Conservative author and radio talk-show host Bill Bennett has been a prominent American political and cultural figure since 1981, when he became President Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later Secretary of Education. The author of 16 books -- including "The Book of Virtues" and his newest, "The American Patriot's Almanac" -- he is host of "Bill Bennett's Morning in America," a syndicated talk show that airs from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on nearly 200 radio stations and Sirius Patriot Channel 144. I talked to the man The New York Times says is "the leading spokesman of the Traditional Values wing of the Republican Party" on Thursday.
Q: Was Barack Obama's victory due to his personality or his neo-New Deal ideas?
A: All of the above and more. It was a perfect storm of a campaign for him. He's a terrifically talented political figure. If politics is a sport, like some others, he's a natural. He made very few mistakes. Second, his ideas seemed to be right, given the circumstances. And as you probably have noted, it looks like the ideas of free-market capitalism didn't get a very good airing in the last campaign. John McCain's a great guy. But he never defended the basic principles of free-market capitalism. He talked about earmarks, but never the rationale for free-market capitalism. . Plus, another part of the storm was the economic collapse of Sept. 15. I'm not sure anybody wins on our side after that.
Q: What did the Obama victory tell you about the Republican Party's current health and fitness?
A: Well, what it told me is that we haven't been very good Republicans. I think our principles are fine; I think they need some refocus and much better explanation. One thing that has not been talked about is the "failure to communicate," as Cool Hand Luke said. George Bush is a terrific guy in a lot of ways, but he's not a good communicator. The rationale for various things was never really made in a compelling way, whether it be the war or other steps. By the way, contrast that with a first-rate communicator.
These things also often happen in cycles. There's a kind of schoolyard ethic in America which says it's somebody else's turn. Combine that with the final point, which is ironically Ronald Reagan's teaching -- if it happens on your watch, it happened because of you; and are you better off than you were four or eight years ago -- and you have the result. I'm kind of pleased that McCain got 46 percent. Given all that was against him, that's not really so bad. Byron York has written that McCain was flying into head winds. I told Byron at the governors conference (in Miami) that he was flying into a Category 5 hurricane.
Q: You've no doubt examined the election results. Obama won mainly in the cities. Do you see in those numbers any problems for Republicans down the road?
A: Yeah, there are problems and challenges, but they're not insurmountable. We can do this if we're smart and put our best ideas forward. I keep telling our guys this is not the worst of times for us. This is not Watergate. (Mississippi Gov.) Haley Barbour reminded us in Miami that after Watergate that there was serious discussion as to whether we should drop the name "Republican." We're not there (laughs). It's not that bad (laughs).
But we have work to do. But I'm not worried about talking to people in the cities. I'm not worried about talking to blacks and Hispanics. There are plenty of good ideas that Republicans have if we just present them. I'm very impressed with the book "The Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. We have some good young talent and these are two of the brightest young talents. The book is really quite good. It's sort of what (Minnesota Gov.) Tim Pawlenty talked about -- the Sam's Club party rather than the country club party.
Q: Do you think conservatism's core values have been forgotten over the last eight years?
A: Yes. The crazy spending. And again, no defense of these ideas. Tom Wolfe has a great phrase: He talks about the "great relearning." We need to relearn some of these things we've forgotten -- about why we believe in freedom, why we believe markets should have the dominance in our economic system. The current circumstances are very scary, because we've swallowed a ton of government very quickly and we aren't digesting it very well. We'll see, but one thing that may come out of this is a very strong -- I'll say the word again -- counterreaction.
Q: What do you think it's most important for Republicans to stress from now until 2012 -- social conservatism and value issues or fiscal issues?
I think that's where we go. People are nervous. They're worried about "losing ground" -- Charles Murray's phrase. They're worried about their kids not succeeding, not advancing the ball, the next generation not doing as well as the last. And that's what Republicans need to address. We're a party that can get things done. We're not blinded by ideology. We believe in the American dream. We believe in individual enterprise and individual responsibility. That's an amalgam: That's partly values, partly business ethic.
Q: Do you think that it is time for some younger conservative Republicans to show up on the scene and carry the ball?
A: Exactly. I actually was calling for all of our guys to step down -- (House Minority Leader) John Boehner, (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell, everybody. I like them both. They're capable people. But I think the British have a good idea here -- when you lose like this, you step out of power. You're gone and other people step in. I love our bench. I love the Eric Cantors and the Paul Ryans. Some of our governors are terrific. (Louisiana Gov.) Bobby Jindal was on our panel -- I had the honor of being on with him. I mentioned Pawlenty. We have a terrific bench. We have great talent up there.
Q: What is the most important step conservatives must take -- starting now -- to begin their comeback?
A: Well, get their heads up. Darrell Royal, the old football coach (at Texas), said the only time you should look down at your shoes is if you have had an accident. Morale is important. If you believe in these ideas and principles, then act like you do and let's get to work. We lost the game here. But I think morale is very important. I don't want to say it's time to go off in the wilderness, but it's time to think, and think things through. Prepare your stuff. Some discipline like the Contract with America would be a very good idea, I think.