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Interview with President George W. Bush: Part One

Interview with President George W. Bush: Part One

Tom Bevan and John McIntyre - December 16, 2008

In an exclusive Oval Office interview with RealClearPolitics last week, President George W. Bush sat down to offer his thoughts about this year's elections. (Read Part Two of the interview here.)

"I don't think we got overwhelmed at the ballot box like previous elections," President Bush said about the November 4th results, contrasting this year's "defeat" to the "shellacking" Republicans suffered in 1964. "On the other hand," the President said, "I think we should learn some lessons from it."

Asked about the significance of Republican strongholds like Indiana and Virginia voting Democratic for the first time in 44 years, President Bush credited Barack Obama with running a good campaign, saying he "energized pockets of people and had an organization that was capable of following up to get them out to vote."

The President called Virginia a state in "transition," saying that parties must be aware of the shifting political landscape and "be able to take advantage of those shifts without changing philosophy." President Bush went on to say that "a lot of times after a period where there's been political success, people become complacent at the grassroots level and at the national level, for that matter."

"I still think we're a right-of-center country," the President responded when asked whether the election offered proof that the ideological center of the country had shifted to the left.

"I think most Americans want their government to be effective, results-oriented, efficient," the President said. "They would like to pay as little a tax as possible. They want their military to be strong, viable, and effective. They want their public leaders to promote personal responsibility by living responsible lives. Most people are - from the cultural side, believe in an Almighty. The question is how you take those basic beliefs and explain them, either through policy or words, in a way where there's common understanding."

We asked President Bush about the significance of Chris Shays' defeat in November, whose name was added to the long list of Republican Congressman in the Northeast who've been turned out of office in recent years.

The President remarked that the Northeast is "a pretty liberal part of the country, to begin with" but added that, "it's very important for our candidates not to abandon principle anywhere in the country, but it is important for our candidates to explain how a philosophy that is conservative can improve people's lives."

President Bush cited two "big issues" he believes transcend regional ideological differences and "will resonate in all sectors of the country."

"One is isolationism," the President said. "The tendency I fear is for people to say, 'it's not worth it what happens over there anymore,' and therefore the ultimate consequence will be letting down our guard, making the country vulnerable to an enemy which still lurks."

"The other issue," the President continued, "is protectionism."

President Bush said Republicans are "going to have to make the case to people in all sectors of the country, including the Northeast, that if we wall ourselves off from free and fair trade, your life will be affected negatively."

We also asked the President how big of a problem the illegal immigration debate poses for the Republican Party, particularly in light of the election results in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida.

"If you're labeled 'anti'-people as a party, you will lose votes," the President said flatly. "Parties have got to be positive. Parties have got to be hopeful places. And the immigration debate in certain states caused us to be labeled 'anti.'"

The President suggested that Republicans were failing to reach a threshold of trust with Latino voters that allowed the party's message to resonate fully. "Caring about people is an integral part of getting people to believe in you. A guy says, 'they don't care about me, they don't respect my heritage' - you can't get their vote no matter what your philosophy is," the President said.

The President argued that once Republican candidates can make that connection and get Latino voters to trust that "this is a person that understands my concerns, or, this is a person that respects my issues, then the notion of small business entrepreneurship or lower taxes or whatever becomes more palatable."

Overall, though, the President said he thought Republicans paid a price politically over their handling of the issue. "I was very worried about being viewed as 'anti'-Latino - fair or unfair," President Bush said. "That's where the debate left our party in certain sectors, and so it hurts."

Asked how the GOP should deal with the issue moving forward, the President responded that Republicans need to continue "convincing people of the merits of comprehensive reform."

The President recalled his Oval Office address on immigration, saying that the speech received positive reviews because it logically laid out the objectives of immigration reform: securing the border, enforcing current law, treating people decently, and better facilitating a workforce of people willing to do jobs Americans weren't doing.

But, the President said, that logic was "overwhelmed by the emotion of the issue," comparing it to the "populous prairie fire" that took off over the Dubai Ports deal. Nevertheless, the President said the key was "to keep working the issue" methodically.

"The way you regain the trust among certain voters," President Bush said, "is to stay on the issue in a very reasoned way, articulating a plan that is logical, that meets certain national objectives."

President Bush noted that immigration did not play a role in this year's election and that the "emotion of the issue kind of left the political dynamic" during the campaign. He suggested that trend may continue for some time.

"The immigration debate over the next couple of years," the President said," is going to be a debate that doesn't really surface until this economy gets straightened out."

On the issue of the economy and the election, President Bush defended his administration's record while acknowledging that recent events had taken a toll on public perception.

"Our record is strong when it comes to economic growth: 52 uninterrupted months of job creation is the longest in the history of the county," said the President. But, he continued, "I really don't think a lot of our citizens at this point in time are going to be saying, 'wasn't that a great a great economic record?' So the point is, in 2008 our candidate had to deal with an economic headwind."

Overall, the President remained upbeat about his party's political future. "I've got confidence we'll come back, so long as we don't abandon the core principles that enable us to win when we're winning - which is low taxes, strong national defense."

We asked if a Republican comeback might include his brother Jeb in the United States Senate.

"He would be an awesome U.S. Senator," the President said.

But does the party need him to run?

"I think the party would benefit a lot by having Jeb Bush in the U.S. Senate," the President said. "I think Florida would benefit a lot. I think the country would benefit a lot. And I think the Republican Party would benefit a lot. He is a proven leader who, when given responsibilities, succeeded."

(Read Part II of the interview here.)

Copyright 2008, RealClearPolitics

Tom Bevan and John McIntyre

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