Top political analyst Jay Cost: ‘I’d much rather be Romney than Obama at this stage’

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

One of the best political analysts in the country thinks that Mitt Romney‘s odds of winning the presidency are pretty good.

“My read of the polls suggests that [President] Obama is struggling to move much beyond 40 percent of the independent vote, which is really the only bloc of the electorate that is up for grabs,” Jay Cost, who writes a twice-weekly column for The Weekly Standard, told The Daily Caller.

“Nobody can win the presidency if they lose the independent vote by 10 to 20 points, which is where I reckon things are headed. Things could change of course, but I’d much rather be Romney than Obama at this stage.”

Besides writing for The Weekly Standard, Cost is working toward his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago. He is also the author of the recently released book, “Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.”

Though Cost is unsure whether any possible vice presidential selection would help Romney electorally, he says the former Massachusetts governor should make the choice with an eye toward the future.

“Think of it this way: Ronald Reagan picked George H.W. Bush to be the veep nominee in 1980, and the Bushes are still a powerful force in GOP politics some 32 years later,” Cost said. “Romney should pick a nominee with an eye to the future — will he be a good steward of the Grand Old Party for the next generation?”

As for November’s election, Cost says that “as usual,” the race will likely come down to Florida and Ohio, but the GOP shouldn’t discount the possibility of flipping Pennsylvania.

“If either Romney or Obama carry both, they will likely win the whole election,” he said. “Pennsylvania is going to be a battle ground this year too, as will New Hampshire.”

Read the full interview with Cost below where he discusses his new book, the political implications of Obama’s support for gay marriage and much more.

Why did you write the book?

I thought there was a good story to tell here. I was watching the 2009-2010 Congress very carefully and was appalled at how President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid curried favor with special interests on all of their big bills — stimulus, cap-and-trade, health care, financial reform were all loaded up with payoffs to well-placed groups (labor, feminists, the environmentalist left, government workers, big businesses, etc). And it got me thinking about the original Democrats, who formed the party precisely to stop this kind of nonsense. So, I wanted to tell a story about how the party has fallen away from the ideals of its founding.

What does your title mean, “Spoiled Rotten?”

It’s a reference to the old “Spoils System,” or the pay-to-play form of patronage politics that characterized the federal bureaucracy up through the 1880s, and basically defined urban political life in the big cities (up until very recently in some places). The basic premise of it is that you reward your core supporters with jobs, contracts, licenses, all at the taxpayer’s expense. The argument of “Spoiled Rotten” is that FDR and the New Deal Democrats basically exported the old machine-style, spoils system from the big cities and into Washington D.C., which is what has ruined the Democratic Party.


When was the Democratic Party the party of the little guy?

Well, of course if you ask the average Democrat, they’ll tell you that they still are! But I think the trouble really began in the 1960s. That’s when the FDR model started to break down. Roosevelt tried to take care of his party’s clients and further the national interest simultaneously, and he was more or less successful. Each Democratic leader to follow him had to do the same thing, and along the way they added more and more interests into the coalition. By the end of the 1960s, there were just too many interests within the party to take care of, and so the party stopped being able to promote the public interest. And I think that has more or less characterized Democratic politics ever since.

How has the modern Democratic Party failed to live up to this projected image?

The problem now is that it plays favorites. This can be somewhat subtle in some cases because the party plays political favorites with many groups that are economically disadvantaged (although that is much less the case recently, with the rise of the upper-class left). But we have to distinguish between economic status and political status. Importantly, Andrew Jackson — the party’s founder and the first president who really could claim to be the man of the people — envisioned a party that “rained its favors on the high and low” alike, but the party now systematically tilts the policy output of the government toward the interests that support it.

President Obama promised to be a new kind of politician. Is there any evidence he has brought change to this spoils system you write about?

None at all. This has easily been the most disappointing aspect to his presidency, at least for me. If you read the “Audacity of Hope” and listened to many of his pre-presidential speeches, one might have intuited that he understands the problem I detail in my book (although of course he would frame it in very different ways!): How do we find and promote the common good in a world dominated by interest groups and ideological true believers who eschew compromise?

But he never followed through, and frankly I don’t think he even tried. Ultimately, his political mistake was basically to outsource the drafting of domestic legislation to Congress, especially the House. Nancy Pelosi was a kind of de facto prime minister in 2009 and 2010, which was terrible. She really represents what has gone wrong with the modern Democratic Party — as a San Francisco liberal, she is attached to all those New Left clients that came on in the 1960s and 70s, but she also has her roots in the old machine style of politics (her father was the mayor of Boston). And she really had a quid pro quo approach to drafting legislation: we want your vote, what will it cost you?

It’s not just Pelosi, either. The problem goes much deeper: the real power base of Democratic interest groups is the House of Representatives, which ended up spearheading most of the big legislation.


Moving on from your book, you are among the keenest observers of election politics. What odds do you give to Mitt Romney to win his thing?

I favor Romney at this point. My read of the polls suggests that Obama is struggling to move much beyond 40 percent of the independent vote, which is really the only bloc of the electorate that is up for grabs. Nobody can win the presidency if they lose the independent vote by 10 to 20 points, which is where I reckon things are headed. Things could change of course, but I’d much rather be Romney than Obama at this stage.

Do you think any particular VP nominee would benefit Romney electorally or do you think, as some do, that the VP choice is largely irrelevant to the outcome of the race?

I’m not sure. Plenty of smart people argue that it is inconsequential, but I am skeptical of that argument. I think it depends on the nominee. What I would like to see is Romney pick a veep nominee who clearly has a future leading the Republican Party, somebody who understands the strengths and weaknesses of the GOP, and somebody who has the character and personal magnetism to be a future president.

Think of it this way: Ronald Reagan picked George H.W. Bush to be the veep nominee in 1980, and the Bushes are still a powerful force in GOP politics some 32 years later. Romney should pick a nominee with an eye to the future — will he be a good steward of the Grand Old Party for the next generation?

What states do you think will be the most crucial in determining the outcome of the election?

As usual, it will come down to Florida and Ohio. If either Romney or Obama carry both, they will likely win the whole election. Pennsylvania is going to be a battleground this year too, as will New Hampshire.

Do you think Obama’s decision to come out in support of gay marriage will hurt him? 

Probably not very much. I think the real advantage of coming out in support of it now (and one reason why I suspect the whole soap opera might have been planned all along) is that voters will have forgotten about the whole thing by November. Hate to say it, but attention spans in this country are notoriously short, especially among the undecided/independent voters. Obama takes a temporary hit in the polls, but he collects extra cash from the gay lobby, the polls bounce back, and he wins for the whole thing.

What about the Senate — do you think there is a reasonable chance the GOP could win it back?

Yes, for three reasons. First, the Democrats have to defend more seats this cycle.

Second, the 50 states tilt on balance to the GOP. A lot of that has to do with the sparsely populated states in the Farm Belt and Mountain West, which often back the GOP, while Democratic strongholds are concentrated in the most populous states, especially California and New York. The Senate has a “small state bias” that helps the Republicans.

Third, I think the GOP is on track to win a majority of the House vote and win the presidency as well. If they do that, they should carry a majority of the Senate vote (or something relatively close to it), which should produce a Senate majority.

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