Ed Gillespie was the chairman of the Republican National Committee for the 2004 election cycle. Before that, he was a strategist for Elizabeth Dole’s 2002 U.S. Senate campaign, an adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, the RNC’s director of communications and congressional affairs in 1996, and a top aide to Congressman Dick Armey of Texas. He is a founder and co-chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a Washington-based lobbying and communications firm. In June 2007 he stepped down from his position as the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia to become counselor to President George W. Bush.
Jules Witcover interviewed Gillespie on April 26, 2007.
Would you start by talking about the fate of the federal subsidy program for supporting presidential candidates, whether it can survive or not?
The matching funds?
Well, I would be surprised if either of the parties’ nominees in 2008 accepted federal matching funds. I think both nominees will forgo that and not have to abide by limits in the various states.
What about other candidates, so-called second- and third-tier candidates?
Yeah, they will take it.
Think that will be enough to get them into Iowa or New Hampshire?
Yeah, I think it probably will.
What’s your thought, generally, about money in politics? Do you think there is too much money in politics, or not enough money, or just about right?
I don’t think there is too much money in politics. There are a lot worse things that Americans could be spending their money on. And, in fact, there are a lot worse things that Americans do spend more money on than politics. I think people participating in the political system, whether it’s volunteering their time, or forwarding e-mails, or voting, or giving money, is what a democracy is all about.
Do you think that money can be a corrupting factor in politics?
Sure, if people are susceptible to corruption. But I think there is a presumption often in the media that a politician’s votes follow the money. I think the case is more often accurate that money follows a politician’s vote. I mean, does a liberal Democrat vote for pro-labor union legislation because the AFL-CIO [the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] gives them money? Or does the AFL-CIO give them money because they vote for pro-labor union legislation? By the way, I don’t mean that in terms of a quid pro quo in either case. My point is that they are supporting people who support their point of view.
In your experience, do you know of any examples of where there actually was a quid pro quo?
I have never, in my own experience, seen someone say, “I will vote this way if you give me money.”
Or on the other hand, if you support ‘X’ bill, I will give you ‘X’ dollars?
I am not familiar with that either. I think people have said, “We will be supportive of you.” I mean, there are certain things where people know that if you get a 75 percent or above, you are going to get an endorsement from an organization in their ranking of votes and that kind of thing. But I know of no personal incident where someone has said, “If you vote this way, we will give you a check.”
Do you think the amount of money that a candidate spends is a voting issue, that people are concerned about how much money is in politics and they will withhold a vote because somebody has seemed to spend a lot of money?
I am sure that’s true in some individual cases. I don’t think, as a rule, it is a vote-determinative issue for most Americans, how much money a candidate is spending.
What about some of these self-financing candidates like Ross Perot, Steve Forbes? What’s your impression about how that plays with voters?
Jon Corzine [of New Jersey] or Senator [Jay] Rockefeller [of West Virginia], yeah.
Any of them, yeah.
My sense is that more voters think it’s a good thing that someone’s spending their own money and therefore is not indebted to a donor for anything. And people think it’s a bad thing that somebody’s trying to buy a seat. But that’s impressionistic. I am sure that somewhere there are data that can tell you more accurately if that’s the case or not.
Do you think it’s detrimental in any way for what seems to be going to happen for the first time in this cycle — that is, that the general-election candidates will pay their own way, that there will be no subsidy for the general election?
No matching funds?
No matching funds.
No? Well, that’s [not] an inherently bad thing at all.
You see a good side to it?
Well, understand that contributions are limited to $2,300 per person. If you have enough money under that limit to forgo the matching funds, you are involving an awful lot of people in the political process. And I think there is a lot to be said for that.
How do you feel, generally, about the frontloading of the primaries, seizing the calendar and the proliferation of primaries, and what the money impact might be on that? Obviously it’s going to demand a lot more money.
It puts a premium on money and being able to compete. I think it’s not a good thing. It’s the condensing of the primary process. The condensing of the primary process is not a healthy thing for the political process. The incredibly early start to the presidential political cycle I don’t think is a good thing. In 1992, Bill Clinton didn’t announce that he was running for the Democratic Party nomination until October of ’91. We are in April of 2007. And we have already had, basically, five candidates wash out. You’ve got a winnowing effect already.
Do you think there is any danger that, assuming that the nominees of both parties are known in late February or early March even, that you will then have, in effect, a general election running from there right through the election?
It’s going to be a nine-month election. I think it’s most likely to start on February 6. I think both parties will know their nominee, most likely, on February 6.
But what is going to be the impact on that, not only in terms of how much money will be required to go that period, but do you think there is any danger that there will be a burnout by voters?
Yeah, people are going to get sick of it.
So how do you, as a campaign manager or consultant, keep your candidate afloat in terms of interest over that long period of time?
You have to just gut it out. I mean, the voters are going to tune in and they are going to tune out. But if there is going to be a constant performance for the media elite, and the blogs, and the 24/7 news channels that will shake the race throughout the year, most voters know when they need to pay attention and when they don’t. But it is an incredibly grueling process. And essentially we have a year-long primary run that we see going on right now, and a nine-month general-election run.
You see any way to prevent that from happening?
Yeah. I think we ought to lift the spending caps. And I think the national parties have been weakened under their current campaign-finance laws. I think they should be allowed to raise and spend more money more freely. We have essentially federalized the party committees. And at the same time, we have allowed these 527s to run wild, unfettered, unregulated, not subject to the same rules and regulations as the national parties. And I think that’s been incredibly unhealthy.
How would lifting the spending caps improve a campaign during that period?
Well, because the limits are $2,300, you do have to have massive amounts of people brought into the process. That’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive thing.
Well, you are talking not simply about the candidates being out there on the grind for all of that period. But there is the apparatus behind them.
Yeah, all of that. I mean the whole infrastructure that has to be put in place; that’s all a factor.
Do you think under those circumstances, with the candidates and their managers working hard to come up with ways to keep the campaign vital, and alive, and interesting, that the campaigns are likely to become more negative?
I don’t know that they are going to become more negative. We are just going to have more of everything. There are going to be more negative ads. And there are going to be more positive ads. And there are going to be more health-care-oriented ads and more tax-oriented ads, because there is going to be more of everything. It’s a longer, more drawn-out cycle. And there is just too much time to fill the airwaves with.
Do you see any way that a campaign’s budget can be kept in check by dealing with the networks, getting Congress to impose some kind of free-time arrangement? Is that off the board?
I don’t see that as solving as many problems as it might create, to be honest with you. But you give equal time to Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the same amount of time for Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
How about in that long period, that eight months or whatever it will be, the general-election campaign, where you’d only have to deal with two candidates and maybe Nader?
Well, that’s right. Where do you draw the line? Relative to Nader, or Perot, or anybody else who may say: “I am a candidate for president, too. Here are my papers.”
Who, in your experience, has been an enthusiastic fundraiser for himself? Somebody who likes to get on the telephone and raise money for himself?
In my own experience? I don’t know any candidate who . . .
I was just wondering, are there any people around anymore who really enthusiastically embrace the chore?
I always tell candidates who see it as a chore that: “Look, you know that this money is going to be well-spent. You believe in the importance of your candidacy. You have to have enthusiasm for it, because the donor is going to pick up on that.” And I had to do it as a party chairman, raise money. It’s not the most enjoyable thing. But I would always think to myself: “This money is important. It’s going to help elect good candidates. We are not going to waste a penny.” And if I don’t believe that in asking it, how are they supposed to believe it in getting it? And it’s important for the candidates to embrace that aspect of campaigning.
I seldom encountered any who really do.
I don’t know of any who do. But I do think that people realize this is an important part of the process and a necessary part of the process.
How do you see the whole Internet phenomenon fitting into both the presidential campaigns as a function and the influence of money? Obviously it’s proved to be a good fundraising tool. But others have suggested to me, that I have interviewed this time around, that because there are so many other ways for voices to be heard on the Internet, and people who want to help or hurt a candidate can do so without it costing very much money.
Well, if you are the candidate who gets hurt, obviously it’s a bad thing. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing for the process that someone can get a message out there without spending much money. And the fact is the Internet remains today, the blogosphere, the Wild West. And a campaign that doesn’t come to terms with the new media and how information moves and addresses it in real time is not likely to be successful. And it has proven to be a potent means for raising money, more potent on the Democratic side than the Republican side. But on the Republican side as well there is a lot of money that comes in over the Internet.
If you were running a campaign, what would your attitude be about the independent-expenditure groups, the 527s, and now the blogosphere, in terms of keeping control of your campaign?
Well, it’s hard to keep control of your campaign in the blogosphere and the 527s. The 527s should be subject to the same rules, at least, as the political parties are, if not the individual campaigns themselves. The Republican National Committee exists to help elect Republicans to the White House, and the U.S. House [of Representatives], and the statehouse. The Democratic National Committee exists for that reason. MoveOn.org exists to help elect candidates to office and engages in promoting or defeating candidates. Moving America Forward is engaged in those processes. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were engaged in an effort to defeat a candidate for president. And by the way, in ’04 and I am sure in ’06 again, Democrat-leaning 527s vastly outspent Republican-leaning 527s. And so they are playing the same game. They should play by the same rules.
What I was getting at was, in all of these three ways of being involved in a campaign, they could do things that may not be in harmony with the candidate they profess to help. As a manager, is that a concern to you that you?
Yeah, there are more externalities beyond your control, in terms of trying to define your candidate, or your opponent, or shape the environment.
Is there any way that you could legitimately deal with that?
I think dealing with it in the earned media sense, and responding to it, and trying to stay out in front of it is the way you legitimately deal with it. I don’t think you can crack down on bloggers and infringe on their freedom of speech.
The other side of that coin is that, when the independent-expenditures groups began, and I guess then later 527s, there was always a suspicion of collusion of what was explicitly indicated that you could not have collusion. As a practical matter, in your experience, how did that actually work?
There is not collusion, in my experience. It’s a violation of the law. That’s a pretty serious charge to level at someone.
But aren’t there ways that you can not really break the law? I don’t know whether this is done in a presidential campaign. It’s just theoretically, I guess. If a campaign has five functions that it’s going to perform, and say one of them is television advertising, can they leave that undone? And without any collusion whatsoever, and regardless of what party is involved, that need be met by an independent-expenditure group or 527? So that it’s not direct collusion, but there is kind of an unspoken agreement. I don’t know whether this has ever been done or not, but it just seems to be that if I wanted to get around that provision, that would be one way to do it.
Well, you would be hoping that someone else would step in and . . .
But you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t have a strong feeling. You certainly would not advertise. I mean, I am just using that as one example where one might get around the provision.
If you had the money, you could advertise.
Yeah. Well, suppose you don’t. Oh, you mean if the lid was off, this wouldn’t happen. Oh, I see.
Yeah, if you had the money, you would do it yourself. You wouldn’t hope that somebody else would cover a market for you.
Yeah. So this is another positive reason. Let me ask you about the debates. Do you see anything wrong with the way the presidential debates have been conducted and in a sense that participation has been limited and that there is corporate sponsorship?
I wasn’t aware of corporate sponsorship of debates.
Well, in terms of the hospitality suites and all that kind of stuff. And I think actually they do pay for the . . .
Well, the debates are done by the presidential debate commission.
But that is not a government agency, I don’t believe. I think that’s a cooperative arrangement between the two former party chairmen [Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf] and supported, I think, by the corporations.
Yeah. It may be. I am not familiar with how it’s constituted.
Well, some groups have raised some concern about that. I’ve gone to all the debates; I have never seen any fingerprints on the actual debate by anybody.
Yeah, if the thought there is, “Well, Coca-Cola has given money to the presidential debate commission, and therefore the next president of the United States may be appreciative of that,” I don’t think they get much credit for it if that’s the case.
He probably drinks Coke anyway.
First of all, I don’t think anybody would know it. I was the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2004, when we had the three presidential debates and the one vice-presidential debate. And I couldn’t tell you who gave money to the presidential debate commission. And I could tell you that whoever did, didn’t engender a lot of positive feelings for doing it. I don’t think there is a lot of love on either side for the presidential debate commission.
I was asking the question because I haven’t found anybody who disagrees with what you say, in either party. Somebody who does, obviously, is Ralph Nader.
To me, that whole process is anachronistic. The fact is, every year Democratic and Republican candidates for governor and for House and for Senate and city council manage to find a way to debate one another. And I am pretty sure that, in this day and age, the presidential candidates would find a way to debate one another. And they may not debate three times and have the VP debate once. They might debate twice and by the time you get through the two presidential and the one vice presidential, and you have that fourth debate between the two presidential candidates, there is not a whole lot of ground that hasn’t been covered.
And we do live in a 24/7 news environment, or information environment. And it’s not like when there were only three networks and this was the chance that people had to see the few presidential candidates. They see them all the damn time. For me, being involved in ’96, 2000, and 2004 in the presidential-debate drill, I think it’s a huge diversion and drain of resources. At least the third presidential one is.
But the early history was that there were no debates. And after the Kennedy-Nixon debates there was a resistance on incumbents to debate. And it was only when President [Jimmy] Carter agreed to debate . . .
Well, [President Gerald] Ford debated Carter.
Ford was the first one to agree to debate?
Yeah, and they have debated ever since.
So do you think it’s institutionalized now?
I think it’s become institutionalized. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a candidate for president who would say, “I am sorry, but I am not going to debate my opponent,” in this day and age, without the voters thinking that was disrespectful of them, not just the opponents. So maybe the political marketplace will change in such a way that a presidential candidate of one of the two parties would say, “Well, I am not going to give the people of the United States, the voters, a debate to watch.”
Yeah. It might be a little high-risk.
I think it probably would be.
I wanted to ask you about what I guess you could refer to as the political industry, that there is now, in your business, a whole industry of electing people. Unlike when I started reporting, you had people who ran campaigns that were usually directly associated with the candidate, either a brother, law partner, best friend, so on, who ran a campaign because they were committed to that one candidate. And if their candidate won, they might go into the administration. They might go back to their law firm or whatever they did.
There wasn’t an ongoing political profession of the sort that there is today. There were, going back to in California, Whitaker [and Baxter], Spencer-Roberts. There were small groups like that. Now you have full-time people in campaigns. Not doing a kind of firm that you have, which I believe goes beyond politics. You do other things, don’t you?
Yeah, we do lobbying, public relations, communication strategy. But my firm is a bipartisan firm. We don’t do any campaigns.
You don’t? I was asking Jack Quinn, [whom] I knew from way before he got involved with you.
Oh, is that right? From the Clinton [administration] days?
Oh, before that even. But anyway, my point is that we now have this industry of politics where people work around the clock, all of the time, in campaign season and out, running campaigns. And I want to ask you how much that contributes to the cost of running campaigns. Is it now a huge cost similar to what it costs to buy television, or is it not? And is there any danger, in this kind of an operation, that you get away from the kind of connection that used to exist between people who ran campaigns and the candidates?
Well, there is a consultant culture in politics. And there are some people who are more mercenary than others in their approach. I think consultants, generally, sign up with candidates they believe in and think if this person is elected it will be good for the county, or the state, or the country. And one thing you see sometimes is, rather than candidates recruiting consultants, consultants recruit candidates. And that’s a little disconcerting to me.
But I think, as a rule, the profession has become more that. It is a profession. And there are people who do it for a living. And they have their own code of ethics and standards. And I think that’s also partly a natural outgrowth of some of the campaign-finance things that have undermined the parties. The parties are less important in the process than they used to be. Because now you can kind of create your own party or your own brand, essentially. And consultants play a big role in that.
Would you say that that overall trend has improved politics? Or do you think it’s diminished the quality of politics?
I am not sure it would be.
Among other things that you might think, in terms of candidate responsibility for his or her own campaign?
Well, a candidate is ultimately responsible for his or her own campaign. But there are a lot more people.
But do they always take responsibility for their own campaign?
Well, the voters always hold them responsible for their own campaign. But there are candidates who I think have had their campaigns hijacked by consultants.
That’s what I was getting at.
But that shows they are a weak candidate.
What do you think, overall, about the health of presidential campaigns now?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s a long, arduous process. And it doesn’t look to be as much fun as it used to be. But that could be where I am personally in life. It’s very likely you could talk to somebody who is 15 years younger than me who says it’s better than it’s ever been.
It’s kind of an old fart’s game to go back and long for the good old days. Particularly in my business, access is not really what it used to be at all. And part of it is really because the campaign has been so layered now that it’s harder to get through to actually deal with the candidate.
Yeah. I just want to go back and visit one thing. You raised the question initially about the corruption of money and politics on candidates. And I said I had never seen it. It’s worth noting the testimony in the challenge to McCain-Feingold. When the proponents of McCain-Feingold themselves, both Senators McCain and Feingold, were asked in their depositions if they were aware of any instances of money being exchanged for votes, they weren’t aware of any, either. And none of the folks who advocated the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill brought forward any evidence of that having occurred. What they pointed to was, well, it creates a perception of that.
That’s strongly the reaction I have gotten when I ask about specific cases of influence.
But that gets to my point of that perception, though; I think is perpetuated. And I am not picking a fight with the media, but it’s perpetuated by a lot in the media. And like I say, the assumption always seems to be that a politician takes a position because they get campaign contributions, not that they get campaign contributions because they took a position. And the nature of the coverage is such that —take, for example, a fight over medical-liability reform. The doctors and the hospitals have a legitimate point that there are cases where defensive medicine is practiced to inoculate against potential lawsuits. And insurance premiums have gotten so high that it’s raising the cost of health care or that doctor’s won’t even practice anymore, OBGYN [obstetricians and gynecologists] especially, in some areas. It’s a legitimate point.
The trial lawyers have a legitimate argument that people who go in to get treatment and are harmed by a bad doctor should have recourse for compensation, and that’s an important and legitimate debate. By the way, I have a client interest in that. We have here, as a client at our firm, the American Hospital Association. They are on the side of reform of medical liability laws. Just so you know. And they pay me money to advocate that point of view. I happen to believe that point of view, and think it’s a legitimate point of view. I understand the point that’s made by those on the other side, by the trial lawyers. I can give you $100 if you can find a story that lays out the opposing points of view on this important issue, examples on both sides and why it matters as an issue, if you will give me $200 for every story that says, “Here is how much money the trial lawyers gave to these politicians and how they voted, and here is how much money the doctors gave to these politicians and how they voted, and look at the money flowing on this issue and how they voted.”
So why do you think that happens?
This is to the point about the perception, because I think that there is a mentality at play. And I am not saying, by the way, that latter story should not be written. Of course it should be written. That’s fine. It’s fair game. Why is it the only story written? The media have a template that they follow on all of these big issues. And it is here is the special-interest group, if it’s a conservative organization. Here is the public-interest group, if it’s a liberal organization. And here is the money. Now again, it’s usually the special-interest group and the money. You don’t see these stories about unions and how much they give. But it’s like insert special-interest group here, insert congressman here, insert dollar amount here, and insert vote here.
And you are saying this is a perception in the media? Do you think it’s also a perception in the public?
One may follow from the other.
But Congress enacted McCain-Feingold on the premise that it was a public perception, right? That’s what they said.
After years and years and years of editorials and news reports, and again, I am not saying that those articles should not be written. It is fair game. I understand that. I am not naïve, and I believe voters should have that information. I believe strongly in transparency of the reports, and filing, and all of that. I realize that it’s an overstatement and a generalization, but it’s almost like it’s the only story that gets written about Congress and policy. That there are very few stories written about the substance of a policy debate where a Republican making one case about an issue, and a Democrat making another case about an issue is not filtered through a prism of, and of course, their campaign contributors gave them money to espouse those things.
Do you know any legislation that’s based on perception of anything? It’s awfully hard to justify. I mean, what is a perception anyway? And yet you see it constantly. And the Supreme Court also makes decisions on the basis of perception. And maybe that’s what the fault really is. If an evil is there, and it can be identified as an evil, that’s one thing. I mean, you have that whole thing now in the abortion debate about stem-cell research and, generally, about the whole question of various aspects of the abortion debate. When you allow perception to decide, you are going to have chaos in terms of . . .
And I’ll tell you, I have gotten to the point where I have decided that we ought to take people at their word more than we do in this town, frankly, and if you have some evidence somewhere of something different, fine. But someone asked me not too long ago why I thought a certain Democrat opted not to seek the Democratic Party nomination. It was [former Virginia Governor] Mark Warner. And they seemed to be fishing around for, What do you think the real reason is? And I said: “You know what? All I know is he lives not too far from me. And I saw him one time at the skating rink with his daughter ice skating and holding her up while they were going around the rink. And if he says he wants to spend more time with his family, I know that gets laughed out of town around here, but I am going to accept it until somebody tells me or shows me something different.” And I know he’s a Democrat. And I know this is the part where I am supposed to take a whack at him. But I’m not. And I just think we have to get back to some measure of civility. And when somebody says, “I am doing this for this reason,” I understand the skepticism, and I understand the cynicism.
Well, particularly, “I want to spend more time with my family” has been so abused. Come up with something more believable. Or spell it out.
But what if it happens to be true?
Well, then you should be able to make it believable. But I don’t know enough about Mark Warner. I would have no reason to believe otherwise. There didn’t seem to be other reason available.
Right. He was raising a ton of money and doing fine.
But if a guy is under indictment, then he says, “I want to spend more time with my family.”
Well, but then you have the thing to point you that’s different.