, was that folks resented the notion that in Washington, D.C., is where all the intelligence, when it comes to protecting the environment, resides. I think people like the fact that this president wants to protect the environment, but do it by working with people rather than telling people what to do. So I think John Kerry, the reason he did not focus on what he had was a very command-and-control, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all record, is because he was smart and recognized that that would not be something that appealed to most Americans.
Colin Sullivan: So it's more about state versus federal controls and President Bush did a more effective job on making environmental issues local, that's what you're saying?
Ken Mehlman: Well, I think what it is, is I think what most people want on the environment is a common-sense approach. An approach that uses market forces when possible, an approach that respects with state and local officials and people have to say about things, an approach that works with people rather than riding herd on them. And that's the kind of approach the president's put forward whether it's with Healthy Forests, whether it's with Clear Skies, whether it's with issue after issue after issue. You have a president that is cleaning our environment. Our air is cleaner. Our water is cleaner, but it's being done in a way that accomplishes those goals because it works with people.
Darren Samuelsohn: Sticking to the political issue and the first term for the Bush administration. Before September 11, environmental issues were probably the one thing I can think of, was the thorn in the president heel. It consistently was the thing that was on the front page of newspapers and environmentalists seem to be getting traction post the Gore/Bush election. After 9/11, environment definitely slid off the radar screen. I mean, did John Kerry have an opportunity though to keep that issue on the table and did he just miss it?
Ken Mehlman: I just, again, I reject the premise of the question. I think that if you're talking about, for instance, the Kyoto Treaty, which the United States Senate voted 97-0 against, I don't think that ignoring the wishes of the people's representatives in the Senate, which is required for America to pass a treaty and just kind of going forward anyway because you like the Kyoto Treaty, I think that would've been a bad mistake politically and also from a policy perspective. I think that what you have is a lot of folks in Washington think that they know better than people around the country of how to protect the environment. The president rejected that approach. He said we've got to protect the environment and the best way to protect it is to work with people at the state and the local level and to remove the perverse incentives from our environmental laws, which is why he put forward the successful Healthy Forests Initiative.
Darren Samuelsohn: You can look back now, I guess, at the '04 campaign though and see that it, it's over I guess at this point, but did Kerry have an opportunity? Do you think that he --
Ken Mehlman: I don't think so because I think that his own voting record against Healthy Forests for instance, a voting record of being on both sides of the Kyoto Treaty was exactly the kind of command-and-control, Washington-knows-best approach, that's yesterday's approach of improving the environment and that most Americans don't want in the future.
Colin Sullivan: Or did Republicans just do a better job of producing the kind of -- RFK Jr. was on this show, an environmentalist attorney, and he said the Bush administration is more effective at using, he called it, Orwellian rhetoric, like Clear Skies and Healthy Forests, when those pieces of legislation are anything but about clear skies or healthy forests.
Ken Mehlman: I would respectfully disagree with him. I think our forests are healthier. I think all you need to do is go out West. Look at two areas, one of which had been, from an environmentally sensitive perspective, thin. The other had not. A fire occurs and look afterwards and you tell me which is more environmentally sensitive. I think, again, and I respect RFK Jr., but I think the approach he's taking is one that actually does not improve the environment. Does it empower bureaucrats in Washington? Yeah. Is it good to raise money for the environmental groups? Yeah. But shouldn't we be about something bigger, which is actually protecting our forests, protecting our land and protecting our air?
Colin Sullivan: You talked about fundraising for environmental groups. I'd like to show you a clip, LCV's President Deb Callahan was on our show. I'd like to show you this clip if we can take a look.
Ken Mehlman: Sure.
Deb Callahan: It would be a terrible mistake to try and shove politics back into the Republican and Democratic Party and not allow for the voice of democracy to emerge through constituency groups as well as through the political parties. And so, we take very seriously the dialogue that is going on right now. I think that there is certainly a very, very strong chance that reform will move forward in the Senate and the House and we'll see what shape they take. We're going to work very hard to try and shape it to make sure my people continue to have a voice through my organization.
Colin Sullivan: Deb Callahan is essentially talking about reforming McCain-Feingold. What's your position on, I mean should 527 groups be treated as political action committees? Should their ability to take contributions from individuals, should that be limited? What's your position on it?
Ken Mehlman: My view is that I think there ought to be a level playing field for everyone that wants to participate in the election or defeat of federal candidates. The McCain-Feingold Law very clearly said that if your goal is to elect or defeat federal candidates you have to, both in your mountain of money that you raise and in the increments you raise, you have to be subject to limits. I think to take a small group, these 527 organizations, and say they're not subject to the limits, they're somehow outside of the law, is a mistake. I think she's right, there is likely to be legislation that passes and the reason is because you've got a tremendous bipartisan consensus. You've got not only Senator McCain and Senator Feingold, you've got people like Senator Schumer, you've got people like Senator Lott, you've got people in the House. I think there is a bipartisan recognition that if there is an approach to dealing with these type of groups, there ought to be one size that fits all. Some groups shouldn't have more rights to speak than other groups. Under the proposed ruling her members will have absolutely a right to participate, as they should under the First Amendment. What they won't have a right to do is evade the laws that apply to other organizations.
Colin Sullivan: Now do you think that Bush should have signed campaign finance legislation, given that it needs to be changed as you put it?
Ken Mehlman: Well, I think what the president said at the time when he signed it and I think what the president's right is that ultimately it was a good reform. It helped increase the accountability in the system. It updated a law that was old, and now I think members of both parties recognize there are parts of it didn't work as it was intended and they're intending to fix it.
Darren Samuelsohn: What's the role of non-party money? Does it favor Democrats over Republicans at this point?
Ken Mehlman: If you look at the 2004 election cycle, the Democrats spent about over $100 million more than the Republican spent in these 527 groups.
Darren Samuelsohn: And yet it didn't lead to Kerry to win the election.
Ken Mehlman: Well, I don't think, look, ultimately I think that both parties, both sides, had a lot of money to spend. I think that ultimately message and vision and getting grassroots people involved is more important than money, but obviously I think it had a perverse effect on the politics and I think the fact that you have groups that are not accountable spending and able to raise money at a different level than other groups is wrong. There ought to be a level playing field. There ought not be some rule, the same rules ought to apply to everybody. There ought not be some rules for one group and other rules for another.
Darren Samuelsohn: You're obviously thinking about 2006. Let's take a look now ahead to the midterm elections. It looks like we're going to have 12 competitive Senate races I'm guessing this year.
Ken Mehlman: It's hard to know. It's early in the process. I think it we'll have to wait and see what happens, but certainly the number of competitive Senate seats, I think that's a reasonable guess, but it's still early.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that it's possible that Republicans can increase their majority?
Ken Mehlman: We're going to try.
Darren Samuelsohn: Are you looking for more than 60 right now I guess?
Ken Mehlman: Well we're going to try certainly. Obviously, historically, the president's party loses seats in its upcoming midterm election. We defied history in '02. We understand '06 will be a big challenge, and we are working hard to try and deal with that challenge.
Darren Samuelsohn: What does it say for Bush's legislation prospects second term? I mean going through midterm elections, being a lame-duck president, is he thinking legacy? Is he thinking getting things through? Obviously, we know about Social Security and what's been early on talked about, but --
Ken Mehlman: Well I think this president's a little bit different. Most presidents who run for a second term don't run on the specific agenda for that second term that says I have an agenda for change for the future, here's the things I want to do. This president did, not only Social Security, but fundamental tax reform. Reforming how we defend our country by taking the battle to the terrorists and also promoting freedom around the world. Ran on reforming our nation's tort laws. Ran on Clear Skies. These are all examples of specific things the president ran on, that now, I believe, because of his three-and-a-half-million vote victory he has a mandate from the people to act on it in his second term and he will act on it. I think that a president becomes a lame duck when he stops putting forward ideas. And this is a president that as long as he's sitting in the Oval Office is going to be putting forward ideas because he has an opportunity, we have an opportunity as a country to solve problems today rather than passing them along to future generations.
Darren Samuelsohn: Handicap the 2008 race at this point, I mean, are we, how many candidates is too many and what Bush's role?
Ken Mehlman: As long as the candidates are all raising money for the Republican National Committee, which they're doing now, let a thousand flowers bloom.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think Bush will actually endorse somebody?
Ken Mehlman: We're not focused on that. The president's focused on trying to accomplish things for the country. We at the RNC aren't focused on that. I am pleased that a lot of these folks that are thinking about running are helping us build the party. That's a good thing. We'll have a stronger and healthier party by having a big and vibrant debate, by having folks go around the country and build the grassroots, by having a lot of good speakers talking about issues and I think it's a good thing.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that the Constitution should be changed so that Arnold Schwarzenegger can run?
Ken Mehlman: I have not taken a position on that particular issue. From a personal perspective I probably think that somebody who's not born in this country, whether it's Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Martinez, ought to be able to run for president, but that's not a big area of my focus.
Colin Sullivan: Turning to the Democrats, are Republicans licking their chops at the thought of John Kerry running again? Do you want to see John Kerry Part Two?
Ken Mehlman: Look, John Kerry ran a good campaign and his team ran a good campaign. Whoever's the Democratic nominee in '08 is going to be very formidable because the country's closely divided.
Colin Sullivan: What about Howard Dean over at the DNC? Are you concerned about an appointment? Do you think Howard Dean is the solution to the Democratic --
Ken Mehlman: I don't think that, with all respect to Governor Dean and myself, I don't think the chairman is the solution. I think we both have important jobs to do, but ultimately I think that what the Democratic Party ought to be trying to do, if I can offer the following gratuitous and unsolicited advice, is coming up with ideas for the future. I think when some Democratic leaders say we know Social Security has a problem. We know it's broken. We know it'll go broke and we know that the longer we wait to deal with it, it'll get worse, but for political reasons we're not going to do anything. I think that's a terrible message to send forward. I think it's wrong policy wise and I think it's wrong politically. So I think what the Democratic Party ought to do is what most parties have done who have been successful when they've been not in power, which is to come up with ideas. And the truth is, if they do that our country will be better off because we'll be talking about ideas for the future.
Colin Sullivan: And also how they communicate those ideas. Howard Dean was in Toronto yesterday and in addition to saying they lost the race to brain-dead Republicans, we don't have to comment on that, he said Democrats have a tendency to explain every issue in about half an hour of detail. I mean, are Republicans more effective at packaging messaging? Is that --
Ken Mehlman: I think that's for the pundits to decide. I think ultimately the reason we won in 2004 is because the American people decided the president was right on the issues. They decided, in fact, 9/11 had changed things and we did need to take the battle to the enemy, we did need to promote freedom. They decided that taxes shouldn't be raised. That we ought to keep them low and cut them even further. They decided that there were too many lawsuits in this country. That we could make health care more affordable and available if we allowed small businesses to pool and if we encouraged patients to have more power. I think it was the ideas that caused the president to win it. Those don't sound like brain-dead ideas to me.
Darren Samuelsohn: Are you here through 2006 at the RNC?
Ken Mehlman: My term goes through 2006, it does.
Darren Samuelsohn: What about 2008?
Ken Mehlman: I'm focused on through 2006.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK.
Colin Sullivan: You're not gonna be RNC beyond, you're not gonna comment on your role in 2008?
Ken Mehlman: Uh-uh, as I said, my focus is on the current term and I've got plenty to break bread over.
Colin Sullivan: OK. Ken Mehlman thanks for being on our show. I appreciate it.
Ken Mehlman: Thanks.
Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Collin Sullivan for E&ETV.
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