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Sean O'Keefe on the Campbell Conversations

Sean O'Keefe
Sean O'Keefe

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Sean O'Keefe. He's had a rich leadership career in government, education and the private sector, among other positions. He's a former secretary of the Navy, Comptroller of the Defense Department, head of NASA, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, former chancellor of Louisiana State University and former chairman of Airbus and vice president of General Electric. His government leadership positions were during the two Bush administrations. Professor O'Keefe currently holds the Phanstiel Chair in Leadership at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University. And he's with me here today to discuss the current Republican presidential field and to look ahead at some possible outcomes. Sean, welcome back to the program, and thanks for making the time to talk with me.

Sean O’Keefe: Well, thank you. It's always a pleasure to be with you, and I look forward to the discussion but I do want to specify one major caveat, which is no one ever retained me or hired me to do any campaigning for any Republican candidate or Democrat for that matter. And so I am not a campaign expert by any means. And certainly an analysis of the current field of Republican candidates that have announced, I don't know any of them well. And so as a consequence, my observations are strictly based on my background and experience, as you mentioned, as an appointee in two of the two Bush administrations and therefore seeing an awful lot of this up close and personal. And I've worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years prior to joining the administration. So, it's grounded in that kind of background, which never had any association directly with campaigns going forward. So take all that with a large grain of salt.

GR: Well, that's okay, because that kind of perspective is exactly what I'm looking for. So we have no problems with that. But let's just start with a basic question about the size of the field. As we're talking today, we're talking on Thursday, a new candidate has just come in making the number of announced candidates for the Republican nomination 13 at this point, by my count. There are a few more possibly on the way. (The) Mayor of Miami being the most recent one making it 13, and we have had, if we look to recent election cycles for the presidential election, we have had a lot of candidates in recent years for the side that is not holding the office. But does 13 at this point still seem like a lot to you?

SO: It does. I mean, at the same time I think your observation is absolutely right on mark. We've seen in the modern era of electioneering and campaigns is that the party that is not the occupant of the White House at that point typically has a pretty rich extensive field and this dates back two decades. Even the 2000 election started with a much longer list of folks that quickly winnowed down to George W Bush. But nonetheless there’s been a draw of a larger field of candidates in the early going. And the conventional wisdom or at least that period of time has been that if you're not into your candidacy and announced by somewhere between January and July of the year prior, so eighteen months out at the minimum, that typically is a disqualifier for candidacy. Although there are exceptions that can be found for that. But by and large this kind of size of a field eighteen months in advance is not way out of the mark of what we’ve seen in the last couple of decades on either side, Democrat or Republican, to see the range of candidates for those who are not currently occupants of the White House.

GR: And so that number, let's just take this cycle right now, the 13 that are announced right now. Do you think that number reflects anything? Does it reflect, for example, on the Republican side, a perception of vulnerability regarding President Biden's reelection? More people want to get in because they see this as a winnable race in the general election?

SO: There's an element of that. At the same time, I think the stronger element has become that many aspirants to the White House or for any other visibility, if you will, has been to file for candidacy to become a candidate for president of the United States to get greater exposure. And so you've seen so many different candidates that no one would have given a prayer of being the nominee, who nonetheless, on both sides, have figured out ways to launch a campaign for some finite span of time to at least raise their visibility within the general public, as well as polling and all the experience that goes along with trying to manage a campaign of any size. And so this is I think a combination of all those factors. And I think that second feature of this visibility is almost a more overriding issue, rather than really looking at President Biden's vulnerability any more than what you'd think in most of the elections we've seen in the last 20 years in which the opportunity is viewed as, well, you know, there is chance here of lightning may strike and if it's there, I want to make sure I'm part of it. So there's an element of that going on as well.

GR: Yeah, I'm thinking of Pete Buttigieg, for example. You know, what would we even have heard of Pete Buttigieg had he not run for president and look where he is now.

SO: Good example, yeah.

GR: So you may have already answered this, but I was wondering whether the large field also might indicate that there's a perception among these Republicans that former President Trump's ability to secure the nomination has some vulnerability to it, even though the media and many others are treating him as the clear frontrunner. And if you look at the polls, certainly there is evidence of that. But I wonder whether the large field reflects the fact that they think they can take down the former president.

SO: No doubt about it. I think there's a mindset that there is a vulnerability there. But then again, I don't know that it's any more pronounced than what you've seen with any other front runner over the last, you know, we’ve got a couple of decades of looking at how the modern political cycle has worked here. But nonetheless, this is one that's pretty specific in that case. And there are an awful lot of folks who are in the race at this juncture who view former President Trump as being, you know, either over the hill and not… we've had enough. And so it's yeah, while I don't disagree with the policies someone may say, they nonetheless will say you know, it's time for him to move on and another standard bearer to pick up the flag and carry it. Then there are others who are just viscerally opposed and seek to do anything they can in order to assure he is not the nominee. And then there's another group that feel like, you know, if you don't try, you don't buy a lottery ticket, you never win, you know? So lightning may strike and this may be the opportunity that where his dominance as a nominee may crater. I think the overriding issue that seems to be conventional wisdom that every, you know, standard kind of, you know, political commentary seems to offer, is that while he may have the front runner status as a Republican nominee, he nonetheless has a very difficult time securing anything approaching a majority to win the general election. And so several candidates are animated by that point to suggest that independent of what they think their chances are, that this may be an open field because nominee or, you know, likely or not, he just is not the guy that's going to be able to carry this over the goal line.

GR: Yeah I want to come back to a couple of those points here in a second. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Sean O'Keefe, who holds the Phanstiel Chair in Leadership at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University. On one of those points you raised, there does seem to be a consensus among the pundits that the large number of candidates helps former President Trump. It will work to his benefit, and that seems to be what the former president thinks as well. He, every time a new candidate comes in he seems more confident. Do you think that that's correct, that the larger number of candidates helps him?

SO: To an extent. I think they're, some of the pundits I, you know, have seen the opinions of or heard the opinions of, they’ve laid out the logic that, yes, that larger group looks an awful lot like the same dynamics that made his candidacy in 2016 possible.

GR: Right.

SO: So here we are with a repeat. I think that's a misinterpretation and I think this some of this is driven by a much different approach where in 2016, I think most of the serious first rung contenders believed they all had a shot and really found that the arguments between and among them were more dominant in the primaries than it was against, you know, Donald Trump's candidacy in 2016. At this stage it is more about former President Trump and I think there's a view there that really overrides an awful lot of this. That is, more likely that you'll see fewer internecine debates if you will between everyone else but Donald Trump, you know, in terms of trying to differentiate themselves from him as opposed to others. They'll get to that later if they think they're rising in the polls. But at this stage in the game, they're all targeted on one condition, which is, is all the controversy today going to be sufficient to unseat him from that lead dog position?

GR: Yeah. And so who would you regard among these 13 announced candidates, and again from admittedly from the distance that you said you're viewing them from at the beginning, but, who would you regard as the top contenders at this point? Just sort of guessing how their candidacies are likely to go? I think it's too early to be trying to think too much about poll numbers because people haven't gotten even to hear them on a stage yet. But, who would you put in your top tier, do you think, at this point?

SO: Yeah, I mean, harking on your qualifier. Yes, I do feel like Bob Uecker in the seat in the very farthest top of the stadium observing what's going on the field, but it certainly appears as though the consensus of most of the folks who make a living opining on this are thinking that Governor DeSantis has got the best shot at potentially being a contender relative to Donald Trump. I think that's skewed a bit because when you look at others, each of them in their own right, have a potential to raise their visibility sufficient to become a differentiated candidate. And I think that there are some that are more likely in that case than others. Certainly Nikki Haley and Tom Scott, or Rick Scott, excuse me, Senator Scott from South Carolina.

GR: Right, right.

SO: Too many folks named Scott out there. But it certainly is a case where you're seeing several of the current sitting legislators or former governors like Chris Christie and others don't really need to worry about driving a whole lot of additional name recognition. They're there in some respects, but others are looking to amp that up and become a logical alternative given the unique campaign direction that they're taking.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Sean O'Keefe. He holds the Phanstiel Chair in Leadership at the Maxwell School of Citizenship of Syracuse University, and his past positions include several presidential appointments during the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations. Sean, this next question is something that I do think your past experience probably gives you some insight on, because you've been on the inside of presidential administrations and dealt with a lot of people who would become contenders for the presidency. And I want to go back to 2016 and former President Trump when he was running then and the dynamic that we already talked about what the number of candidates in there. What struck me was, it wasn't so much the number of candidates that really helped him in ‘16 it was the time that they stayed in the race, and you never really had a clear alternative emerge, they had like three or four of them, and they kept splitting the vote. And I think that allowed former President Trump to rack up a number of first place or second place finishes even though, as you pointed out earlier, you know, they weren't majorities. And given the rules of Republican primaries, that was enough to get him over the top and build up a big lead. I'm just wondering, and this is what I want to ask you about, this time around, since as you've already know that these candidates share an intense desire to not see Donald Trump as the nominee, that there will be some coordination among them, among the campaigns, that they'll be having conversations with each other about, okay, we don't want to repeat that as a group. And so, you know, we need to be talking to each other about when we're going to get out or what sort of the reasonable standards are for staying in. And I've read a couple of things from Republican operatives to that effect. Do you think those conversations are happening among these campaigns?

SO: It could be. I think the two factors that are going to play into this more than anything else is what we've seen in typical primary contests. If they really don't see a pathway to win and they really are serious about running for president, that's when they'll pull out. I mean, Jeb Bush was a clear example of that. I mean, he really thought he had a chance at it. But in the first few primaries, all the indicators demonstrated that that was not deep enough. A set of support that would be necessary to make that happen. And rather than prolong it, he was gone after the South Carolina primary. So, you know, and he had to be by far and away the most qualified and the most seasoned of campaigners in the collective in that year. So, you know, the strongest contender against Donald Trump was the fellow who just wasn't catching fire and he read that tea leaf exactly right. That was just the time to depart. Several others, you know, they're going to continue to look at whatever the numbers are and if their intent is, again, to get into this for the purpose of raising visibility, well, they'll stay until they think that they've exhausted that opportunity and that path has run out. Or if they're driven by the proposition, I'm going to stay in until the last second to make absolutely certain Donald Trump doesn't have an easy run at this, you're going to get a few of those. Certainly, Chris Christie has said that as clearly as anybody could as a candidate. Now, you know, whether or not his intent would be really to run for president for the purpose of serving, that's a whole other dialog by itself. But certainly in this campaign phase, that's what's animating candidates like Chris Christie right now. But, you know, there's a set of factors in that. And the likelihood, certainly in 2016 there was a fair amount of discussion, debate from what I understand that went on about how to really motivate different candidates to make a decision to depart earlier rather than later, so as not to make this pathway that clear for what was perceived as an outside chance that Donald Trump would emerge as the winner. Well, they didn't and he did. Whereas this time around, there is no way the party is going to engage with any of these candidates to encourage that. They are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Donald Trump campaign. So as a consequence, they're not likely to have any weight whatsoever in motivating that dialog. It's going to be more of a set of bilateral agreements, if you will, between and among different candidates and discussions that may go on. But it isn't going to be anywhere near as concerted as what everyone really hoped for within the party structure back in 2016, to see some viable critical mass developing and it just never did.

GR: Interesting. So I wanted to ask you about two people whose names have not come up yet. Different kinds of questions for each one but I'll lump them together. First one is former Vice President Pence. You didn't mention him among your top tier and I thought, you know, he seemed like he has a potentially very powerful narrative, which is on the one hand, I'm a conservative, I've got complete credentials as a conservative and I'm more consistently a conservative than former President Trump was. And secondly, he could say, look, you know, also I saved democracy. I mean, I'm sure he won't say it exactly that way, but that will be part of the message that, you know, I did something that required a lot of courage at the risk of my life, literally, and for the benefit of the country. And so that is a strong contrast, I think. So I'm wondering if you don't see a path or some traction for him, and the other person is someone who didn't really get into the race, Liz Cheney. I mean, she was in, but not in. And a lot of people were looking at her thinking this is the person that can really take former President Trump on and provide an alternative voice for the Republican Party. So any thoughts about those two?

SO: Well, I think your description of Vice President Pence is right on the mark. That is exactly the narrative that I believe that his advisers and he has embraced and feels that given a fighting chance, he'll be able to differentiate himself from Donald Trump on exactly the same themes you just articulated. His longer I mean, much longer record of dedication to those conservative principles. This was not something he ever adopted for convenience. This is something that's been a consistent part of his makeup and his dedication to the task I would argue, much as you have that or at least suggested in your narrative, that he did step up at a time that differentiated himself from an administration that really was, looking at situational ethics of the highest order. This was not something that Mike Pence ever embraced or advocated. He tolerated, which is maybe one of the greatest criticisms that I think will come back to haunt him, as well as the fact that he was as big a defender of the former president as he was during the bulk of the administration. So, all those factors play into this to make this a harder path for him to really develop. Plus, he has not yet been identified as a rational kind of alternative to Donald Trump. In part because, you know, whether we like it or not, and this may be the most important signal that we're reading in this early going into the campaign, is that the supporters of President Trump are enthusiastic. They are very dedicated. There's no question little can move them off their support for him. Doesn't matter how many indictments you throw at him or how many, you know, indiscretions that he's demonstrated to have committed that's been accused for years to see more evidence of, that's not going to move anybody off. And it's largely because he appeals to the notion that this always happens to those who are try to fight for the underdog. He has sold that narrative. And as a consequence, as an awful lot of folks that like his spunk for that reason alone and will stick with it independent of the facts. So, there are all kinds of dynamics engaged in this that make it much more unlikely that there would be a gravitation towards a rational conservative alternative with a demonstrated track record, but certainly nowhere near the, you know, the pizzazz that the Donald Trump brings to the occasion. Mike Pence is just not going to fit that bill in that sense. So I just you know, again, he has a commendable record in many respects as a governor, as a congressman and as vice president and certainly withstood that test that you outlined with extraordinary distinction. That said, I think all that counts for little with those who were the absolutely committed to Donald Trump going forward. Liz Cheney is a different story. I think she never articulated an aspiration for running for president. That was never part of her plan. She's never uttered that. That said, what she was dedicated to doing was making absolutely certain that he would not ever return to the White House. She did say that very clearly all the way through on every single element of what she was engaged in and laid out the facts as part of the January six commission that demonstrated all of her reasons why that was the case. So given that circumstance, she sees sufficient number of candidates in the race right now who are picking up that mantle. And a lot of this, given the fact she's never had a deep passion for running for the office, I am not surprised to not see her announced in this race.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Syracuse University professor Sean O'Keefe. And we just got a couple of minutes left, but I wanted to squeeze in two more questions, if I can. And the first one goes to this pizzazz of former President Trump you were talking about. One of the things I'm wondering about is when I have read some of the policy positions that he has put forward in this election cycle, that's getting less attention I think than his indictments and other things, some of those policy positions are pretty far out there this time around. I'm thinking of the proposal for ten new cities to be created on federal land along with some kind of public process for deciding where these cities are going to be and what they are. Another one is his call for the direct election of school principals. I can just throw that out there is how chaotic what that's going to do for school districts around the country. I'm just wondering, as those positions get more well-known, do you think that might eat into some of his support that he has to actually defend that stuff?

SO: Let's hope (laughter) I mean, the more out there he is on this, the more he is convinced. And his campaign focus seems to be that that's how you gain the attention. Now, whether you follow through on it or not? I think his record is most charitably stated. It's mixed on that point. I mean, his consistency as a conservative or anything else that he would label himself as are absolutely not, you know, square with any of his historical record, that's for sure.

GR: Well, let me squeeze this other question in, if I can. I'm sorry to interrupt you, but we just got a couple of seconds left. The other thing I wanted to get your quick thoughts on in literally just a few seconds, is it does seem to me that thinking about a general election and thinking about the vulnerability of President Biden, the stickiness of his low approval ratings, other problems, that it would be a great time for the Republicans to put forward a more moderate candidate for the general election, because you'd have a lot of people who you could peel off a lot of the Democrats and you could peel off a lot of the independents that are uncomfortable with a Biden second term. I mean, I didn't even mention his age on top of that. Kamala Harris as the vice presidential backup and she's very unpopular. So the problem, of course, is these primaries that we've been talking about, how do you get a moderate Republican through the primary? And in 15 seconds or less, do you see a path for a candidate like that?

SO: No. The party would have to be committed to the proposition that it's time for a change, that there needs to be a new standard bearer, that given the record of losses of the Senate, of the House, of you know, every one of these during the course of his tenure that have just been failed conditions really needs a reversal. And that's not happening because, again, the Republican Party today, good, bad or indifferent, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump.

GR: OK, we'll have to leave it on that note. That was Sean O'Keefe. And Sean, thanks again so much for taking the time to talk with me.

SO: Appreciate it very much, Grant. Great to be with you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.