Q&A With Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart
Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart is not just any observer of the 2008 election campaign. He sees strong parallels between the contest pitting Democrats Barack Obama (who he supports) against Hillary Clinton and his own 1984 run for the White House. Back then, Walter Mondale, the former Vice President and clear favorite among the Democratic Party elite, held a delegate lead over the upstart Hart, but he didn’t have enough support to lock up the nomination in advance of that year’s convention. However, Mondale soon secured the support of the Dems’ superdelegates – a group of high-profile party officials with the power to champion the candidate of their choice. By doing so, he knocked out Hart, who many observers saw as having the better chance to defeat the sitting president, Ronald Reagan.
Hart weighs in on this subject and much more during the following Q&A. The conversation begins by touching upon topics at the center of his latest book, Under the Eagle’s Wing: A National Security Strategy of the United States for 2009, which he’ll sign on Wednesday, March 26, during an appearance at the LoDo Tattered Cover. The discussion includes colorful reflections on the Bush administration’s disinterest in taking advice from outsiders, as well as his Eagle’s Wing advocacy for a shift in American foreign policy that would find the U.S. building coalitions rather than going it alone. (In many ways, the book makes the case for Hart as a cabinet official in a possible Obama administration.) He then talks about the timing of his Obama endorsement – it turns on Clinton’s use of the vintage catch-phrase “Where’s the beef?,” which Mondale used against Hart back in the day – and traces the history of the superdelegate to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which took place more than a dozen years prior to the concept’s adoption. He also handicaps the upcoming primaries in Texas and Ohio, to be held on March 4, and suggests that, despite its faults, the Democratic Party’s nominating system is more, well, democratic than the one used by Republicans.
Once a party man, always a party man:
Westword (Michael Roberts): Recently, Madeleine Albright put out a book called Memo to the President Elect, and your new book is subtitled A National Security Strategy of the United States for 2009, which clearly anticipates a new administration that might actually be open to suggestion. How frustrating has it been for you over the past nearly eight years to know that the administration in power wouldn’t seriously recommendations from anyone outside of its own circle?
Gary Hart: Well, actually, that’s a very good question. It’s kind of bizarre. As you may or may not recall, George W. Bush ran on a platform of openness and candor and moderation – all kinds of other things. And many of us, including those of us who should have known better, took him at his word (laughs). And in the early days of his administration, having just issued the final report of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century that forecast the terrorist attacks and also urged a whole range of specific recommendations to bring U.S. national security up to date after the Cold War, I thought this administration would be kind of bipartisan and willing to have outside and across-the-aisle ideas. So I ran into Condoleezza Rice that spring… Well, first of all, we briefed the co-chairs of the commission, and others briefed Secretary [Colin] Powell and Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and Ms. Rice. We were supposed to report to the president, but he refused to see us. And in the course of all that, I had a meeting with Ms. Rice when she was security advisor and said, “Look, if there’s anything I can do to help, I’d be more than happy to” – not meaning any kind of employment, but advisory committees and so on. I was in a meeting with Secretary Rumsfeld also that spring, and also with some former Secretaries of Defense and so forth, and I gave them a note and said, “If I can help in any way, let me know.” And then I was in Washington when Dick Cheney gave a speech, and I’d known him since his days in the Ford White House – thirty years. And I sent him a note saying, “If you need any Democrats to help out, count me in.” Well, I now feel silly, because it now turns out that they didn’t have even a thin idea about any kind of bipartisan approach to governance or national security. So the short answer to your question is: very frustrating. It’s the most ideologically isolated, insular administration in my lifetime.
WW: Those observers who date this closing-off to 9/11 are contradicted by your experience. What you just describe predates 9/11.
GH: Apparently so. I didn’t anticipate the phone ringing and the Secretary of Defense saying, “What do you think about this?” and “What do you think about that?” But most administrations find a way through commissions and committees and policy boards and so on to reach out and seek a wide range of views on a variety of topics – not just defense but other issues as well – and kind of try to govern from a main stream. I don’t know when that sclerosis set in – whether it was there all along. I’m tempted now to believe it was. People like Richard Clarke wrote in his book that in the first few weeks of the Bush administration, he would try to buttonhole people in the Executive Office Building and the White House – not only Rumsfeld, but [Paul] Wolfowitz and others – and say, “al-Qaeda and bin Laden” and they’d just brush right past him. They didn’t want to hear it. So apparently all of the talk of openness and bipartisanship from Day One was just a sham.
WW: The insularity that you mentioned: Has that led to something of an echo-chamber effect, where the administration’s policies have become ever more extreme because those in the administration are only listening to each other?
GH: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s the most polite way to put it. There’s a more vulgar phrase that some politicians use about drinking your own bathwater. If you only hear what you want to hear, and hear no dissent, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll make bad policy and screw up in major terms.
WW: One of the key aspects of your security strategy is building coalitions with other nations. How much more difficult has that become as a result of the Bush administration’s unilateral approach over the past two terms?
GH: I think you can look at the world in concentric circles. I think a new administrations that is internationalist in the traditional sense of the world – the way it’s been viewed during the second half of the 20th century – can put the Atlantic alliance back together with some persistent and skilled diplomacy pretty quickly: I’d say one to five years. The next circle, in which I would put Russia and the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe – certainly Russia at the top – is going to take longer. That’s five to ten years of patient, hard-working diplomacy. Another circle, of course, includes the Indias and the Chinas, where what ties we have with them are not very transparent. I think what we’re going to have when we open the books in a year is find out an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t being done. So it’s awfully hard to assess how long, but I think to reposition America’s role in the world at large is a ten-to-twenty-year project.
WW: I assume that’s complicated by the likelihood that there will not be a consistent policy over that ten-to-twenty years. Or is that something you hope for despite inevitable changes in administrations over that stretch?
GH: Well, I think if we had eight years of an internationalist administration, with skilled diplomats and seasoned people and experienced people in international affairs deeply involved and broadly involved, a lot can be done in those eight years. As I say, certainly the repair of the damage done to the traditional Atlantic alliance: NATO and the European Union and our closest allies. The hard work is going to be places like Latin America, parts of Africa, parts of Asia. And I am preoccupied always with Russia. I think that’s doable, but it’s going to take an awful lot of patience and willingness to listen to what we don’t want to hear.
WW: For the democracies, I assume this process will also be complicated by the fact that the leaders there will have to sell their citizenry on a closer alliance with the United States, which is deeply unpopular in many parts of the world as a result of Iraq war, among other things.
GH: Well, what I’ve found in travel is a sharp distinction between the Bush administration and the American people. The shock came in ’04. People had convinced themselves that the American people had simply made a mistake in 2000 – that it may have been a rigged election, and that the next time around, they would have a chance to put it right. And then when they didn’t – when they had a choice of an internationalist figure who had lived abroad, who did speak a foreign language and all the rest of it – and turned that down in favor of “Stay the Course,” I think that’s what shocked them and caused them to wonder about the judgment of the American people. And in that regard, they weren’t alone (laughs). But I’m pro-Obama, and I think if President Obama toured the world two or three times and spoke as he is capable of speaking, it would be miraculous what he could do single-handedly. It’s the follow-up at the State Department level and the ministry level and the ambassadorial level where the hard work really gets done. So I think he can create a favorable atmosphere and convince people that the dark period is over and we’re back in business and we’re sane and thoughtful and collegial and we’re going to listen for a change instead of talk at them. That lays a tremendous groundwork. It tills the field seeds can be sown in.
WW: That second circle you spoke about that includes Russia, and circles beyond that include China and India: In your book, you call for security arrangements with those nations as well, and that seems like something quite difficult to accomplish. While they benefit from global stability just as much as the United States does, they’re also competing with us economically.
WW: So how do you get the leaders of China to form that kind of alliance instead of thinking, “If we help them with security, that gives them more resources to compete with us economically”?
GH: Well, first of all, security cooperation doesn’t mean, as it has too often in the past, let’s rely on the U.S. Army. The Chinese are going to arm themselves and maintain their own military forces. It’s a question of the degree on which you cooperate on regional security issues. I pursue two themes at once. One is the theme of the global commons, where you get the fifty or sixty liberal democracies in the world together and you create, for shorthand purposes, something like a super-NATO, where you have a collective security agreement. And the reason you start with those nations is that liberal democracies share basic principles in terms of governance and in terms of the way government operates, and they can make decisions faster. The U.N. must be maintained, but making decisions among 192 nations of disparate kinds of political systems is just immensely difficult. So you start with a circle of likeminded people. And then I advocate that if others want to join together under the umbrella of the commons, and there will be incentives to do so, then they must play by our rules and begin to adopt our systems. Instead of imposing those systems on them, you simply say there’s a quid pro quo: The way you can share in our security umbrella is to operate your government according to the principles that all the rest of us do. And that will make you then amenable to being in this group of swift-deciding nations. The second theme that I pursue is a redefinition of security, which is to say, it is not simply a military term anymore, and it can’t be achieved simply by military power alone. Clearly, you have the jihad that must be suppressed, and you have failed states that must be sorted out or propped up or disassembled. But the additional security threats, like climate change, mass south-north migration, the threat of global pandemics and the list goes on, cannot be stopped by military means, and yet they all require international cooperation. And that leads me to conclude that what we need is an early 21st century round of internationalism of the sort that we had in 1945, ’46 and ’47. We’re operating the global community with sixty-year-old institutions that were designed for an entirely different world. So I’m advocating a Trumanesque approach to this new world where we explore the possibility of integrating public-health systems for the pandemic threat, certainly a strong post-Kyoto international environmental regime to collectively address the climate problem, and the list goes on.
WW: You talk about coalition partners sharing resources, for example, to deal with failing states, as you mentioned. But when it’s come to Afghanistan and Iraq, coalition partners haven’t seemed willing to stick around. Do you feel that’s because of those specific situations, and if nations are brought in at the beginning and feel that they’re true partners, they’ll be more willing to commit resources over the long haul?
GH: Oh, absolutely. And some nations politically just cannot increase the size of their armed forces. They can commit what armed forces they have to collective security issues and peacemaking. But those that can’t increase their military can increase nation-building and nation-stabilizing and civil-military capabilities that can move in behind the peacemakers to restructure nation states and build civil societies. All European nations can contribute to that, both money and personnel. And in a world where states are fracturing, that’s going to be an incredibly important thing to do. To be able to insert constabulary forces – in effect, police forces – on a semi-permanent, or semi-temporary, basis, and help states patch themselves up and stay together, will be at least as important. The Army manual is now saying this – that civil military affairs are probably going to be as important as warfare in the 21st century.
WW: You made a distinction along the way: The difference is between helping these nations patch themselves up and imposing a system upon them.
GH: Yeah. This is the difference in what we’re trying to do in Iraq. We’re trying to impose a system in Iraq that not only aren’t they used to, but we must overcome about 1,300 years of sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. And all nation-building in the world is probably not going to solve that, as the British found out after 28 years of occupation. So there are some fractured states – particularly artificial states created after World War I in the Middle East and elsewhere – where, as others have pointed out, loose confederation or even dissolution might be the more peaceful approach. Which is what happened after a lot of conflict in Yugoslavia.
WW: A term you used earlier was “liberal democracies,” and as you know, “liberal” is such a loaded term in this country. How do you define “liberal democracy”?
GH: There’s a conventional definition that I think virtually all foreign-policy people use, whether Rush Limbaugh likes it or not. It includes commitment to the rule of law, an independent judiciary, obviously open elections, transparent elections, a free press, permission of opposition politics, equality for women and minorities, and the list goes on. That’s what liberal used to mean. Progressive, open, transparent and so forth. And there’s a pretty sharp distinction. Most experts I’ve read believe there are forty or fifty countries in the world that qualify.
WW: The current terrorism threat: Do you feel that all these liberal democracies recognize it, and that it creates an incentive for all of them to band together in the type of security arrangement you envision?
GH: Sure. They recognize it to greater or lesser degrees. I suspect that the Danes don’t necessarily see an al-Qaeda threat as much as the British or the French or the Spanish or we do. But on the other hand, they may feel the threat of pandemics and climate change and these other security threats – the non-military ones – equal with the rest of us, and be more than willing to cooperate in new international alliances to not only respond to these threats but to anticipate them and prevent them.
WW: You mentioned your endorsement of Senator Obama, and you made that endorsement in early January, before a lot of Democratic Party notables had weighed in one way or the other. What convinced you at that point he was the best candidate.
GH: (Laughs.) Well, I had been convinced before, and my hesitancy had to do with the fact that I was chairing the Presidential Climate Action Project headquartered at the University of Colorado. It’s about sixty or eighty people nationwide who are preparing a vigorous agenda for the next administration, yet again, on how to address climate change. It’s non-partisan and bipartisan, and we were seeking to reach out to all campaigns in both parties. So I was by the board that if I endorsed someone, I could no longer be chair. But I was throwing notes over the wall on speeches and ideas back in the fall to the Obama campaign, and my wife was on the original Obama committee in Colorado. And the funny part about your question, what tipped it over was the day after Iowa, Mrs. Clinton, who I have known for a very long time, went to New Hampshire and said, “Where’s the beef?” And you have to be a certain age to realize what that means to me. And I said, “Enough already.” I dropped the chairmanship, announced that I was stepping down from the chair, and publicly endorsed Senator Obama.
WW: I thought that was such an odd choice of words, since there are only a limited number of people at this point who even know what that means…
GH: Well, I knew what it meant (laughs). And it didn’t make me laugh then.
WW: You’ve dovetailed into another topic I wanted to ask you about. You wrote a piece for the Denver Post about superdelegates, and you also participated in a New York Times Magazine article on the same subject. In the Post essay, you didn’t mention yourself. Was that because you wanted to talk about superdelegates in the abstract and not make it seem as if it was personal with you?
GH: Yeah, I didn’t want to grind an ax in that venue, and I wasn’t asked to. They didn’t say, “Reflect on your experience.” They said, “What do you think about the current situation?,” and I dealt with the current situation. But I think most people in this state, at least, remember what happened in ’84.
WW: As a historian, I’m sure you’ve studied the rise of the superdelegate structure…
GH: Oh, yes…
WW: How did it develop? What were the forces that pushed it forward?
GH: The background, of course, was the chaotic ’68 convention in Chicago, and the appointment, by the Democratic National Committee in ’69 of a reform commission to try to prevent similar chaos at the ’72 convention. It was chaired by George McGovern and it recommended opening up the nominating process to women, young people and all segments of society, and it set certain standards for construction of delegations. Well, most of the old party regulars didn’t pay any attention, and when Senator McGovern then thereafter won primaries and caucuses in their states, they weren’t McGovern delegates and they were shut out of the convention. That caused an opposite problem: You can’t have mayors and governors and senators and House members not at the convention. So after that, in ’81, I guess, another commission was created, chaired by former Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina, and the Hunt commission recommended a certain number of automatic delegates: party officials and elected officials. And that’s where they came from, and ’84 was the first time they came to a convention, and they picked the candidate.
WW: That’s an interesting phrasing: “They picked the candidate.” Your delegate totals were close enough to Walter Mondale’s that they did make the decision in a very real sense…
GH: Well, they weren’t that close. I was at 1,200 and he was in the 1,600s or 1,700s. But he didn’t have a majority, and the only way he could get the nomination… If I’d had the Jackson delegates; Jesse had some delegates, and if I’d had them, we would have been almost tied. We would have been very close, within a hundred, I think. But I don’t think I got one superdelegate vote. The entire 700 went for Mondale even during the circumstance where a week before the convention, polls showed that he ran twelve to fifteen points behind [President Ronald] Reagan and I ran four to five points behind Reagan. So the party officials nominated somebody who had the least chance of winning, and consequently did not.
WW: Was their rationale simply that he was old guard and you were new guard?
GH: Who knows? I’ve told the story, and been quoted as telling it, that my wife and I called all 700 superdelegates, and one woman in Kentucky said, “I want to vote for husband, but my husband works for the state highway department, and I was told that if I voted for your husband, my husband would lose his job.” So there was some arm-twisting going on as well.
WW: The way superdelegates have been used over the years, on its face, seems very anti-democratic. The Democratic Party likes to be seen as the party of the little guy, not the fat cat, and it seems like this contradicts that image. Is that your view as well?
GH: Sure, but I think since ’84, they haven’t really played that determinative of a role, and the only reason they come up now is that a week or two ago, it looked like we might go into a deadlocked convention, and they would in fact pick the nominee. I think we’re about a week short of pretty much knowing who the nominee is going to be. So all this fuss and bother about the superdelegates may turn out to be premature and will be forgotten after this year – except that this hand grenade is still there for the future.
WW: The nominee will be determined if Senator Obama wins in Texas and Ohio – but if Senator Clinton wins those states, at least by my math, the superdelegates would still be part of the equation…
GH: Yes, yes, they would. And we’ve got the anomaly, also, of course, about Michigan and Florida, and that’s a big unknown out there.
WW: What’s your point of view on that?
GH: I don’t have a point of view. I think their delegations should be seated, but they’re either going to have to both run caucuses in the spring to sort it all out, or else split the delegations evenly down the middle – and that can only be done if it doesn’t determine the outcome.
WW: What’s your opinion about the use of superdelegates in the future? If you could simply decide, would you do away with them?
GH: No, I think party officials and elected officials should be at the convention, and they should be given votes on everything up to, but not the nomination – and even that I’d have to think about.
WW: One of the arguments in favor of superdelegates is that they help the party determine its nominee sooner, so that resources aren’t used up on candidates fighting against each other before they even reach the general campaign. That’s the same argument in favor of the Republican system of winner-takes-all as opposed to the proportional system. Which approach do you prefer?
GH: Well, I think we’re clearly more democratic, if you will, than the Republicans are, and you’ve got an awful lot of Republicans right now who don’t like McCain and wish they didn’t have winner take all…
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.