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Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 4/26/2006 [Archive]

When Tony Snow Was a Pundit

When Tony Snow Was a Pundit

When President Bush named Fox News Radio talk host Tony Snow as his new press secretary on Wednesday, the president noted that the now former radio/TV pundit and commentator "has sometimes disagreed with me." Examples of that disagreement – as well as Snow’s disappointment with incumbency-worshipping, big-spending Republican congressmen -- can be found in a freshly edited version of a December 2005 phone interview with Snow, 50, who is replacing the always loyal Scott McClellan.

Q: A few years ago when I talked to you, you called yourself more libertarian than Republican. Is that still true?

A: Yeah, I think so. I learned a long time ago that if you sit around and pledge your fealty to politicians, you're going to get burnt. So what I like to do is maintain my independence. I'm clearly conservative. But this week I've been bashing conservatives on various forms of corruption, including spending money on stuff that's completely idiotic, like, oh, the fact that they are now going to have subsidies for people to have digital signals on their TVs. It's unbelievable. They are actually setting up a subsidy for people who still have analog televisions as of 2009 or something. They'll give them $40 or $60 per TV to digitize them. Give me a break!

Q: You recently wrote that Republicans are cowards because they have forsaken their core beliefs and betrayed the Republican Revolution of 1994. How so?

A: What happened is when Republicans came in 1994, what did they say? They said we're going to make government smaller and we're going to make it more responsive. Instead, what has happened -- and it's typical, it's natural, it's something that happens all the time -- is that they decided, "You know what, I'd rather just stay in office." So they decided to worship incumbency rather than principle. Well, what happens over time is that you end up with a government that spends like crazy on stuff that is not of vital national importance. You find members of Congress suddenly fudging on things that they had promised to do. And over time, what happens is that they lose their credibility with voters. It's exactly the same thing that happened to Democrats in the run-up to the 1994 congressional elections.

Q: Is there anything that President Bush has done that you are completely jazzed about -- happy about?

A: Completely jazzed about? I get jazzed when my son brings home a report card full of A's. I don't get jazzed when presidents do their jobs, so the answer would be "no."

Q: What's the worst or most egregious mistake the president has made?

A: The lack of spending discipline on the part of Republicans has been disappointing and frankly so has George W. Bush's inability to understand the importance of using a veto. Washington is like a dog pound. You have to have an alpha male. You've got a scent, mark your territory -- and the way you do that is using the veto. I know the war is important, but being the lead dog in Washington is also important and I don't think the president has quite figured that out yet and I don't think the people closest to him have either.

Q: Did you have any qualms about going to Iraq?

A: Of course I did. And I said on "Fox News Sunday," when I was still hosting there, and I said it in print elsewhere, that I wished before he’d gone to war that we’d have seen some pictures of sites with weapons of mass destruction. Having said that, I don’t have any qualms about it because frankly what you do have, contrary to the way it is reported in many places, is a nation that was not only a haven for terrorists but was an active participant in it. Saddam Hussein was somebody who was paying bounties on Israeli citizens, was setting up meetings with al-Qaida, and was trying to do whatever he could to foment terror around the world. Why? Because it was good for him.

The second thing is, I think the president has done something that is wildly ambitious and I think it’s far more successful for what he is not given credit for doing, which is to change the thinking in the Middle East -- and for that matter throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds -- about the possibility of democracy. We’re going to have a democratic election in Iraq next week. That’s an astounding thing. I think what you are going to see and you’ve already begun to see traces of it around the region, is that people are going to stop thinking about democracy as a sham, as it’s been in Egypt and elsewhere, and they’re going to say, "You know what? Maybe I can have some control over my destiny. Maybe I don’t have to live in one of these tin-pot corrupt places." The thing we have learned in recent years is that democratically elected governments worry about what’s good for their own citizens. They don’t worry about invading their neighbors or engaging in terror networks.

In the long run, creating democracies and building momentum for democracy is something that is going to be well-worth the expenditure, because it’s going to create people who are looking for economic ties to the United States, but more importantly are not looking for ways to blow us to smithereens.

Yes, I’m somewhat libertarian, but I also believe in spreading liberty. That’s part of what libertarianism is about. Taking a state that was despotic and ruthless and replacing it with one that offers the hope of liberty and continual relations with the United States, I think makes sense from the standpoint of national security and the economy.

Q: Do you think conservative Republicans pundits and political leaders have been too soft on President Bush?

A: I can’t paint them with a broad brush. I think some people have been tough and some people have been easy. You can find plenty of guilty parties that have rolled over and said "scratch my tummy" to the president. But there have also been some pretty ferocious critics. I think you are going to see a lot of that in the upcoming debate over immigration. There is considerable skepticism about the guest-worker program, but you’ll find plenty of people coming to his defense as well.

Q: What gives you the slightest hope that conservatives will return to their core principles -- and is there anyone you think might make that happen?

A: Oh yeah. Actually, I think voters are making it happen. If you take a look at what's going on on Capitol Hill, I think Republicans were stunned when voters started calling them and really going crazy when they were going to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. In that transportation bill they had more than 6,000 local pork-barrel projects. Mike Pence of Indiana, a former radio talk show host himself, has been one of the guys who has really been out there raising hell about the abandonment of principles. I think you're seeing clustering around Mark and some other young Republicans -- something that reminds me a great deal of Newt Gingrich and something they called the Conservative Opportunity Society in the late '70s and early '80s, where they were getting together and talking about big ideas and core principles. I think the Republicans are realizing that to be principled and visionary in the long run is good politics. Doing the pork-barrel stuff might get you re-elected once or twice -- you do that. But you do that at the expense of the soul of a party. In the long run, it's the ideas, it's the great figures, it's the inspirational figures who define a political party and shape in people's mind an image of what that party is and what it stands for. If any political party is the party of payoffs, it's going to lose.

Q: What about the Democrats?

A: The Democrats have a problem right now, because they seem to be a "cut-and-run" party that is also being run by a handful of billionaires who are supplying all the money for them. That's not a winning proposition in the long run. Similarly, if Republicans are a bunch of deal-makers who are simply trying to hold on to political office, sooner or later somebody's going to say, "You know what? We can do better than that." Both political parties are on notice that they are really not doing very well with this visionary business, and whoever gets there first is going to win.

Q: Who’d you like to see win the Republican nomination in 2008?

A: I really don’t know. I’m old school. I like to see how these people do when they have to go to horrid places like northern New Hampshire or when they have to brave the winters in Iowa to go around, hat in hand, begging for votes. There’s something good about a primary process that makes you work hard and become humble. Those who have the stamina and desire and organizational ability – those are the ones who make the cut as potential presidential timber. I really don’t know. There are a lot of people who are thinking about running. We’ll just have to wait to see who does well.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. ©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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