Politico editor: GOP has 2 years to recalibrate

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Jim VandeHei, executive editor and co-founder of the Politico online media company, provided insights and predictions, including a possible Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush presidential matchup for 2016, at the Association for Corporate Growth 2012 Florida Capital Connection last week at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island.

His keynote speech was two days after President Barack Obama was re-elected, defeating Republican contender Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts.

Obama won 332 electoral votes, including Florida's 29, to Romney's 206. The election was a week ago today, although Florida's results weren't confirmed until Saturday.

By popular vote, the president won about 62.2 million to Romney's 58.8 million.

Before his presentation, VandeHei met with the Daily Record. Here is an edited transcript of the discussion.

What are the big takeaways from the election?

The big takeaway is that Republicans are in a heck of a lot of trouble if they are going to be an all-white male party. The numbers should be extremely humbling to the Republican Party. It's almost impossible to look at the makeup of the electorate and what happened in this election and see Republicans win a national election again unless they radically change their posture, particularly toward Hispanics, but also they have a huge problem with gay voters, Asian voters, Hispanic voters and unmarried women.

Almost across the board, the exit polling data was a lot worse than Republicans had anticipated. They knew the demographics were changing. I think there was hope inside the Republican Party they could get through with one more election without paying a consequence.

I think the silver lining for Republicans is the reaction, particularly among the Fox crowd, the Huckabees, the Gingriches. I think it's been pretty good in that they're not just lamenting that it's a different America. They're acknowledging in a pretty candid way that it's a different America and that they need to retool.

That is going to be the trick for the Republican Party. It's going to be, I think, an extremely messy long war inside the party for whether or not they could recalibrate their message to appeal to different voters.

How long is that going to take?

I think the Republicans have two years to turn over control of the party to a different breed of leaders, younger, more diverse. I'd go back to the convention here in Florida. Put Mitt Romney and Clint Eastwood aside, the earlier days showed that the Republicans have a really interesting bench of young emerging leaders, whether it's a (U.S. Sen. Marco) Rubio, a (U.S. Rep. and vice presidential candidate Paul) Ryan, a (former Secretary of State Condoleezza) Condi Rice, and then a lot of governors who are having a lot of success of changing what the Republican party stands for.

Mitt Romney failed miserably at the end. He did nothing to appeal to Latino voters. If anything, he did things to turn off women, particularly anyone who is not a married woman. If you look inside the numbers, it was brutal for him and he was never the right person to change that.

My question for Republicans was if they lost, would they take away the right message or will they just blame Romney for being a flawed candidate?

I'd say that most of the smart people, even the conservatives who didn't really want to buy into the theory that they need to change, I do sense that they get it, that they have to change.

They'll have real opportunities. Barack Obama didn't win in a landslide, he narrowly eked it out, and I think his victory was as much attributable to the machinery and the tactics of his campaign as it was to him. I think he himself did not run a very good campaign. I think his campaign ran a tremendous campaign. I think the mechanics of the campaign on the ground were really, really good. I think people will study it for generations.

It was just a very scientific data-based campaign operation that to a lot of people was cold, calculating and narrow and nasty, but if you are someone that appreciates raw politics and tactics, it was all of those things and it was very successful.

How much does the tea party influence the Republican Party?

That question has always been a very difficult question to answer because it is hard to define what exactly the tea party is.

On the bright side for the tea party, the tea party did the Republicans a huge favor in 2009, 2010 in that it forced the party to focus on smaller government. That's a good place for Republicans to be. It's a place where they can align themselves with independents. It's where they align themselves with people who are frustrated with Washington, which is the vast majority of the public.

Where the tea party gets Republicans into trouble is they elected all of these members who had promised to never vote to expand the size of the government and promised to spend their entire career downsizing government. When you take that rigid of a posture you can get yourself into a box.

You can have a fight over the debt limit where you're refusing to lift it, even if there could be economic catastrophe, or you could just refuse to compromise. We saw this with the tea party freshmen. I don't care how much of a true believer you are, when you are elected in Congress you eventually assimilate. You eventually become at least partially a compromiser. Very few people come into Congress as 'hell no I will never compromise' men or women and leave that way. They almost always assimilate, and we saw a fair amount of assimilation with the tea party freshmen.

Do you see any changes that the Democrats are going to have to make over the next four years in response to how Republicans are going to change?

Yes, I think that Democrats have to be more like (former President) Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I think that's one of the lessons of this campaign. Bill Clinton had a better convention than Barack Obama had.

Bill Clinton was often more popular with swing voters than a Barack Obama was. A Bill Clinton sort of economic theory is trying to find a middle ground, not overdoing it on regulation, not overdoing it on taxation, finding a happy medium on spending.

The Clintons probably more than any other family in the world benefited from the last year. I think they emerged from this campaign more powerful than ever and I think he will be front and center in this fiscal debate.

They have relationships with Republicans that Barack Obama failed to ever a create.

Do you have any early indications of who might be in the running four years from now?

It's clear that the process begins almost immediately. I think at the very top of that list is Marco Rubio. He's probably the star of the Republican Party for a couple of reasons. He brings diversity to the ticket, he would bring Florida to the ticket. He's a young, dynamic, conservative who I thought had a good convention speech. He's electric, he's younger, he's different.

Paul Ryan is undoubtedly at the top of that list. I don't think his stature was diminished by being on the ticket. I don't think anyone faults him for losing. I do think people will wonder how come he couldn't deliver Wisconsin. I think people blame Romney, not Paul Ryan, for that. Ryan will come back. He's going to get a waiver to become budget chairman again. He will be the most powerful person in Washington, arguably next to the speaker of the House, for the next two years. He commands at least half of all Republican votes because they look to him as their leader and their tutor on these issues.

A (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie is in the mix. I think the Christie drama has been fascinating. It probably won't happen, but he said he will probably run in 2016.

I don't think Condi Rice will run, but I think she will be a big figure in the Republican Party in that she's sort of a post-partisan politician who tends a to be conservative.

And Jeb Bush, I don't think he wants to run, but his type of politics, his capacity to navigate education and immigration in a way that minorities find appealing, is in some ways the blueprint for the Republican Party. He doesn't have the best last name.

What about the Democratic side?

It's Hillary Clinton's party in 2016. The question is whether she wants it. She'll say she doesn't. Everyone around here thinks she will step down as secretary of state soon, she'll write a memoir, she'll command a speaking fee that we've probably never seen for a parting politician, next to her husband, and people will watch her every move. It will be the Clintons' party if they want it back in 2016.

If she didn't do it, I think (Vice President Joe) Biden in his heart of hearts thinks he could run. I don't think he would win the nomination.

I think that Biden has gotten a bad rap, largely because he'll say things that obviously will get him into trouble, but I think he has been invaluable to the president. People don't appreciate how much the president has needed Biden's relationship with and understanding of senators, members of Congress. He's just much closer, much savvier on those things and he's been indispensable to the president in those negotiations.

Martin O'Malley clearly wants to run out of Maryland, (Andrew) Cuomo in New York. And there's a whole bunch of Democrats who would jump in if Hillary doesn't. Hillary Clinton is so extremely well-positioned.

What about Florida?

One of the reasons Jeb (Bush) and Marco Rubio will be front-and-center of any debate, it is the swinger of swing states. Again another great state study of why the Hispanic votes matters. Obama cleaned Romney's clock with Hispanics and that explains the difference.

Do you think if Marco Rubio had been Romney's running mate, it would have been different?

You just don't know. I mean the question would have been could he have helped Romney with Hispanics and my gut tells me no.

Mitt Romney made a really bad calculation early on to try and go to the right of (Texas) Governor Rick Perry on immigration and put himself in such a box that he was out there really on the fringe of the right as far as immigration views, and it was almost impossible for him to ever change that.

For a guy who had been defined over the last four years for flip-flops, it would have been the ultimate flip-flop to suddenly embrace some form of immigration reform.

I'm a big believer it's the top of the ticket that is all that really matters. You can get ideas, you can get energy, you can get help from a running mate, but this always was going be Romney versus Obama.

Do you think Romney suffered from the primaries?

The presidential campaigns are X-rays and there is nothing you can hide from the American people. Al Gore couldn't hide he was stiff. John Kerry couldn't hide that he was aloof. Barack Obama couldn't hide that he can be sort of distant and a little bit disdainful of politics, and Mitt Romney couldn't hide that he's sort of a wealthy good guy but doesn't really have a feel for what most Americans are going through.

Three months ago, both campaigns told us the exact same thing. Tell us if Mitt Romney can move his number on 'understands the problems of people like me' and I'll tell you who wins the election. There was exit polling data that 20 percent of people made their decision based on that question alone and that Obama won 81 percent.

Romney never was able to convince people that he gets it. And part of that was the legacy of a primary process that forced him to be something he's not.

When people write in 20 years about this campaign, people will talk about that first debate. It gave Romney a chance. He was in deep, deep, deep, deep trouble before that first debate. His own campaign didn't think he could win, donors were about to give up. His staff was deflated, demoralized. Republicans were extremely vocal of their critique of him. It was a problem that was getting worse and worse and he turned it into an amazing performance which juxtaposed against Obama's bad performance and made the campaign interesting until 10:00 on election night.

Were you surprised at that first debate?

I was not surprised by Romney's performance. I think what people failed to understand, the guy had done like a hundred mock debates. Reporters aren't that clever, so no question is ever asked that you can't fully anticipate.

He knew every question and had rehearsed every answer a hundred times. Every answer was always going to be flawless. Where he surprised me was, it's not about what you say, it's about how you hold yourself. He held himself perfectly. He looked presidential, he looked likeable. He looked calm, he looked in control. And the image of that, next to Obama — who looked so small, who looked weak, who looked bored, he looked like he didn't want to be there — was just really powerful imagery.

What about polling?

From all the winners, polling is a winner. It's where Republicans have to get out of this mindset that nothing's on the level. The Republicans wanted to believe that the polls weren't real.

The polls don't lie. The media has no reason to skew a poll.

In every single poll, if you go back and look at the composite of them, they were all accurate. None of these states deviated much from where the polling was. Numbers matter. Data matters. Demographics matter.

You can have a pretty precise formula for what it takes to win. The Obama folks did an exponentially better job than the Romney folks in figuring that out and then using technology.

What effect does talk radio have on voting?

It has a huge effect. (Conservative talk-radio host) Rush Limbaugh still probably has as big of a presence as he did four years ago or eight years ago. It's still a massive force that's shaping conservative thought.

It obviously can be good in that it's a way for conservatives to get a lot of news. It can be a really nefarious effect on the Republican Party. They have a Fox problem and they have a talk radio problem, in that if your base, your main way of communicating, is so resistant to change and is so resistant to compromise, it makes it really, really hard for your party leaders or for your candidates to navigate a 50-50 country that's extremely diverse.

The last time around when Barack Obama won, John McCain was such a small figure because he was beaten so badly you had a five-month period where there was no leader of the Republican Party. That vacuum was filled almost completely by three people — (Republican vice presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov.) Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and (conservative broadcaster and author) Glenn Beck.

Someone needs to step in and fill that void. And that is why it will be interesting, because it goes back to that next generation of Republican leaders, do any of them step up and really try to help reorient the party.

What will happen with the fiscal cliff?

I'm fairly optimistic that there's going to be a global deal. I don't think it's going to be easy or pretty or quick. I do think that all the pieces are there to get a deal. I think all of the pieces are there and all the people are saying the right things about potentially getting a deal. Obama wants a deal desperately. (House Speaker John) Boehner wants a deal desperately.

We hear a lot about economic uncertainty. Do you have any observations about that?

That's where there's huge incentive for the president and for the country to get a deal. I do think if they get a grand bargain, I think the economy — and I'm not an economist — but it does feel to me that the economy could just take off. It really could.

I think all businesses are looking for some certainty, that they know what the tax rates are going to look like. Businesses would never say this but even if they (taxes) are going to go up, they would rather just know it, just tell us what the rates will look like.

The markets aren't looking for entitlement cuts today. What they're looking for is something that puts in stone that there's a pathway to reducing the cost of entitlements, particularly Medicare but certainly also Medicaid, undoubtedly Social Security, over the long term.

I think a ton of big names are going to be running a huge campaign to get a deal, including a lot of very conservative CEOs. They all want it. Banking CEOs, financial CEOs, and most of them, I think, will stand at some point in the next few months with President Obama and say raise my taxes. I truly believe that.

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