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Doug Schoen has been one of the most influential Democratic campaign consultants for over thirty years. A founding partner and principal strategist for Penn, Schoen & Berland, he is widely recognized as one of the co-inventors of overnight polling. He has advised presidents, prime ministers and titans of private industry. He is the author of multiple books; his most recent include Putin’s Master Plan, The Nixon Effect (interview here), and Return to Winter: Russia, China, and the New Cold War Against America (interview here). Schoen is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and various other newspaper and online publications as well as Fox News.
Even though Doug and I disagree on several political issues, I am proud to call him a mentor and friend. His insights on politics and policy are not at all clouded by ideology, something rare in the world of punditry and prognostication. And his experience, judgment and wisdom are unparalleled. Perhaps most importantly, Doug and I share a love of country and belief in the imperative to defend it.
I had Doug on the podcast to draw out some of his lessons from a life well-spent as a master practitioner and student of politics, to share his insider view of government and how it has impacted his political philosophy and to discuss his strong beliefs on the threats that face us both globally in terms of China and Russia, and at home in terms of the bloat of government, rot in our institutions and our inability to share in a common vision for America.
What We Discussed
- How Schoen’s life in politics has influenced his views on governmental power
- The polarization and personalization of politics
- Whether Schoen is a man without a party as a centrist Democrat in an increasingly progressive party
- The challenge of rising to power without compromise
- Political lessons from Bill Clinton
- Why Nixon was the preeminent political actor of the 20th century
- The strategic threat posed by China
- Whether the Russiagate collusion-mongers have done more damage to the U.S. than Russia could have ever hoped to have achieve itself
- The perilous state of our national security and law enforcement institutions
- What Schoen saw in the 2016 presidential election that other political pundits and prognosticators missed regarding Presidential Trump’s odds of defeating Hillary Clinton
- And much more
Schoen’s Recommended Reads
- Edward C. Banfield
- The Power Broker by Robert Caro
- The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Series) by Robert Caro
- Samuel Huntington
- Henry Kissinger
- James Q. Wilson
- DOJ IG Report on “Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election”
- JFK 1961 Inaugural
- The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixons Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics by Doug Schoen [My interview with Doug here]
- Putin on the March: The Russian President’s Unchecked Global Advance by Doug Schoen [My interview with Doug here]
- Return to Winter: Russia, China, and the New Cold War Against America by Doug Schoen [My interview with Doug here]
- Scoop Jackson
- JFK, Conservative by Ira Stoll [My interview with Ira here]
- Trump White House Reform and Reorganization Plan
Thanks for Listening!
Check out other episodes at benweingarten.com/bigideas.
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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Weingarten: Doug, you’ve had a fascinating career in the political realm as a practitioner, and someone that understands how human beings think because so much of politics is how do you appeal to an audience? What is an audience-driven by? And you’re also an intellectual, and it’s hard to find people in life who are both tremendous practitioners and also deep thinkers. Speak a little bit to your ideological journey in life.
Doug Schoen: Sure, well, I started as a fairly conventional liberal Democrat. I always understood the need, the obligation to build broader coalitions. But I think as a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I was somebody who applauded the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, expansion of the social safety net more generally.
However, what I came to realize working for Bill Clinton is that politics, especially in a divided country, required a much greater degree of compromise than ever had crossed my mind. The problem with that is, our society is — I have written and said — has gotten hopelessly divided. We’re totally polarized, and like on immigration now, there’s no willingness to compromise. So, what I have tried to do in my political work, and certainly in my writings, is to make the case for centrism, to make the case for third-party, independent candidates and most of all compromise on the major issues and challenges facing our country.
Ben Weingarten: Would you say that the political divisions or the partisan divisions are more driven by ideology or actually personality — so in other words, that people associate certain policies with virtue or morality or being a good person. And if you happen to be on the other side of an issue, it becomes a proxy for “You’re a bad person,” and hence the acrimony and division.
Doug Schoen: Well, it is certainly the case that we personalize our differences. It’s certainly the case, particularly as a formerly liberal-to-moderate Democrat, who’s prepared to embrace some, but not all conservative solutions — that has led me to be demonized. And it certainly is the case that as that polarization has occurred, our ability to come together as a nation and as two political parties has necessarily gotten limited.
Ben Weingarten: And as you mentioned, “formerly liberal” and I would describe your views having read so much of your work as sort of [reflecting] a Scoop Jackson Democrat, or a JFK Democrat… Given that’s the case, but where your party is today — where the energy is with progressives, and I don’t think you would ever describe yourself as a progressive — are you a man without a party at this point?
Doug Schoen: Well, in a certain sense, I would say yes. Look, I’m still a registered Democrat. I vote in Democratic primaries, and I want moderate-to-centrist candidates to emerge in Democratic primaries. That being said, where the Democratic Party is today is not where I am. I am a pro-growth, low tax, pro-capitalism Democrat, and you don’t hear too many Democrats talking that way. I’m also for a strong national defense. I identify with John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural. I identify with the policies that Scoop Jackson pursued. And I recognize that this makes me isolated in the Democratic Party. The problem is, I do not associate myself with the Republicans and Donald Trump, and some of the more extreme positions that people like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller take on issues like immigration, I completely distance myself from.
Ben Weingarten: You’ve advised people who have risen further than anyone in politics: Presidents, prime ministers, other senior members of executive administrations — those who rise highest in politics. In your experience, are they primarily driven by power or ideology? Or stated differently, do they care about ideology only insofar as it is a means to power?
Doug Schoen: I’ve found Ben — and I think this in a certain sense validates my work — that they care about both power and ideology. It’s rare that I see somebody who doesn’t have a philosophical core. Now, to rise to a high level in politics you have to be ambitious, you have to seek power and you have to be willing to make the appropriate accommodations to do that. But that being said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that virtually all the candidates I’ve had, whether I agree with them or not, have worldviews.
Ben Weingarten: Does what you’ve seen in your life and your career in politics make you more skeptical of government power or less skeptical?
Doug Schoen: Probably more skeptical, with less confidence in government. I am a great believer in the social safety net, but when I hear about the massive waste in social programs, abuses, a permanent government, it’s very hard not to support at least some of the claims of the right, that their needs to be a greater degree of efficiency in government.
Now, Donald Trump, literally, this week, announced a reorganization and an arguable streamlining of the federal government. Rather than just immediately embracing it, my attitude is, “What’s this gonna do to programs, how are people gonna be impacted?” But at the same time, I’m one of those who believes that our workforce is bloated, that there’s inefficiency and that government is probably the least effective way to achieve many of our social ends.
Ben Weingarten: In your experience, is it possible to rise to the highest levels of government in politics without compromising your principles?
Doug Schoen: I would say most politicians understand they have to compromise. It may be a rhetorical compromise, it may be a substantive compromise, but I think they all recognize it because being ideologically pure really only works at the extremes of both parties. And while they’ve had greater success, there are very few politicians I’ve seen who’ve been able to just say “Don’t tell me what is politically expedient. I’ll tell you what I want to do.”
Ben Weingarten: Growing up in a conservative household in the ’90s, my distinct recollection is that the name ‘Bill Clinton’ was a slur in our house, for any number of reasons ideological and otherwise. Studying him as I’ve gone on in life, I’ve understood and recognized him to be a master political practitioner who understood how to take complex issues and explain them in a way that was compelling for the layman, and to touch people in a way that most politicians simply don’t have that charisma. Now, some of that is natural gifts, and some of it is teachable. What are the teachable traits of Bill Clinton that you saw?
Doug Schoen: Well, one of the points that I would make is Bill Clinton ran in a lot of elections. Governors in Arkansas would run every two years. He started running for governor in ’78… He was elected. He lost in ’80 and reclaimed the office in ’82, and then ran every two years till 1990, when he was re-elected for the last time… Having been elected Attorney General, and having run unsuccessfully for Congress, Bill Clinton had run [something like] 12 to 13 times before he ran for president. He also was a very warm guy. And he figured out that by touching people’s lives in a meaningful way, he’d make more impact than just quickly shaking hands. So I learned a lot about politics from him, and he was somebody who had a worldview. It evolved. And he compromised.
Ben Weingarten: You’ve also written extensively about Richard Nixon, who I think is another figure that you can learn just a lifetime of political lessons from studying. And he’s much-maligned based upon how his presidency ended, but there’s so much to his career from the fact that he was down and out of politics and kicked to the curbside, and then ended up rising to the presidency in a miraculous sort of fashion. What are the great lessons of Nixon’s career?
Doug Schoen: Well, look, Nixon was a brilliant political analyst, not a particularly good candidate. But having lost in 1962 for governor of California, after losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960, he was pronounced dead. He was re-elected in ’68 running with effectively a plan to end the war in Vietnam, and a notion that he would pursue a different set of policies than Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. In fact, he institutionalized much of the Great Society, all the while, campaigning as a cultural and economic conservative. But at the same time, there was more school integration under Richard Nixon than anyone else. We started the Equal Opportunity Commission, black capitalism, the Clean Air Act. So there were bold, bold initiatives and accomplishments in domestic policy. But between detente with the Russians, the first successful approach to the Chinese, arms control agreements, the Nixon administration was preeminent in foreign policy. He also created a backlash against his moderation — at the same time, was a model for what Bill Clinton ultimately did later.
All of which is a quick way to say, Nixon shaped politics in a way that led me to write that he was probably the preeminent political actor of the second half of the 20th century.
Ben Weingarten: Since you mentioned Nixon going to China, a pivotal move in world history, obviously everyone recognizes the material benefits that that relationship has provided to us, and that there have been some benefits to America and the West interacting with and integrating with China. On the other hand, there’s a downside as well, which is that China has of course stolen billions of dollars in intellectual property from us, and we’ve essentially re-capitalized a formerly basket-case, Communist-run economy [Editor’s note: I would have liked to have added here “and by extension subsidized China’s military growth, imperialist efforts and bellicose acts]. Maybe we can’t opine as to who won in this bargain at this point in time, but how do you see the net benefit versus cost of the opening with China?
Doug Schoen: Well, and there’s a third thing that I would say, which is that the expansionist nature of the Chinese policies, both in the South China Sea, in Asia more generally and indeed in particularly Africa and Latin America means that they have been expansionist in a way that we have not been able, at least in my judgement, to successfully challenge them. There’s one other thing, Ben, which is, to me, profoundly troubling. We’ve given up on human rights. China is one of the worst offenders. And we’ve sort of ignored it…Not sort of…we have. And to my way of thinking, they’ve probably been the winners vis-à-vis us. But since it’s not a zero-sum game, and it’s not a question of who wins and who loses, we have maintained the peace, we have avoided conflict with them, but at substantial cost.
Ben Weingarten: What do you think China ultimately wants? Do they want to be the world hegemon? Do they want to be able to act with complete impunity, and not be afraid that the US will counter them?
Doug Schoen: I think they do want to be the world hegemon. Certainly in their realm they do — in Asia and South China Sea. I think they are increasingly confrontational. They have been working, as I said in one of my books, with the Russians, successfully. And I think that the Chinese are looking to institutionalize and evolve the Communist Party for another 50 years. I think they’re looking to deal with their own economic problems, their own environmental problems and their own social problems without jeopardizing basic societal organization.
Ben Weingarten: Since you mentioned the Russia-Chinese relationship, you and I share the view that Russia is a major adversary. Regardless of the ending of the Cold War, unlike after World War II, it wasn’t as if Russia purged its ranks of all the people who were involved in the mass murders, and the intelligence dictatorship that they built before. They just kind of changed their uniforms… And we’re both profoundly afraid about obviously, espionage operations and Russia building wedges throughout the world to undermine our influence, and to increase their influence in Europe, and the like. All that being said, what we’ve seen in terms of what Russia did in the 2016 election versus the reaction to it, and as the days go on, we have FISA abuse, informants in a presidential campaign, leaks, game-playing with redactions, stonewalling over documents, alleged modifications of 302s — all of the events that have transpired relating to Russia — the use of a dossier that consisted of information gleaned from probably Russian agents in effect… What is worse: What Russia has done, or what we have done to ourselves?
Doug Schoen: Well, I think there’s a link between the two.
My view is, yes, the Russians wanted to elect Donald Trump. But I think they had a larger goal which was to disrupt our country and our politics, and on that, I think they’ve won. I think they’ve done to us what we have been unsuccessful in doing in most places, which is to destabilize our political system. The whole fight that you were alluding to is in large measure over things the Russians initiated. And we really don’t know as we sit here today, how much they did and ultimately how much impact they had, not only in our political system, but on the outcome of our election. I’m not sitting here today saying they elected Donald Trump, but I’m sure not saying that they had no impact at all, and this was just a sideshow.
Ben Weingarten: A lot of the talk among the kind of law enforcement and intelligence establishment is about “protecting the institutions.” And I would suggest, and I assume you would agree a special in light of the recent IG report and the subsequent IG reports that we will see, and further probes in Congress, that the way to protect the institution is for the institutions to act with integrity. That said, what do you believe the ultimate ramifications are for our national security, given the clear corruption and politicization that we’ve seen, only to date, with so much more to come.
Doug Schoen: Well, I am very, very worried about our institutions, frankly more than I’m worried about the outcome of the Mueller investigation. I’m one of those who doesn’t say “Close it down.” I say “Let’s see what he’s got.” “Let’s see, if Michael Cohen did go to Prague. Let’s see if there was any collusion. Let’s see what we can learn about Paul Manafort. Let’s see all that.” But, to date, we haven’t seen any evidence of collusion. What we have seen clear evidence of is an FBI from the director on down that was making decisions clearly not on the merits. And while there are thousands of good FBI agents out there, there’s clearly a lot of decisions, particularly with regard to Hillary Clinton and the emails, that were as Inspector General Michael Horowitz said, not in accord with Justice Department procedure.
Ben Weingarten: Returning to politics now, I looked back at some of the articles that you wrote published prior to the 2016 presidential election. And in the run-up, you were very prescient in saying “Hillary has things to be concerned about. Things are not trending in the right direction.” Meanwhile, virtually the entire world of political punditry would have been on the other side of that argument, and they said “It’s a cakewalk.” What did you see that they missed? And should we trust the “experts” if they don’t necessarily understand the movement that’s on the other side of a campaign?
Doug Schoen: Well, there is a herd mentality in American politics, a conventional wisdom that’s frequently, but not always right. In this instance, there was so much hatred of Donald Trump, and so much incredulity about whether he could win, that the punditry unanimously decided that Hillary is gonna win, notwithstanding polls that were all moving in Trump’s direction. What did I see? I saw a Hillary very weak, I saw a Hillary without a campaign message, and I saw Trump with a clear message, and a clear level of energy and enthusiasm, notwithstanding some of the speed bumps his campaign hit.
Ben Weingarten: What is the greatest threat to America internationally?
Doug Schoen: Russia and China individually, and collectively facilitating and indeed perhaps encouraging actions by rogue nations and terrorist groups.
Ben Weingarten: And what is the greatest threat to America domestically?
Doug Schoen: Ourselves. Our greatest threat is us against one another. I have always, as you know Ben, had great respect and admiration for you, both as a thinker and as a person. But it is rare to be able as somebody who disagrees with you on a lot of issues to have as constructive a dialogue as we’ve already had, and I dare say, a friendship and a sense of respect that has grown out of that. And I say that because it is very rare if not unique in American politics for those kind of bonds, intellectual, and I dare say personal, to be formed.
Ben Weingarten: Well the fact of the matter is that if you’re gonna be intellectually honest, you have to listen to the best that the other side can put out, and in in your career, I’m sure that you’ve understood many conservative interlocutors better than they’ve understood themselves.
Doug Schoen: Well, what I’ve tried to do is understand the problem first, and whether the solution and the analysis appended to the solution makes sense, regardless of ideology, rather than using ideology as the template for everything.
Ben Weingarten: What are the outlets, and/or who are the commentators that you read on a daily basis?
Doug Schoen: I’m gonna defer any specific answer to say I try to get a diversity of opinion, and a diversity of arguments and then reach conclusions. But there’s no one or two. I like Tom Friedman. I like Peggy Noonan. I like David Brooks. I like Ross Douthat. Those are people I like, but sometimes I’ll react badly to what they write, sometimes I react well, sometimes not at all.
Ben Weingarten: What are the books that had the greatest impact on your life and career?
Doug Schoen: As I’m sitting here now, I am not reaching a conclusion about individual books. But some of the work of people like Sam Huntington, James Q Wilson, Banfield, some of Kissinger’s work has impacted my thinking. But I don’t have one person or group of people that I would point to readily.
Ben Weingarten: In a prior interview, I talked to Andrew Klavan, who you might know, and he saw in my bookcase, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. What do you think about The Power Broker, and Caro generally?
Doug Schoen: When I was about, I think, 16 or 17, Power Broker came out. And as you know, I’ve been very involved in New York politics. I read that book voraciously, and I learned more about New York politics and life from that book than anything I’ve ever read. I would also say, since you mentioned Bob Caro, I remember reading his first book on Johnson’s rise. I read his second book on Johnson in the Senate, and my reaction to that was, “I don’t think I’m gonna be too interested in this.” And it was riveting, absolutely riveting how he forged those compromises that led to the social programs and social initiatives of the 1960s.
So I’m not gonna say Caro influenced my thinking, but I would say that I learned a great deal from him. And what he was able to do, putting aside what I’ve learned from him, which is enormous, is to collect broad masses of data, and then see patterns in them and analyze them. That is, I happen to think of Robert Moses as a much more effective and positive person than Caro does. But that doesn’t matter for the analysis. To put it another way, I think it probably made sense to build the Cross Bronx Express Way. You probably could have done more to resettle people who lived in the West Bronx, but that being said, his account of that was something that I had never known and consider myself fortunate to learn; or the building of… The Northern State out to Jones Beach, and having overhangs that were sufficiently low that buses and trucks couldn’t quite fit. I mean, things like that, really, as you can see, they’re enduring.
Backed Vibes (clean) Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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