Former PA Governor and Democratic National Committee Chair Ed Rendell talks to Two.One.Five Magazine about his new book A Nation Of Wusses, calling out members of both parties for lack of backbone and principle. He also discusses his thoughts on the new “Voter ID” law, and even adds his forecast for our Phils’ season.
Two.One.Five Magazine: Many people would agree with your assessment of politicians these days, especially the Democratic Party, in particular, with respect to their seeming inability often to take a stand for the interests of their constituents in contrast to the interests of their own job stability. But do you feel that a book like this that sort of calls out politicians on this will have any impact or effect on anything? In other words, why would you write this?
Ed Rendell: I actually wrote the book for three reasons, and that was just one of the three. I wrote the book to try to convey to younger people what a great experience I’ve had in public service — notwithstanding the low pay, the tough working conditions, the frustrations, the press, all those things — that it’s been a wonderful experience for me, that when you spend your life trying to make other people’s lives better, it’s a great way to live. So that was my first reason for writing the book, to sort of convey that. My second reason was to try to persuade people at large that government wasn’t the enemy, that this idea somehow that government is the problem, that the smaller the government the better — that’s ludicrous. Government can be an important catalyst for creating opportunity, for protecting our most vulnerable citizens, for motivating growth — all those things. Government has responsibility to be cost-conscious, effective, competent, but it can do a lot of positive things. And third — I didn’t think that a politician would read my book and all of the sudden say, “OK, I’m gonna go out there and risk my career on this vote!” But I thought we might be able to galvanize people to send a message to the politicians that it’s okay to take an occasional risk, that we’re not gonna punish you for taking risks if the risks are in our benefit! It’s okay to spend money if you’re spending money on something that’s gonna keep us economically competitive or increase our public safety. So for example, we want you to invest in our infrastructure. Infrastructure is falling apart! It’s unsafe, it destroys the quality of our life, and it makes us economically uncompetitive with Asian and European countries. So yes, it’s okay to spend money! So almost like we have to give them a permission slip to take some risks. And that’s the feeling that I wanted to create.
I walk a lot — it’s something that I didn’t get a chance to do much as mayor or governor, but I enjoy it — and people say as they pass me, saying, “I read your book, and you’re absolutely right, politicians gotta change, no one’s willing to take a risk today, everyone’s worried about protecting their job, etc.” So I think the people feel it! And I think if they feel it, it’s important for them to be in a position to fight back [against] the special interests. The NRA [for example] can get 500 letters, emails, telegrams into someone’s office, drop of a hat. And legislators are dumb enough to think that that’s public opinion! They’ll be handed a poll that says “71% of the people want you to limit the sale of magazine clips to having no more than 11 bullets” — which it used to be under the assault weapons bill — after the Gabby Giffords case. But they don’t read the poll, because 500 people call their office and their staff is going crazy, so they think that’s public opinion. Well, if the NRA is so tough, how did I win three statewide elections in the state that has the second highest number of NRA members behind only Texas? And I won by 12 points, 10 points and 21 points. So, we’ve gotta get people understanding that, and we’ve gotta get the good people to write letters and say it’s okay to spend money if it’s spent on the right things. We don’t want reckless spending, but we want good, smart, effective spending.
Those were my purposes. And you know, I’m not naive. Everyone in Washington’s not gonna have a cathartic experience and say, “I’m going out there and doing things I believe in now thanks to that Rendell guy!”
215: As far as the ability of a party to have influence over their constituents, to make them understand why they’re working in their best interests. Obamacare, for example, that was poorly sort of spun…
ER: It was! And in fact the President just recently said his biggest problem in his first term was communications, and I think that’s absolutely true.
215: …why do you think that tends to be more often a fault of Democrats?
ER: We don’t get our message across very carefully. Republicans have a very simple message. It’s a non-nuanced message. It’s, “you can spend your money better than the government can spend your money.” Who’s gonna disagree with that? It’s a very simple message. “The less government, the better.” Simple to understand. [The Democrats’] message is not simple. Our message is that effective, cost-conscious government can make a difference in changing people’s lives, and that’s a tougher message to get across. So once Obamacare is held to be constitutional, and the court says it’s a tax, the Republicans are out there scaring everybody, “it’s another MASSIVE tax increase!” Well the mandate affects less than 1.5% of the population, it only affects the people who don’t have healthcare and don’t want to purchase it going forward. It doesn’t affect all of us who have healthcare, it’s not gonna cost us one penny! But where are we fighting back and saying to the American people, “they’re a bunch of liars! They’re trying to scare the living daylights out of you, it only affects 1% of all of us, and it only affects the people who don’t have healthcare, and who don’t want to buy it!”? Because most Americans either have healthcare, or they desperately want to buy it! so we don’t message well. We don’t fight back. We are more self-conscious about the things we say.
215: Who would you name as top-five Wusses? Did you have anybody specifically in mind, as you wrote this?
ER: Well, it’s hard to single out top-five wusses. It also depends on what era, what time period..
215: I’m asking about now..
ER: Well right now, Governor Romney. And I say this with a heavy heart, because I know Governor Romney from our joint experience as governors, and I like him. But he has wussed out constantly. He wussed out on important, substantive things, like the Blunt Amendment. The Blunt Amendment was stupid, it says, you know, an employer can deny healthcare to women for any reason. It’s a stupid bill. He knew it was a stupid bill, he initially said he wouldn’t vote for it. Then he got blowback from the conservatives and he changed his mind! He consistently changes his mind on things. When the healthcare decision came out by the Supreme Court, he said, “oh, it’s really a penalty.” And then when the conservatives in the House called him and screamed at him, he then changed his mind the next day and said, “it’s a tax!” Well, changing your mind like that is the height of wussiness. But he also wussed out on the campaign trail. In one of the earlier debates, and gay soldier called in — they had a call-in where you could ask questions — and he said, “I’m a gay soldier, and I’m out here in Fallujah,” or wherever it was, and the crowd started booing! And by the way, the other Republican candidates were just as wussy as he was, but Governor Romney should’ve stepped in and said, “hey folks, wait a second — you may disagree with his lifestyle or his orientation, but he’s out there risking his rear end for us, to protect us, he deserves your respect and admiration.” Even if the crowd booed him, it would’ve been the right thing to do and the right thing to say. He chickened out. When the woman said Obama should be tried for treason, he chickened out. When Rush Limbaugh said the girl at georgetown was a slut, he chickened out. He should’ve said, “Rush Limbaugh is WAY out of bounds! That young woman has every right to her opinions. That doesn’t make her a slut or anything close to it.” He chickened out! So right now, he’s the number one wuss.
But the number one wuss of all time, for one incident, is Newt Gingrich, you know, who’s supposed to be a tough guy! The Ryan budget comes out, Gingrich says, “this is nothing but radical, right-wing social engineering.” Then he got a lot of crap from all the conservative talk shows..
215: …the famous incident with that one guy on the campaign trail who said, “you’re a disgrace to your party..”
ER: …the next day, he changed his mind! This is Newt Gingrich, the “great thinker,” etc. You know, it happens too much. All the congressmen — mostly republicans, but some democrats — who voted against the stimulus, and then show up at the ribbon-cutting on projects paid for by the stimulus! Well, how dare they! That’s in my “top-ten reasons for being a wuss,” politicians who don’t show up just because they’re protesters, who back out on speeches. And it’s not confined to republicans, democrats in the congress are just as bad. Whereas the republicans won’t tell the truth to their base, which is: we’re not gonna get rid of this deficit without raising revenue. Let me repeat: we’re not gonna get rid of this deficit without raising revenue! They won’t deliver that message because they’re afraid of the Grover Norquists, and all that; well we won’t tell our base, “hey, there’s gotta be entitlement reform.” Medicare was passed into law in 1964 when the average life expectancy was 69 years of age. Today, if you live to 65 your average life expectancy is almost 88! It was never meant to cover 25 years of life, it was meant to cover the last 5 or 6 years of life. We’ve gotta change the program! Senior citizens aren’t dumb. If you talk to them like that, I believe many of them will understand, and those who don’t, they just don’t. And you’ve gotta live with the consequences of that.
215: As far as changing your mind, you know, “flip-flopping..”
ER: It’s not ALWAYS a sign of wussiness, sometimes it’s a sign of just having a vibrant intellect that can process new information, but you don’t process information in one day and change your mind. You know, you can evolve over time — like, I’ll give Governor Romney the benefit of the doubt about abortion. In ‘94 when he ran against Ted Kennedy, he said he was “more pro-choice” than Ted Kennedy. Now he’s pro-life. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, because that happened over the course of time. But don’t say something on one day, and then change your mind the next day.
215: …or Obama’s “evolution” on gay rights?
ER: Right, I mean, I’ll give him credit for that because it took some time. And to tell you the truth — and I think the gay community in Pennsylvania would say I’ve probably been as good as any elected official in the state — but I originally thought when I became governor that civil unions was more than enough, that marriage was a religious instrument — in some ways it’s a hybrid, it’s religious and it’s civil — but the religious part of it, we couldn’t force religions to adopt our definition, but that civil union was a way of giving them all of the rights and benefits of a married couple, etc. And I too have evolved, i just don’t think that’s enough, I think that’s sort of like “separate but equal education.” And the courts have said that obviously that’s not enough, that that’s psychologically inferior. And I believe the same thing is true [of civil unions] so, I give Obama credit on that, absolutely.
215: So you’re critical here of Romney. On the flipside, you’ve also been critical lately of members of your own party with respect to the Bain Capital ad that came out, Debbie Wasserman Schultz in particular. You face some flak, obviously, as a result of criticizing members of your own party. What good do you feel comes from doing something like that?
ER: Well I think it changes conduct. I thought Bain Capital was absolutely an appropriate subject for the Obama campaign. Governor Romney opened the door when he said that his experience at Bain Capital qualifies him for being President. But to call him a vampire, like the first ad did, was over the top. It has no place in politics. It’s interesting that that first ad only lasted a week, it got pulled. The general Bain Capital ads are much more temperate in terms of their language. That second incident — when Stephanie Cutter said [Romney] could be considered a felon, the Obama campaign appropriately made her walk back. That has no place, and I said that as well. I mean look, it’s a tough, dirty, ugly business, and we don’t have to make it tougher and dirtier and uglier by the tone of our rhetoric. You can criticize someone without calling them a vampire, without calling them a felon. You know, as governor I would march in parades — and in most instances I got pretty good reactions from the crowds in parades — but there would always be isolated people who would boo the heck out of me for raising taxes, or doing this or that. And I’d look over and there would be a 45-year-old man standing with his 8-year-old son, and he’d be booing me, and his face would be red and filled of anger and hate, and I thought, “my gosh, what message is he giving his son?” I mean, my father would never have booed a governor or a mayor, or a president in public. He would never have done that! And certainly not in front of me! I mean it’s pretty horrific, what’s out there now.
215: Do you think that sort of discourse has changed over time? I mean, Obama got called a liar out in the middle of the State of the Union speech. I mean, stuff like that happened in the 1800s and the 1700s, people got heated, people returned fire. Do you think that’s really a sign of the times?
ER: I think the frequency of it is a sign of the times. I think our polarization is at an all-time high. But I also think it’s magnified, because everything that’s said now, because of the 24-7 news cycle, it went viral. So everything is magnified. And that creates the impression more so than anything else.
215: Pretty hot topic right now: voter suppression. As a result of recent legislation, three quarters of a million people will be disenfranchised in Pennsylvania, they’re estimating — 185,000 of them are in Philly..
ER: …almost one out of every ten!
215: What do you make of what’s going on, and what should be the response — or what IS the response of the Democratic Party?
ER: First of all, let me be absolutely clear: these voter identification acts have nothing to do with the problem of people voting in other people’s names. In my eight years as governor, we had the responsibility for overseeing all statewide elections, including two very contentious presidential elections. I could count on both hands the number of cases we had where someone voted in somebody else’s name. It’s a problem that didn’t exist.
215: Well, I just heard a comment this morning on NPR that there was no metric for that, that there was nothing in place to be able to detect that…
ER: …other than, you ask the Committee Of Seventy how many complaints were filed in Philadelphia about someone voting in somebody else’s name, etc. It just didn’t exist. And I think representative [Mike] Turzai the Republican leader said it best, they did it for one reason: to make it easier for Romney to carry the state! Because of that 9.5% of the electorate that doesn’t have photo ID, my guess is 90% of them are Democratic voters. They’re older, minority voters And to disenfranchise them is a tremendous plus for the republicans. What the Democratic party should be doing, they should be doing on two commensurate paths. First and foremost, sue in court. Ask for a restraining order, ask for the whole act to be thrown out. Sue in court. Path 2, don’t wait for the outcome of the suit. Get teams to go out in areas where older citizens live, find people without photo IDs, drive them to the motor vehicle bureau, take them inside, tell them what they have to bring with them as identification so they can get one of those cards! Simple as that. So we should be doing a two-pronged attack: attacking the law, but at the same time getting ready to comply with the law.
215: What are they doing? Is that just what they should be doing? Do you see any action on this?
ER: I think the suits have been filed, so I give them credit for that. On the other hand, about them registering these people, no. I haven’t seen any activity. And I keep telling them about it, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
215: You were an effector for CHIP in Pennsylvania, and obviously a supporter for Obamacare. What kind of traction do you think the Republicans will have to repeal that if Romney gets into office?
ER: Repealing it? Not much. Because as long as the Democrats have 41 votes in the Senate, they can stop [an appeal]. And they will.
215: Last question: Do you think this is the end of the Phillies’ playoff run?
ER: No, and I actually think that even were the Phillies not to be able to come back and get into the playoffs this year, I think if you fast forward to next April 1st, if the Phillies have a healthy [Ryan] Howard, a healthy [Chase] Utley, a healthy [Roy] Halladay, Cliff Lee in good shape, re-sign Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen — I think the Phillies almost have to be the favorite next year. So I’m not ready in any way, shape or form to roll up the white flag. This year, we may be too far out, but not next year!
Editor’s Note: Since this interview was recorded, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson has issued a ruling against issuing an injunction on the implementation of the Voter ID law. Although opponents of the new law are expected to file an expeditious appeal to the PA Supreme Court, the November election is just over two months away. You can get involved here.
Get a copy of the Governor’s new book here.