Paul Begala, the former advisor to President Bill Clinton, shared a stage on Tuesday at the TD Ameritrade regional conference in Dana Point, Calif., with his political opposite, Bill Kristol, who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The two men regaled the advisor-heavy audience with good-natured jokes and jabs at the other’s expense, but also expressed serious comments on the state of the nation, the presidential campaign and the likely outcomes of the coming election.
After proclaiming what a “wonderful country we have,” evidenced by U.S. citizens’ ability to disagree with one another without resorting to violence, as has been the case in democracies like the U.K. and France, Begala began by saying “every time I look at the economy, I think Obama can’t win; every time I look at the Republicans, I think Obama can’t lose.”
On the economy, Begala pointed out that President Obama should be behind the 8-ball because voter behavior tends to be driven by two numbers: the unemployment rate and household income. However, he argued that Gov. Mitt Romney was only the “strongest candidate in a weak field” of Republicans, recalling that at one time, “Romney was behind Donald Trump” in the Republican polls, and prompted laughter among audience members when he reported that Romney had created “thousands of jobs” in his time at Bain Capital, pausing before delivering the punchline, “in Bangalore.”
Kristol, the co-founder and editor of the conservative publication The Weekly Standard, started his portion of the presentation by agreeing with Begala on how both men came to their political convictions. “We like to think we come to our political views by deep thinking,” Kristol said, “but a lot of politics is aversion.” He noted that he had grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where “Bella Abzug was my congressman.” (Left-leaning Begala noted that he grew up in a conservative Republican district of Texas, where Tom DeLay was his long-serving congressman, and that many members of his family were conservative Republicans.)
Kristol directly addressed his once lukewarm feelings about Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate. “I spent much of 2010 and 2011 talking about why Romney shouldn’t be the nominee, but I was wrong,” he said. After reciting a list of the relatively few incumbent presidents in the nation’s history who lost re-election bids, he argued that “it’s not that common for incumbents to lose,” and that it usually has happened only when the sitting president faces a primary challenge within his own party. That hasn’t been the case with Obama, he pointed out.
Speaking on the day after the final presidential debate, on foreign policy, Kristol said “Romney did last night what he had to do: looking calm and unruffled,” and demonstrating that “he was up to being president,” particularly as a prospective commander in chief. Acknowledging that the number of still-undecided voters may be small, Kristol pointed out that nevertheless the ratings for the presidential debates “was very high,” suggesting that voters remained interested in hearing the candidates views, but that elections are “more about the future, not the past.” He characterized the race 14 days away from the election as being “dead even, with Romney maybe a little ahead.”
Kristol said in a separate interview that he thinks either second-term President Obama or new President Romney has the leadership abilities to address the longer-term fiscal issues facing the United States, and the shorter-term fiscal cliff that the current Congress and administration will have to face later this year.
“Reality will force it,” he said, referring to a solution to the fiscal cliff and the longer-term systemic issues, and both presidential hopefuls will have the “clout” to push forward with solutions following the election. Addressing the issues of over-regulation, particularly regarding the Dodd-Frank Act, will be a “pretty high priority of Romney” if elected, he said, even though Kristol pointed out that Romney has set a heavy agenda for himself early in his presidency.
Kristol finished his remarks at the conference by responding to an attendee’s question, pointing out that both Obama and Romney had lived their lives in something resembling a bubble in which their political beliefs were rarely questioned. That, he said, may well be why both candidates often seem to have “tin ears” in their public comments.
When one advisor in the audience asked Begala why a job-creating small business like his advisory firm should face such a steep tax bill, in both federal and state levies, Begala shot back by saying “We’re broke!” and that paying higher taxes to help balance the budget (like during the Clinton years) was a small price to pay for living in such a great country. He added as a postscript that the U.S. government has been the greatest force for good in history.