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Patt Morrison asks: Ronald Reagan political guru Stuart Spencer

Patt Morrison asks: Ronald Reagan political guru Stuart Spencer
Stuart Spencer is one of politics¿ founding campaign strategists. (Los Angeles Times)

He is the grand sachem of Republican campaigns in California -- the man who pioneered modern campaign management, steering Ronald Reagan to the governor's chair in Sacramento and advising him well into the White House. Part of Stuart Spencer's job was to see problems coming far out ahead, and to stop them from happening. He was on the job in 1997 when he endorsed a Latino candidate in an open letter that warned his fellow Republicans that the party could commit "political suicide" if it didn't mend fences with the emerging Latino voter demographic. Nearly 20 years later, the fences are in even worse disrepair. Ahead of the California primary and after an ugly GOP primary season, Spencer can only watch in dismay as his warnings come true.

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So in all your born days have you ever seen anything like this election?

No, never seen anything quite like it.

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Why do you think things are going, at least for the Republican Party, kind of haywire?

In California it's rather obvious. They're out of oxygen.They need oxygen, the party. Twenty-six percent of the people in the state are calling themselves independents, around that, and 28% call themselves Republicans; 42% call themselves, roughly, Democrats. You go through two more big registration drives and the Republican Party is going to be the third. Independents are going to be the second. That is a deep, deep problem for the party. So we have to question why. A couple of reasons, but the big-picture reasons are a thing called branding, which is the brand the party has; the second one is in the tactics they use to correct it, and the two of them tie together. Because it's hard to use good tactics if you don't have a good brand. It's hard to sell soup if it isn't a good soup.

What is the party's brand in California?

The big one that's affecting them the most is they're anti-Chicano -- the verbiage that's been used to talk about Chicanos and people who come across the border and become citizens and so forth and so on.

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You were a sort of Nostradamus. Almost 20 years ago, you sent me a copy of a letter called "A wakeup call for the GOP."  It said you were endorsing an elected leader and were concerned the party might be committing political suicide, as you wrote, and dooming itself "to permanent minority status" in California "if we do not take advantage of the opportunity presented by this particular candidacy." But you were concerned then, almost 20 years ago, about the GOP and Latino voters.

Yeah, that is true and it's coming true. You know, politics is not a science, politics is an art form. A political campaign is not an educational tool, it's a reactive tool. So you've got to pay attention to the demographics, the ethnic changes, the economic changes. All kinds of things can be happening out there. You've got to stay on top of those things. And if you're conservative, then you've got to have conservative solutions to those problems. If you're a Democrat, you should have more liberal solutions to those problems. The Republican Party in many ways, in the last four years, has been a party of "No," not a party of, "Hey, we have a solution to that that falls within our conservative principles."

Is it the party that needs to change to deal with this changing electorate? And what does it need to change? And what should it hold on to?

Well, you know, that's not for me to say. You can hold on to your belief system without shoving it down people's throats, let's put it that way.

You can go back historically and see a lot of candidates like Ronald Reagan, who was one of my clients, who was a very conservative guy. He believed a lot of very conservative principles, like he was a pro-life person. But you didn't hear him talking about that. He knew where he was and what he was trying to do. He had more important things on his calendar than that. He wasn't going to screw up everything he was trying to do -- the nuclear problems with Gorbachev, tax reform, et cetera, et cetera -- by taking on, say, a Roe versus Wade fight, which, you know, the right-wing Republican elements have always wanted.

Many times you just -- you have to sit and prioritize, and then go with the things that are going to go sell the best within your philosophy.

One of the measurements people use now to show how the party has changed is the question of whether Ronald Reagan could even be elected today in this climate. Do you think he could?

Well, that's hard to say. That's a long time ago. Some of this element of people in the Republican Party who want to go back to Ronald Reagan -- you can't go back. You've got to keep moving forward. If Ronald Reagan was alive today, he'd be moving forward, too, because he was a very pragmatic, astute politician with a conservative belief system.

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As you pointed out, the fastest-growing registration in California is people who don't want anything to do with either party. Why are people so disenchanted with a party system?

I don't know if it's -- the Trump thing is what's showing your point, I'm sure, but it's not necessarily the parties.

It's they're angry, they're mad, they're disenchanted, for a dozen different reasons. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer -- that's a big problem that's out there. Some people have a fear of immigration, a fear of people who are different.

It's not a single issue that's driving this anger. And I don't think the anger is that much at either party. The term they always use is "the Establishment." What is the Establishment? Who knows? We're a country of 350 million people and we actually have five regions that are very different: We have the South, we have the East, the Northeast, we have the Middle West, the West Coast. People eat different food, they even speak differently, they sound differently, they have different thoughts, different approaches. And yet we only have two political parties to channel that anger, which means a party's got to have a big tent -- either party -- if you're going to get to the number I like to use of 51%, which is the one that wins elections.

Is Donald Trump just the beneficiary of that, or is he leading it?

Well, he's both. He's both. He's a demagogue and he's going after it and he knows it's out there and he's been using it.

I was like everybody else for the first two months of the debates. I thought, well, you know, this guy by any standard is going to walk off the end of the cliff , but after about two months, you know, I woke up. I don't think a lot of people have woken up yet. The fact that this guy was on to something. There was a lot of anger out there and he was giving them the food to keep it going.

His isn't really a coherent Republican conservative platform, so who now is carrying the banner for small government and lower taxes -- all the standards that are part of the Republican beliefs and policy system?

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Right now they're in disarray. All the groups around the country that are trying, the National Review crowd and all those, those people are scrambling. Some of them hope that Trump loses big so that they hope that there will be a big reevaluation of where the party is and what it's doing.

I think about three years ago, the national party did an autopsy report, after two defeats by Obama, and came up with a lot of suggestions which were just about the opposite of what Trump's doing. So I think they're in disarray and will have to have another autopsy.

California is first in so many things. Do you think this is the party to lead nationwide Republicans into fixing what ails them?

No, no. they're too far gone. If the party in California went into real reversal, and started to do an outreach to the Hispanic community, making progress and electing Hispanic officials and stuff like that, then yes, it'd be a pretty good model for the nation.

Ruben Barrales, who I referred to in that letter you read, has a group called California Grow, and they spent about two election cycles now, maybe three, looking for and finding young Republican Chicanos to run for city councils, boards of education, supervisorial seats, getting them to run and then supporting them. And hell, they've elected 65 or 70-some over the last few election cycles. But that action, what they're doing, would spread much more quickly if they had a better brand to sell. So yeah, there is something going on, but it's really not identified with the party -- it's identified with California Grow.

Would these new emerging Latino leaders have the opportunity to say, OK, we are the new Republican Party then?

Sure. Sure they can. I know some of them that went to the last state convention, the Republican state convention in Burlingame. It reminded them of Proposition 187 [banning people in the country illegally access to public education, non-emergency health and other services] days, the intensity, the vitriolic comments and blah, blah, blah. A lot of them are college-educated and in the next generation, which means to me they're very reachable by a Republican platform, but not if you're going to keep insulting them because of their cousins or aunts or uncles or brother-in-law.

It also seems like there is in the air these days a general contempt for government and for the people in government.

Yes. It's pretty broad-based, by the way.

Where does it come from?

It comes from two things: One, the expectation of the public that government is good and they're going to take care of me -- and they're not. And the second part is probably incompetence in political leadership in government.

Seeing the best people aren't going into government?

They certainly aren't. For the last 10 years I look at candidates, they come through here all the time, I talk to them, and I say, "Ooh, the quality is not that good."

Why is that, I wonder?

Well, it's no fun to be a candidate. I've said this for 50 years: I would never be a candidate. The stuff you've got to put up with, the things you have to give up -- it's a difficult job. It takes a real dedicated person who can do well in the private sector or any other place, in the business world, to give that up and run for office.

That's why I really felt great respect for that Neel Kashkari or whatever his name was.

Republican Neel Kashkari, who ran for governor against Jerry Brown and lost.

Yeah, what he gave up to run against Jerry. I had to respect him for that.

How do you think Jerry Brown is doing?

Number one, he's a new Gov. Brown. He's not the same Gov. Brown he was in the '70s. What was it we called him? Moonbeam. He's matured, doing a pretty good job, he's smart, wily -- he always has been that, but he's more mature now. And his agenda -- I can live with most of his agenda. Not all of his agenda, but I can live with most of it. And I think he's doing a good job.

Social media have changed campaigning a lot. Some of it good, and maybe some of it bad?

Oh, yeah, definitely it's changed campaigns. That's one of the reasons for the discontent, is the social media. You can get on social media every morning and just spout off what happened to you that day, or didn't happen to you that day, attack a candidate, attack an office-holder, attack anybody. I mean, it's a gold mine for people who are, you know, not adjusted to reality.

And sure, it's great for quick communication and delivering your message and all that. But there's no referee. In my day, I considered you guys in the media the referee. Those guys, they held my feet to the fire, right? And my opponents' feet to the fire. Today, you guys aren't in the middle. It's a guy in Culver City who's pissed off about something calling a guy in Palm Springs. The two of them get together and they get on social media and the bonfire starts. There's no referee to say, "Hey boys, you got your facts wrong." And that's where it's really tough.

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