Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers

Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Stuart Stevens: The Republican Party’s Downfall

| S:1 E:100
Stuart Stevens: The Republican Party’s Downfall

Stuart Stevens dedicated his life to getting Republicans elected. He worked for dozens of candidates, including both Bush and Romney during their presidential campaigns, and was extremely successful. Now however, Stuart regrets the part he played in the rise of Trumpism. In 2020, he wrote It Was All a Lie, about his time in the Republican party, and how Trumpism is “the natural outcome of five decades of hypocrisy and self-delusion.” Through the Lincoln Project and Resolute Square, he’s working to counteract the movement he helped build.

You can follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartpstevens.


To learn more about the Lincoln Project, check out their new limited series on Showtime.

Ken Harbaugh: Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Stewart Stevens: I spent 30 years pointing out flaws in Democratic Party. I mean, it's more than most people, but the Democratic Party is the last best hope for something that is still a democracy. Republican Party has become an autocratic movement.

Ken Harbaugh: I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Stewart Stevens, who dedicated his life to getting Republicans elected. He worked with dozens of candidates, including George Bush and John McCain, and was extremely successful.

Now, however, Stewart regrets the part he played and the rise of Trumpism. He's a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project, which was the subject of a recent Showtime documentary. And his new goal is to counteract the movement he himself fostered.

Stewart, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Stewart Stevens: Thank you brother. It's great to be here. I have to make one small correction. It's a long and complicated history, but I actually never worked for John McCain. I did work for Mitt Romney. It's a long story.

There was a time when my firm was sort of working for John McCain, but we actually never did work for John McCain, so it's easy to confuse. But we worked for Mitt Romney in ‘08 and in ‘12. He lost, by the way, in case you haven't heard that, but-

Ken Harbaugh: No, I've been paying attention and I got to be honest; sorry for that error in the intro, but I felt kind of mean reading it. But your own self-assessment is brutal.

I reread It Was All a Lie for this interview. The preface to the new edition is amazing, by the way. For those who haven't read it though, can you share the opening sentence or at least, the opening sentiment.

Stewart Stevens: Ken, there are a lot of people who were wrong about 2016, right? But it's really hard to find anybody who was more wrong than me. I was wrong about the primary and the general. And when that happened, I had to ask myself like how is it that I didn't see this? And I started asking myself a lot of hard questions. And in that kind of high school English teacher way, that if you can't write it, you don't understand it.

I started writing about it just to make sense of it to me. And that led to this book, and the opening of the book says, “Blame me.” And I say that because I was very much part of building the Republican Party. If electing candidates, you could call that building the Republican Party, which I guess you could. I never worked in government. I never, as we would say in the biz, I never went inside. Everyone I worked for had the good sense to realize they should never let me near government.

But here's sort of a trope of Washington books like “If only they had listened to me”. I couldn't write that book because they did listen to me. I was lucky. I built the most successful Republican media consulting firm. Worked in five presidentials. Helped elect governors and senators in over half the country. Where you’re in Ohio, I did all of John Kasich’s races when he ran for Congress, Rob Portman. Worked for Bush there in 2004, in 2000 where we carried Ohio, barely.

So, one of the things that really drew me to the Republican Party was a concept of personal responsibility, which I think as far as the party's concerned, turned out to be a complete fraud. But I believed in it, and I didn't know any way to begin sort of looking at this without taking personal responsibility. I can't blame others. I was part of this. So, that's really what led me to want to write that book.

And then the book itself is sort of a history of sorts of the Republican Party post-World War II that kind of tries to get into explaining how we ended up where we are.

Ken Harbaugh: You did a recent PBS interview in which I think you distilled that history to its essence better than anyone I've ever heard. Can you share your observation about the Eisenhower strand versus the McCarthy strand and the DNA before?

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, it's really fascinating. I think when you step back and you look at the party, after World War II, there were pretty clearly two strands. There was an Eisenhower strand that was boring and governing insane and then there was a Joe McCarthy Strand; conspiratorial, xenophobic, often racist, none governing.

So, those two kind of battled each other, at times, different degrees of say, dominance within the party. It was a period in the ‘60s when they made a conscious effort to chase out the most extreme elements, John Burt's Society, all of that.

For people of my political generation and the Republican Party of operatives, we were drawn to George — a lot of us were drawn to George Bush in this concept of compassion and conservatism. So, I moved down to Austin in the spring of ‘99 to work for Bush. I wrote a book about that called the Big Enchilada. There's a group of us that we literally used to sit in the same room. Me, Nicole Wallace, Michael Gerson, who was a columnist to the Bush speech writer, who really wrote much of the language of the Bush campaign and presidency, who became a Washington Post columnist, sadly died a couple weeks ago. Matthew Dowd, who you see a lot on television who was a strategist pollster, Mark McKinnon. And I don't think it's unfair to say that we assumed that the part of the party that we thought we were part of was a dominant part of the party. And we would emerge increasingly dominant, if only because the country was changing so much.

So, we looked at the failures of the party and said that they were failures, the inability to attract more African-American voters. George Bush made a huge push to attract more Hispanic voters. And in fact, in 2004, which is the only time Republicans have won the popular vote in the presidential race since 1988, we hit a high water mark for Hispanic voters around 43, 44%. This was something that Bush felt very generally, which gets into the whole, he was a Texas Republican, and Texas Republicans have a different history with Hispanics really. It's very unique. I mean, you even see Ted Cruz, but it's kind of … we can talk about that if you want to, but it's kind of a different conversation.

And then Trump came along and my belief, Ken, is that I just don't think that people changed deeply held beliefs in a few years. Unless there's some reason to, I don't believe in UFOs. If we're on the show and a UFO lands, dude, I'll change my mind. But nothing like that happened.

Ken Harbaugh: Why is your experience, your awakening if you will, so exceedingly rare? I mean you have some good company. Mike Gerson and others. Mike was actually the first guest we had on this show and it is so sad to see his passing.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, so the Bush campaign assembled starting in the spring of ‘99. I moved to Austin in the spring of ‘99. I had worked with Karl Rove. I had never worked with then Governor Bush. McCall really assembled that team, and Mike Gerson was hired as a speech writer.

Now, I had worked for Senator Dan Coats, I'd done his campaigns, who Mike had worked for before. And I really didn't know Mike then. And it was interesting because I love Dan Coats, but I don't think anybody would've said Dan Coats is a great author. So, it's like they're hiring Dan Coats as a speech writer. I was like, “Really?” And then I started reading what Mike wrote. It was just brilliant. And I think one of the key tests of any campaign and of the successful campaigns is the degree to which you can develop your own language as a candidate. And there's a kind of almost dadaist exercise you can go through if you take campaign speeches and circle phrases that are relatively unique and memorable, that are attributed to that campaign, that stick in the public conscious. Probably that candidate wins.

So, when we were living there and Austin particularly then, particularly small town, we’re all living together — more or less, I say together, just in a small town. Most of us were going out to clubs every night in Austin. And McKinnon and I were getting up at six in the morning and going swimming at Big Eddy and doing all this stuff at Austin. And Mike was working quite late, a homeless shelter, which he never would've told anybody. Only way I found, I had to find the guy, or just like Karen Hughes was looking for to like to do something.

And Mike really, he really was the best of us, he was the real deal. And he never faltered. And when you read his stuff, I mean, I said before several times, that I think years from now, when people look back at this era, there will be a handful of writers that people will read that will try to explain how this happened. And I think Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner are two that will be right at the top of the list. And it was a beautiful thing to watch him work with President Bush. They had a certain, well then Governor Bush, chemistry and he was able to find a voice that was eloquent and aspiring for President Bush that did not seem muttered and did not seem phony. And I sat in a room many times when they would try these things out and Bush said, “No, here's my version of this.” And they would go back and forth, kind of like a duet. I don't think George Bush would've been elected president without Michael Gerson. A hundred percent he wouldn’t have. But I didn't realize that he was as ill as he was. It’s a real loss.

Ken Harbaugh: Yeah, yeah. It was sad.

Stewart Stevens: Very sad.

Ken Harbaugh: Really sad to hear his passing. And I re-listened to our interview.

Stewart Stevens: I got to go back and listen to it. I haven't heard. I'm so glad you did that.

Ken Harbaugh: I'll share it with you. As influential as that Bush fraternity has been in the Trump era, it still represents a vanishingly small percentage of Republicans that you would've expected would stand up and speak out.

Why are you in such rarefied company? There aren't enough of you. Why do 99% of Republican operatives, your word, why are they going along with Trumpism?

Stewart Stevens: You're asking me … another way to put it is like why haven't I slept well in seven years?

Ken Harbaugh: I'm asking you the million-dollar question. But-

Stewart Stevens: Listen, I think– it's an essential question. This is why I wrote a book trying to figure this out. I never in a million years would've thought the people that I worked for would go along with Trump. I said it won't happen. And I was wrong for the most part, not entirely, but Mitt Romney didn't. I worked for pretty much all these Republican governors that haven't gone along with him. Phil, Scott in Vermont, Charlie Baker, Massachusetts, Larry Hogan. I worked for all those guys. I love those guys. They didn't go along with Trump but most did. I can explain it in a political science sense.

Ken Harbaugh: There's a subtext. I'll tell you why I'm asking, and I know you've covered the political science answer, but I have to believe there's a character-driven answer.

I've read a little bit about your dad. I know something of Mike Gerson's personal story, and I'm wondering if it's as simple as the values you are inculcated with growing up and that are somehow missing in the so many-

Stewart Stevens: Look, I mean, my dad was a classic greatest generation guy. He grew up in Mississippi, went to Ole Miss Law School, became an FBI agent. Was living in New York when the war broke out, being an FBI agent, sort of chasing would-be German spies, having the time of life and going to plays at night. The only thing about a guy from Mississippi gets to live in Manhattan and like run around and chase spies and go to plays, like how great is that? And he was ordered, as these agents were, when he came down to round up Asian-Americans as part of the internment process. And he did it for a day and he quit. And he then joined the Navy and had … I don't know if there's a good war, but spent three years in the South Pacific, 28-hour landings. And like most of these guys came back, never talked about it. In fact, much of his war stories, I never knew until this wonderful history of World War II Museum in New Orleans. And part of what they have is an oral history program where they were sending people out to interview these vets before we lost them. And it was really in that interview that I learned a lot about what my father had done.

Listen, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I mean, I won life’s lottery with my parents. But I look at these people and I know a lot of their parents actually. I got to know some of these. And they're not my father as far as I can tell. The bottom line is I will never ask myself again how 1930 Germany happened. And when I started to write, it was all about … really, it was sort of a self-education process and I did lots of reading. And probably, the book that stuck with me more than any was the memoirs of a guy named Franz Von Papen. And Franz Von Papen was the Prussian aristocrat political leader in Germany, who probably was more responsible for ushering Hitler than anyone else.

Ken Harbaugh: And justified it for decades afterwards.

Stewart Stevens: Wrote an extraordinary memoir in 1953, came out in ‘54, which for reasons I can't understand, is on Kindle, you can download it right now. And which he's writing this 1953, right? So, like things had gone a little sideways. Like a hundred million people dead, things like this. And he's still justifying it. And the way he justified it is, ‘What you have to understand is that we, the Prussian aristocrat had lost touch with the working class, and they were either going to become Bolshevik,’ which there was a huge communist movement in Germany, ‘or we needed a figure they could identify with that would stop them from going Bolshevik and that was Hitler. So,’ and still justifying it, ‘otherwise, the capital of the Soviet Union would be, Berlin.’

And it's just extraordinary even after all of that. And I think it's a number of factors. In the summer of ‘16, when it was clear Trump was going to be the nominee, I went around to a few prominent Republicans in a few states and tried to get them to run his favorite sons. Because if they did and they took two to four, five points off the vote, there was no way Trump could get elected cause the margins are that small.

I had a hundred percent failure rate. But what they all said to me was, “Look, we, the establishment, can't put ourselves on the scale here. We have to just let Trumpism and this alt-right and this hate just wash out of the party and start to build over. If it's seen that there was a gimmick that we used to beat him, it's not going to kill him.” And I was like “I get that, but like what if Trump wins?” And they're like, “He's not going to win.” And I wasn't probably very good at arguing that because I didn't think he was going to win.

So, I think the inability to imagine Trump has always benefited Trump. So, why did these 16 other candidates or 15 other candidates in the primary with Trump not attack Trump? It's because they attacked each other because we just wanted to get 1 on 1 with Trump. Because I mean, give me a break. The Republican Party’s not going to nominate a guy that talks in public about having sex with his daughter. I mean, look, let's get serious here. It's not going to happen. And then when it did, I think a lot of these people thought he was going to lose. And they just went along with it. And not all of them, Mitt didn't. And I think it is the greatest collapse of a moral center to a political party in American history. I don't know anything else to compare it to. I don't know.

I mean, this is why I joined the Lincoln Project. I mean, I spent 30 years pointing out flaws in Democratic Party. I mean, it's more than most people, but the Democratic Party is the last best hope for something that is still a democracy. Republican Party has become an autocratic movement. And all the elements for an autocratic movement to succeed are in place. You have the backings of a major party, Republican Party. If financiers Peter Thiel, they have unlimited money. You have a propaganda wing in Fox and all that. You have a serious effort among serious people to develop a legal theory to justify it.

If Georgia passes a law saying that the state legislature can overturn the popular vote, when the Georgia legislature overturns the popular vote, it's not going to be illegal. And you have shock troops. That's all you need. Now, are they going to win?

It reminds me, the night of the election, talking about 2000, when the network's called Florida for Gore, a little group of us got on the phone with these networks and our pitch was this; we can't tell you Bush's going to win Florida, but you can't tell us Gore's going to win Florida. It's just too close. And they pulled it back. And that's the way I feel about this. I can't tell you that side's going to win. I can't tell you they're going to lose, but I can tell you it's in doubt. And thinking that it can’t happen is the same mistake we made with Trump. So, I don't know what to do, but fight.

In the Lincoln Project in October of ‘20, I entertained the idea that like Trump loses, I can kind of quit doing this stuff. And then all this post-election stuff happens, and I couldn't walk away, and here we are.

Ken Harbaugh: Do you fear that conditions are being set for the return of Trump? I mean, he's definitely a weakened candidate, but absent the emergence of a clear and I guess, unifying figure to oppose him in the Republican Party, it feels like 2016 redux.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah. So everybody, all these people like the National Review, all the Republicans that know which folk to pick up, they're trying to invent Ron DeSantis. One of my great annoyances at the moment is we somehow have defined election deniers as those who go out and talk a lot about how Trump won. That's not what we should be doing. Anyone is an election denier who will not assert that Joe Biden won a free and fair election. And that's pretty much everybody in the Republican Party. That's Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis will not go out and say that Trump lost a free and fair election. Greg Abbott won't say it. Now, they don't go out there and run campaigns based on that, but they won't say it. And there is no attempt in a serious way to develop a coherent, moral, credible center right philosophy of government that the Republican Party would represent. You can't.

I mean, look, if you held a gun to my head and said like, “What does American conservatism mean today?” I'd say, “Shoot me. I have no idea.” And say what you will about Elizabeth Warren, she has a theory of government and she can articulate it. And you can argue with her, you can think she's crazy. You can think she's right, but you can have a conversation about it. You can't have a conversation about whether or not there are litter boxes and bathrooms in high schools, and that's the decline of civilization. That's not a governing philosophy.

You can't have a conversation about ‘A governing philosophy is to charter a plane, pick up a bunch of people who are in the United States legally applying for asylum, fly them to Florida, and then fly them to Massachusetts as a campaign stunt.’ That's not a governing philosophy. And there isn't one, except it's a white grievance party.

This is all about race here. It's all about race. 1956, Eisenhower gets 44% of the black vote. ‘64 drops to seven and never came back. 1980, Ronald Reagan wins this sweeping landslide, what, like 44 states or something. He got 58% of the white votes. 2008, John McCain lost to not particularly close election with 58% of the white vote. There you are. 85% of Trump's coalition is white. The country's 57, 60% white and since we've been doing this thing, it's less. We're going to become a minority majority party, our country. I mean, all the Stephen Millers in the world aren't going to stop that. And the party has never been able to do the hard work necessary to appeal to non-white voters in large numbers.

And there was a period (I write about in this book) in the late ‘80s and ‘90s (I can't believe I did this) where the Republican Party decided that the reason that we weren't doing well with African-American voters is because we didn't know how to talk to African-American voters. It's so embarrassing. It spawned this phenomenon of the RNC would hire these African-American consultants to come down and talk to us (and us being predominantly white campaigns) about how to talk to black people. And we’d all sit in a room and we all pay attention and take notes and listen seriously. And they would say things like, “You have to talk about meaningful jobs, not just good jobs.” And we were like, “Oh …” and then we do it. And of course it wouldn't matter at all. And the problem wasn't that African-Americans didn't understand what Republicans were saying. The problem was, they did understand what Republicans were saying. And I mean, we failed at this in Bush world, but at least we admitted it was a failure.

I mean, Ken Mehlman in 2005, chairman of the party ran the Bush campaign. He went out and gave his speech at the NAACP policy for the Southern strategy. It's a ultimately a policy failure. They've never come up with a policy that will appeal to African-American.

And this is all being played out in this Georgia runoff, which is next Tuesday, because there's not four people in the world that think that Herschel Walker would be running against Warnock if Warnock wasn't black. So, they sat in a room and said like, “How do we beat this black guy?” They go, “Well, we got to get ourselves a black guy. Well, what about Herschel Walker who lives in Texas who was like kind of a big deal in Georgia?” “Well, that's good. We'll get us a black guy. Because the only reason that that African-Americans are voting for Warnock is because he's black. So, now, we've even the scales, we're going to get more white votes than Warnock’s going to get, and then we're going to win this thing.” I mean, it is just so fundamentally condescending and unaware.

So, they put poor Herschel Walker up there. I mean, a guy, I don't understand how he gets through TSA. And it just shows how little you care about the country. I mean, Georgia, the reason they're having this crisis is because Johnny Isakson died, the last senator — I worked for Johnny Isakson; a wonderful man. You may not have liked some of his votes, but he's a wonderful human being.

And look, they had Sam Nunn from Georgia. So, I mean, if Herschel got elected, in six years, no one would ever say “I'm going to walk across the room and ask Herschel what he thinks about this.” And that's where the party is.

Ken Harbaugh: I think that race is one of the clearest pieces of evidence we've ever seen of the lack of a, not just a governing philosophy, but any seriousness about governing and-

Stewart Stevens: And caring about the country.

Ken Harbaugh: And caring about the country. There is still a coherence to the Republican Party and the Republican strategy, and you call it out; it's about race and election denialism now. And there's-

Stewart Stevens: Which is about race.

Ken Harbaugh: Which is about race as well. You write about this … yeah, go ahead.

Stewart Stevens: No, I was going to say, we don't talk about this enough. The whole not voting to certify was about race. All these areas where the votes were in question, they were strangely areas where … what does Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia have in common? Like a lot of black people live there, and those are the areas … Fulton County in Georgia, Atlanta, huh? Wonder what? Maybe the voting machines work differently there. Maybe there's like black people — and that's what it's about. It was totally about Jim Crow vote. Cindy Hyde-Smith, this woman who got appointed now sadly elected, the senator from Mississippi, my own state, she said it. She said “I voted for this because my voters supported Donald Trump.” Okay, there you go.

Ken Harbaugh: You have called the Republican Party the greatest threat to democracy this country has faced since 1860. And I love the way you describe its anti-democratic instincts and that you call out that the official position of the Republican Party, this is from the new preface, which everybody should read, even if they've already read the book.

The official position of the Republican Party is that Joe Biden is not a legally elected president. That Donald Trump was illegally removed from office. That 2020 wasn't a legitimate election. And here's the crux of the point; which means that it is the official position of the Republican Party that America is not a democracy. The dividing line in American politics is no longer ideology or policy. It's a line between those who believe in democracy and those who believe in it only when their side wins. And that hasn't changed.

Stewart Stevens: No, no. I think it's a real danger that we allow Kari Lake to set the bar, what is it? Election denialism, like we’re saying.

Every day, every reporter in America who covers politics should be asking whoever they're covering, “Do you believe Joe Biden is president/illegally elected?” Now, they'll say, “I accept Joe Biden,” well, I accept Putin.” It doesn’t mean he won an election. I mean, like president Trump who called him and congratulated him on this election. Damn unbelievable.

Look if you read Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, which I go around giving out like watch towers to random strangers in airports, like “Read this, read this.” When you hear about me getting arrested, it's going to be because of passing these out — or How Democracies Die by those two Harvard professors. They make the point that democracies don't die in the modern world pretty much now because of coups. It’s not like Allende in Chile. It's through the ballot box and the courtroom. And why is the Republican Party obsessed with Viktor Orban? Well, Viktor Orban is a white supremacist. I mean, before he came to CPAC, he gave a speech, running against mixed races and still was accepted at CPAC.

Why do they love Putin? So, why is the pro-Putin movement in American politics within the Republican Party? They love Orban because he was able to usher Hungary from a democracy to sort of a full democracy. Was it what Putin did? And that's the path they want to go down.

And one of the problems I run into, and I'm sure you do too, how to talk about this? Because you sound alarmist, and to me, it's kind of like a pandemic. What you say at the beginning is going to be alarmist, but it's going to prove inadequate at the end. And I run into this all the time.

I wrote this book and my old Republican friends, some of them angry, some of them just kind of in good faith asked me, “So, Stewart, are you saying that everybody voted for Donald Trump was a racist?” Like what was it, 67 million Americans? And I go, “Well, first of all, there probably are 67 million racists in America. So, let's not get like all teed up about these guys.” But no, I think it means that something is more important to you that having a president than having a racist as president and that's what's played out.

So, look, 70% of Republican Party now believes that we have an illegal president. So, the 2024 election is going to be not between two parties that have different political views, it's between one party that believes we have a legally elected president, therefore, we live in a democracy and one party that believes they are running to depose an illegal occupant of the White House. So, when you believe that, that kind of gives you a right to pretty much do what you want to because you're restoring democracy and maybe an obligation. And I find that extraordinarily dangerous and I don't think it'll be different in ‘28. So, maybe 32 would be the first time you'd elect a Republican who would go out and be able to win a primary and say that Donald Trump lost the election.

I find that just extraordinarily dangerous. And look, we started this new thing called Resolute Square because part of the problem is there has been a failure in our forms of journalism, traditional journalism.

And look, I spent half my life writing. I've published more articles than a lot of professional journalists. The key of it was objectivity. That was the sacred grail. That was based upon there being some assumption of good faith on both sides. So, how do you tell both sides of a lie? And that's part of the failure that we have now.

So, some of us connect with the Lincoln Project with other people, we started this new thing called Resolute Square to build an alternative to MAGA media. And our approach is we're right, they’re wrong. We're not going to both sides it. I don't want to understand the guy in the Camp Auschwitz sweat shirt in the capital. I don't care. But I just know the guy’s evil and should be in jail. I don't want to understand a lot of these Trump voters. I know them. I don't need to know more. And we have Resolute Square, we are biased. We say we're biased all the time for democracy. And that's what we need. We need to build an organization that can enter the mainstream of popular culture and media that will be biased toward democracy and fight for it. And in a nonpartisan way, like we'll fight for Liz Cheney. And most Democrats would disagree with 99%.

Look, I did all of the debate prep for Liz's dad in 2000, 2004, which Liz ran. And I wrote this book about the Bush campaign in 2000, Bush Cheney campaign. And I predicted that Liz would run for president. That was 2001. She was that impressive. So, I'm not surprised that Liz is doing it. What I am surprised about is, it's 2022 and Liz Cheney is drummed out of the party. A Cheney. I mean, it is not about philosophy. They say, “Well, Democrats should elect Liz Speaker of the House.” Like Really? You think Liz Cheney's going to go out there to codify Roe? Are you out of your mind? I mean, she'll fight for democracy with her last dying breath. But you do have a difference in political philosophy, which is fine. That's okay.

It's like Joe Trippi, this legendary Democratic consultant who spent the last 30 years ruining my life because I had to go up against the guy, has now joined the Lincoln Project. And Joe and I talk about this. You go back and look at this stuff we fought over, which at the time, seemed like Gettysburg. It was like whether or not the capital gains should actually be 28 or 32. I mean, you like laugh at it — really? Really we fought over that?

Ken Harbaugh: If you have a democratic system, you get to keep having that fight.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, it’s all we're trying to do. People in 2016 used to say to me, “Hey Stewart …” (I live in Vermont now); “Hey, if Bernie Sanders was a nominee, would you have voted for him?” And I'm like, “Hell yeah.” And I first encountered Bernie when I was riding my bicycle down the main street in Burlington, Vermont when I was going the Middlebury College. And I saw this lunatic out there yelling about rent control, and it was Bernie running for mayor, which he won by eight votes.

Ken Harbaugh: Which he did reasonably well at.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, he was a good mayor. He actually turned out to be a very good mayor of Burlington.

So, I mean Bernie Sanders is to the right of many in the Republican Party, own Putin. Wrap that around your mind. I mean, the guy may have honeymooned in Russia, but he didn't like marry Putin. So, yeah, I would've voted for Bernie. I would've gone door to door for the guy because he would've been a guy I could have … I think the guy still supports democracy.

Ken Harbaugh: Yeah, when you talk about how democracies die, and I think you're invoking the book by that title. You say it doesn't happen in volleys of cannon fire, it happens in the courthouse and at the ballot box. But I think in an attendant requirement there is some complacency. And I worry about that-

Stewart Stevens: A hundred percent.

Ken Harbaugh: After these midterms. At least from my orbit, there's this weird honeymoon period. Like we made it guys, we put the lie to the big lie and we can breathe a sigh of relief. I'm sure that's not how you're thinking in Resolute Square.

Stewart Stevens: That's why, look at DeSantis. DeSantis will not say that Trump is elected, or lost a fair election. And DeSantis is a guy who's an angry, strange guy, very well-educated, assume he's very smart, who manages to spend his political career bullying people. This is a guy who got in a fight with the Happiness Company. Like really, he got in a fight with Peter Pan. Like of all the issues to pick, you're going to pick Peter Pan?

I want to be in the room when you say, “Man, what we need to do is we need to charter this plane. We need to fly to Texas. We need to get somebody to lie to a bunch of people who are here legally in the country seeking asylum. Fly them to Texas and … let's do it.” I've done a lot, I've been in a room for a lot of stuff, but I've never been in a room where someone said “What about rendition? That'll help us. It tests well.” And its election police. Florida passed overwhelming a law that former felons should be able to vote. Republicans came in and passed the law they can't vote unless they pay any outstanding fines they have. But it's impossible to find out what outstanding fines you have. There is no mechanism. You can't go online and say, “Okay, this is what I owe.”

So, guess what? Some of them didn't do it. They found 20 in the state of Florida that hadn't done it. And then as it turns out, most of those … and he has this big press conference. This is not a serious human being. This is a man who is running out of ambition, he has no purpose in running. And yet he's being embraced by the National Review and this desperate attempt to make him into something, and it's very dangerous. And you have to just fight it.

One thing I'll tell you about Bush world, in 2000, 2004 — we never thought we had it figured out. I mean, say what you will even after we won Ohio in 2004. I tell you man, I mean, we always thought we were lucky, and it could have gone the other way. And we may have looked arrogant, I don't know how we came across. But I was in the room and we were always like, “Man, this could go either way.” And we never thought that we had figured this out. And I think that there was a sense with a lot of Trumpist people that they have figured it out.

But look, I think as a political operative, I think the Biden operation doesn't get enough credit. I think they ran a brilliant campaign in 2020. Between 1976 and 2008, we had federal funding for presidential races, which isn't a big deal to most people, but when you work in campaigns, it was everything. And what it meant was that both campaigns, once you had a nominee, literally when you walked off the stage of accepting the nomination, there was somebody there from the treasury department with a check. And it would be the same amount to both candidates. It would be 80 million, then it grew every year. I think 84 was the last amount. And they literally would give you a check and we're like, “Can you wire this?” And they're like, “No, we do checks.” And it leveled the playing field because both candidates had the same amount of money, and it was post-Watergate reform, a lot to clean up money, but it also leveled the playing fields. So, Bush loses under that and Carter loses.

So, before that, you have to ask yourself, when was the last incumbent president to lose who was not in the federal funding system? And that was Herbert Hoover. He had a bad year.

So, for the Biden campaign to beat an incumbent president, they became the first to do that since Herbert Hoover, not in the election finance system where both candidates got same … look, I did Romney campaign, it is incredibly difficult to do. And I think they have accomplished big stuff, big important stuff. They just did something that's pretty incredible in an off-year election. The last time the house gained seats for the party in power was 2002. I was all over that race. So, we decided to nationalize it over domestic security, war on terror.

And I can remember vividly being asked like December of 2001, is this going to work? And my answer was “We don't know, but the best chance we got.” And they came very close to doing that. And that's only happened three times the last 125 years. So, I know a lot of these people, Ron Klain, Anita Dunn, I've gone up against them in races, particularly Anita. I've worked with Ron on Debate Commission and Anita, they are very smart, serious people.

And you know what I find so impressive about the Biden campaign is when they launched their primary, first entered the race, there was a theory in the Democratic Party that was dominant, I think Elizabeth Warren articulated the most — that the 20 race should not be about Donald Trump. It made a lot of sense. The thinking went, ‘Look, everybody in America has opinion to Donald Trump you're not going to change, so you got to make it about issues.’ And when Biden ran on the soul of the nation, he meant Trump, and what Trumpism means. And that's what the Lincoln Project did too. And this was before I joined them. So, this isn't farfetched. They went out and said that. And then he lost those first two primaries. And I can tell you, man, when a front runner gets crushed like that, there is tremendous hydraulic pressure to change your campaign. And it usually doesn't work but you're not going to sit there and just lose without trying. The Biden campaign and Biden, they stuck with it and damn if they didn't win. And I think that's just underappreciated how hard it is. That's like being in the Super Bowl, it’s the end of the third quarter, you're down 24 points and you go, “We're going to stick to our game plan and you win.’ It's like, dude well done.

Ken Harbaugh: What stuck with me about that campaign, and it was an offhand comment at the beginning, but I think it captured the essence of the whole strategy was which of these candidates is going to be able to take Donald Trump behind the woodshed. And that's how Joe ran it.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, I think it's a classic case which we see in politics where what had been negatives for Biden before as a presidential candidate — kind of boring, been in government since he was 28. Usually, the most inexperienced candidate gets elected president, weirdly. He is kind of a bland guy, not a super charismatic. Nobody ever accused Joe Biden to be a super charismatic guy. And all of a sudden, those things became seen in a different light, where being in government since he was 28, meaning he actually was competent at a time when no one was competent in the government. Being boring — the flip side of boring is stable, not dramatic. The flip side of being bland is you're not waking up every day to use the office to do personal issues. And those that were negatives had become assets.

The same thing happened when Churchill won. He had been this bellacos kind of weirdo, failed. All of a sudden, you needed like a bellacos weirdo to run the country, save the country. Same with Margaret Thatcher. Kind of harsh, shrill, back bencher, “We’re always spending too much, we're always like…” She went from being fingernails on a chalkboard to the Iron Lady. And history has a weird way of doing that. And I think Biden will win. I assume Biden's going to be the nominee and we'll see again.

Ken Harbaugh: You've said that there's no saving the Republican Party that we're experiencing today, and that the only solution (your words) is to burn it down. Where do those Republicans go, do you think?

Do you think they're going to reconstitute as the Forward Party? Do you think we'll get enough of them in the Democratic Party? I mean, have you-

Stewart Stevens: Which Republican? You mean the Republicans that vote for-

Ken Harbaugh: Not the Camp Auschwitz t-shirt Republicans, but the ones who know how to use a fork?

Stewart Stevens: Well, so take Arizona as a case. You have this guy with governor of Arizona named Doug Ducey, who was kind of like a typical Republican; boring, same smart guy, business guy. He ran the state okay. He was an okay governor. He hated Kari Lake. He had a candidate who was more like him, ran in the primary. She lost. So, what Doug Ducey should have said was, the guy's not running for reelection. He’ll probably never run for anything else in his life. He should have says, “I'm not going to support Kari Lake. She's a lunatic. She wants to fire the federal government. Are you out of your mind? You ever look around Arizona, without the federal government you know what Arizona would be? It's a desert. You take away the military bases, take away the national parks, you're going to quit sending social security checks to people? Look it up. I mean, these border guards, all that federal government shit, we don't need that. Like are you out of your mind? I'm not going to vote for this lunatic that's going to make Arizona a laughing stock of the country.” Instead he endorsed Kari Lake.

You look at Youngkin in Virginia. So, look, I'll admit there's a time when Youngkin would've seemed like a great candidate to me. Had a lot of money, seemed like an okay guy, and I think he ran a very racist campaign, which he didn't believe at all on the CRT. But everybody said that's just to get elected. Once he gets elected, I mean, come on man, give me a break. This is the kind of guy we need. Okay, he's out campaigning for Kari Lake.

So, it's when those people say no, the essential question now, is the one McConnell got the other day and wouldn't answer; will you support Donald Trump if he's Republican nominee? And there's only a handful of prominent Republicans now who say no. So-

Ken Harbaugh: I don't know if you saw McConnell's, non-condemnation, condemnation after Donald Trump had a white supremacist at Mar-a-Lago.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, he wouldn't say Donald Trump's name.

Ken Harbaugh: Right.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah. I mean, here's a guy, you would think if nothing else, a guy held a press conference to humiliate McConnell's wife.

You would think if nothing else, it would be like “Dude, that's enough. I'll say your name.” I mean, that's not exactly saying, “I'm going to meet you at midnight, outside the Waffle House in the parking lot.” All you're doing is saying your name. That's a pretty low bar. And the guy doesn't have the courage to say his name. I mean, what are you going to do with these people? And they'll all support Donald Trump. It's just like all these people that like the NASCAR reviewed all these people, they go, “Well, we never formally endorsed Donald Trump.” Neither did Fox, but they supported him.

So, you have to just beat these people. Now you do have demographics. You say, what's going to happen to a lot of these Trump Republicans? I can tell you, they're going to die. That's what's going to happen to them. I mean, what people forget or don't think about because they have a life and they don't do this … fortunate enough this not to be their world. In many ways, Donald Trump performed as a regular Republican. The only group that Donald Trump won by income; $150,000 and more. Donald Trump didn't win the working class. He won the white working class. Well, so did Mitt Romney. He didn't win evangelicals. He won white evangelicals. He got crushed by black evangelicals. They're the ones that saved Alabama from an accused pedophile. So, look at Arizona, it’s another perfect example. What saved Arizona from Kari Lake getting elected? One single thing you can point to — the young voters. Look at the university precincts in Arizona, and they went for Hobbs at like 85 plus, and without that, she wouldn’t have lost.

So, I think the Republican Party has made a huge mistake just in a cultural sense of the cultural war they're trying to fight now. There are not many under 35 voters that are worried about who they're going to see in the bathroom, which is Ron DeSantis’s campaign. There's not many under 35 voters who want to ban abortion completely. And look at what happened in ’20; Republican Party managed to get on the wrong side of a cultural war with NASCAR over the Confederate flag. They got on the wrong side of a cultural war over masking with Walmart.

So, I mean, dude, man, you're losing NASCAR and Walmart? I mean, I can tell you from being a Mississippian, your average teenager and this white teenager in Mississippian, they aspire to be a black rap star more than they do to be Robert E. Lee. I mean, they're not drawn to all this racist stuff at all. So, what is the fastest declining large demographic, political demographic in America? Non-college educated white people. 1980, there were 60 plus percent of the electorate. They're now 40 and declining. So, we're headed to minority majority country. And Republicans on some level know this, which is why they're desperately trying to change how people vote.

Ken Harbaugh: Well, that's just it. This idea that demographics are going to save us assumes that the institutions of democracy allow those democratic trends to express themselves. But if minoritarian rule is cemented through law, demographics don't matter as much.

Stewart Stevens: And they know this. That's why they have 47 different pieces of legislation in place, ready to go. Somebody didn't just wake up after January 6th and said, “Hey, we should come up with these state legislature laws to propose.”

They've been working on this for a long time. These are dangerous people. I know these people, and the fact that they do not appear to be evil, but what they are trying to do is evil.

Ken Harbaugh: The banality of evil.

Stewart Stevens: And if that's not 1930s Germany, what the hell is?

Ken Harbaugh: Yeah, no, you're right. Well, I've held you for long enough, Stewart. I'm a silver linings kind of guy. And this has been a dark interview, but I’m just trying-

Stewart Stevens: I'm very depressing here. When I wrote It Was All a Lie, I gave a draft of it to a good friend of mine who's a Republican. I said, “It's short but depressing.” And he said, “Stewart, so are suicide notes.” So, you could always go down to the pound and watch some gas puppies to cheer up after talking to me.

Ken Harbaugh: I will say one of the things that I have found even during the rise of Trumpism, prompted by the rise of Trumpism, is that this community that has risen up to fight it is comprised of some of the best human beings I've ever known. You know some of who I'm talking about, the Dan Barkhuffs of the world.

Stewart Stevens: Yeah, who just got banned from Twitter it appears?

Ken Harbaugh: Did he?

Stewart Stevens: Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh: Yeah, well, he’s been quiet lately, so that must be why.

Yeah, and I know you're tough on your own consulting class, but some giants have risen up there to fight back as well and we'll keep following. Excited about what Resolute Square is doing, and let's talk again soon.

Stewart Stevens: Thanks. Thanks for asking me on.

Ken Harbaugh: You got it. Thanks Stewart.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Tim Alberta: Evangelical Extremism

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:160
Journalist Tim Alberta discusses his book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, and his personal experiences with the evangelical movement....
Listen to Tim Alberta: Evangelical Extremism

Dr. Steven Hassan: MAGA is a Cult

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:159
Dr. Hassan explains how cults indoctrinate members, and how the radical right has copied these strategies....
Listen to Dr. Steven Hassan: MAGA is a Cult

Dr. Bandy Lee: A Duty to Warn

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:158
Psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee discusses Trump’s mental state, and the danger he poses to the country....
Listen to Dr. Bandy Lee: A Duty to Warn

Tristan Snell: Trump’s Legal Strategy

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:157
Tristan, who prosecuted Trump as the Assistant Attorney General of New York, talks about Trump’s legal strategy, our current judicial system, and ...
Listen to Tristan Snell: Trump’s Legal Strategy