Veteran journalist Jonathan Alter has a new book
focusing on the 2012 presidential race, and he tells Newsmax about a secret meeting where leading conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, tried to convince Chris Christie to run for the White House.
Alter also says Republican attacks on President Barack Obama backfired and hurt the GOP, but asserts that Obama's failure to reach across the aisle has hurt his agenda. And he predicts that both Christie and Hillary Clinton will likely run for president in 2016.
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Alter was a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek from 1983 to 2011. He is now a Bloomberg View columnist and contributing correspondent at NBC News.
His 2010 book, "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," was a New York Times best-seller, reaching No. 3 on the list at its peak. And his new book is "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies."
Alter has now covered nine presidential elections. In an exclusive interview with Newsmax TV, he was asked what was different about 2012.
"The difference was, the stakes were immense in this election," he says.
"As Grover Norquist told me at one point, all we need is somebody with enough working digits to sign his name. Any Republican would do for him because he knew that if Republicans were able to take the White House, and additionally the Senate -- which looked for a long time like they were favored to retake -- and control of the House, they would be able to enact a conservative agenda for America.
"The economy's getting a little bit better now, so if Mitt Romney had won, it would be very convincing to say, 'Well, the economy is doing better because we got rid of that Jimmy Carter guy, Barack Obama; and Mitt Romney, maybe he's not Reagan, but business got more confident. Cutting taxes further, cutting regulations and so forth, is what led to the recovery we're having,' and that would have discredited liberal Democratic policies for a generation.
"By contrast, now Obama has the veto pen. Basically things like the Ryan plan or repealing Obamacare are fantasies. They're not going to happen until 2017 at the very earliest, and probably not then because much of Obamacare would have been implemented and harder to repeal. So this was what I call a hinge of history, an extraordinarily important election, and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama thought so."
Alter asserts that the two presidential candidates' campaign strategies and the Latino vote were both crucial in Obama's victory.
"Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote, which is why immigration reform is now much more likely to pass because Republicans realize they have to cut into those margins to win," he says.
"But the numbers game was what really intrigued me because essentially what Obama did was revolutionize politics by getting these 20-somethings, data scientists, and it was a really motley crew. They also had really smart people, and they got them all into this place they call the cave, which was secret during the campaign but afterward I was able to find out what happened there.
"They built these models and analytical tools that dramatically improved the efficiency of the Obama campaign in terms of their reaching out to and micro-targeting voters, delivering ads more efficiently to the right audiences, raising money online -- they got it up from $15 million to $150 million a month online in small donations, which just blows the doors off anything that had been done before,'' Alter says.
"There's a lot for Republicans to learn from how the Obama people did it so they can close what I call the geek gap, which existed in 2012. They just did not have enough of these geeky kids who were brilliant and could help them redefine politics."
In his book, Alter talks about the "Obama Derangement Syndrome," the unhealthy fixation on the president by his enemies. He explains the effect it had on the campaign: "In a lot of ways they helped him. Things like the birther movement, that rebounded against the Republicans, even those who thought it was nonsense, because it made the Republican primary candidates -- even if they weren't birthers -- seem like what Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist, called the clown car.
"They seemed less serious than you really need to be to be for prime time in American politics, and that hampered Romney going into the fall and made it harder for him to maneuver. What ended up happening is that there was a backlash to efforts to try to limit early voting and otherwise change the rules to hold down Democratic turnout, and that backlash helped power an even bigger black and Latino turnout than in 2008.
"People just went over the top in their criticism of the president."
Alter also reveals in his new book details of a secret meeting between Chris Christie and leading conservatives.
"I can't tell you everybody who was there, but it was at Roger Ailes' house near Garrison, N.Y., and Rush Limbaugh flew in from Florida and they had kind of a conclave of top conservatives," he tells Newsmax.
"The point of the meeting was to convince Christie to run for president. So he explains how he's not done in New Jersey. He has a sense of timing in the same way he didn't run in 2005 for governor yet; he wanted to wait. Same thinking about president.
"He raised some family issues and some governing issues and then he said with a smile on his face, 'and besides, guys, I like to go to Burger King, OK?' He meant it in a light vein but you could have heard a pin drop. The people in the room did not think it was funny. They had come in from out of town to try to convince him to run and didn't appreciate the attempt at humor, which conveyed some truth, because he wasn't ready to lose the weight as he is now.
"Then later on, he came much closer to being Mitt Romney's vice-presidential pick than people realized. He got right down to the finals, but he struck Romney as undisciplined, not necessarily because of the weight, but because he was showing up late at Romney events.
"Romney started complaining to his aides that he didn't think Christie was the guy because he wasn't buttoned-up and tight enough, as Romney liked to say. Both candidates, they wanted their organizations tight, by which they meant disciplined, and they didn't think Christie filled the bill."
Asked if he sees Christie running for president in 2016, Alter responds: "I do. He's very likely to run, and some of his moves in New Jersey, where I live, indicate that he is going to make a race and it's going to be fascinating to watch because he's a fascinating politician.
"People might think, 'Oh he's a liberal,' but I like Chris Christie a lot and without revealing my particular voter preferences, I'd be very supportive of him publicly on a lot of what he's done on education and other things in my state.
"Sometimes his manner can be off-putting. We'll see how that plays outside of the New York, New Jersey region where that kind of pugilistic, rough-and-tumble politics goes down well. Does it work in Iowa? Might be a different story."
Alter believes Hillary Clinton will also run for the White House, but he doesn't buy into reports that Bill Clinton agreed to actively support Obama last year in exchange for Obama's support of Hillary in 2016.
"I do see her running, and I don't think there was an explicit deal that way," he says.
"It is true that the president and first lady did not invite Bill and Hillary Clinton over for dinner at the White House until the beginning of this year in his second term, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
"I've got a chapter called 'Missing the Schmooze Gene' about Obama. He just is not reaching out enough and not doing some of the things that Bill Clinton does so well and so naturally. Their relationship was very frosty for years and now it's better, but it would be wrong to describe it as a close relationship or a good relationship.
"I did learn that Bill Clinton called Mitt Romney the week after the election and told him he thought Romney was going to win right up to Hurricane Sandy. Now whether Clinton was blowing smoke to make Romney feel better, who knows, but there are indications that Clinton was quite concerned that Obama could lose the election. He wasn't all that familiar with Obama's amazing field organization or what these analytics guys were doing in the cave in Chicago because Clinton wasn't in the cave, this unmarked room where they did so much of their work. So their relationship is improving, but it will never be a strong one," Alter says.
"Obama is just leaving important tools in the toolbox that could allow him to get more done. For instance, I've got a scene where Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and has been a good source of information for me, told me a story about urging the president to reach out more to Republicans on the Hill and he just didn’t do it.
"So he did not have people like Mitch McConnell over to the White House for meetings. That was a big mistake. Would he have gotten all of his agenda if he had schmoozed more? Of course not. But he would have been ahead of the game and he wasn’t always communicating as well as he needed to on healthcare and a lot of other things.
"Even when he was making good decisions, like going to get bin Laden -- which impressed Republicans -- even when he was getting some accolades from Republicans, there were Democrats who were joining Republicans in complaining that he was not doing what successful presidents really need to do, which is reaching out, being more inclusive, working more across the aisle as he keeps saying he wants to do."
As for comparisons that Bob Woodward and others have made between Obama and Richard Nixon, Alter observes: "Richard Nixon, who I arranged to meet toward the end of his life because I was so anxious to spend some time with him, was a completely fascinating man, multidimensional. So when somebody says is he like Nixon, that could be a positive comparison because there were very impressive things about Nixon in terms of his command of foreign policy.
"Do I think that the Benghazi story is Watergate? I don’t. I'm very troubled by the IRS story. I'm very troubled, not just as a reporter, but as a citizen, by the AP and Fox News criminalizing of reporting. I want to know more about what the president knew and when did he know it, as they said during Watergate.
"It would be premature to make any kind of comparisons to Nixon and Watergate. The comparisons between Nixon and Obama in terms of the way they operate as intellectuals in the presidency, I find very intriguing."
Alter acknowledges that Obama appears to be largely isolated from those ongoing scandals.
"I don’t think he's totally isolated. It's just that he has a relatively small circle and it doesn’t ventilate enough. So maybe that's another way of saying isolated.
"What's more interesting is if you reel off these scandals. There was an independent report on Fast and Furious that said that wasn’t really a scandal. People can quibble with me.
"Solyndra was a monumentally bad investment by the government. A huge waste of money. To call it a scandal that landed on the president's door, I'm not so sure, but wherever one comes out on these issues, it doesn’t seem to have dented the president's popularity that much, which is something that Karl Rove and others have urged that conservatives keep in mind: That there is a reaction, a backlash against criticism when it goes over the top.
"So the litany of scandals is fine, but when it goes to impeaching the guy or something like that, it actually hurts the people who are making the charge and sets back the efforts to hold him accountable.
"Or when Darrell Issa called Jay Carney 'a paid liar.' Let's say it's true. How does that advance the cause of holding President Obama accountable for his mistakes, to get into name-calling?"
In his Newsmax interview, Alter also talks about why next year is going to be a major one for the GOP. See related story, Jonathan Alter: 2014 Will Be 'Big Year for Republicans.'
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