TPM Interview: Joe Scarborough Talks About The Apology He Got From A Fellow MSNBC Host

November 27, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Sarah Palin wasn’t the only person MSNBC host Martin Bashir apologized to after making some incendiary comments about her earlier this month.

He also sent a note of regret and made a phone call to apologize to his fellow host Joe Scarborough, who represents the biggest Republican voice at the cable network.

“Martin wrote me a very gracious, wonderful, sweet note and gave me a call and apologized for putting me in a difficult position and was very apologetic,” Scarborough told TPM in a phone interview on Monday while promoting his latest book, “The Right Path.”

Scarborough often finds himself having to answer questions about his left-leaning colleagues when in the company of his conservative brethren. His efforts to leave an indelible mark on the conservative movement are frequently met with charges of apostasy by the likes of Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Along with a peek inside the politics of his home network, Scarborough talked to TPM about “Joe Scarborough’s worldview,” which he compared to the likes of Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr. and Margaret Thatcher. He also talked about the GOP’s failures in 2012 and what he described as an “extraordinary” achievement by Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.

Talking Points Memo: One of the central arguments of your book seems to be that Republicans need to adjust how they convey their messages. You wrote about Reagan’s “winning smile” and you said that Republicans today have largely ignored the importance of his “humanity and moderate temperament.” Are you saying that the GOP’s national problems are a byproduct of style more than substance?

Joe Scarborough: No, it’s actually both. They’ve gotten the substance wrong and they’ve gotten the style wrong. They got the substance wrong because I actually say that if they are going to differentiate themselves from Democrats they’ve got to be small government conservatives and present a viable alternative to the Democrats’ approach, and of course they didn’t do that. During the Bush years, we exploded the national deficit, we took a surplus and turned it into a $1 trillion deficit, we doubled the national debt, we passed Medicare Part D without funding a dime of it, we engaged in military adventurism and we were the opposite of what we needed to be to draw a distinction between Democrats.

And then on the other side of it, unfortunately we also have presented an angry, harsh, extreme view or image that turns off swing voters and has for five out of the last six presidential elections. (Note: Scarborough includes the 2000 election in that count.) We got the substance wrong and we got the style wrong. Instead of being conservative ideologically and moderate temperamentally, we are actually moderate-to-radical on spending and policy, or at least during the Bush years, and temperamentally we’re overly harsh.

In your book, you argue that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 because of “swing voters” and you said they broke with the GOP in both 2008 and 2012. Do you think that’s really the reason why he lost to President Obama? And who do you define as a “swing voter”?

I think Romney actually lost because he was the 47 percent candidate. He actually said what he believed — even though he tried to run away from it — the day after the election he said it again to wealthy donors that the reason why he lost, he went back to the 47 percent. So he was about as bad of a candidate for the Republicans to select four years after the Sept. 15 meltdown and after “too big to fail” got even bigger and, you know, a guy who pays 16, 17 percent tax rate — again, it conveyed the wrong message. And whether you agree with Ronald Reagan’s worldview and Bill Buckley’s worldview and Margaret Thatcher’s worldview and Joe Scarborough’s worldview, we actually believe that our approach, small government approach of lower taxes and a fairer tax code and regulatory reform and policies that promote and grow small businesses actually help an 18-year-old Latino in south-central L.A. as much as a 65-year-old hedge fund broker in Greenwich. Now we could have that debate whether you agree with that or not, but the fact of the matter is Mitt Romney didn’t even seem to believe it. And that came through.

But I’m really wondering what you mean by “swing voters” exactly because he won independents over Obama. And actually, three out of the last four winners of the presidential popular vote lost among independents. So I’m just wondering if we place too much emphasis on the importance of that voting group.

Well, no. Certainly as a Republican that now lives in Connecticut, in a state that went Republican in ’72, ’76, ’80, ’84 and ’88, and hasn’t gone Republican since, or if you look at the Philly suburbs, or the I-4 corridor, you look at Virginia, you look at a lot of these swing states. Who are the swing voters? They’re the Reagan Democrats. They were the Perot people. They’re working class voters who voted for Reagan twice and then voted for Clinton twice and then voted for Bush twice and apparently voted for Obama twice. Now, there’s another problem too, and that was the bleeding of minority voters too, and especially the Hispanic vote. And, I think most troubling for a lot of Republicans, is how badly we did even with Asian-Americans. Asian-Americans used to vote Republican or we used to at least split Asian-Americans and that just shows how at least with the message that we’re conveying and the belief system that people seem to think that the party has, that we are increasingly becoming the party of older, wealthier, white males.

I’m glad you brought that up because in the book it didn’t really seem like you went into extensive detail about what the party needs to do to win over women and minority voters. Was there a reason for that?

Well, yeah, because I think the mistake that every party makes is responding reflexively to what happened the last time people voted. You can see right now, the President is upside-down with Hispanic voters I think by a two-to-one margin. You know, Republicans get absolutely destroyed by Hispanic voters and immediately the wise guys think, (laughter) ‘Hey, let’s get a Hispanic to rush out and talk about immigration reform immediately and this is going to fix all of our problems.’

Certainly there were policies in play that probably hindered the Republicans’ ability to win over Hispanic voters and women voters in the last election. The party’s position on social issues, and even Obamacare with Hispanic voters, may have hurt them, don’t you think?

I think so. I think actually one of the most damaging moments of the campaign for Republicans and Romney came when Rick Perry, of all people, who I criticized harshly for his inability to do well on that stage. But you know, Rick Perry actually talked about a compassionate approach toward Hispanics. And I believe, if I’m not mistaken, he got booed that night by the audience and caught grief from the conservative press for the next several weeks. And Mitt Romney lurched as far right as you could possibly lurch on the immigration issue and put himself in a corner.

Now, personally, I think if Mitt Romney had said that he agreed with Rick Perry, that we needed to have a more compassionate approach towards immigrants and even talked about a pathway to legalization instead of a pathway to citizenship, I don’t think that would have been so damaging to Romney. But in the early states, there was such a rush to prove that each candidate was gonna be a bit more harsh towards the enforcement of immigration laws than the other that we painted ourselves into a corner, or Mitt Romney painted himself into a corner that he couldn’t get of in the general election.

I wanted to ask you about something you wrote toward the end of your book. You wrote that Obama “pandered to his hard-core political base” after he was elected in 2008. Can you give me some examples of what you perceive to be pandering to liberals?

In 2009 after he got elected?

Yeah, you attributed the 2010 midterms to that.

Yeah, well, you know, we obviously started out with a stimulus program that was voted on by all Democrats. At the very beginning you had Judd Gregg and a few other senators that were interested in helping it pass. Again, I don’t really want to go back, this is kind of like re-fighting the Iraq war when I start talking about who was responsible for the meltdown in Washington. It’s a no-win situation. You’re gonna believe what you believe.

I was concerned, early on after being hopeful, I was concerned early on that the early meetings at the White House were confrontational. He basically said, “We won. This is the way we’re going to do it.” And I don’t know a conservative that could have voted for the stimulus plan that they put on the table. I don’t know a conservative that could have voted for — well, that’s actually not true — cap and trade, he immediately went after cap and trade right after that. You had the bailout of Detroit, which I actually supported portions of but most Republicans would not. And then you had the long, painful takeover of health care (laughter) where we ended up with, despite having almost a filibuster-proof Senate, still ended up having to change the rules and pass it with 51 votes, and I think a die was cast. Now listen: that’s what I believe. Giving the President though, or let’s just say mitigating factors, the fact that he had so many crises coming at him immediately after getting into office that he inherited from the Bush administration, that many of his policies were continuations of what George W. Bush was doing and what George W. Bush would have done. Certainly though not on health care.

But he actively campaigned on health care reform, right? That was a campaign pledge.

Well, it was a campaign pledge but certainly not, it wasn’t going to be the centerpiece of, you would not have expected it to be the centerpiece of his first two years. I certainly would not think he would have staked his presidency on a health care reform plan that gave big breaks to big pharma, that gave big breaks to big hospitals, that gave — I thought — breaks to insurance companies and didn’t bend the costs over the long run.

Right. Much of that reform effort probably alienated that “hard-core political base” you referred to, right?

Well, it should have alienated more actually. But everybody on the Democratic side fell in line. But it certainly energized the conservatives and energized Republicans in a way I believe he could have avoided just like I believe Bill Clinton could have avoided it in ’93 and ’94 if he hadn’t have gone as far left as he went. He self-corrected in ’95 and ’96 and got re-elected.

I almost wonder if it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to compare the results of a presidential election and a midterm election two years later. The electorate that swept Obama into office in 2008 was very different than the electorate that delivered Republicans a huge victory in 2010.

Well, you would think so but there are years where the Republicans are seen as the failing party, they lurch too far right and they lose. In 1998, when we were sure that we were going to pick up more seats, we ended up almost losing control of the House and then again in 2006 when, you know, that was just two years after when the Republican Party was talking about a permanent majority and Karl Rove was talking about a permanent Republican majority and most progressives were ready to kill themselves because George W. Bush had somehow managed to get elected twice. And two years later Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House. So it does cut the other way as well and I believe that if the President’s health care plan had rolled out better than it did, Republicans would have been in danger of losing in ’14 because of the overreach they engaged in over the last several months.

In your book, you seem to take a thinly veiled shot at a former colleague of yours, Keith Olbermann, and you two had a memorable on-air quarrel back during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And recently, you criticized your fellow MSNBC host Martin Bashir for his comments about Sarah Palin. When you denounced Bashir in that interview with Newsmax, you seemed to insinuate that there are certain hosts at MSNBC for whom you don’t much care. Is it weird being a conservative commentator — and really, one of the most prominent commentators — at such an unabashedly liberal network?

Well, first of all, I don’t remember the veiled shot at Olbermann in the book.

You made a reference to “the worst person in the world.”

(laughter) OK, so I did! So I did! I will say my mitigating factor there is the fact that I tweeted that Keith Olbermann was an extraordinary sportscaster who kept me up till past midnight in every single playoff game and should be in the broadcaster’s hall of fame.

As far as Martin Bashir goes, all I was doing was repeating — you know, it’s always sort of a game of gotcha when I go out there and I’m talking to my conservative friends. They want me to denounce people I work with at my network when I’m no more responsible for their content than they are for mine. The only thing I said about Martin Bashir was what Martin Bashir said about Martin Bashir.

And you know, Martin wrote me a very gracious, wonderful, sweet note and gave me a call and apologized for putting me in a difficult position and was very apologetic. He certainly didn’t need to do that but it was a very kind and gracious thing for him to do. And I really feel for the guy. I don’t quite understand why he said what he said but, you know, we’ve all gone on TV when we’re under tremendous pressure and the only thing that I will suggest, while being really concerned — well, again, just as concerned as Martin had been and, by the way, had Martin Bashir not said anything about it himself, I probably would have passed it off and said that was the job of Phil Griffin. But the only thing I will say is you never know what people are going through when they go on the air. You never know what challenges they’re going through and we all make terrible mistakes. You know, I make mistakes every morning and say stupid things every morning.

Last week I said the Senate hadn’t reported an appropriations bill out of committee and, you know, I was wrong. (unintelligible, was laughing) But they haven’t passed an appropriations bill yet and I was like, “Woo. Kinda missed that one, didn’t I?” And usually people are kind enough to understand that, when you talk for three hours without a TelePrompTer, you’re gonna make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

But listen, I certainly disagree with the politics of people in primetime on my network but they have a job to do. You know, I disagree with the editorial page of the New York Times every day but I still read the editorial page of the New York Times every day because I may learn something from it. And I’ve gotta credit (MSNBC President) Phil Griffin. Like Roger Ailes after Gabby Giffords, Roger sent out a memo saying, ‘Hey guys, let’s try to keep it between the lines.’ And Phil has done the same thing and most of the red hot rhetoric that we used to see on cable news has been tamped down. You still have a very ideological editorial page on MSNBC and a very ideological editorial page on Fox News in primetime, but you know, people love editorial pages. And I certainly understand that and I think for the most part the rhetoric has become much more responsible over the past couple years.

Who do you think is the most liberal host at MSNBC?

Oh, I wouldn’t touch that.

You won’t touch that? Come on.

Oh, gosh. I don’t know.

Ed Schultz?

No! Isn’t Ed more of a populist?

I mean, I’d call him a Democrat more than anything.

Yeah. Yeah. Certainly at 8 and 9 you’ve got with Rachel (Maddow) and Chris (Hayes) two strong, intelligent progressives who I think push and are very effective at conveying what progressives that watch the network believe. But you know, what’s so fascinating is that they are certainly a different kind of Democrat than, say, Ed Schultz at 5 and Chris Matthews at 7 and, certainly, then you’ve got Al (Sharpton) who’s a different kind of progressive. Trust me, to my conservative friends, everybody sounds the same. But it is actually interesting, even though Ed and I disagree on most issues, I think Ed being more of a — like you said — more of a Democrat, more of a populist, pro-union guy, certainly provides a voice in that lineup that Democrats and a lot of union people want to hear.

Would you say that the chief difference between MSNBC and Fox is that MSNBC is more transparent about its ideology whereas Fox continues to profess to be “fair and balanced?”

Well, they’re fair and balanced, man. They’re fair and balanced!

You believe that?

You had your one question, I gotta go. No, listen, I’ve got a lot of friends over at Fox and I think what Roger’s done has been pretty extraordinary over the past 10 years or so.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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