November 4, 2004 | Broadcast

The Wolf Blitzer Report

And the Middle East peace process after Arafat.

Here to talk about all of that and more are two guests. Peter Beinart is editor of “The New Republic.” Cliff May is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Always good to have you, especially on a Friday when we can wrap up what has happened this week. What happened to the Democrats?

PETER BEINART, EDITOR, “NEW REPUBLIC”: Well, that’s a good question. I think one of the things that clearly happened was that gay marriage turned out to be an enormously powerful issue. I think people had underestimated the power of that issue.

I believe that if had — gay marriage had not been on the ballot in Ohio, I think John Kerry would be president. I think gay marriage was an enormous factor in bringing out that huge Bush vote in southern Ohio that buried John Kerry.

That is an enormous problem for the Democrats, because I think most Democrats in their heart, as I believe, believe that gay marriage is just the right thing for human liberty and human equality. It’s one of the great moral issues of our time. Most Americans are deeply against it. That’s a great, great dilemma for the Democratic Party.

BLITZER: Do you accept that?

CLIFF MAY, PRESIDENT, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: No, I don’t agree with that at all. Look, for most of the Cold War from 1969, when Lyndon Johnson went out of office, to 1992, when Clinton came back into office, you didn’t have a Democrat in the White House except for four years. Carter came in because of the Watergate scandal.

I think that’s why a lot of Democratic strategists were trying to make a Republican scandal.

Democrats have to be credible on national security. Kerry was never credible on terrorism and Iraq. He was never consistent. I think that’s what did him in at the end.

And also, the fact that he never repudiated…

BLITZER: It wasn’t the social issues, in your opinion? It was the foreign policy, national security issues?

MAY: Yes. All of this fed in. There’s no question about it. People don’t make a decision for one reason. You don’t; I don’t. None of us do.

But it was — in a time of war — look, most of the electorate, if you put Iraq and terrorism together, that was overwhelming the issue they told pollsters they cared about most, not gay marriage, not even the economy.

BEINART: The moral issues was very, very, very high.

MAY: In a general sense, but moral issues also may have to do with supporting democracy and freedom in Iraq, as well. We don’t know quite what that means.

I think national security at this time. I think Democrats make a tremendous mistake if they don’t recognize the importance of national security. They tried in 2002, right here on this show with you. Paul Begala was saying to me before the 2002 election, this is about Enron. This is about the economy, stupid. This is not about national security.

I said to Paul Begala, with you here, no, it’s about national security. Democrats have to get where Joe Lieberman and Jim Marshall and people like that are.

BEINART: I actually agree with that. I think national security — the nexus between national security and these cultural values issues was toxic for the Democrats.

The problem the Democrats faced was they needed to come up with a clear, tough, strong agenda about how they were going to win the war on terrorism. But the issue that was blocking out the sun was Bush had made central to his view of the war on terrorism, which was Iraq, which — and most people who actually went and said they voted on Iraq were much closer to the war on terrorism. Because you can’t look honestly at Iraq and not say this has become an enormous, enormous fiasco.

For Democrats not to have said that would have been to violate their own views about what was right in the war on terrorism. What John Kerry needed to do was to take that and then move beyond Iraq and give a clear vision of what he would have done in addition.

MAY: I know a lot of Democratic strategists, maybe not as many as you know, quite a few. And early on they made the decision that the wrong track numbers were high. People wanted a change from Bush. All they needed to do was show that Kerry was a viable alternative. They didn’t need to present an agenda or a real vision. Kerry never had any agenda or vision…

BEINART: He had a great deal to say.

MAY: … except to say you don’t like Bush, replace Bush. I’m the guy you replace him with.

BLITZER: The problem that I saw that Kerry had, probably one of the biggest problems, if not the biggest problems, was the way he was positioned by the Republicans as a flip-flopper. That — that caused so many Americans to wonder who is this guy? Will he do anything just for political purposes?

BEINART: That’s right. That’s right. And that is part of the inherent problem of having a guy with a long Senate record. That’s part of the reason you don’t have many senators getting elected president, because they have these records of votes that you can go after.

Now you could — I could tick off five or six things on which George W. Bush is a flip-flopper, on enormously important issues: Homeland Security Department, 9/11 Commission, abortion itself, George W. Bush flip-flopped.

But senators are inherently — and John Kerry because he was not a good communicator and because they did not head that off, and because he made a terrible mistake in voting for the $87 — voting against the $87 billion, made himself subject to that.

BLITZER: Let me just clarify one thing. When did he flip-flop on abortion?

BEINART: George W. Bush’s first race in the House, he was pro- choice.

BLITZER: When he was a young man.

BEINART: George W. Bush when he was a young man. He was pro- choice.

MAY: Flip-flop is not a great word, because what we’re really talking about is whether a politician is a conviction politician or whether he goes with the polls.

He also had a problem within his own party. There were conservatives — I would say, I guess, hawkish Democrats like Joe Lieberman. And there’s — and look, the “National — National View” — the “New Republic,” great magazine, is very much — was very much that. And there were also the Michael Moore Democrats. And Jimmy Carter and those sorts of folks.

BLITZER: Howard Dean.

MAY: Howard Dean. And how do you — how do you say the same thing about Iraq and terrorism to those two parts of your party and bring them together? It’s not easy to do.

BLITZER: The Democratic Party, which was not necessarily well known for being united, was about as united as I have seen it in their opposition to Bush.

MAY: In their opposition and anger towards Bush, and in their intensity. And they were intense. But you know what? Republicans were intense, too. And part of the reason Republicans were intense is they didn’t want to be told by people like Michael Moore how to vote and how to live their lives.

BLITZER: An I’m — we’re going to take a quick break, but I’ll leave you with this thought, then we’ll pick it up when we come back. Democrats did very well this time. They got more votes than Al Gore did. They were — they collected more money. They had a lot more volunteers. They did much better than they did the last time.

The problem they had was the Republicans did even better, which so many people were surprised to discover. Maybe not Karl Rove.

We’ll pick that up. Much more with Peter Beinart and Cliff May right after a short break.

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Changing times in the Middle East and President Bush’s second term. We’re talking about that and more with our guests, Peter Beinart, the editor of the “New Republic,” and Cliff May, the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Let’s pick up on the thought I just left with. The Democrats did very well this time, much better than they did four years ago. And you could argue with the exception of 100,000 votes or so in Ohio, despite the three million or four million votes nationally that President Bush got, with the exception of those 100,000 votes in Ohio, Kerry would have been elected.

BEINART: Yes, it’s true; the Democrats did a good job by and large of getting their vote out. And it’s also true that the margin as a percentage of both Kerry and Bush’s votes, the margin between them was lower than any presidential election in the 20th Century.

Where the Democrats didn’t do a good job is when you look at President Bush’s approval ratings, and you look at the right track, wrong track numbers. Here was a president that was vulnerable, a country that was willing to accept change and a Democrat who was not willing to give them change that they could accept. That’s where the Democrats had the great failure. That’s what I think is the answer.

MAY: I don’t disagree with that, but it also has to be said a majority vote for the first time since 1988. We’ve had presidents elected…

BEINART: A plurality.

MAY: He got 51 percent.

BEINART: Bill Clinton…

MAY: Bill Clinton never got a majority. He got 42 percent in one election, if you recall. Also, he — President Bush got more votes than any other candidate ever in American history running for president.

BEINART: That’s because of population increases.

MAY: Well, it’s also because we had a high turnout. I know a lot of Democrats who told me, it’s really high turnout. That means — that means there are all these Democrats waiting in line in the rain. I said, “For all you know, half and one of those people waiting in line in the rain could be Republicans. Don’t be so sure.”

And I actually, again…

BLITZER: That was the conventional wisdom…

MAY: Yes.

BLITZER: … that the high voter turnout would be good for Kerry. They did have a high Democratic voter turnout, but they had an even higher Republican voter turnout.

MAY: I want to mention this. The serious social scientists knew the morning of the election who was going to win. Ken Mehlman, a Democrat pollster working for Kerry, he predicted 51 percent for Bush. Very brave of him. The horse race…

BLITZER: You mean Mark Mehlman.

MAY: Mark Mehlman, I’m sorry.

BLITZER: Ken Mehlman is the chairman.

MAY: The chairman. Yes. Mark Mehlman, he deserves a lot of credit. He’s been on this show and other shows, as well. And one, he was very — he was honest.

And the horse race blog, if you know Jay Kost, he writes wonderfully, brilliantly about the methodology of polling. He predicted exactly what was going to happen. He knew which polls were right and which were wrong.

BLITZER: Mark Mehlman and Ken Mehlman, no relation.

MAY: Sorry.

BLITZER: Two different political parties.

Talk about a little bit what the Bush administration needs to do now in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat. He’s not dead yet, but people are preparing for that.

BEINART: I don’t know that there’s a lot for anyone to do in the short-term. It seems to me in the short-term the question is going to be for the Palestinians.

What do the Palestinians do with this power vacuum? Who emerges as a power player? It seems to me until that happens, there’s not that much that the U.S. or Israel can do.

I think one has to hope that the person that emerges is someone who is more accountable, more democratic, and someone who’s more interested in peace than — than Yasser Arafat. If there is such a person, then the onus is back on Israel and on the Sharon government, it seems to me. And then the U.S. has a role.

MAY: Quietly and off the radar screen, and not on this show, what the Americans need to be doing is shoring up two groups of Palestinians: those who are genuinely moderate, by which I mean those who would be happy to see a two-state solution, happy to see a Jewish state; and those who are pragmatic. They won’t be happy about a Jewish state, but they don’t want to sacrifice another generation of Palestinians children in — in terrorism because they reject that.

Those two groups should be shored up, because they’re going to be under attack from Hamas…

BLITZER: Who represents those two groups?

MAY: Well, I think… BLITZER: Which Palestinian leaders?

MAY: Look, the moderates are hard to find. I know Palestinian moderates, but they don’t dare step foot in Ramallah. The things they say would get them killed, frankly.

There are pragmatists…

BLITZER: What about Mahmoud Abbas?

MAY: Mahmoud Abbas and…

BLITZER: Ahmed Qorei?

MAY: … Ahmed Qorei, I think, are pragmatists. I think they don’t necessarily want to sacrifice another generation of children just to continue to fight a war that they’re going to lose.

I believe it was Abbas — it could have been Qorei — who said not long ago the intifada was meant to kill a thousand Israelis and then the state would collapse. They killed a thousand Israelis and the state hasn’t collapsed. That strategy does not work. And the strategy of the Arab armies swarming in and wiping out the state doesn’t work.

Then maybe you have to accept half a loaf. Half a loaf is a Palestinian state that recognizes and lives peacefully next to a Jewish state.

BLITZER: All right. Very briefly.

BEINART: I think the fundamental question is also going to be is Israel willing to accept the idea of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank? I don’t think the Sharon government is necessarily willing to, but hopefully one Israeli government in the future will.

BLITZER: We’ll leave it right there. And we’ll see where it goes. But major, major developments unfolding. We’ll have to be very nervous watching all this unfold.

Peter Beinart, Cliff May, thanks very much.