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Jon Fleischman

Interview With Arnold Steinberg: Whiplash! From JFK to Donald Trump: PART I

It has been several years since Flash Report’s Jon Fleischman interviewed Arnold Steinberg, a long-time friend and an admirer of FR who wrote for us in our earlier years. We interview him on the publication of his new book: Whiplash! From JFK to Donald Trump A Political Odyssey (Jameson Books, 640 pages, $39.95). You can purchase it for that amount, plus sales tax, and possible shipping, about $49 total. Or, FR readers can do much better by going directly to the publisher.

Purdue University president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has said, “Arnie Steinberg is one of America’s most valuable intellectual assets.”

Arnie SteinbergAs a young man. Steinberg wrote two classic graduate textbooks that defined modern campaigns: Political Campaign Management and The Political Campaign Handbook, both published in 1976 by the then preeminent textbook publisher, D.C. Heath. He has consulted for hundreds of campaigns. “When I decided to run for office [Mayor of Los Angeles], I turned to him,” Richard Riordan has written. “I could not have won without Arnie.” Over several decades Steinberg conducted nearly two thousand strategic projects, including polls and focus groups. One adversary, attorney and venture capitalist William Wardlaw, who chaired many statewide Democratic campaigns and was twice Bill Clinton’s California campaign chairman , said of his collaboration on nonpartisan projects with Steinberg, “The best pollster I have ever worked with.” A political strategist who has often operated behind the scenes and under the radar, Steinberg also has been in the public eye. He has been widely published in major newspapers and online and been interviewed hundreds of times on local and national television and radio. “I can honestly say that whenever I see something by Steinberg, I immediately read it,” observed author and talk radio host Dennis Prager. “That’s how remarkably insightful he is.” Steinberg has been a consulting and court-recognized, testifying expert in criminal cases and in civil litigation, also involving elections, campaigns, media, and polling. He has served on the boards of foundations and local, state and federal commissions.

The second part of this interview will be published tomorrow. Here is the first part.


FR: Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said Whiplash! Is an “unusual book by the ultimate insider [to] help you understand what’s happening in America today.” What’s so unusual about the book?

AS: It’s unique because it’s equally political ideas, history and how-to, but instead of chronology, it’s a kind of stream of consciousness intersection of ideas, people and places to weave the past into what’s happening now. This congruence informs us, for example that the Left’s assault on free speech that occurred in the 60s is back, even worse. And the leftist thugs from that era seemed to have nurtured Obama’s “transformation of America” ideology. We learn from history, that’s why context is important, and although one political occurrence can set in motion many others, and in politics we can never change one factor, and pretend we can hold everything else constant, the book explains why, no matter what the election outcome, politics remains just a holding action, subordinate to The Culture.

FR: Former Sen. James L. Buckley, for whom you worked as a young man, wrote in the foreword to your book that some conservatives might disagree with a number of your positions but would find it difficult to prove you wrong. Jim Buckley’s brother, Wm. F. Buckley Jr. was a sort of mentor to you. Are you a heretic to the Buckley legacy?

AS: No. I believe I honor that legacy. Generally, the Buckley fusionist conservatism remains thoughtful and durable, and some of what we see in Washington currently is an aberration. Some conservatives like [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions backing asset forfeiture have strayed. Conservatism does not support contrary practices, even in the name of “law and order.” We should be proud that two weeks ago the House passed an amendment by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who deserves accolades, to prohibit the federal government from seizing the property owned by citizens never convicted of a crime. Also, on this failed War on Drugs, years after Bill Buckley and I disagreed on decriminalization of drugs, Bill told me — when we were together once with Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, that he—Bill Buckley — had come to agree with Milton Friedman, and his son, David, who had first challenged Bill on this issue, back in 1969.

FR: But decriminalizing drugs won’t switch many voters to Republicans…

AS: Indeed, the opioid epidemic relates in good part to prescription drugs, even to the VA, which should be helping PTSD veterans with medicinal marijuana. States rights conservatives should get the feds out of this. Again Dana Rohrabacher deserves much more attention from the media for his work here. Much of this is beyond federalism, and about criminal justice reform, including restorative justice in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have Republican senators from Orrin Hatch to Mike Lee aboard, as well as Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, Grover Norquist, David Keene and so many other conservative leaders. Republican governors like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, not Jerry Brown, led the way.

FR: What has affected your thinking on this?

AS: A Soviet-style LA County prosecutor in 1986 went after my client, Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, for a nonexistent crime, the case was thrown out of court, but Bobbi’s political career ended, and Democrat Alan Cranston reelected. She would have defeated him. Yet Gov. George Deukmejian later appointed this “law and order” Republican prosecutor [who ruthlessly went after Bobbi) to be a judge. Another Deukmejian “law and order” judge “deferred” to the Coastal Commission when I was building my home, even after the commission’s enforcement bureaucrat had perjured herself against me. Then lost much of my savings in complications in trying to finish my home. And there were the “law and order” Republicans with bogus prosecutions of my old friends such as [and former Ronald Reagan aide] Lyn Nofziger and Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan. And what about Rhonda Rohrabacher [wife of Congressman Rohrabacher], and others wrongly prosecuted We must support the thin blue line, the valiant men and women in law enforcement, but Republicans’ support must not be reflexive.

FR: Where else are Republicans behind the curve?

AS: For example, the Democrats have supported policies that inhibit innovation and retarded the development of cell phones and the Internet, Uber, Airbnb, Lyft. Just as Ted Kennedy stole “our” issue of deregulation to create lower airfares — as the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield said, to paraphrase, we “don’t get any respect.’ I recently flew to D.C. for a speech and book signing and other events. My airfare was e close to what I paid, in nominal dollars, when I was a college student. Yet fuel for airplanes is much more expensive. In real dollars, my airfare is a small fraction of what I once paid. I’m glad Trump is following the expertise of the Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole to privatize air traffic control, but when the benefits accrue in coming years, will any credit go to the libertarian theorists behind it or to Trump, or rather to Democrats who will steal the issue? The best reform ideas in America come from think-tanks like the traditional Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute and Reason Foundation., but young people don’t know this. True innovators in Silicon Valley should not be backing the Democrats in Sacramento and Washington.

FR: Does any of this relate to what happens on DACA?

AS: Yes. But some background first. For all sorts of reasons, the children from illegal aliens who came here years back with a clean record will remain. I felt that way even before the Schumer-Pelosi-Trump White House dinner meeting, remarkable because it omitted McConnell and Ryan and thus seemed to empower the Democrats. McConnell and Ryan are not perfect, but they’re much better than Schumer and Pelosi. On DACA, most people don’t believe “the sins of the father should be visited on the son (or daughter).” But we never should have accepted the “Dreamers” term, and debated on that turf, and deportation was indeed an option long ago, not now. The unspoken issue is the depreciation of English. Also, how about the entitlements for the illegals and also for Americans, generally that incentivize under-employment and unemployment. Now that we spent taxpayer money educating someone, do we deport them? Trump properly questioned the constitutionality of Obama’s action by executive order, and he could have immediately framed his reversal by executive order in a more positive way, as a reassertion of the rule of law and that he wants Congressional action for border security in exchange for these young adults “earning” some accommodation. He has the worst of both worlds, some in his base feeling he sold out, the other side has energized against him, and he is seen as divisive. Finally, will he and the Republicans get political credit when a legislative fix is done, or will Schumer and Pelosi get the credit? All Trump had to do was when he issued his executive order, and lay down what he wants for a deal, to assure he would get the credit.

FR: Some prominent conservatives like George Will and Bret Stephens and William Kristol have implied that conservatives should not serve, or even resign from the Trump administration. Bill Kristol has praised your book’s “new ways [to think] about modern American conservatism.” Are you, like Bill Kristol, a Never Trumper?

AS: If you love this country and can serve in the Trump Administration and be faithful to your beliefs, you should do so. Reince Priebus lacked the authority that Gen. Kelly apparently has, as chief of staff; his loss would be destabilizing.

And Sean Spicer is a professional who was put into an impossible position. The president may be unorthodox, that’s all the more reason for the White House not to be.

I’ve encouraged quality people to serve, to have an impact. And what would be accomplished if, say, James Mattis, who would fight a war to win (what a concept?), and yet a warrior who understands that force is a last resort, quits? He emphasizes the importance of diplomacy, official (like the State Department) and unofficial (like nongovernmental). And this administration is most deficient in its international messaging…what used to be the U.S. Information Agency, and the Voice of America and related newer U.S. government broadcasting and Internet media. We need once again to project a positive image, of America and to skillfully reach new constituencies, such as moderate, non-ideological Muslims. I feel very strongly that diplomacy and messaging and propaganda are a budgetary bargain if they lessen the probability of war.

FR: Not too many Republican “Never Trumpers” in California…

AS: When you have national conservative columnists like Bret Stephens getting soft on the Second Amendment, that further impugn the credibility of “Never Trumpers.” Here in California desperate Republican incumbents don’t know whether to distance themselves from Trump, in case swing voters in their district tire of the tumult, or how much to support him to assure high voter turnout in the Republican base.

FR: As in the Darrell Issa congressional district, or others that Hillary carried?

AS: In some of those districts, we need to see if apathetic Republicans feeling their vote for president did not matter in California stayed home last year but would vote next year if their Republican Member of Congress were in trouble.

FR: But you were “Never Trump” in the general…

AS: I was “Never Hillary” because I saw her ascendancy as Obama’s third term and completing Obama’s radical “transformation of America.” I never had any illusions about Donald Trump. But some of his policies are right-on. The Neil Gorsuch nomination is superb, and look also at his excellent nominations to the entire federal judiciary. But Trump is an imperfect vessel for channeling American conservatism, which has always had an unrealized populist strand, not the nativism and reaction of Pat Buchanan, but the libertarianism that would repulse Wall Street, K Street and crony capitalism and truly drain the swamp, which hasn’t happened yet.

FR: Then why hasn’t the Libertarian party gained ground?

AS: Here in California, libertarian face a new obstacle, the open primary and top two vote getters for November, which almost disenfranchises lesser parties. As for conservatives, they don’t like governance by executive order, but they accept Trump’s far-reaching executive orders to undo Obama’s, and to liberate our economy. But the Libertarian Party is more paradoxical, even oxymoronic, its originalists don’t really want to be a member of a club [that is] the government that would have them. And yet last year’s LP’s presidential nominee proposed that government should force the Christian baker and florist to service a same-sex wedding. That’s not the libertarianism that drew me, as a high school kid, to Barry Goldwater.

FR: Former California Congressman Barry Goldwater, Jr., urged people to read your book “to understand the metamorphosis of the modern conservative movement” beginning with his father. He said JFK would have more in common with today’s conservatives than with Obama. What’s he talking about?

AS: JFK believed in American exceptionalism. He likely would have resisted radical Islamist ideology . And he was the original supply-side tax cutter. Remember his “a rising tide lifts all ships” and some conservatives in the 1960s actually fought his tax cuts. But the so-called “conservative movement” that Barry, Jr. references is hung up on politics, when the real battle is at the universities, the foundations, the media, even in grade schools. Many of our electoral wins are putting a finger on a hole in the dam, and here in California the dam metaphorically has burst; and given our infrastructure, maybe soon physically.

FR: You mentioned media, but isn’t the influence of, say, the Los Angeles Times, declining?

AS: It’s a mixed blessing. Their editorial positions epitomize political correctness. But they have shown a continued interest in investigative reporting. Since I was in high school and already active in politics, things have changed. We actually had ticket-splitters: Barry Goldwater lost California in a landslide, while George Murphy became senator. Now, we’re nearly a one-party state. That means even more corruption in government. So, we benefit from strong newspapers that investigate malfeasance in government, because they’re mainly going after Democrats, because that’s the target-rich environment. If bringing down crooked Dems sells papers, I’m all for it. It’s the Times last week that broke the scandal involving Hollywood liberal icon Harvey Weinstein.

FR: Speaking of Hollywood Your friend, the movie critic and self-defined “cultural crusader” Michael Medved, who also graduated high school in Southern California the same year as you, said your book “illuminates the most significant and explosive issues [of your] Baby Boom generation.” What are those issues?

AS: At least a dozen years before I graduated from Fairfax High School, Jack Kemp graduated from there. One of my Fairfax classmates was my childhood buddy Tony Blankley, who I brought to Washington in 1981. For Michael, and me and Tony, and for the older Jack Kemp and so many others, the 60s defined, for better or worse, the next half century. For example, take the explosive issue of race. Jack, a creature of the 1950s, to his credit, wanted outreach after his election to Congress in 1970, and Republicans have failed to reach beyond what has beyond a narrow base. But Jack disagreed with my efforts a quarter century later to end race preferences because, he told me, “race should be one factor to be considered.” [Former California Congressman] Tom Campbell, who I criticized on other matters, was solid on this issue and answered thusly, when I related Jack’s comment – Tom said something like, “How would you feel if the government turned you down for a job and said you’re being a Jew was not the reason, just one factor?” So, race is one issue where the free market has made tremendous progress, but government has regressed.

[The second part of the interview is tomorrow.]