Ron Brownstein is the national political correspondent and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and an analyst for CNN. He joined the Times in 1991, where he has worked since, save for an eight-month stint at US News & World Report in 1998. Prior to joining the Times, Brownstein was the White House correspondent for the National Journal and a staff writer for Ralph Nader. He spoke to Campaign Desk from his Washington office as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about the election.
Susan Q. Stranahan: What is the most surprising aspect of the campaign so far?
Ron Brownstein: First, Howard Dean’s decline. That destroyed many of those general laws of behavior of the primaries. … For example, every candidate who’s raised the most money the year before the primary has won the nomination, except for John Connolly in 1980. The ability to raise money in small increments is an indication of grass-roots support. But when Howard Dean basically fell through the floorboards, all those precedents were taken down with him. None of us will be able to write that sentence any more. I had it on the save/get key on my computer. Now it’s gone. Thank you, Howard!
The second thing that surprised me is the extent to which voters after Iowa and New Hampshire were comfortable accepting the decision of those two states. I was stunned — and that’s the only word I can think of — at how often I ran into voters as I traveled around the country who said I want the strongest candidate against George Bush and if the other candidates can’t beat Kerry, then they’d support Kerry. …The Iowa “bump” has never been as important as it was this year. Never. For whatever reason, voters are doing strategic thinking. They voted like political consultants, making that strategic calculation [about picking a winner in November]. …
I also was very frustrated by the absence of issues debates [during the Democratic primary], and I don’t think it’s beneficial to Kerry. I’m not totally surprised that Kerry has had so much trouble getting his footing for the general election. To an extraordinary degree, the primary didn’t prepare him. He wasn’t challenged on any of the fronts he’ll be challenged on in the general [election]. He didn’t get the spring training of having to defend himself on these issues.
SQS: How do your roles as a reporter and columnist for the Times and a commentator for CNN differ? Are there things you say on CNN that you wouldn’t write in the Times?
RB: My absolute rule of thumb when I started doing TV in December, 1993 is that I will never say anything on TV that I won’t say in print. People get in so much trouble when they try to be clever or provocative. On TV you don’t get a chance to edit or reconsider what you say. …
When you write a column the biggest question you ask at the end, is do I believe that? Or am I just saying it because it sounds good. You don’t get that chance on TV. I find that if you don’t have some thought in your mind about what you want to say, and do some reporting if it’s something I haven’t written about, you can get in trouble. …
SQS: Mickey Kaus of Slate recently compared your coverage of this election to that of the New York Times. Is there a benefit to being at the Los Angeles Times versus the New York Times or the Washington Post?