Practical Politics and Public Policy: An Interview with Matthew Dowd

 /  Nov. 10, 2015, 8:24 p.m.


Matthew Dowd was the chief political strategist for President George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential reelection campaign and Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 gubernatorial reelection campaign. Dowd is currently a Fall Fellow at the Institute of Politics and a political contributor for ABC News. He has taught public policy at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller, Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community. The Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with Dowd to discuss the 2016 presidential election and the race’s most important issues.

The Gate: Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the UK, just apologized for mistakes in the Iraq War, especially the US-led actions carried out based on wrong information. You worked as the chief political strategist to get President Bush re-elected in 2004 and later separated yourself from his administration and the Republican Party because of disagreements regarding the war. What do you make of Blair’s apology, almost thirteen years later?

Matthew Dowd: Well I’m glad he said it, I’m very glad he said it. I think that it was overdue, but it was probably a struggle for him to come to that since he was such huge advocate. These politicians, they get rooted in previous decisions—it’s hard for them to readjust because they want to believe they were right. I think it was a good thing. I’m very curious how former President George W. Bush is responding to it.

Gate: Do you believe that the American people are owed apologies from President George W. Bush and other leaders?

Dowd: I think the American people are owed an explanation of where the Bush administration thinks they made a mistake. Now, I don’t know about an apology tour, but I think the American people are owed an explanation about whether [the American government] believes they made a mistake in doing what they did. Tony Blair said that mistake has led to incredible disruption and tragedy that’s going on in the Middle East today.

Gate: On the Benghazi hearing, you tweeted the following: “If enduring 11 hours of questioning is the qualification to be president then there are many prison inmates very qualified.” Your bestselling book, Applebee’s America, deals with what qualities you think candidates do need to win leadership. What do you want to see in a presidential candidate, and why did the Benghazi hearings not show that in Hillary Clinton?

Dowd: For me, I think authenticity is the most important value that the American public wants. Someone who is genuine, who they can trust, and who they know that what they’re saying and doing and thinking is in alignment. So I think that’s one. Obviously a competent ability to manage a large intricate government is very important as well. As for my response on Twitter about Hillary—I thought she did very well. I think there are still many things unanswered. I was responding to so many people who were saying that because she went through 11 hours of questioning, that therefore she’s somehow qualified to be president. I mean you could say that some contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are qualified to be president . . . I wasn’t relating her to a prison convict, which is what I think some people misinterpreted that as, but that’s okay. So I still think that Hillary Clinton’s greatest vulnerability is not incompetency; I think that she’d make a very competent president. I think that the American public, and I, feel a big lack of authenticity—is what she’s saying and doing and thinking all consistent? Over time, and still, I have doubts about that.

Gate: After working with Douglas Sosnik, a strategist for former President Bill Clinton, to co-author your book, what do you think separates Hillary Clinton from her husband?

Dowd: I think her husband has a visceral response to politics—he has a gut response to politics—and I think she has a head response to politics. Which is good and bad. I think it makes her less successful in this sort of natural flow of politics, but it makes her more thoughtful in the sort of management of it. I think that’s probably a huge difference between the two of them. She has a much more head response to politics; he has a much more heart response to it.

Gate: From your work with former President George W. Bush, how is Jeb Bush different from his brother?

Dowd: Jeb is another one who is more intellectually engaged in politics. He’d be the guy that you’d think, “Oh yeah he knows all the policy and all that,” but he’s not as good as George W. in groups. He’s not good in a sort of real political intuitive response to people, and that’s the biggest difference that I’ve seen. I think George W. came across with what many people called “bravado,” but he had a much bigger strength on where he stood. You knew exactly where he stood. I think Jeb, because he’s weighing things in his mind and there’s a thoughtfulness to it, I think he comes across sometimes as fluctuating, which in this time in politics is difficult.

Gate: You started your career as a Democrat, later switched to Republican, and now call yourself an Independent. In modern political culture, you would be criticized for being a “flip-flopper.” How do you defend yourself to these critics?

Dowd: Well, my thing in life is that we move around, and we try to figure out where we fit and what’s best, and we change. Where I was in college, and in the aftermath of college, and in my twenties and thirties, and where I was in my forties and fifties, are all very different. In all of those, I’ve tried to figure out what I think is going to be best for the community and best for the public by experimenting and thinking about which is going to work. I’ve usually been attracted to the candidate. I mean, I got attracted to the Republicans, like George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I got to know George W. personally when I was working for a lieutenant governor in Texas. And now I’ve come to the point where I am very much a strong Independent because I think that the two-party system we have is not functioning well at all. We need a different way than this duopoly that exists today in America because  choosing between the two isn’t helpful. I thought you could push through change as a Democrat or push through change as a Republican, and now I’ve come to the place where we have to change the system.

Gate: You identify as an Independent and the self-described “Democratic Socialist;” Bernie Sanders does as well. What differentiates the two of you?

Dowd: Well I agree actually with Bernie Sanders on a number of things. I agree with Bernie Sanders on the idea that there’s way too much power centered in corporations and Wall Street, I’m totally in agreement with him on that. I think that billionaires and millionaires have been rewarded too much in the system, and that we haven’t looked at the middle class. I disagree with Bernie Sanders, though, that the response to that is a larger government or a larger centralized federal government, which seems to be his answer. I think that we need a government approach but it needs to be more local—whether it’s in a community or a city as opposed to Washington D.C. So I’m not anti-government, I’m just anti-centralization of government in Washington because I think the further it gets from constituents, the worse it is. So that’s probably the bigger difference. I don’t blame everything on money. I think money is becoming less important in politics, and I think that Bernie Sanders keeps pushing the idea that money is somehow ruining our politics. Money in politics today, I think, is less important than it’s ever been because the barriers to communication are much lower today than they were twenty years ago. But I actually think he’s a really authentic guy, and I respect him on a number of issues.

Gate: In this election, nonconventional candidates seem to have an advantage in the polls. What does this say about the state of America and President Obama’s terms in office?

Dowd: Well the state of America is a great frustration with the existing institutions. I think that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and even others in the field, like Ben Carson, are in response to a distrust in the institutions. There’s a sense of distrust. There’s also a great sense that the political parties are captive to special interests and that we need somebody to go outside of that. I think that the interesting thing to me is that President Obama ran on that. And then I think that in many people’s respect, he became a big part of those institutions and didn’t do the disruptive things that many people thought he would do. I voted for President Obama in 2008 under that same regard. So I think it’s just a reflection of the great frustration with the existing institutions that are unresponsive to a majority of the country.

Gate: What do you expect for voter turnout in 2016? Do you foresee more millennials and minority classes voting?

Dowd: It totally depends on the candidates we have. I think it could be one of the highest turn-outs ever, or I think it could be one of the lowest. It completely depends on the candidates.

Gate: Do you think that Bernie Sanders will get the turnout he needs for his “political revolution?”

Dowd: I think where Bernie Sanders goes from here is a good question. If he wins Iowa and wins New Hampshire, then it’s anybody’s guess on how this develops, and we don’t know that—what happens in the aftermath. The great thing about Bernie Sanders is that he’s demonstrated that you can run a successful campaign and get your message out without all the levers that you used to have to use.

Gate: From your experience in political strategy, what emphasis would you put on polling accuracy?  

Dowd: I think polls done well are very accurate. I think that the polls in 2012, 2008, and 2000, if you looked at them in an objective way, were very accurate. They said that Obama was going to win, and they said the number of states too. In just my own analysis of it, I guessed how forty-nine of the fifty states were going to go and generally guessed the percentage that it was, based on just my own reading of the public polls. I think that polls are fairly accurate. The problem is that people search out polls to confirm the answers they want, and then they’re surprised when something happens, which is what happened in 2012. All the Romney folks were saying “La La La,” but they were just reading the polls wrong because they were biased.

Gate: At this point in the election, should voters consider unfavorable polls more than the headline polls?

Dowd: Voters ought to look at the whole panorama of polls, and take a look at them together. Usually the best way to judge is to put all the polls together that are decent, not just some crazy Internet poll that nobody knows what it’s doing, and then that average will tell you the score.

Gate: Earlier this year you said that, based on polling trends, Donald Trump would likely be the next Republican nominee for president. What do you think now?

Dowd: I still think he has the highest likelihood of it. Do I think it’s going to happen for sure? I don’t know because time and ego is his greatest enemy. But I think as of today, he has the highest likelihood—it’s not more than a 50% likelihood because it’s so divided, but he has the highest. But it’s still nothing that can’t change along the way, more in his behavior than anybody else’s.

Gate: You taught at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. What was the most important concept you tried to instill in your students?

Dowd: My thought was, how do practical politics work and how does it affect public policy? If you only study public policy without understanding how practical campaigns and politics affect the public policy, then you’re not going to be able to do what you want in public policy. What I wanted to instill is, how important it was for them to understand campaigns and practical politics.

Gate: What do you hope to share with us as an Institute of Politics Fellow here?

Dowd: Just my own perspective on things. Hopefully I can add a level, with my own history and everything that I’ve done, as a sort of sense of how politics works and why people ought to get involved. I mean I think the reason I like to do these things is because I’m very optimistic about politics and its ability to change. I’m not cynical at all, and I’ve been through losses. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, been through broken stuff, and candidates that didn’t work out and all that, but I’m a huge believer. And so I would like to share my perspective on that, but actually really encourage people to get involved in politics in some way.

Danielle Schmidt

Danielle Schmidt is a fourth-year Public Policy and Philosophy double major and Human Rights minor. Danielle has interned for a non-profit employment center on the South Side and a bipartisan advocacy organization for immigration reform; she served as a Field Director for an Illinois State Representative as well. On campus, she volunteers for New Americans and enjoys exploring the city with her cattle dog.


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