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Conservatives Make Their Case Against Donald Trump GOP insiders who broke ranks to battle the president share strategies and predictions with a UCLA Luskin audience

By Mary Braswell

With Election Day just over a week away, two Republican insiders who broke from their party to take up the fight against Donald Trump will soon learn the fate of a president they view as “an autocrat who is unfaithful to the American republic’s ideas and ideals.”

Those biting words came from longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who shared his assessment of Trump’s presidency and the state of the Republican Party in a rousing conversation launching the 2020-21 UCLA Luskin Lecture Series.

“We should be honest with each other about this season of insanity and chaos because we have to figure out how to fix it,” said Schmidt, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, launched by disenchanted Republicans in late 2019 to defeat Trump and his allies.

Joining Schmidt at the Oct. 21 event was leading conservative voice Sarah Longwell, who said she was compelled to swim against the Republican mainstream by “this once-in-a-lifetime threat to democracy.”

“It was going to be a lot harder to keep my mouth shut,” Longwell said of her decision to break ranks  early in Trump’s presidency. “I have found it to be much more shocking that other people haven’t spoken up.”

Schmidt and Longwell are proponents of a moderate-conservative agenda that they say has been hijacked by the current administration. Their dialogue, hosted by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, drew hundreds of viewers from as far away as Spain, Singapore and New Zealand.

‘More and more Republicans every day are coming through that breach line and saying, “You know what? We’re just not doing this for four more years.”’ — Steve Schmidt, co-founder of the Lincoln Project

UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura guided the virtual conversation, pressing the guests — who each spent several years shaping Republican campaigns and communications — about the role they have personally played in creating today’s GOP.

“I’ve never taken an oath to the Republican Party,” Schmidt replied. “I always fought for the side of the Republican Party that believed that the freedoms of the country, the ideas and ideals of America, were for everybody.”

Longwell, former national board chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, said she joined the conservative movement for its “big ideas and sensible policies,” then watched as it was contorted to fit into a populist, nationalist frame.

“When you say Trumpism, I’m not sure that people have a great sense of what that means other than the roiling morass of the last three years,” she said.

Schmidt is a communications and public affairs strategist who has worked on political campaigns for former Republican officeholders such as President George W. Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona Sen. John McCain. He and Longwell place themselves on the center-right of the political spectrum, but each has a distinct interpretation of what lies ahead for the GOP — including predictions for future presidential candidates.

Schmidt forecast a Republican “bloodbath” on Nov. 3 and was unabashedly pessimistic about the party’s future.

“The Republican Party will not reform in defeat. It will get crazier,” he said. “It will become more extreme, more insular, and that’s the death spiral of the national party.”

In Schmidt’s view, the front-runners for topping the GOP ticket in 2024 are two Trump loyalists: Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Longwell, in contrast, envisions a candidate who attempts to fuse the Trump and establishment wings — a candidate such as Nikki Haley, former U.N. ambassador and governor of South Carolina.

This would create a dilemma for conservatives, she said: Do you support a compromise Republican candidate such as Haley, who has one foot in the Trump camp? “Or do you help Democrats try to annihilate that thing altogether until it’s root-and-branch done with, and an entirely new generation of politicians rise up to take the mantle?”

Not until the Trump era has completely run its course does Longwell see a true revival of the Republican brand.

“It is possible that Donald Trump is like the Iraq War,” she said. “It was very popular for a period of time, and now you can’t find a single person who ever supported it. … It is possible that he goes down in flames and nobody wants to touch him again.”

Schmidt said the nation’s political future hinges on which faction of the Democratic Party takes hold.

“If the choice is between a socialist party and a nationalist party … the nationalist party will beat the socialist party for at least the next three elections in this country and maybe longer than that,” he said.

For the current election cycle, Longwell co-founded Defending Democracy Together, a nonprofit aimed at turning red votes blue to put Democrat Joe Biden over the top as president. Key to Longwell’s campaign is the dissemination of personal testimonials from ordinary citizens who plan to switch sides for the first time.

“So many of these people tell really deeply moving stories. They talk about being really religious or deeply pro-life and why they voted Republican all their lives … and why they had to vote against Donald Trump in 2020,” she said.

Longwell held out faith that under strong, decent leadership, Americans can bridge their divide.

“There are actually a bunch of places where there’s broad consensus among the American public … places where there are pragmatic solutions that politicians for a long time have had every incentive to keep us from achieving because they’d rather have the issue than the solution, to keep jamming us further and further apart.”

Schmidt said he helped launch the Lincoln Project political action committee after watching with alarm last fall as Democratic primary contenders battled each other instead of focusing on Trump.

“It was our point of view that no one had fought Donald Trump effectively for many, many years. No one had drawn blood on him,” he said.

The Lincoln Project boasts a sophisticated data operation that targets swing counties and precincts across the country. But it’s better known for its ads skewering Trump’s record.

Now, said Schmidt, “More and more Republicans every day are coming through that breach line and saying, ‘You know what? We’re just not doing this for four more years.’ ”

Once the 2020 election cycle is complete, the Lincoln Project plans to set its sights on GOP lawmakers who closed ranks under the Trump presidency, particularly as COVID-19 savaged the nation.

“The fight will continue past this, because the consequences of what happened to the country is something we’re going to be digging out of for the next 10 years,” Schmidt said. “And the people responsible for it are not just named Trump.”

The Luskin Lecture Series enhances public discourse on topics relevant to the betterment of society. The 2020-21 series at the Luskin School will continue on Nov. 10 when Neera Tanden, a UCLA alumna and the current president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, joins Segura online for a post-election analysis.  Register here.

View a video of the Oct. 21 UCLA Luskin Lecture “Voices of Dissent.” 

Newton on Capturing the Life of Jerry Brown

Jim Newton, editor of UCLA’s Blueprint magazine and a lecturer at the Luskin School, appeared on several media outlets to discuss “Man of Tomorrow,” his new biography of former Gov. Jerry Brown. In an interview with Capital Public Radio, Newton explained the title of the book. Brown, he said, is “a person who lives in the future and thinks about the future and sometimes has actually suffered from that, in the sense that he’s sort of been ahead of his electorate on some things.” He said the former governor exhibits “a combination of warning and concern and skepticism but also clear-sightedness and foresight and optimism” that keeps him relevant in the public arena. Newton appeared with Brown at a session of the UCLA Luskin Summit, as well as a webinar hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. A Los Angeles Times review of his book called it a “formidable contribution to the history of both the state and the country.”


 

Jerry Brown Speaks Out on Curbing Coronavirus and Building a Strong Future Former governor's conversation with biographer Jim Newton draws virtual audience of more than 1,300

By Mary Braswell

Former Gov. Jerry Brown shared his views on stepping up the fight against COVID-19 and repairing the rifts that divide Americans during an expansive conversation with Jim Newton, editor of UCLA’s Blueprint magazine and author of a new book on the California statesman’s life.

More than 1,300 viewers tuned in to the May 12 webinar to hear insights from Brown, who built a reputation as both pragmatist and visionary in his half-century of public service, including four terms at the state’s helm.

The virtual audience had the opportunity to pose questions during the hour-long session, organized by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall and the nonprofit Writers Bloc, in partnership with the 2020 UCLA Luskin Summit.

The webinar took place amid a nationwide debate about how best to contain the novel coronavirus. Newton, author of the new biography “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown,” asked the former governor how he would balance the dueling imperatives of protecting the nation’s health and reviving its economy.

Singling out Taiwan as a nation that acted swiftly and effectively to curb the virus’ spread, Brown urged that anyone infected be quarantined away from their families. The urgency of widespread coronavirus testing cannot be underestimated, he said, faulting the federal government for failing to mobilize the nation’s resources to fight the virus.

“This is a great manufacturing powerhouse, we’re a great biotech innovative powerhouse as well,” he said. “So the fact that we don’t have the tests we need, not by the hundreds of thousands but by the tens of millions every day, is leading to the problem we’re now at.

“The longer you wait, the harder it is, the more people get sick, suffer and die,” Brown said.

To rebuild the economy, the former governor invoked the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who called for “bold, persistent experimentation” in his New Deal package of relief and reforms following the Great Depression.

“We need that. Not partisan rancor, not petty politics, not halfway measures. To get this economy going with so many people sequestered at home requires massive federal spending and investment,” Brown said.

He called for the immediate launch of ambitious infrastructure projects to reopen hospitals, bring internet access to rural areas, and build roads, highways and high-speed rail. The projects, he said, would be staffed through a jobs program that would provide a livelihood for millions of Americans now facing prolonged unemployment.

“I would call this really a Rooseveltian moment. And it ought to take into account all the problems that we have. Whether it’s the maldistribution of income and opportunity, whether it’s the pending challenge of climate disruption, all these things are on the table,” he said. “Unfortunately, if we can’t do them right in calmer days, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Known for sprinkling his comments with historical references, Brown cited Roosevelt numerous times and also namechecked economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek, inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller, and Supreme Court Justice Edward Douglass White, who served in the early 20th Century.

But the names most cited were Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, the president and Senate majority leader whom Brown held accountable for both an inadequate COVID-19 response and a fractured populace.

“If the choice is Trump for another four years … all these problems, from my vantage point, are going to get much, much worse, dangerously so,” Brown said, looking ahead to the November election.

“We have a lot of challenges and probably the biggest is building trust in our leadership, which is now being done better by our governors than by those occupying a power pole position in Washington,” he said.

Brown, a longtime Democrat whose own presidential aspirations fell short, predicted that an era of greater national unity lies ahead — but it requires abandoning far-reaching proposals from both the political left and right.

“I think we do need a unifier. I know we need polarization to activate the electorate, but in governing we need someone who reaches beyond the particular issues that are currently the stuff of campaigning,” Brown said.

“And that’s why politics is not all that satisfying and why politicians are not enduringly popular.”

Fielding audience questions, Brown weighed in on a range of topics.

On the future of financing higher education in California, he said, “We need to change the university from being an arms race of amenities to one that will be more limited but also fully creative. … The current course is not sustainable without a rising burden put on students, and I think that would be very wrong.”

On his signature issue, combating climate change, he called for an era of “planetary realism” and noted that the coronavirus emergency offers a sober lesson: “If you delay, if you don’t seize the moment when you can, you pay a much bigger price.”

And on maintaining hope amid an array of global threats, Brown took a poetic turn:

“I look out the window here and the wind is blowing on the walnut tree in front of me, the oak trees, the leaves, they’re flourishing” even amid drought, he said. “The rabbits are running around, the dogs are chasing the squirrels, the coyotes are howling at night. …

“Life — just to be here and be part of it — is quite a lot. So to worry, to think about down the road how it’s going to turn out? That’s fortune telling. That’s ouija board stuff.

“Do what you can do in the moment that you have. And God will take care of the rest.”

 

Citizens United Ruling Was ‘Outrageous,’ Dukakis Says

Michael Dukakis, 1988 Democratic presidential candidate and visiting professor of public policy, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee ruling and its profound effects on American politics. It has been 10 years since the momentous Supreme Court ruling that declared corporations had the same rights as people under the First Amendment and therefore were exempt from restrictions on political spending. Dukakis said the concept of a corporation having First Amendment rights is “outrageous.” Since the ruling, campaign finance has changed and Dukakis believes it does not align with what the Founding Fathers envisioned for the country.  “The Founders who wrote the Constitution would be astonished,” he said. “The right has been peddling this idea for years, and it’s nonsense.”