TheDC Interview: Pete Wehner on the Christian challenge to the Tea Party in his new book
A new book by two former top aides to President George W. Bush is out Tuesday, called, “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era.” In the 176-page book, Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner make a case for how Christians should think about and participate in politics in the modern age, arguing that the days of the Moral Majority are gone and a new Christian politics is taking shape.
The DC sat down with Wehner Monday at a coffee shop in Dupont Circle to ask him whether he and Gerson are on the same page as the Tea Party movement, and whether the Bush presidency is responsible in part for creating the current backlash against big government.
TheDC: So the first question I wanted to ask you was who did you write this book for?
Pete Wehner: We wrote it for Christians who care about public policy and public life, and share the same questions and concerns and interests that we do, which is people of faith, people of the Christian faith who care about politics. And what ought the relationship be between the two. It’s an important complicated relationship but even broader than that, people who aren’t necessarily people of faith but who are interested in this question too. Which is one that is central to this country and to politics in this country. So I think that was it…but mostly I think Mike and I felt we had something to say and wanted to say it. We felt that this was a good moment to say it because we felt like this was a plastic, fluid moment.
TheDC: Okay I’ll come back to that for sure. Well actually … it sounds like you wrote the book very much with this moment in mind. Because the reason I ask that is there is a lot of stuff on human rights. Which is sort of a discordant note in terms of the current political environment in the conservative movement.
TheDC: Not that they are against it but it’s not on the agenda.
PW: Yeah it’s not central in a way that it would be I think for Mike and for me. We wrote it definitely in part because of the moment. We feel like the old model of social engagement that dominated Christianity and politics for the last 25 years, the Religious Right, is fading away. Some of its leaders have literally faded away or passed from the scene, like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell. Others who are older and are stepping back a bit. Something is going to emerge in its place and we wanted to give our thoughts on shaping that. At the same time Mike and I feel like these are just perennial questions and every generation of Christians that care about politics needs to think through and revisit these old questions and apply them to contemporary circumstances and that was part of what drove the book too.
TheDC: So you mentioned, going back to the idea or question of who you wrote the book for, you mentioned on page 68 ‘populist, blue collar evangelicals, those who still belong to the more fundamentalist and Pentecostal wing of the movement.’ Was this book written more for what you’d call influentials than blue-collar evangelicals?
PW: We didn’t have an audience that narrowly in mind. I’ve never really written for audiences that specifically in mind. It’s more a sense of what we have to say and how do we say it in a way that seems to make sense in the moment that we are in. This probably, there’s an audience out there that includes opinion shapers and it’s one that we hope will read and care about it. But it’s a kind of book, as I said earlier, people of faith regardless of their class status or social status, would hopefully be interested in. If they are interested in politics we feel like this is a book that might have some interesting things to say to them.
TheDC: The reason I asked that because I think the blue collar evangelical—within the blue-collar evangelical, I don’t know how big that group is, but in that group I’d have to imagine are part of the Tea Party movement, or they are sympathetic to the Tea Party movement.
PW: I’d agree with that.
TheDC: They probably make up a big part of the Tea Party movement.
PW: I’d agree with that.
TheDC: The interesting thing about it is I think that the book that you’ve written with Mike, there are open challenges to the Tea Party movement, and there are more subtle challenges to the Tea Party movement. As a whole, it’s very much a challenge to the Tea Party movement on a number of fronts which I wont get into right now. But what do you expect the reaction to be to that?
PW: From the Tea Party movement people?
PW: You’re right there are challenges to the Tea Party movement but I think there are probably challenges to everybody, including ourselves, people who are Christians who are involved in public life. I must say, Mike and I are sympathetic to the Tea Party movement. My own view was that the Tea Party movement is an important and good force in American politics today, overwhelmingly so. Because it’s rising up against a political ideology and political movement that I think is damaging to the country. But we have words in there about the role and purpose of the state, and we argue that while it’s proper to be skeptical about government, one ought not to be cynical about government and shouldn’t attack government qua government, government per se, because government has an important role in our lives from a conservative perspective but also from a Christian perspective. My hope would be that the Tea Party movement and Tea Party members would read the book and find a lot to be sympathetic with and a lot to mull over. We don’t pretend we have all the answers here for sure, but these are all questions and we want to—You know one of the reasons we wrote the book was we felt like the Religious Right, for understandable reasons, was a defensive movement. It was reacting to an assault from the secular left and in response to Roe v. Wade and banning prayer in public schools and so forth. It was an understandable and commendable reactive movement, but it’s also important that movements think through first principles and that’s partly what we tried to do.
TheDC: So I think one thing that kind of struck me throughout the book was the tone. You just articulated some of what you want the conservative movement, conservatives, conservative Christians in America to think about in terms of first principles. There is a passage in here, I’m looking for it, on page 70. I think this is it, ‘An increasing number of evangelicals want their brand of politics to be less partisan and bitter. More high-minded, more firmly rooted in principles. They want their leaders to display a lighter touch, less desperate and anxious spirit, more gracious tone, looking for a politics that is both moral and civil, thirsting for more serious Christian reflection on the human society and human person.’ So there are a lot of other quotes like this in the book where I wondered if somebody who is not in an urban center, someone who is more in the Midwest – there’s a lot of people out there struggling economically – might read or look at this book or look at the tone and feel like, ‘These guys don’t get how urgent the situation is.’ Because you talk to people in the Tea Party movement, a lot of them feel like, and you make reference to a ‘darker age’ that you don’t believe is on the verge. What do you say to people who say, ‘You guys don’t get it? You’re in D.C., you’re making enough money for your family, and you’re basically one of MLK’s white moderates who want order over – I forgot the term – but order over justice.’
PW: Yeah I guess what I would say is that I actually share the urgency and if anyone read my writings on a regular basis they would, I think they would testify to that. I’ve certainly written about my own deep concerns about what is happening to our country because of Obamaism. I’m a conservative, he’s a liberal. And I think he is trying to transform the country in ways that are harmful. We don’t argue, the book doesn’t really deal with Obama per se. We step back some from the politics of the moment in that sense, though we touch on the issue of big government and so forth. But I think there is urgency to politics and I think there is an urgency to pursuing justice. Our point is that you just need to do it in a way that abides by what we take to be Christian standards and tone, for its own sake but also because it helps in terms of persuasion. If you can make your case, an urgent case, in a tone that is serious but measured, that is forceful and passionate but not ad hominem and uncivil, I think you probably have a better chance of your case heard. So civility shouldn’t be confused with lack of principles or quote unquote moderation or middle of the road. You can be passionate and principled and civil. Ronald Reagan was a great embodiment of that, so was Abraham Lincoln, so was Martin Luther King Jr. I just think I would reject the idea that you can’t make your case with urgency and give up civility in the process. I think you can have both.
TheDC: Well you say you share the urgency but you guys did write in the beginning that you dismiss the idea that there is this darker age. So can you split the difference there?
PW: Sure but that was partly a critique of myself frankly. Back in the early 1990s when I worked for Bill Bennett, who was a model to me of public intellectual and public official, I helped him write a series of books called the “Index of Leaning Cultural Indicators” and that took a period of time from the 1960s to 1990s where every social indicator – education, crime, welfare, out of wedlock births, teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, on and on, abortion, on and on and on– got worse, most of which got significantly worse. I was extremely fearful where the country was going and whether it could hold together if these social pathologies continued or got worse. And what happened we saw in the mid 1990s through the following decade was a remarkable turnaround, where there was huge process on issues of welfare – welfare roles dropped by almost 60 percent, and those on welfare actually did better. Crime: you had huge drops in crime, levels of crime that went back to 1960s. You had the transformation of New York City under Rudy Giuliani and several of his police commissioners. The anti-drug movement led by Bill Bennett where you had huge progress against drug use. So there were a whole range of issues where social progress was made and it was made partly because of policy in some cases, mostly because of public policy, and some cases less so. For example you saw a sharp decrease in the rates of abortion, I don’t think that was public policy. It certainly wasn’t public policy alone, but it was a series of other things: sonograms, the public conversation, and so forth. This is a big, strong resilient country and I think sometimes within conservatives – people like Whittaker Chambers and others – there is a tendency towards pessimism, toward woe is me, woe is us, the country is on the edge of oppressiveness. In fact this is a remarkable country with tremendous resilience and resources that can come back. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have serious problems for sure. We have very serious economic problems as well, but I don’t think we are on the edge of a new dark age or anything like that. And people that underestimate the American capacity for self-renewal, make a mistake that’s essential to what we were arguing.
TheDC: I guess in bullet format or I guess in one sentence, summarize your concern for where Christians and conservatives go if they buy into fully to the dark age idea. And summarize for me in one sentence if you can what the worst-case scenario for you in terms of the current administration.
PW: Yeah I think if Christians buy into the dark ages critique, I think that leads to a spirit that is desperate and anxious. And leads you to active ways that can be counter productive and even unconservative in certain deep ways. Look my view is that we shouldn’t be passive. We should be active in the politics and issues of our time. On the other hand as a Christian I believe that God is the author of history, in the end these things work out in a way that he’s designed, and that it doesn’t all depend on us. You do the best that you can but you hold lightly to the things of the world. I think that that’s a very deep Christian truth and I think that it keeps you from feeling every political issue, and every political moment and every political era is kind of an apocalyptical struggle between the children of the light and children of darkness. Sometimes there are extraordinary moments that could be characterized like that. The Nazi regime would be one, there are plenty of others. But that’s unusual in this country and I think that Christians can engage these issues in a forceful way but in a measured way that reflects reality and a testimony to their faith.
On the flip side, what are my concerns about this country as it relates to Obama and the Democratic Congress? They are considerable. I think on a fiscal side, on the spending side, and soon on the tax side, I think we are in a boatload of trouble. The country is being bankrupted right now and that’s not all Obama’s fault for sure. But my main complaint about him is having inherited the situation that he did, rather than tapping the brakes or hitting the brakes on the fiscal side on the spending, he hit the accelerator. He’s made our entitlement prices worse. We’re going to have to pay the piper at some point. This is potentially dangerous stuff if we don’t get our fiscal house in order. Some people like Paul Ryan, who is a close friend of mine and former colleague, is doing great, great work. And I think the Tea Party could be a huge force for good on that front, that’s why I’m supportive of the Tea Party movement. I think they are good for the country and good overall for American politics. But if Obamaism and Obama isn’t checked, then I think it could do real and lasting damage to the country. I imagine right around Nov. 2 the checking of Obama is going to happen in a big way and I’m going to be happy about that.
TheDC: Yes or no: You recently or have written a lot about the moderation of language. But you also say its fine to be confrontational. You wrote last week that Obama is dangerous. Am I characterizing that correctly?
PW: Yes. I do think that he is dangerous. One thing that I wrote last week was I thought his actions on Afghanistan were contemptible and I say that with reluctance but that’s my idea.
TheDC: So that doesn’t cross the line? Does it go up to the line, in terms of sort of rhetoric that you use?
PW: People have to judge for themselves and frankly that’s an issue that we write about in the book, it’s a struggle and a temptation when you are in politics to try and uphold standards of civility. We make it clear in the book that doesn’t mean you can’t be forceful in your debates, that you cant use sarcasm, that you cant use wit. We also cite the words of Jesus who referred to people as a brood of vipers, which is pretty vivid language. So we don’t have a problem in engaging in robust and spirited debate. Have I crossed the line with the President? I hope not. I try not to. But on the other hand, I’ve been very frank in my critiques of him and I think that he has done some things that have warranted a lot of criticism. And on Afghanistan I supported him on the troop increase that he did but in light of the Woodward book and what Obama himself has said on the record, what he is doing is a terrible thing. He’s increasing the number of troops even as he is doing actions that are undermining the mission. I think that he is sending people to fight and die and we have a Commander in Chief that is obviously deeply ambivalent about the war and that bothers me.
TheDC: Was any of the things that you guys wrote about rhetoric and tone in this book written with Sarah Palin in mind?
PW: No, not really. I don’t think Sarah Palin has been rhetorically troublesome. Some people were I guess upset about the death panel thing. I wouldn’t characterize it that way but I think there was a point to what she was making. But no it really had more in mind some of the language that characterized some of the religious right leaders in the 1980s and 1990s.
TheDC: What about somebody like Glenn Beck?
PW: Well Glenn Beck is in a different category. He’s not a religious leader per se, he’s not a religious leader. He’s more of a public figure. I have my own questions about that, about Beck. I’ve never met him, sometimes I think he goes over the line when he said Obama hated white people, he has since apologized which I think is a good thing. But and Beck I don’t think is really viewed as a religious leader per se. Obviously in the past month or so he’s seen in light of that given the rally. Politically there have also been people who were Christian. Obviously the constraints and dictates and verses that you find in the Bible are going to apply less to people that don’t share the Christian faith. I would think it would apply in any case but obviously if you are someone who is a Christian leader it’s doubly so. And our book in terms of the critique that we’ve done about tone and so forth, takes up people that are Christian leaders. And I’d put that in a different category than Pat Roberts or Jerry Falwell for instance.
TheDC: What do you make of Palin’s faith or Obama’s faith? These are two, Palin’s faith not so much – that was more during the campaign – but both have been subject of debate.
PW: Yeah I take Obama at his word that he’s a Christian. His interpretation of Christianity is one that that I don’t share. Though I must say he doesn’t really tie his liberal policies all that often to his Christian faith when he is giving his speeches about Christianity and talking about Christianity. It’s actually been a fairly orthodox view of what it means to be a Christian. He did it the other week when he was asked at one of these yard barbeques. He spoke about Christianity through the prism of theology and not through the prism of politics. He did talk about ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ which is an Old Testament line with Cain and Abel. I’m not sure that it has the meaning that he implied. There is a certain view among some people, and Obama I suspect shares it, that being a Christian implies certain social obligations, which I would agree with. But they then translate that into a very active role for the state, which tends to translate into big government programs and I think that’s wrong. A) I think it’s theologically suspect I think you have to be very careful not to connect the dots between theology and specific public policies. Secondly just from the criterion of the human good, I think that conservatism is better than liberalism. That’s one of the reasons I’m a conservative. I think that conservative policies are truer to human nature and lead to human flourishing in a way that contemporary liberalism does not. I think welfare and crime policies are two relatively recent examples where the conservative critique was correct and human lives were improved because conservative policies were implemented. If Obama is justifying his public policies through Christianity I think that’s dangerous ground and I challenge him on almost every particular.
TheDC: That gets back to what we were talking about in the beginning when you talk about whether you are writing for the current moment or not. I actually expected you— there was a mention around page 68, of the linkage between evangelicals and the Tea Party but not much more after that. I thought you were then going to go in the direction of making a case for why evangelicals should be more concerned, in a way that they have not traditionally been, about fiscal and economic issues. But instead you went off to human rights. Was there ever a thought about making more of a case for conservative economic principles or was that judged to be too much of an interpretation I guess?
PW: We touch on it, as you said in the book, on the Tea Party and actually in talking about the moment we are in and the transitional moment we are in, we make the case that evangelical Christians tend to be skeptical toward big government. When we started to write the book, the Tea Party was still a relatively nascent movement and it’s a young movement. And this book is probably at a higher altitude than dealing with the politics of the Tea Party movement. But we devoted a chapter on the role and purpose of government – which very much has the Tea Party in mind, in fact citizens who aren’t part of the Tea Party – that is, ‘What is the proper role and purpose of government in our lives in the American republic?’ And I think that’s very apposite to the Tea Party movement. That is after all the main concern that they have at this moment.
TheDC: Do you think the evangelical church has been on point on economics? I know there are a lot of people who think that they value social issues like gay marriage and abortion over economics?
PW: Yeah, we have a section in the book, in the chapter on government, where we say government ought to advance order, justice, virtue and prosperity. And we say that the latter, prosperity, is an issue that has too often been ignored by Christians, or they look down their nose at it, and at capitalism. And we make the case that capitalism is the greatest economic system ever because it’s lifted more people out of poverty and misery than any other system by far. Now that’s different from arguing what the specific tax rates ought to be, or whether one should reform social security with a Pozen plan or not, whether we ought to index, increase, social security payments to wages or prices. But we do think there’s a lot to be said for capitalism. In fact I co-authored a book with Arthur Brooks called “Wealth Injustice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism,” where we take up just that question, which is a moral defense of capitalism. And we take on Jim Wallis head on in this book because capitalism is worth defending not simply on economic grounds but on moral grounds. That I think would have resonance with the Tea Party.
TheDC: I have two other questions but I just wanted to follow up on that quickly on that. Just to press you one more time, you talked about all the stuff you’ve written about on economics and capitalism, but there did seem to be a very pointed decision made to emphasize human rights above that because there’s a whole chapter on human rights. What was the thinking behind that?
PW: Well it was because we decided to take different topics and devote chapters to them. And one chapter was on morality and foreign policy, one was on the role and purpose of the state, one was on tone. And under the banner of the role and purpose of the state we took up some of these issues of capitalism and economics because that’s where it seemed to make the most sense. But we felt like morality and foreign policy is a hugely important issue that’s probably somewhat neglected these days, but it was a cornerstone of the modern conservative movement under Ronald Reagan. Remember Reagan broke with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger over precisely this question, over détente and over making foreign policy central to national security. And we believe as Christians that morality and human rights ought to be central to foreign policy because we believe that Christians ought to care about human dignity and human rights because people are made in the image of God. So that’s a very large topic, that’s a perennial topic, and we felt that it was worth addressing here, not at the expense of other issues but in addition to them.
TheDC: Mitch Daniels made that comment about taking a truce.
TheDC: Or taking a break—
PW: A truce
TheDC: —on moral issues. What was your take on that?
PW: Well I love Mitch, I’ve worked with him and I admire him a great deal. I think he’s one of the best governors in the country. I don’t agree with him on that issue. I don’t know quite what it means actually. I think I know how it would play out in reality, which is if you ask for a truce on social issues the left would pocket it and then not give you what you wanted on fiscal or spending issues. Does it mean, when you say you want a truce on social issues, does it mean that you would appoint to the court someone who is not an originalist? I think that would be a huge mistake. I think that the court is one of the most important institutions in American life. I’m an originalist. I believe in the philosophy as articulated by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and others. Does it mean that you would pull back from championing a pro-life agenda? I don’t think you should. I think the pro-life agenda is important and is morally estimable and you shouldn’t pull back from that. So I don’t think in practice you’re going to have a truce. I understand what Mitch meant by it. Mitch’s view is that these fiscal issues are paramount, preeminent right now, and we have to focus all of our time and energy on them. To some extent I agree with that critique. I think right now for a variety of reasons, including Obama’s policies, the fiscal issue is the major one facing the country domestically right now. But I don’t think you would make any more progress on those by retreating on social issues and I don’t think you should retreat on the social issues. I think that indeed what we point out in the book, the pro-life movement in the last 15 years has made tremendous progress. There was a Gallup poll in 2009 that showed for the first time more than half of the American people considered themselves pro-life. There’s no reason to retreat from that. It would be wrong on principle and I think a political loser.
TheDC: Ok lastly, a lot of people in the conservative grassroots I think, who probably supported Bush during his presidency because he was embattled over national security issues, had problems with a lot of the fiscal things that he did, spending, Medicare, TARP, and so forth. What’s your take on whether his fiscal record should be defended or whether he was part of Republicans losing their way? Do you think that was part of what seems to be some tension between Bush World and the Tea Party.
PW: Yeah I’m not sure there is that much tension between Bush World and the Tea Party. I know that Karl Rove was critical of Christine O’Donnell for reasons that he considered valid and a lot of other people considered valid. But Karl has been a great champion of the Tea Party movement and a lot of Tea Party candidates. Karl Rove has done more than virtually anyone I know to support the Tea Party movement in very practical ways.
In terms of the Bush record on fiscal issues. Look George W. Bush wasn’t Barry Goldwater that’s for sure. But I think the Bush record can be defended and I’m happy to defend it on the deficit side. By 2007, the deficit was 1.2% of GDP, which by historical standards was extremely low. Some people were predicting by 2008 we’d have a surplus. The medical subscription part D, the subscription drug plan, I think it was a very good proposal. It was half the cost of what the Democrats proposed, it came in at 40% under projected costs because he inserted market reforms, including and within Medicare and health care generally, with health savings accounts and other things. And if you look at non-defense discretionary spending, it went down in virtually every year under Bush and considerably under what Clinton did. But Bush was not a person who wanted to undo the welfare state.
TheDC: Well somebody like Joe Miller, who just did an interview with Jon Karl and Mike Allen that’s coming out now I guess, where he says something to the effect of, something very dramatic about social security. But basically major changes—
PW: Yeah but I guess the thing that I point out on Bush record, George W. Bush did something that no other American president has done, he made a serious run at reforming Social Security and he suffered politically. Ronald Reagan never did it. Neither did anybody else. So I think Bush gets everlasting credit. He took on the third rail of American politics and he tried to reform it in a way that conservatives should like. That failed because Republicans in part lost their nerve and at the end of the day Republicans are going to have to belly up to the bar on entitlement programs. Its fine to talk about eliminating the Department of Education, you can argue the merits of that, or National Endowment for the Arts and discretionary programs. But everybody who has examined this question knows that the key issue here is entitlement spending, and especially Medicare, and that’s going to require some hard decisions and decisions that won’t be politically popular. Bush to his credit took it on, a lot of Republicans didn’t. So I think Bush’s record is eminently defensible on that and on other issues.
TheDC: I guess the thing that Miller said, I must have misread it, is that he wants to get rid of the minimum wage. But are we talking about a class of politicians—Joe Miller, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle—that are fundamentally different from someone like yourself? Obviously there are differences but is it a fundamental difference in terms of the scope of change that they want?
PW: We’ll know when they deal with particular issues. Thematically there’s not a lot of difference and in campaigns a lot of time what are they about? They’re about themes. But if you’re dealing with how do you curb Medicare and do you transition it towards a means tested program or do you go with a Pozen Plan on Social Security? I’m pretty conservative on that stuff; I’m very much in the Paul Ryan camp. That’s pretty far out there these days just in terms of specific public policies, and I suspect I might be more conservative on some of the entitlement issues than some of the Tea Party people, I don’t know. I’m not in favor of eliminating Social Security, or Medicare, or Medicaid and banishing them from the Earth. But I don’t think many Tea Party people are either, I think the Tea Party movement is animated by a concern— A lot of them aren’t public policy wonks. They are American citizens who have tremendously important things to do with their time but have risen up because they sense, rightly sense, the fact that we’re going off the rails fiscally and that’s going to require a lot of work. I think that critique is right, I share it and that’s why I’m a supporter of the Tea Party movement. I don’t think that therefore means you ought to have a full scale assault on government or don’t recognize the important role the government plays in our lives or indeed the good things the government can do and I’ve cited some of them. Welfare reform, crime, drug policy and the surge in Iraq. I’m in favor of good government, smart government, which I think tends to be, is by and large conservative government. My guess is I’m aligned with the Tea Party movement on a lot of the issues but if there are Tea Party people who want to do away with entitlement programs or believe they are unconstitutional and ought to be deemed unconstitutional, there I’d say no. I would have differences with them. Again a lot of this just comes down to specific kinds of policies and so often in campaigns you’re dealing with themes and moods and sense of what direction the country is going in. I share with the Tea Party movement the concern that Obama, fiscally and on health care in particular, is doing real damage to the country and I think the first order of business politically is to undo that, to stop it, and to begin to undo it. If the Tea Party wants to do that then I say good for them.
TheDC: Do you think they are around for good? Is it a fundamental shift in politics?
PW: I think the impulse— it’s hard to tell. The Tea Party movement itself is still scattered, it’s still as political movements go, very new. In the time it’s been around its actually made a lot of achievements and is certainly a force in American politics. And if you had say January 20th, 2009 that you would see anything like the Tea Party movement I think most people would have been shocked. I think the impulse of the Tea Party movement, what it’s reacting against, is going to be around for awhile. I think it’s going to be one of the primary drivers of the historical repudiation of Obama and the Democratic Party in November. I think the Republican Party is on alert and is on a short lease with the public and with the Tea Party movement. I think if you talked to some of the conservatives in the House that I like and admire, their view is that after November they are going to get new members of Congress who are cause people. That is they are committed to a cause, a philosophy, a political movement, conservatism. And I think that gives us the best chance in making some important shifts in policy and in politics that hasn’t happened until now. So I think the Tea Party movement is around for a long time. It’s going to over time, going to change in some important ways. It’s going to develop it’s own relationship with Republican lawmakers and the Republican Party. I’m sure a lot of them are going to keep Republican lawmakers accountable and I think that’s a good thing.
TheDC: So you don’t see a third party?
PW: No. No. The Republican party, for one thing, the Republican party is a conservative party. It’s much more of a conservative party then it was in the 1970s and 1990s, empirically so, if you just look at how members of Congress vote. And the leaders of the Republican party know that they have to stay a conservative party. And much like when Gingrich wrote the contract in 1994 he had a particular audience in mind and that audience was Ross Perot voters. The contract was shaped toward them. In 2010 the Republican Party has Tea Party movement in mind and I think a lot of what they are going to do as they run and probably a lot of what they are going to do as they govern is going to have the Tea Party movement in mind. I think that’s wise. If they run afoul of the Tea Party movement they know that it’s going to be politically problematic. That doesn’t mean individual Tea Party members don’t have problems, or some people who are part of the Tea Party movement don’t say things that are problematic. That’s going to happen in a movement like this.
TheDC: Is there a similar intensity in what you perceived as the Perot movement in the Tea Party movement?
PW: I think it’s greater in the Tea Party movement. I think the intensity, political intensity that is out there now is greater than anything I’ve ever seen and deeper than anything I’ve ever seen. There is a tremendous movement against not just the Democratic Party but traditional politics and establishment that politicians would be foolish to ignore. It’s really quite amazing. It’s spontaneous and organic and in many respects emblematic of the best of America which is citizens getting engaged at key moment because of what they see happening to their country.
TheDC: Last question. Does Bush provoke bearing any responsibility for provoking that organic response?
PW: I think the Tea Party movement was in part a response to TARP, which I actually think was defensible and still actually think is defensible, much of the TARP money is being paid back. But there was definitely a sense that in the steps that were taken in the financial crisis of 2008, that that gave energy to what became known as the Tea Party movement. But I think it really began to metastasize after Bush left office, when Obama took over with the stimulus package, auto companies, but most especially health care. I think health care was just a bridge too far and people understood, rightly understood, he was doing exactly the wrong thing and that it was an effort to increase the size and scope and reach and power of the federal government at the moment that much of the public wanted the opposite and I think Obama’s party is going to pay dearly for it.
TheDC: Do you ever hear from the White House about your columns?
PW: I don’t, I don’t. No.
TheDC: That’s too bad. You have to do something different I guess.
PW: (laughs) I wouldn’t imagine that I would. They’ve got enough other things to worry about, they don’t need to worry about me.
John Talty contributed to this report.