Politics & Policy

McQuaid’s Debate Prep

The publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader analyzes the GOP presidential field.

Joe McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader — the widest-circulating newspaper in the state — is blunt, plainspoken, and unapologetic. Consider his take on Sarah Palin.

“I don’t think she’s in the race at all,” he tells National Review Online in a phone interview. “And considering the way she’s dealing with New Hampshire, I would tell her that’s probably good that you’re not going to be in the race, lady, because you’re not dealing with the people the way New Hampshire people like to be dealt with — which is actually to talk with them.”

I remind McQuaid that he’s previously argued New Hampshire is quirky and some candidates have won the state without ever setting foot in it: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964, for example. “Those are the exceptions that prove the rule,” McQuaid replies. “But which one of us in this piece is going to suggest Palin is the new Eisenhower?”

When Rudy Giuliani stopped by McQuaid’s office two weeks ago, he received an unusual welcome from the publisher. “I threatened him with a baseball bat and told him to decide [about a presidential run],” McQuaid recounts. “But he didn’t quiver.”

Despite McQuaid’s menacing glare, Giuliani — “the Hamlet of the Republican party,” McQuaid calls him –is skipping tonight’s debate at Saint Anselm College. Sponsored by CNN, local station WMUR-TV, and the Union Leader, the contest will feature seven candidates: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. But the politicians who are playing coy — Giuliani, Jon Huntsman, and Palin  — frustrate McQuaid the most.

“Even if you decide not to run, there’s no loss in being at the event and seeing how you do and what the public reaction is,” he counsels. “It may inform your decision.”

The bashful should take note. McQuaid, 62, is a grizzled veteran of the first-in-the-nation primary. He began his career at the Union Leader when he was 15 years old as a news-office boy. He worked his way up the ranks — reporting, editing, then leading the influential daily. Today, he sets the paper’s editorial policy — conservatively — with editorial-page editor Drew Cline.

Familiar with the rough-and-tumble of a campaign, McQuaid gives as good as he gets. The debate organizers and he have been under fire from former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who was excluded from the event because he failed to meet their criteria of credibility: support of at least 2 percent in national or New Hampshire polls.

When asked about the controversy, McQuaid deadpans, “I am pissed off that these debate organizers excluded The Rent Is Too Damn High guy.” More seriously, he explains that “144 people have registered as presidential candidates with the Federal Election Commission, and a line needs to be drawn.”

Besides, McQuaid reasons, exclusion might be the best thing for Johnson. “I think the whole event is going to redound to his credit in terms of name recognition and juicing up his followers. Johnson is going to have a higher level of visibility as a result of not being included in the debate, unlike if he were one of the eight talking heads all trying to deflect the same questions.”

Case in point: Johnson’s supporters, including Drew Carey, have taken to Twitter to express their displeasure. “He’s taken out a full-page ad in my paper to complain about me,” McQuaid reports. “I asked my staff, ‘Can you disinvite others, so they’ll take out ads? Romney’s got big bucks.”

But McQuaid is looking forward to the debate. Undecided about the candidates, he’s anxious to see all seven candidates “in action against each other.”

Not that McQuaid doesn’t have first impressions to share. On Romney, he remarks, “It’s easier to count up the number of times he’s been married than for the other candidates. What a novelty!” On Gingrich, McQuaid is more enthusiastic than most. “Short memories we all have, but he brought the Republicans to control of the U.S. House for the first time in my lifetime.” (Close: McQuaid was five when Republicans lost control in 1954, 40 years before the Gingrich revolution.)

On Huntsman, McQuaid is unsure. “I met him for lunch and he was a pleasant fellow, but I really didn’t get into great details, and he did not offer up any clue to me about what he might be doing if he led the country.”

He predicts debate viewers will be impressed by Herman Cain. “He is a sharp, articulate guy who unfortunately has not a lot of experience. He was in here, and I asked him, ‘Does it make it easier or tougher for you that we’ve elected a black president? He said, ‘Easier — not that I agree with anything the guy’s done. But you’ve got to remember you had 43 white guys and they weren’t all that great either.’”

Of the rest of the field, McQuaid jokes, “Santorum and Pawlenty are sort of like: Who are the other two white guys? And that’s unfortunate because I think they bring a lot to the table. Santorum is a passionate social conservative.” As for Pawlenty, “I’d like to look more at his record in Minnesota. I got a relative out there and she likes Pawlenty more than she likes that ‘kook Bachmann,’” as she calls her.

Regardless, McQuaid has advice for the candidate whoever he turns out to be. “It’s been my short experience that whatever everybody says a year out of the election is going to be the big issue, turns out not to be the big issue.” Against the conventional wisdom, he suggests foreign policy will be the big enchilada.

But McQuaid’s focus on the subject is probably predicated on the fact that he harbors severe disagreements with the GOP orthodoxy. In October 2010, he was embedded with a New Hampshire combat company in southern Afghanistan, and he came away from the experience less than sanguine about our prospects for victory. “I don’t think the way we’ve been prosecuting that engagement is the right way and I’m not impressed with the Republicans’ various positions on it,” he says.

He’s also less than pleased with our hands-off approach toward China. “I’m an old conservative guy who still calls it Red China and I think it has ill designs on the United States and the West. And I think our trade with them by greedy businessmen has not stood well in our favor, and I think we could have a better game against these guys.” In summary, he concludes, “I’m probably more on Pat Buchanan’s team.”

That team is rather skeptical of our military engagements abroad. “What the hell are we still doing with troops in Europe against the former Soviet Union and what the hell are we doing in South Korea with 50,000 troops?” he asks. And what the devil are we doing in Libya? “Gaddafi is an insane madman, and it’s too bad, but there are a hell of a lot of places in the world where there are bad people in the world and we can’t be the Lone Ranger.”

Yes, McQuaid will be watching with interest tonight. But maybe he won’t have to threaten any more candidates with a baseball bat.

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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