MSNBC's Joe Scarborough: How to Restore Conservatism

Joe Scarborough, host of the MSNBC news show "Morning Joe," laments that because of the rise of partisan media outlets, "a conservative can now wake up in the morning and never have his or her political views challenged." Scarborough is likely to make those conservatives a little anxious with his new book, "The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America's Promise." The morning news anchor spoke to NEWSWEEK's Johnnie L. Roberts about his book, Rush Limbaugh and how conservatives lost their way. (MSNBC is a content partner.)

Synthesize the argument you make in The Last Best Hope.
The main argument I put forth in the introduction of the book is that the conservative movement has gone radically off course over the past 20 years. Over the past decade being conservative has changed dramatically. For most of America, it stands for reckless spending. You had recklessness, where President George H. Bush promised to end tyranny across the globe and export democracy. If you listen to his second inaugural address, it was radical. And, likewise, the rhetoric has been anything but conservative. Look at the history of the conservative movement. It was temperamentally moderate. Ronald Reagan wasn't a harsh ideologue. He knew how to find the middle of American political culture. Reagan was far more conservative than America, but in 1984 it gave him a 49-state [reelection] victory.

Do you see any developments that suggest conservative and Republican Party leaders are already embracing that approach?
I've seen some very, very positive developments over the past several weeks. And it started with [Washington Post syndicated columnist] Charles Krauthammer's column that echoed what I had been saying. That was followed by [Wall Street Journal columnist] Peggy Noonan telling conservatives to act grown-up. Following that, [Sen.] John Cornyn went public criticizing those on the right who were calling [Supreme Court nominee] Sonia Sotomayor a racist. And Newt Gingrich apologized for calling her a racist. Unfortunately, for too long in the Republican Party such harsh rhetoric has been a source of pride. And they've tried to punish those such as myself who urge restraint. As I say on my radio show, it may make you feel better to call the president a communist, or the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court a racist. But make no mistake; it's going to lose votes.

What does the future Republican Party look like?
It looks a lot like the conservative movement that's outlined in this book. It's going to be a movement that believes that when in doubt, the individual always prevails over the state. It's a conservative movement that is going to be more skeptical when the president says he wants to send the military off to war.

When you were a young lawyer in Pensacola, Fla., in 1993, you helped defend one of the first murders of an abortion doctor. In the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the abortion doctor shot dead in his church on May 31, do you have any regrets about your role in the Florida case?
I'm an attorney. I represented clients. I did it as a favor to the family. The goal was to stop this young man from trying to defend himself. I had a family [that was] heartbroken. I was called in to help keep the media away from his family, from his wife and young children. Why would I regret that? Why would anyone regret that? I did the judicial system of the state of Florida a favor.

You suggest in the book that the abortion issue should be off-limits as a federal issue for conservatives. Why is that?
When I got to Washington in 1994 [as a newly elected congressman from Florida], Republicans were represented well in New England. After 2008, not a single Republican congressman represents [that area]. That's in large part driven by the fact that people in New England see Republicans as the party overly focused on culturally divisive issues. My only argument on abortion and gay marriage is it's just not an issue to federalize. We don't want the federal government to control GM, Citi or AIG. Why do we want them tangled in the abortion issue? I'm only asking for constitutional consistency. Leave it to the states. We should not turn around and ask the federal government to get involved in banning gay marriage.

In the book, you call for toning down political rhetoric. An inordinate amount of the rhetoric emanates from cable news—your industry. Do you believe that the devolution of cable news to two ideological extremes is anathema to an informed citizenry?
One of my greatest concerns has been the development of different media outlets that allow Americans to sit down and plug into whatever media outlet they chose to plug into to reinforce their preexisting beliefs. You see that on too many TV news shows, radio shows, too many Web sites. A conservative can wake up in the morning and never have his or her views challenged. And the same is true for liberals. It's just stunning to me how difficult it is to have a political conversation with adults. It's very disturbing to me as someone fired upon by the left and right pretty regularly. In the same week that some radio talk-show host is attacking me for being too liberal, I had the New York Times editorial page call me a leader of the Republican attack squad. You roll your eyes, but after a while, you just sit there and wonder: Where is the rational middle?

Rush Limbaugh—entertainer or a serious voice of American conservatism? And "both" is an unacceptable answer.
I consider him to be a lot like Jon Stewart. He has a show and gets paid well to do that show. They're both entertainers who get paid to comment on political happenings in a way that reinforces the views of their audiences in an entertaining way. That being said, in 1994 when I ran for Congress, Rush Limbaugh had a very significant impact on a lot of congressional elections like mine. I think he's become more of an entertainer since then.

Do you have the sneaky feeling that Michael Steele, controversial chairman of the Republican National Committee, was elected in an attempt by the party to demonstrate a commitment to diversity? Did the fact that's he is an African-American help his candidacy?
No doubt about it. That being said, I think he can still be a successful party leader, if he stops making it all about Michael Steele.