A Conversation with Ed Gillespie

Ed Gillespie, GOP Virginia
Virginia GOP Web Site
Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, activists and individuals who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talks with Ed Gillespie, a veteran strategist and current chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.

CBSNews.com: Mr. Gillespie, what's your reaction to the Scooter Libby verdict this week?

Ed Gillespie: I feel awful for Scooter. It's our justice system, and I accept it. But I have a hard time making sense of it, to be honest with you.

CBSNews.com: Turning to presidential politics, something that you're better at making sense of. You helped former Virginia Sen. George Allen in his re-election campaign. Is there anyone in the current field you're learning towards supporting?

Ed Gillespie: I am currently serving as the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, partly as a result of my experience in watching Sen. Allen's campaign. And, in that capacity, I am neutral in the presidential primary process.

CBSNews.com: You worked so hard for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. And yet he's now facing questions, not just about his judgment, but also about his competence. Has his performance in office gone as well as you'd hoped when you were working for him in those campaigns?

Ed Gillespie: Obviously, he's had a lot of challenges. I have great faith in the president and great affection for him, and I believe that he is strong for America. But these are challenging times. I wish they weren't so challenging, but they are.

CBSNews.com: Do you think that the Bush presidency has weakened or strengthened the Republican brand?

Ed Gillespie: Well, I think the Iraq War, obviously, was a factor in the elections that probably did not help Republicans. But I think there were other things as well. I mean, our brand was hurt in terms of fiscal responsibility. We have to reclaim that.

I saw one survey that showed in 12 critical swing House districts that more voters thought the Democrat candidate would be more likely to cut taxes for the middle class. More voters thought the Democrat candidate would be more likely to rein in federal spending, and more voters thought Democrat would be more likely to reduce the deficit. That really hurt us with independents. We have to reclaim that part of our brand in terms of fiscal discipline. I think the president, putting forward a budget that balances by 2012, without raising taxes, actually goes a long way in helping us in that regard.

CBSNews.com: But do you think the president, in not vetoing any of those spending bills that really outraged a lot of fiscal conservatives, bears some responsibility for that?

Ed Gillespie: I would have liked to have seen a veto of at least one bill. But I understand the president's point, which is this is a Republican House and a Republican Senate that had sent him the legislation. And so, you know, there's responsibility to go around in that regard.

CBSNews.com: Since 2000, a big part of Republican campaign strategy has obviously been energizing and turning out the party's base. And yet, in 2006, which ushered in Democratic control of Congress, the base turned out but you lost among independent and moderates. What do you think you can do to simultaneously keep the base excited and win back voters in the middle?

Ed Gillespie: Well, the extent to which Republican campaign strategy has relied on base turnout only has been largely exaggerated. I make this point in my book. The fact is, in a country this size, neither party is going to get a majority or win elections nationally by getting only its base.

You have to get your base and a lion's share of the voters in the middle. In the case of the '06 election, the independents broke dramatically against Republicans. And part of that is, I think, if you look through the cross tabs, apart from Iraq, there was frustration over ethics in Congress and the view that we were not doing a good enough job policing our own.

With the independent voters, there was a lot of frustration over fiscal responsibility. In the polling data I cited earlier, independents were a large part of those voters who came to the conclusion in the last election that a Democrat may be more likely to cut taxes for the middle class, or rein in spending, or reduce the deficit. So I think addressing those fiscal issues would be helpful. Doing a better job of policing ourselves when it comes to ethics would be helpful with those independents.