UPDATED with a response from Ed Gillespie
There needs to be an Academy Awards for Televised Political News, a Golden Babbler Bobble-Head statuette that could be awarded on a special joint airing of Morning Joe, Meet the Press and Hardball, or if Fox News wins the broadcast rights, Fox and Friends, Studio B and O’Reilly Factor. There would be an award for best rant of the cycle, a prize for best surrogate, and an acknowledgement for least-informative soundbite. Anchors could even get nods. My vote for that one would go, of course, to Shepard Smith of Fox News, whose deadpan pose in the face of the ubiquitous perfidy of the people, officials and institutions he covers perfectly captures the national mood.
For Best Surrogate, I am not yet ready to cast my ballot. But I do have an early favorite: Ed Gillespie. His appearance on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace this week was a case in point. Perhaps never before has someone so ably delivered such substantially dubious material, which is pretty much the very definition of a surrogate’s job.
For newcomers to the political punditry fan club, some introduction is in order. Gillespie is a well-respected pro in Washington, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and senior White House aide to President George W. Bush who has in recent years been something of a Republican elder statesman. He is part of the founding crew of Crossroads, the external mega-structure of Republican money, and he has been a principal at Resurgent Republic, a conservative polling operation that has been, among other things, pushing the party to be more inclusive of Latino voters.
In 2004, Gillespie lead the surrogate assault on John Kerry, and it was for this reason, and for his reputation in Washington and among Republican party insiders as a decent fellow, that the Romney campaign asked him to sign on a few weeks back. He immediately made his mark by going on Meet The Press to denounce the Obama campaign’s politicization of the Osama Bin Laden raid. As I have previously noted, Gillespie was withering.
This is one of the reasons President Obama has become one of the most divisive presidents in American history. He took something that was a unifying event for all Americans, an event that Governor Romney congratulated him and the military and the intelligence analysts in our government for completing the mission in terms of killing Osama bin Laden. And he’s managed to turn it into a divisive, partisan, political attack that former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci for President Reagan called “sad.” John McCain called “shameful.” I think most Americans will see it as a sign of a desperate campaign.
It did not matter that just a eight years earlier, Gillespie himself has demonstrated the same desperate characteristics. “If John Kerry had his policies in place today,” he told the same network. “Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad, he’d be in Kuwait.” That kind of reversal, with no hesitation and perfect grammar at both ends, takes real talent.
Gillespie extended his run on Sunday. As is his habit, Wallace offered a tough interview. He asked Gillespie about Romney’s fury over government picking winners and losers with the failed Obama administration investment in Solyndra, when Romney had praised a similar state investment for another solar firm, Konarka, in Massachusetts when he was governor. Gillespie responded smoothly with misinformation. “What Governor Romney said when he was governor of Massachusetts,” he said, “is that we should not have the state investing in private enterprise; the fact is we should be reprogramming this money and tried to reprogram the money away from those kinds of investments.”
This is not exactly true. As the Boston Globe reports, Romney praised the Konarka funding in 2003, and called for more.
“The trust fund has been growing for years,” Romney said in 2003, “and I believe now is the time to refocus its assets in such a manner that it can become a major economic springboard for the Commonwealth by focusing on job creation in the renewable energy sector.” Score another point for the surrogate prowess of Gillespie.
But there was more. Gillespie also argued to Wallace that it was wrong for the Obama campaign to judge Romney’s job creation record during his first years in office, given a difficult economic situation he inherited. “They are bringing down the gains of his fourth year in office which shows the real impact of his policies and diluting it with the first year in office when came into office and it was 50th in job creation,” Gillespie said. This is a good argument, if you have not based your entire presidential campaign on holding Barack Obama accountable for job losses that resulted during his first year in office because of events that predated him taking office. On Monday, the Obama campaign jumped all over this one. “It’s breathtaking hypocrisy for them to say, ‘you really can’t include his first year because he took over at a tough time,'” said David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s message guru. “That’s not the standard by which Gov. Romney has held this president…the question is, are they kidding, and do they expect people to take this seriously?”
Perhaps the crowning surrogate moment for Gillespie on Sunday came in response to another question, however. When Wallace asked Gillespie what Romney wanted to see right now when it came to the economy, Gillespie had a solid answer. “Governor Romney thinks we need stronger presidential leadership,” he said, before turning on Obama. “Where is his leadership on this, on taxmageddon and the sequestration? Has he done anything at all to try to bring members of Congress together to try to avoid this?”
Then Wallace followed up by asking whether he would support Congress doing something about fiscal cliff quickly. Without missing a beat, Gillespie made clear that Romney was ready to follow. “I think he would wait to see what they came up with,” the super-surrogate said, rounding off an award-winning performance. Well done.
UPDATE: Ed Gillespie sent me this response on Tuesday:
I’m dubiously honored to accept the once-great Time magazine’s nomination for its “best surrogate” award. The honor might be less dubious, however, if the use of my quotes by blogger Michael Scherer had been less selective.
Let’s begin with his seeming refutation of my point that as governor, Mitt Romney’s position was that “we should not have the state investing in private enterprise; the fact is we should be reprogramming this money and tried to reprogram the money away from those kinds of investments.”
Scherer countered this statement with a quote about a Massachusetts state loan that had been approved before Governor Romney had taken office, ignoring his record of trying to reprogram such funds and his statement that “the idea of state employees deciding which businesses to invest in is not a model which I would subscribe to.”
Scherer then excerpted my defense of Governor Romney’s record in a way to suggest that I contradicted my own arguments against President Obama’s handling of the economy. Regrettably, he ignored this part of my response: “He [Governor Romney] inherited a $3 billion projected deficit, turned it around without raising taxes, balanced the budget and put $2 billion in the rainy day fund. The unemployment rate when [he] took office was 5.6 about percent. When [he] left office, it was 4.7 percent. The fact is that the average income for a family in Massachusetts went up by $5,500. We are proud to contrast that with President Obama who came in and for four years in a row passed deficits of more than $1 trillion. We’ve had more than 500,000 lost jobs in this economy, 23 million Americans either unemployed or under-employed or out of the work force entirely, and average wages down $4,300.”
(In reviewing the transcript, I should get some demerits from the Awards Committee for not citing that unemployment under President Obama has risen from 7.8% to 8.2%.)
As for declining to commit Governor Romney to support an imagined budget deal before seeing any details of it, well, I’m comfortable with that response. If committing your principal to a hypothetical bill before knowing what’s in it is a prerequisite to winning the “best surrogate” award, I would like for my nomination to be withdrawn.
Scherer began his online personal assault (err, I mean “praise”) by mocking my assertion during my time as RNC Chairman in 2004 that, “If John Kerry had his policies in place today, Saddam Hussein would not only be in Baghdad, he’d be in Kuwait.” Of course, he neglects to mention that that statement was premised on the fact that Senator Kerry had voted against authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
I believe the role of a surrogate requires reinforcing one’s case with facts and hard data. Clearly, that’s different than the role of a blogger.
Gillespie’s response does call for some further explanation on one point. He quotes Romney from April of 2003 saying, “The idea of state employees deciding which businesses to invest in is not a model which I would subscribe to.” At the time, Romney was objecting to a proposal in a state House legislative package to set aside $100 million in grants and low interest loans to high-tech companies. This is what Gillespie was referring to on Fox News Sunday, and I agree that my initial blog post would have been stronger had I noted his specific reference.
But it is also true that months earlier Romney had endorsed another program that allowed state employees to decide on certain private business investments. In January of 2003, Romney had moved to speed up the awarding of grants and loans to green energy companies from a separate state trust fund. Some of the money went to the solar company Konarka Technologies. A Boston Globe story at the time noted that Romney “said he is also shifting $15 million from the trust to a new Green Energy Fund that will be overseen by a professional manager and will provide venture capital, loans, and management assistance to Bay State companies involved in energy production from solar, wind power, landfill gas, biomass, and other so-called green sources as an alternative to petroleum products and coal.” By making this move, the Globe reported at the time, Romney was effectively rejecting a proposal by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jane Swift, to drain the trust fund and rededicate the money to reducing the state budget deficit.