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Onetime McCain strategist Steve Schmidt talks about a time when politicians could disagree respectfully

Steve Schmidt
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Steve Schmidt

Since the spring weather has arrived (and, one might note, the COVID-19 pandemic did not “disappear, like a miracle,” with the warmer weather as one seer had predicted) I have taken great comfort in long walks along Minnehaha Creek (I live within a couple of blocks of the Minnehaha Parkway and can hoof it easily to a lap around either Harriet or Nokomis if I’m feeling really ambitious). I have greatly increased my consumption of political and historical podcasts, which I can listen to as I walk and pretend to be sort of working). 

One of my favorites is the Al Franken podcast, and his most recent episode is a pip.

His guest was Steve Schmidt, a stalwart long-time Republican, who was the senior campaign strategist and top adviser to John McCain during the 2008 election. Schmidt, a mountain of a man, had not yet left the GOP when I covered his May 2018 talk at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, and he devoted his prepared remarks to other topics, but he was trying on his voice as a Republican never Trumper even back then. Asked about Trump that day, he answered:

“A third of the country may choose to live in Trumpistan. Good for them. Sixty to 65 percent of us prefer to continue living in America.”

The next month he quit the GOP, on anti-Trump grounds, although he has not joined the Democrats either. He came across on the Franken podcast as a man of deep principle, who absolutely knows his mind, who revered the kind of Republicanism that McCain symbolized (but absolutely detested the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running-mate, as he made clearer than ever in the Franken interview).

Franken, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat, held back his own disagreement with Schmidt on many specific issues while probing Schmidt on why he left the party, while expressing his clear admiration of Schmidt as a person of deep principles.

I listen regularly to Franken’s podcasts and recommend the habit

But this one was not about why liberals are right and conservatives were wrong. It was about remembering a time when Democrats and Republicans could respect one another across areas of disagreement, and debate those disagreements using honest facts and logic in that zone of discussion rooted in that respect.

I seem to remember when I could more easily have such conversations with conservative friends. Often I would learn things I hadn’t known, things that were rooted in mutual respect for logic and factual accuracy. Damn, I miss those days.

Anyway, if you want to share that experience, this link will get you straight to the Schmidt-Franken exchange, which unfortunately is headlined: “Steve Schmidt Tears Trump and the Republican Party A New One.” The discussion was far more respectful than that headline.

I would have headlined it something like “Steve Schmidt explains the difference between honest conservatism and Trumpism.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/21/2020 - 10:26 am.

    Verily, I encounter few honest conservatives nowadays, and labeling the current iteration of Republican ideology as “Trumpism” gives the grifter-in-chief too much credit for political thought beyond his own welfare and bank account. If there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” it’s truly a cult, with all the weirdness and dysfunction that goes with a cult. Mr. Schmidt comes closer to the people I thought of as “conservative” half a century ago. I doubt that I agreed with John McCain about very much, but that’s not to say that I didn’t agree with his position about anything at all, and the same goes for Mr. Schmidt.

    • Submitted by David Therkelsen on 05/21/2020 - 11:06 am.

      Mr. Schoch is equating today’s Republicans with conservatives. But today’s Republicans, especially the Trump acolytes, are not conservatives. True conservatives (I’m not one, but I respect them and believe polity needs them) abhor deficits and the debt they create. They revere free markets, and want businesses to succeed or fail on their own merits, without help or hindrance from government. They honor equality in opportunity, though not outcomes, for all. They defend their positions with facts and reason. Actually most conservatives I encounter nowadays are honest. It’s just that one doesn’t encounter a whole lot of them. And none of them wear silly red hats.

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 05/21/2020 - 12:02 pm.

        I would agree with that. As a conservative, Trump is not one. He exhibits some traits and has done a great job with the economy as there was opportunity for everyone. However, the recent (pre-pandemic) budget bloating and desire of having trust in a small group of people is very problematic.
        Though when you generalize vast amounts of people as a cult in a method that many liberals in politics have done, like Hilary and Barack in recent campaigns, you are doing exactly what the article is about.
        Who wants to engage with someone who already has an extremely negative bias as there are a few bad apples but mostly good people on both sides?

        • Submitted by ian wade on 05/21/2020 - 01:40 pm.

          Yeah, but Trump didn’t do anything for the economy. He’s coasted on the recovery Obama gave him. There were more jobs created in the last 31 months of Obama’s presidency than the first 31 months of Trump’s. Obama averaged more monthly jobs created than Trump. Obama average 2.4% GDP growth during his last three years, 2.5% under Trump, but not even close to the 4% he promised. Lastly, the stock market increased by 130% under Obama. So let’s dispense with the fallacy that Trump has done a “great job”with the economy.

          • Submitted by David Therkelsen on 05/21/2020 - 08:23 pm.

            Actually, two changes in the economy can be “credited” to Trump: soaring deficit, and thus soaring national debt. Pre-CV, even.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/21/2020 - 02:23 pm.

          Great job with the economy? Running an economy is more than coasting on what your predecessor left you. Its dealing with crises, and on that front Trump has failed miserably. He will go down as one of the worst economic presidents ever. Which really isn’t a surprise considering the guy was an utter failure at business as well.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/21/2020 - 10:39 pm.

        A mere quibble, but to state that conservatives of any stripe believe in equality of opportunity is just not correct. While they might at the earliest onset of a particular civilization, the concept ends there, as the privilege of inherited wealth is sacrosanct. It’s the reason any truly conservative (by your definition) society, invariably trends towards, and eventually reaches, hereditary aristocracy. It is in fact the perfect ideal for that worldview, stable, predictable, unchanging for long periods of time.

  2. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 05/21/2020 - 12:10 pm.

    ” A man of deep principle … using honest facts.” And we get to the very heart of the matter. Although I would disagree a lot with Mr. Schmidt because I think there is a certain amount of Darwinism in his beliefs, I could hold a discussion with him. One only has to look at the embarrassing piece Jason Lewis just penned to see how far the Republican Party has fallen following their great leader. Might add, there’s also minority on the left that is going with the scorched earth, winner take all strategy. Our country truly is broken if we have election after election of back and forth between the two factions, but I’m afraid that’s where it’s headed.

    Trump’s so abhorent in his divisiveness that it’s really hard to avoid letting emotion win over logic. Yet, that hatred of him that he has worked so hard to cultivate is also the main hope I have of getting rid of him.

    • Submitted by Payton Powell on 05/23/2020 - 09:27 pm.

      It’s been like that since 1796, infact the very few times that the country has seen stability in the White House was from the conception of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln through Chester Arthur. Essentially there was a quarter century of Republicans in office and then it resumed going back and forth with a few small runs of Republicans in the early 20th century. Also, politics has never been respectable or civil, that myth should be dispelled immediately.

  3. Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/21/2020 - 01:06 pm.

    It’s rather hard to envision a supposed Golden Era of Civil Discourse, where conservatives and lib’ruls were able to “disagree respectfully” (using “honest facts and logic”), when conservatives have been vociferously lying and playing the game of wilful ignorance about such things as global warming for almost 30 years and tax policy for around 40.

    Not to mention the days (almost 2 decades ago) of Repubs vilifying anyone who wasn’t totally gun-ho for Bush’s War to Liberate Iraq’s Oil….or questioned the “facts” regarding Saddam’s “WMD”! But perhaps Schmidt is speaking of the days of the Vietnam War? The New Deal? (sarcasm)

    This all falls into the desperate dream that “There’s a lot of good Repubs out there!” to use Biden’s phrase. It will be remembered that Franken stepped up in the ’90s to confront and combat Ringleader of Invective Rush Limbaugh with books titled “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them”. That Franken apparently has uncovered some memory of a lost “civil discourse” in America seems somewhat, um, revisionist!

    I have to say I’m pretty unclear what exactly the word “good” is meant to describe in Biden’s sentence….good at cooking? Golf?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/22/2020 - 05:57 am.

      It requires going back to the pre-Gingrich era. He is the father of the modern GOP, and what is called conservatism these days.

    • Submitted by Payton Powell on 05/23/2020 - 09:30 pm.

      There has never been a golden age of civil discourse, it has always been hyper-partisan filled with backstabbing, backroom deals, favoritism, scandal, corruption, and even outright violence from the beginning. Honestly things are better now than they ever were, it’s not like you see people calling each other out for duels in the House like they used to do.

  4. Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/21/2020 - 02:06 pm.

    Unfortunately for those “true conservatives” the c-word brand has been taken over–not a hostile takeover — by Trumpism, a cult in search of a brand. Conservatives of a generation ago talked of some highfalutin’ concept of “movement” conservativism. They ached for an electoral majority so much they let almost anyone join the movement who promised a following and a mailing list. So all sorts of once-fringe types joined up, a who’s who of reactionary populism. Together it became Trumpism, but since that’s such a revolting term the more marketable term “conservative” is today the property of reactionaries, illiberalism and oligarchy and is tainted by bigotry and intolerance.
    And that’s one way how the English language evolves and meanings of words change, much to the consternation of purists.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 05/21/2020 - 03:56 pm.

    Ah,yes. At some time, I think in the 1970’s, Barry Goldwater was asked what he thought about the upcoming election. Terrible!, he responded, and the reporter asked why he thought so. Goldwater said, The last time we had a good election was when Eisenhower and Stevenson ran. Then, no matter what happened, the country would be in good shape. Just look at the current choice!

    (These are approximate quotes.) Of course, as been noted in recent times, the current GOP wouldn’t be likely to nominate someone as reasonable as Ike. Maybe not even Reagan!

  6. Submitted by ian wade on 05/21/2020 - 04:15 pm.

    One can’t overestimate the destruction that has been wrought from right wing talk radio and Fox news. Civil discourse is the absolute last thing they want since it isn’t economically viable for them. They thrive on ginning up hate and vitriol towards any group that doesn’t kowtow to Trump. If folks aren’t tuning in to see what fake outrage is being retched up by the likes of Hannity, Ingraham and Limbaugh, they’re not making any money.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/22/2020 - 11:24 am.

      At the risk of pining for the good old days like an old fuddy-duddy, the gutting of the fairness doctrine is under-credited as a contribution to the deterioration of the public discourse.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/22/2020 - 12:02 pm.

      “Civil discourse is the absolute last thing they want since it isn’t economically viable for them.”

      And therein lies the real issue. Hate-field rants fill the airwaves because that’s what the public enjoys. Despite all the high-minded hand-wringing about “civility,” and the oft-repeated cliche about how “we” are all sick of division and hyperpartisanship, that’s what people tune in to hear.

      A few years back, I watched a film clip of a mayoral candidates’ debate in St. Paul. Two of the candidates got so riled at each other that they stood up and got in each other’s face, yelling. Did the audience disapprove? You must be joking! They weer bouncing up and down in their seats like this was the best show they had seen in years! I got the impression that actual fisticuffs would have done nothing but improve the experience for them.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/22/2020 - 05:02 pm.

        This is spot-on. If people reality wanted civility, they would stop rewarding the opposite at the ballot box. Candidates run negative ads because they work.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/22/2020 - 08:13 am.

    A coming, potential Post Trump apocalypse is the bottomless well of “bothsides-ism” material left behind by Trump. It’s hard to imagine a transgression scenario committed by President Biden, his cabinet, Speaker Pelosi and the House Majority, Senate Leader Schumer or any of his 61 D Senators that could not be responded to with a “what about Trump and…”. And the “what about” begins with buying off stripper’s silence weeks before the 2016 election to the unimaginable actions of a lame duck Donald Trump (brace yourself!).

    These folks will just need to keep silent on “whatabout-ism” and soldier on doing the business of the country while the likes of Jim Jordan express screaming outrage at things he tolerated and even defended during the Trumpian Presidency…

  8. Submitted by Payton Powell on 05/23/2020 - 09:17 pm.

    Sorry, but politics in America has never, ever been civil. It’s been filled with everything that people accuse Trump of causing or, frankly, much much worse. Sex scandals date back to Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson, yellow partisan journalism has existed from the beginning, people have used coarse and crude language. People think we live in an age where civility has flown out the window but I don’t see Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi challenging people to a duel, which absolutely happened in the 19th century. All of this is false nostalgia peddled by boomers.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/25/2020 - 01:35 pm.

      Dan Quayle (R) and Edward Kennedy (D) worked together to pass the Job Training Partnership Act of 1983, which provided funds to train the unemployed.

      Would that happen today? If so, which Senator would be called out as a “_INO,” and adjudged to have committed career suicide?

    • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/26/2020 - 10:03 am.

      I’m sympathetic to your overall argument that politics in America has never been particularly genteel or courtly, although the metrics of such a notion seem rather difficult to establish. Politicians surely aren’t diplomats, and probably aren’t meant to be.

      But one also can’t take extreme examples and declare them to represent typicality and uniformity. And one also needs to try to take historical “trends” into account. The question is whether there was a trend toward greater civility and truthfulness in politics that has been arrested by the “conservative” movement around 1990, and subsequently taken to ever lower levels, most especially by the egregiously juvenile Trump.

      I’d guess (without having any great depth of reading on the subject) that “civility” in partisan politics has waxed and waned over the course of the American experiment, with particularly bitter periods during times of extreme national division and paralysis, such as the run up to the Civil War, where such things as the caning of abolitionist Sen. Sumner by a Southern slaver captivated the nation (and was decried as going too far).

      I suppose one can say that Trump is a throwback to the other reputedly vulgar and insult-throwing presidents of the 19th Century such as “common man” Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. But the idea that we have “always” seen presidents utilize the level of childish insults that Trump routinely employs is absurd. And as the “leader” goes, so go his followers.

      And this leaves to one side the issue of whether pathological lying and endless bad faith argument can constitute “civil discourse”.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/26/2020 - 02:31 pm.

        It is almost reassuring that Biden provokes outrage over the “You ain’t black” comment while Trump’s “HRC is a skank” comment is just another day at the office.

        Maybe some norms return when Trump exits in November.

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