Pundit Charlie Cook Tells All to C-SPAN

Thursday, 05 Sep 2013 01:13 PM

By Robert Feinberg

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On Sept. 1, C-SPAN presented an interview with one of the leading experts on national political campaigns, Charlie Cook, proprietor of the Cook Political Report, with one of the best interviewers on television, former Senate staffer and C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb.

The interview is valuable for the insights of these two experts, for the total absence of spin and for additional color to complement Lamb's recent interview with Mike Leibovich, author of the best-selling expose of Washington, "This Town."

Lamb asked Cook, whom The Washington Post's Dana Milbank recognized in 2006 as a seer, to explain how he acquired an interest in politics and found his way into the business of dispensing advice to the political community in Washington.

Cook responded that he was inspired as a high school student by the legend of Capt. Shreve in Louisiana, as a man who broke a logjam on the Red River. He recalled that beginning in 1984, he worked as an elevator operator in the Senate, for two years as an intern in the office of Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., at the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, and then found himself leaning a bit toward the Republicans.

Ultimately he decided that he did not want to work for either side, but rather to prevent unbiased analysis. When the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee was run by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and its executive director was Lugar staffer Mitch Daniels, Cook was able to convince Daniels that he would play it straight.

He strives to maintain a balanced relationship with the parties in which each party is usually "mildly annoyed" by his work. He remarked that in those days there were two factions of the Republican Party — the conservatives and the moderates — and that the far right looks on the moderates as worse than the Democrats. This is still true today.

Asked about his biggest success, Cook pointed to an early call that the Republicans would take the House in 1994, and for his biggest mistake he named a call in late 2007 that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic nomination and giving little chance to Barack Obama. (In fairness to Cook, the ultimate key to Obama's victory was the decision by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to throw his wholehearted support to Obama and, in effect, block Clinton's nomination.)

A highlight of the interview was Cook's response to Lamb's invitation to comment on the Leibovich book, in which Leibovich proclaims himself a cynic. Cook agreed with Leibovich on the insular, incestuous and self-absorbed nature of Washington, but he found the book "snarky from beginning to end" and in poor taste. He didn't enjoy the book, but admitted it was "fundamentally right," and while the book was true, it didn't tell the whole truth and made some people look bad to an extent that they didn't deserve.

Another important contribution by Cook was his answer to Lamb's question regarding the source of often bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill. Cook traced it to a deadlocked 1984 race between Rep. Frank McCloskey, D-Ind., running his first re-election campaign in a Republican district, and a two-term state representative, Jim McIntyre, that was virtually deadlocked. Cook ventured that a fair resolution would have been to rerun the race, but House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., and his leadership decided that since the House has the ultimate authority to determine its membership, they would install McCloskey.

According to Cook, the Republicans became so incensed that even Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., a moderate, supported resistance to O'Neill. For Cook, this event woke up a lethargic minority that had been headed by the likeable, non-threatening Rep. Bob Michel, R-Ill.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., conceived the "Contract With America," led the Republicans to victory in 1994 and claimed the Speakership. (Gingrich proved ineffectual as speaker and was ultimately forced to resign over a book deal, ironically the same issue that led to the downfall of a Democratic Speaker, Rep. Jim Wright, D-Texas, only five years before.) Cook also credited the Republicans with realizing that they could benefit from the creation of heavily Democratic black districts.

Throughout the interview, Cook credited Stu Rothenberg as another objective pundit who was able to build a brand through consistent appearances on cable television, including C-SPAN. Lamb asked Cook for his assessment of Nate Silver, who is the hottest new election pundit.

Cook praised Silver for advancing the practice of incorporating a heavier dose of statistical data, and Cook stated that he prefers to rely heavily on hundreds of interviews to provide a heavy qualitative basis for judgment and to augment this with polls whose selection is largely informed by his judgment as to which are the best.

However, he noticed in 2012 that the Obama and Mitt Romney pollsters had diverged significantly on their assumptions as to the extent of the ability of the Democrats to replicate the extraordinary turnout of their base that they achieved in 2008.

Another error by Romney was to overestimate the significance his defeat of a weak field in the Republican primary. Romney also allowed the Obama camp to define him by running negative ads in key states that stressed Romney's role as a leader of Bain Capital, a firm that acquired companies and downsized them by firing workers, to prepare them for profitable sale to new investors. (This was the same fatal error Bob Dole made in 1996. The Dole camp assumed that the campaign started after Labor Day and allowed the Clintons to lock down the election by running negative ads over the summer.)

Finally, when Lamb asked Cook which politician he most admired, he named Bill Clinton but allowed that if he had known Ronald Reagan, he might also mention him as someone who could naturally connect with voters.

In conclusion, to tie this program more closely to the previous interview with Leibovich, Cook was probably thinking of the characterization of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as "a bombastic Jew" as an example of snarky, distasteful writing by Leibovich that while, truthful, did not tell the whole truth. That is why I sought to provide more context in the article about that interview.

As to whether politicians have received harsher treatment than they deserve, the snarky, cynical view would be that the destructive nature of the Washington culture is sufficiently well-known and that those who choose to get involved, whether their motive is to serve the public or themselves, deserve what they get.

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