Keene Of The Conservatives

David A. Keene
Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talks with David Keene, a prominent conservative strategist for more than 30 years. As leader of one of the nation's oldest and largest grassroots conservative groups, do you think the movement today is stronger or weaker than it was when President Bush took office in 2001?

David Keene: I think in terms of its cohesiveness, it's weaker today. In terms of its infrastructure, it's as strong or stronger than it ever has been. But conservatives are divided because of the wedge that's been driven into the movement by some of those who have sort of gone along with what the Bush administration has wanted in areas where conservatives would disagree — or have sided with Congress, Republican leaders in Congress, against traditional conservatives. Why do you think those Republican leaders disappointed you? Is it because they disagreed with your beliefs, or they just made a political calculation?

David Keene: It's primarily the latter — particularly in the Congress. Holding the line on spending, making the kinds of decisions that are required by one dedicated to a belief in small government, is tough, tough work.

And once Republicans took over in 1994 and got into office, within a couple of years they decided to play by the same rules the Democrats had played by — which is to channel money into the districts of those who they thought could better be reelected if they did that. Pretty soon they'd forgotten what it was that brought them to Washington in the first place.

The Bush administration has, in part because of the distraction of the war, allowed this to go on. And, in part, because many within the administration are not really what we would call small government conservatives. Remember, George Bush ran not as a traditional conservative but as what he called a "compassionate conservative."

And in part that meant that he wanted to use the government to achieve what his people called conservative ends. I've been to no end of meetings where his chief advisers have said, "Watch not how much we spend but how we spend it." But to the traditional conservative, how you spend it and how much you spend are both important. You recently became involved in something called The American Freedom Agenda. Can you briefly describe what it is and how you hope to use it to influence the Republican presidential candidates?

David Keene: Our concern as traditional conservatives from the beginning of the Iraq war is that throughout American history when we've had international crises in wars and threats of that sort, people have been all too willing to trade a bit of their liberty for some security. The government's always been there to broker the deal.

So in each war we've got abuses and each war we've had people, really for the best of reasons to protect the country, reaching for more and more and more power. When those wars end, we don't get all those freedoms back. It never ratchets completely back to where it was.

The problem with the war on terrorism is it has been termed essentially an endless war. Which means we're asked to give up traditional freedoms with no endpoint in sight. So not only do we not get most of them back, we might not get any of them back.

And so we've been very concerned about holding our leaders to both fighting the war on terror on one hand and protecting the kind of society that Americans expect to live in on the other. Right after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said that, "If we change the way we live, if we change the structure of our society in response to all of this, the terrorists will have won." And it's our fear that we're allowing them to win by doing just that. Turning to the 2008 presidential candidates, you publicly wondered about whether Mitt Romney is too slick and whether he changed his positions for principled reasons or for political reasons. Have you made any judgments about that?

David Keene: I have not. I don't know enough about Mitt Romney. I haven't spent enough time with him personally to really have a sense of his core values. I will say this: To some degree there's nothing wrong as you prepare for a presidential campaign and the different constituencies you're going to be approaching, to try to come up, as long as it doesn't go against your base principles, with a message and with the kinds of positions that are necessary to put together a winning coalition.

I liken the electorate a little bit to consumers. And in the consumer marketplace, of course, if you have four different kinds of dog food, for example, and none of them are selling, one of two things is going to happen. The producers of those dog foods are going to retool it, repackage it, change its makeup, the nutrition content, taste, in order to grab market share. And if they fail, a new producer of dog food is going to come onto the market and undercut them and sell their products instead.

And what we see right now on the Republican side are the producers of the dog food, so to speak, the candidates, trying to repackage each of their products to be more appealing to the consumer, which is to say the voter. If that works, one of the front-runners will emerge and win. If that doesn't work, there's gonna be a new product — a Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich or somebody else. Well, speaking of Fred Thompson — just by musing about a run for president, he's vaulted to second or third in the pack in some surveys. In a recent CBS News poll, only 35 percent of Republicans were satisfied with their current presidential field. Why do you think that is? And are you satisfied with the current field?

David Keene: I'm not, but as I say, the field — and the pact with the voters that each of these candidates has to make — has not yet solidified. So at the end of the day I may be satisfied with one or more of them. But right now what you've got is a field in which each of the candidates can make an appeal to the Republican conservative base, but none of them has sort of the whole package.

We did a straw poll at our recent Conservative Political Action Conference, and it was interesting: The winner was Romney but with 21 percent, which is not exactly a mandate.

But when you looked at it, you found out that those conservatives who believed in smaller government were with Romney. Those who were what we call national defense conservatives supported Giuliani. And those who were social issues conservatives voted for Brownback.

Interestingly none of those candidates have reached across into the other groups. And if you're going to put together a coalition, either of the entire electorate or of a party, which is itself a coalition, you have to have a candidate who can reach beyond his own narrow base to get support from the other coalition partners, if you will. And at this point none of these candidates has demonstrated great ability to do that.

Fred Thompson's immediate showing is a reflection of the sort of disenchantment or lack of ability of these folks right now to make that appeal. Is there anyone not currently in the field, including Gingrich, including Thompson, that you personally would like to see jump in?

David Keene: I think the candidates that you have in the field right now, and particularly if you add Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich, give you a pretty wide selection. And one of them is going to ultimately be able to reach into the other camps and come out of it all right.

In a sense, Republicans continue to suffer from the blaze of the Reagan persona. We measure people against Ronald Reagan, much in the way the Democrats used to measure people against Franklin Roosevelt. And in both cases we find our current candidates wanting.