Will the real Joe Scarborough please stand up? Is he the far-right nut case who, as liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman claims, spews a “blizzard of misleading factoids and diversionary stuff” when critiquing President Obama’s economic policies? Or is he the quisling tool of his lefty bosses at MSNBC, whose main message “is usually to make conservatives look foolish, reactionary and stupid,” as the conservative website Daily Caller declares?
Or is the answer more prosaic, as Scarborough himself insists: that even though he’s a morning talk-show host on the famously liberal MSNBC, he’s still the same hard-core conservative as when he served as a Republican congressman from Pensacola. He just sees no contradiction in having friends from the other side of the political spectrum.
“Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley were friends with liberals,” Scarborough says, sounding at once wistful and a bit huffy. “Buckley was friends, really, with a large number of progressive people. And the Reagans socialized with [then-Washington Post owner] Katharine Graham. Guess what? They got things done. They did not go out of their way to pick fights with each other. I guess they were RINOs [Republicans In Name Only, the dirtiest name conservatives can call one another] before their time.”
How Republicans can get things done, instead of (in his opinion) taking target practice on their own feet is the subject of Scarborough’s new book, The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics (Random, $26), which he’ll discuss Monday at the Miami Book Fair International.
The book is a call to compromise and moderation, coupled with harsh shots not only at such Tea Party favorites as Ted Cruz but also popular conservative chattering-class figures like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. (Or, as Scarborough calls them, the Conservative Entertainment Complex.)
“If the GOP wants to regain its place as the decisive force in national politics, it needs to reengage with its real legacy, which is one of principled conservatism combined with clear-eyed pragmatism,” Scarborough writes, adding: “Those who would move the party so far right on social issues that their nominated candidates become unelectable are, to borrow an infamous phrase from the Vietnam War, ‘destroying the village to save it.’”
The conservative Republicans who are presumably the target readers of The Right Path have not exactly greeted it with huzzahs. The Daily Caller’s review labeled Scarborough “a fake-ass blowhard and logorrheic blockhead who loves the sound of his endlessly droning voice and gets a kick out of dissing conservatives.”
Other Republicans have labeled the book as just one more manifestation of what they call the “Scarborough syndrome,” a sarcastic reference to the Stockholm Syndrome, which causes terrified hostages to identify with their captors. In Scarborough’s case, he’s the hostage and Rachel Maddow and other MSNBC hosts are the captors.
“If I’m in a cage, it’s a gilded cage, and one that I help run,” snorts Scarborough. “You know, the Olbermann people [fans of the acerbically left-wing and now ousted MSNBC host Keith Olbermann] are quite bitter that I stayed and he left. It was an ongoing battle that lasted for some time.
“I’ve got complete control over our show. [MSNBC President] Phil Griffin and I made a deal early on. ‘Do your show, and then turn off the TV. Don’t tell me how to run prime time, and I won’t tell you how to run the morning.’ And he doesn’t — he’s been true to his word.
“A couple of years ago, when I was talking to CBS about moving over to the CBS morning news, [Scarborough’s co-host] Mika Brzezinski said to me, ‘What are you, crazy? I’ve been in television news 20 years, and I’ve never seen anybody who has the freedom you do.’”
Scarborough as the patron saint of bipartisan accord strikes a discordant note with anybody who remembers his 16 years in Congress, which ended in 2001. His positions then — privatizing or eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy and Housing; cutting off PBS and NPR without a federal dime; pulling out of the United Nations — were not exactly the building blocks of compromise.
He even supported a Republican refusal to raise the national debt limit that shut down the federal government for almost a month in 1995, which might come as a surprise to some, considering that Scarborough was one of the loudest dissenters when Republicans tried the same thing last month in an effort to block Obamacare. Yet Scarborough says there’s no contradiction between his actions then and his thoughts now.
“I agree with the shutdown folks that Obamacare is a nightmare. We have the same ideological goals,” he said. “I just said the shutdown was a disastrous strategic stance. There was no way [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid was going to kill Obamacare. Or that President Obama was going to let it happen.
“I likened it to running the ball up the middle on fourth down and 41 on your own 10-yard line. If the Gators’ coach did that week in and week out, he’d be fired. These guys need a new play, but they don’t want one. As [conservative columnist Charles] Krauthammer said to me, ‘These guys think it makes them look macho, when really it just makes them look stupid.’ ”
The Republicans didn’t achieve their goal — a balanced budget — with the 1995 shutdown, either, but Scarborough says they came close enough to have made it worthwhile.
“I always said our biggest mistake was not keeping it going another week,” he recalls. “Bill Clinton was moving in our direction. His numbers were dropping, and he was worried. Our goal of a balanced budget was about a week away.”
Scarborough insists his book is not a call for “a dash to the mushy middle,” just a reminder that civility is more popular with most voters than bully-boy rhetoric and that compromise needn’t equal surrender.
“Instead of ideological witch hunts, we need to have a Big Tent approach, grow our moderate wing and our liberal wing,” he said of Republicans. “Right now, we’re only growing our Tea Party wing, which infuriates everybody else… We need what we had with Ronald Reagan — conservative ideology but pragmatic politics. Until we get that, we’re not going to win elections the way we did in the 1980s.”