Ari Fleischer, the former spokesman for President George W. Bush, took the stage at Middlebury College for 90 minutes last night without once having to say he was sorry for an administration that tortured people and called it legal. Fleischer is a Midd alum, class of 1982, whose 2003 appearance in town drew a sizeable town-gown protest. This time, however, his appearance was kept under wraps until the day of the event, and the capacity crowd turned out to be mostly students and faculty, who listened politely and asked questions gently.
What was his most disappointing experience in the Bush White House? The loss during the playoffs of his favorite football team. His frequent allusions to the world of sports may be explained by his current job: proprietor of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications.
What was the hardest issue he had to deal with during his years (2001-2003) as press secretary? The anthrax attacks: “I didn’t know what was
going on so I didn’t know what to say.”
Fleischer opened by recounting the history of his conversion to serious Republicanism. Born in 1960 to a family of liberal Democrats, he became a conservative Democrat during his Middlebury years, then jumped parties because he believed in Ronald Reagan’s vision of “peace through strength,” eschewing the Democrats' willingness to talk softly to warmongers. It’s a vision he still holds dear today.
With the precision of a true politics wonk (no, I don’t mean policy wonk), Fleischer dissected the voter trends that explain Barack Obama’s unlikely election in 2008: the 18-to-29-year-old youth vote, the African American vote, and the votes of wealthy, educated Americans who
typically vote with the GOP. (Overall, the white vote over the age of 29 went to John McCain.) On Inauguration Day, Obama’s job approval rating stood at a remarkable 70 percent, superseded only by his more remarkable job disapproval rating of only 10 percent.
My, how times have changed. Ten months later, the president’s job approval rating has dropped to 50 percent, his disapproval rating has jumped to 43 percent, and Fleischer sees hope on the horizon for the GOP in the off-year elections of 2010. But he cautions his Republican cohorts against
taking credit. “The drop in support is not because the party is doing things right,” he said. “The rapid drop since January 20 [has been caused by] spending fatigue,” precipitated by the Bush relief package, followed by Obama’s $787 billion stimulus program, not to mention bank and auto industry bailouts.
The key to success or failure for the Dems next year, said Fleischer, is two-pronged: health care and money. “If he [Obama] can claim victory on health care, if the economy comes back strong, that will help his party
“Is the recovery strong enough?
“Will it begin early enough?
“Will Barack Obama get the credit?
“Will the recovery shift the attention to the deficit?
“Those are the important questions. We have a long year to go to the next election.”
There was virtually no protest this time around, possibly because some of these people were in junior high school when Fleischer was in the spotlight.One gray-haired member of the audience read some Fleischer quotes from the old days, implying that Fleischer blamed Saddam Hussein for 9/11. Not so, said Fleischer; he simply blamed Hussein for attacking “American interests in Kuwait.” The unrepentant Republican added that he casts his votes based on foreign policy, defense and economic issues, not on his social values, which largely remain unchanged.
He pointed to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, as the culprit in the current disarray among congressional Democrats. “As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he recruited any Democrats he could find, including many conservative Democrats.”
As for GOP leadership, he believes there is none. “I don’t believe the party is represented by Rush Limbaugh any more than I believe the Democrats are represented by Keith Olbermann. We are in the wilderness, in a time of no leadership. Party leadership will emerge from the free market of ideas.”
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