The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Frank Luntz

Republican pollster

Frank Luntz is a pollster and GOP consultant whose voter focus groups have become key sources of analysis by journalists, pundits and politicians. In 1994, Luntz helped author the Republican "Contract With America." On the night of Barack Obama's inauguration in 2008, he hosted a dinner in which senior GOP leaders began formulating a strategy for how to govern in the minority.

Critics have called the dinner the night that Republicans chose to "just say no" to the Obama agenda. Luntz says the conversation that evening was never about opposing Obama, but rather "How do we be relevant?" He says that as political dysfunction increased during the Obama years, political compromise became less and less palatable to many Republican voters.

"There were so many people on the left who say that the Republicans would never ever sit down with Barack Obama, and they're responsible. What they don't realize is," Luntz says, "is that every time that a Republican even went to the White House, you would have a revolt back at home. That's how divided we are right now."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 1, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

The Freedom Caucus revolt against [Speaker of the House John] Boehner, September 2015, Boehner resigns. What was your reaction? What do you read from that?

I knew John Boehner was in trouble, and I'd known it for months. Members would pull me aside or have me step into their offices and say: "This guy can't stay. He doesn't understand us. He's not a good communicator." They had no alternative, but they just knew that they wanted someone else to lead them. And it was amazing to me how long Boehner actually did survive. That shows you what a good politician he is, that he had enough of the capability to keep enough members satisfied, that there was no vote.

But I'll tell you this. If John Boehner had not stepped aside when he did, he would have been voted out within 10 days. It was that close. It's an incredible politician who knows when to come. It's an even better politician who knows when to leave. And Boehner left at the right moment. ... One of my closest friends in life is Kevin McCarthy, and Kevin had no idea that this was about to happen. He was informed minutes before. It was always assumed that he would become speaker after Boehner stepped aside. But one of the outgrowths of Trump's rise was this absolutely shrill hostility toward anything that--from the Republican leadership that, if you had any relationship with John Boehner whatsoever, or Mitch McConnell, you are automatically evil. You are automatically rejected.

I'm doing these focus groups as Trump is getting higher and higher and higher. And frankly, when the groups are over, I'm calling Kevin saying: "Dude, this is really bad. The population has completely turned against Republicans. The enemy is no longer Hillary Clinton; the enemy isn't Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. The enemy is you. Kevin, you've got to do something here." He was very loyal to Speaker Boehner, was never going to push him out. He just waited his turn like everyone had done before him.

But the longer that he waited, the hotter it got, and the more vicious it got. And I still, I cannot--I will never forget when I called him. This is about six weeks before Boehner left. I said, "It is hell, and if you don't assume that role now, you may never get it." And he understood it, and he agreed with it. But he's a loyal guy. What I don't think Republicans ever understood is that this hostility that they had helped foment in 2010, that they had put a exclamation point on it in 2014, was coming back to bite them in the ass. And by January of 2016, it was now the equivalent of a peaceful revolution, and Trump was stoking it and stoking it and stoking it.

And the guys in Washington would feel it back home, but they didn't. They felt the surface of it. It's like an iceberg. They could see the 10 percent that would show up at their town halls and give them a hard time. They couldn't see the other 90 percent that would vote them out of office. Even Eric Cantor's defeat in Virginia didn't scream out to them that their situation had changed; the Republican Party had changed; the policies of supporters of the GOP had changed, and their tolerance for compromise. There were so many people on the left who say that the Republicans would never ever sit down with Barack Obama, and they're responsible. What they don't realize is, is that every time that a Republican even went to the White House, you would have a revolt back at home. That's how divided we are right now.

And Kevin ran into that buzz saw. And the truth is, because of talk radio and because of social media, and to a lesser extent Fox News, because of all of that, now that you could now reach voters on a one-on-one basis, there was no way that Kevin could have become speaker, because all it took was 35 or 40 members to say, "No, you don't want me to go here."

It's not only Kevin. And we're going to talk about that and things. But Cantor's loss and Boehner's being thrown out, I mean, they were the ones that brought all these people in.

Cantor never saw it coming, even on the election day itself. I was doing a session for a pro-Israel group, and it was about 9:00. The session runs from 6:30 to 10:00, and about 9:00, I'm getting Cantor's numbers. And I was really angry, because I didn't believe it. I had heard that he was up 20 points. His pollster told him: "Don't worry about it. You've got this huge lead. You may win by 10, 12." But the actual polling showed, I think, 21.

Cantor never saw it coming. I didn't see it coming. And as they're giving me the numbers, I couldn't believe it. I thought my staff was joking with me, and I didn't find it funny. I actually turned around--I shouldn't even admit this--I turned around, almost put my fist through the window, saying: "Screw you. This is not funny. He's a friend of mine. Cut it out." And one of the staffers comes in to me with a note and says, "We're not kidding." The note said that Cantor had been declared the loser of the race.

And I continue with the group. I don't know how I did, because when the group was over, I was shattered.

At that time, immigration is dead, by the way, also, right?

Immigration was important, but that's--we went and polled. I was so angry with what happened to Eric Cantor that I went and paid my own money to do a post-election survey, to understand these Republican voters. Problem number one is that they totally overrepresented the 65 and above, because the pollster really didn't know what he was doing. Problem number two is that people felt Cantor wasn't in the district enough.

Part of this populist revolution isn't just about policy; it's also about personality. Something that we've come to realize now, that we didn't see back two years ago, is that if you weren't angry enough, then you didn't represent them. If you didn't shout and yell and scream, if you didn't call Barack Obama a traitor, if you didn't use the same language that they're using on talk radio or in social media, then you weren't strong enough, tough enough, anti-establishment enough.

It's not just the words they used; it was the tone. This is what has now developed after eight years of this administration, where tone has become more important than substance; where intensity becomes more important than policy; where if you're not rip-roaring angry, then you're just not one of us. That is what is gripping the Republican Party right now. It is one big temper tantrum, which has its roots in legitimate anger, over a country and a direction and policies that have totally run awry.

But up until now, the Republican Party was the civil party. The Republican Party was the party that would talk it out. Republicans never protested. Republicans would not show up at a Democratic event and try to shout the speaker down. Republicans wouldn't burn flags and disrupt and fight with cops. That was the Democrats. That was the left. For the first time in my lifetime, you occasionally--obviously not the flags or the cops--but for the first time in my life, you now have Republicans, some Republicans that are as uncivil as the Democrats.

So how does it lead to Trump? How does Donald Trump come onto the scene in all this?

There is no other candidate that was prepared to say what Donald Trump was prepared to say. There is no other candidate that is so unfiltered, no other candidate that is so unedited. Whatever came into his head came right out of his mouth, because there were no teleprompters; there were no speeches. There was one little three-by-five card with five words written on it, and that's it.

I didn't see it in August. I did not see it in the first presidential debate. But boy, did I learn my lesson. Boy, did I get it after that, that Trump was so unfiltered that he was speaking straight to tens of millions of Americans who think that they've been betrayed--not anger, betrayal by both Washington and Wall Street. And they were looking for someone who spoke their language and had their passion and wouldn't back down.

The fact that Trump was willing to say the most insane things--he made fun of a guy who has a neurological disorder; he wouldn't back down. He said that John McCain wasn't a war hero; he wouldn't back down. He said that Mexicans, some Mexicans were rapists and murderers, and he wouldn't back down. He said things about other candidates and "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" and "Crooked Hillary," and he won't back down. And for tens of millions of Americans, that willingness to fight political correctness and not back down told them that he was the only candidate who would really blow things up in Washington.

And the fear of the establishment side, Romney coming out and McCain coming out after him?

The problem with the establishment is that there's no passion; there's no emotion. If I'm establishment, I'll speak to you like this, and I'll give you the most incredibly effective on-paper analysis of why Trump is wrong. Now you tell me: How can that possibly appeal to someone who is so rip-roaring mad that they speak with their hands, that they cannot sit still, that all they can do is yell?

The fact is, this was not the election year for Mitt Romney or John McCain or Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush--there was a time when Jeb Bush was voted the greatest governor in America. Republicans loved him because of all the changes that he brought to Florida. In this debate, when Trump labeled him as being low-energy, and then you cut to Jeb and he's staring at him, without a response, Trump knew how to label; he knew how to market; he knew how to define. And each one of these candidates, when they went up against him, every one of them got destroyed.

It's not where Trump stands, although people did support building a wall. It was who Trump was and how he presented himself. You cannot be laconic to an electorate that is mad as hell. And one more point: If you asked me to draw the antithesis of Barack Obama, the exact opposite of him, Obama was cool; Trump is hot. Obama was cerebral and laid back; Trump is rough and in your face. Obama is Mr. Teleprompter; Donald Trump is a no-card and no-limits, no-boundaries, no-editing. Obama is intellectual; Trump is emotional. If you wanted the exact opposite of Barack Obama, it's Donald Trump. And that's another reason why he captured the mind-set of the GOP.

Great. Let's go back to the beginning so we can run through it. Obama comes in, and he's going to bridge the differences in Washington. He's going to be able to fix it.

He's supposed to. He was supposed to. Barack Obama was supposed to be as transformational as FDR was in 1933. He was supposed to be as visionary and as popular as JFK was in 1961. Obama was supposed to work with the Republicans the way Ronald Reagan worked with the Democrats to get stuff done. The problem was, he didn't want to, and it wasn't part of him.

The single biggest mistake of his administration is to turn over the actual legislation to Nancy Pelosi, who was the most partisan speaker in my lifetime, and one of the most partisan people still in Washington, D.C. Obama's inclination may have been to talk and discuss and interact. Pelosi was waiting for her entire career to the point where she would be in charge, and there was no way in hell that she was giving up any of it.

Go ask Republicans. I've only met one Republican, just one, of the entire congressional delegation, that met with her in the two years that there was an Obama presidency and a Democratic Congress. You were not allowed to put your name on a bill; you were not allowed to offer an amendment; you were barely allowed to speak on the floor. You had the worst committee assignments, and you were shut down in committee. She made it very clear: "We're in charge now. You guys made this mess," according to her. "We're going to clean it up. Get out of the way." And I believe that she so damaged his capability of working across the aisle that I don't blame him for these divided states; I actually blame her.

But their point of view, of course, is that, wait a minute; the Republicans from day one, from the inauguration night in the Caucus Room dinner--

Which didn't happen that way.

--that their attitude was that the Republicans had decided, from the very beginning, that they were not going to cooperate, and that's the thing that the brick wall--the story that's always told is going up to Capitol Hill that first few days into the presidency to sell the stimulus bill. What was real and what was not real about that?

We haven't done what happened at that dinner?

Well, we talked about it somewhat, but go ahead. Yeah, the dinner is sort of the point where the story is. You know what the story is.

There was a dinner on Jan. 20 that I hosted, with seven or eight senators, maybe a dozen congressmen, a lot of ranking members from the major committees. At no time was that dinner--at no time did someone say, "How do we block Barack Obama?" The question there was: "How do we remain relevant? How do we be the loyal opposition? How do we speak up?," when they had not been in this situation for forever. They had had the House, or they had the Senate, or they had a working majority. Almost every year since Ronald Reagan in 1980, they had something. In this case, they had absolutely nothing, and Obama was riding an incredible wave of popularity.

And so senator after congressman--[Newt] Gingrich was there--the conversation was all about, "How do we be relevant?" It was never: "How do we block him? How do we stop him?"

And Cantor's role was what? What was he talking about?

... They didn't want to embrace what Barack Obama wanted to do because they disagreed with it. But it was never an effort to try to destroy it; it was an effort to present an alternative point of view.

And the White House's point of view about going up to Capitol Hill, and "I'm going all the way up to Capitol Hill myself to talk about this stuff," and in those meetings, he kind of found out that nobody was going to agree with the stimulus bill. And eventually nobody brought votes for it.

I know for a fact, both in the House and Senate side, because I was involved at the time, that there were House members and senators that were going to vote for it because they thought the economy needed it. The mainstream senators and congressmen rejected it, because it was a trillion dollars. It was more than anything had ever been spent before, and there was no evidence that it would be effective.

What do Democrats do? They spend. What do Republicans do? They cut. What do Democrats do? They tax. What do Republicans do? They cut taxes. This is who we are. I expect Democrats to want to spend money; I expect Republicans to want to cut spending. This is the way it has been for 100 years, so the idea that most Republicans would say no to Barack Obama, of course they'd say no.

But Obama says 33 percent of it was tax cuts; I did that for the Republicans.

But it wasn't. In the end, it wasn't. And the tax cuts never happened. And this is one of the reasons why things got so poisonous, is that there were things that Obama offered that were not offered in good faith. There were clauses and explanations, and there was always a "but." One of the things that I learned very early, and I taught Republicans this, is to watch Obama carefully, because he would always present the pro-Republican or the conservative position first, and count the number of seconds. It ran 30 to 40 seconds. But then, sure enough, there was a "but." And the "but" was to undercut everything that he had just said and to take a completely opposing point of view.

So he gave you what you wanted to hear first, but--and then he undercut it. That's what this was about. The stimulus--and they even acknowledged that the programs weren't so-called shovel-ready. They acknowledged that they didn't know what they would actually produce. And the Republicans say: "You cannot blow a hole in the deficit as Republicans do. Please don't ask individuals to sell out their hardcore principles." The reason why they were still elected, even in a Democratic landslide, you cannot ask them to completely sell out their principles simply to get along. That's too much, [because] our democracy does depend on some people who vote based on principle rather than based on politics.

There were enough people early on that Obama was going to win that. There was enough Republicans that were going to vote for it--still would not have been bipartisan, but you would have had anywhere from 12 to 20 House Republicans, and you would have had anywhere from three to six Republican senators. But it got uglier and uglier as time went on. And one by one, the Republicans decided, "This isn't in good faith; this is a dictatorship," and they weren't going to be part of it.

And the message sent by no votes was just that?

The message sent by no votes is that in the end, you have to give to receive. And the best example for health care is that the president could have said: "I won, you lost. We're going to have a health care package, but here is the deal. Pick three clauses. Pick three components. I'm going to give you three of them. You decide among yourselves what three changes you want, and then we're going to handle the rest of the bill. But I'm going to give you a voice, and I'm going to give you a vote." He didn't do that.

There's no reason not to change medical liability or no reason not to change lawsuit abuse. There's no reason not to change the selling of policies across state lines. There were powerful special interest groups that were donating to the Democrats and were on Obama's side that he employed in this. But if he was genuinely serious about bipartisan legislation, he could have done those. And if he had done those, there would have been Republican votes.

And the message sent, and then the tone set by that divisive debate over health care for the rest of the tenure was what?

There's poison. There's poison in Washington. It's toxic. I watched it. I was at the retreat that Obama came to. And Republicans challenged him, and I watched him answer questions. Instead of it building a sense of, "We can get this done together," it did exactly the opposite. The moment that Obama left the stage, the Republican leadership looked at each other and said: "We lost this. He played us. And he did far better than we did. We look like critics. He looked like just someone who was exasperated by trying to get something done. We can't do this anymore."

Meaning?

Meaning this public effort to reach out, we did not succeed. He did; we didn't.

"We can't do this anymore" means what?

Meaning we got rolled by the president. We were unable to explain why we disagreed. We were ineffective in putting forward our own point of view. He dominated the conversation because he was there at the podium, and we could only ask questions. It was not a format that put us on an even level.

... But, you know, I've got to acknowledge something here. In terms of strategy, Republicans actually did very badly. Now, they were able politically to make the 2010 election a referendum on what had happened, but legislatively, they were not particularly effective. And too often, because the president is such a good speaker, such a good communicator, too often they had their weakest communicators up against him, and they lost as a result.

The 2009 Tea Party revolt or rebellion or whatever people want to call it, what did that say about what was going on? And how did each side, the Republican leadership and the White House, get it or didn't get it? What was going on?

Let's be candid. Richard Nixon won his election in '68 because of the establishment. Gerald Ford won in '76, the primary, because of the establishment. Ronald Reagan may have been a conservative, but he had significant establishment support. The first time--and George W. Bush as well. The first time that it was a genuine grassroots movement was in 2009. The Tea Party rose up. I give Glenn Beck considerable credit for it, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. These are people who encouraged the grassroots to rise up and say, "Enough is enough." There was no organization. There was no one donating to this. It truly was spontaneous.

On April 15, so many more thousands of people showed up than anyone ever imagined. They did it in a number of different places, and people realized that they had common ground, and it became, with each passing month, more of a movement. Now that you had social media just entering the field, you actually had a way for people to organize, a way for them to talk to each other. Now that you had talk radio fully developed, you had a mouthpiece. And the combination of those two, and the frustration from the grassroots, all came together to create this incredible movement that, within a year, the summer of 2010, I never saw town halls like this, and it hasn't happened since. Normally 50 people would show up; 500 were coming. In places where you would have 200 people, they'd have 1,500 people there. And they were all angry. And they all were ready to take on their member of Congress, usually a Democrat. And they were very aggressive. They were informed; they were educated; they were persuasive and aggressive, which made for perfect television coverage.

So, by the summer of 2010, what had been some spontaneous uprising was now being reported by all three television networks, by the cables, and it was changing politics as we know it. The Republicans were able to capture the House, not because of what happened in Washington, but because of what happened in the other 50 states. It's really incredible.

And did the White House get it? Did the establishment of the Republican Party get it?

The White House did not get it because they just thought this was a bunch of rich, white businesspeople angry because they were being gored. They did not realize that these were genuine, spontaneous, hundreds of thousands of people that had had enough. And the reason why they didn't realize it is because they actually--Obama had done that in 2008 but had forgotten about it. This is how Barack Obama got elected. It was also spontaneous. The unions supported Hillary Clinton. The actual real grassroots supported Barack Obama. And the same exact thing happened on the right.

People on the right, you know, they go to work; they pay their bills; they raise their families. They don't do politics like this. They never showed up for events like this. There is a psychological difference and a behavioral difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are quieter, and Democrats are louder. Republicans don't publicly engage. They don't talk about their politics in public because they're afraid of being criticized. Democrats can't wait to talk about their politics and love criticizing. In 2010, the mood of the Republicans became the mood of the Democrats. And they did rise up, and they did speak up and speak out. They were more engaged in politics than at any time since Reagan's election in 1984, his re-election. And that's what made the difference.

Going back for a second, the 2008 election and McCain picking [Sarah] Palin, was this sort of like the premonition or the opening door to what takes place later on, which is something that surprised the hell out of the establishment?

The establishment was shocked and dumbfounded by John McCain's pick. But I sat with them the night that Sarah Palin delivered her speech at the Republican convention. I was in the Team 100 box, the region's box. These are the biggest donors to the GOP, and they were mesmerized by her and absolutely excited and thrilled by her speech. They were still nervous about her, but boy, did she perform.

And then it got worse and worse and worse. To this day, I meet people who say that if it wasn't for Palin, they would have voted for McCain. She gave one of the best convention speeches I have ever seen, and she mesmerized those people. But her debate performance and her inability to identify facts that most government students would know really upset people. That was really the first time that you had this establishment versus grassroots conflict, and you had it because, for some people, Sarah Palin was Margaret Thatcher. For others, Sarah Palin--I don't even know who the analogy would be, but just someone who was not qualified to be where she was.

So health care gets passed. It's passed, encompasses one-third of the economy, and yet it gets passed on a party-line vote. So at that point, where are we? Has the Obama administration completely given up on bipartisanship? Have the Republicans completely ridiculously given up on any chance of working with this man or what?

You have some Republicans in the House and Senate that still want to find a combination, particularly the older members and the more moderate members. But they're the ones that came to Washington, the ones that started their careers before 1974. [They] were the ones that were most interested in working with Barack Obama because, up to 1974, you did work across the aisle. And Ronald Reagan, in 1980 to '84, Reagan did not have the House, wasn't even close, but he got so much legislation through because he spent a lot of time working with Democrats, compromising, giving up things that he really wanted, to get 90 percent of what mattered. ... The elected officials who had been in Washington in the early '80s when Reagan was president, they still had hope, even after health care, that they could work with the president, because they remember Ronald Reagan embracing Democrats in the House and getting so much done. And they thought that, just as Reagan was ideological and Obama is ideological, they'd be able to find common ground on some items. The ones who came in after '86 had a very different approach. And clearly, the ones who had been elected within the last 10 years were much more ideological and much less willing to compromise.

But all it takes is two or three senators, all it takes is a dozen House members, and you do have a sense of at least some agreement. But as time went on, it got more and more poisonous. And when I'm asked to give one word to describe that environment that led to 2010: toxic. It truly became toxic.

Leading up to 2010, there's the Young Guns and Cantor and--

Awful name.

Yes, but that's beside the point. Did you come up with it?

No.

Just describe a little bit about how they understood what was going on out there. They tried to work with the Tea Party folks and leading to the '87...

Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor were a different breed of Republican. They truly got it. They were conservative and ideological but practical. They came to politics because of some very defined core beliefs. But they understood that this was the 21st century. All three of them knew how to communicate. All three of them understood the power of messaging. And all three of them approached politics in a much more practical way rather than either a political way or a hardcore ideological way.

I want to emphasize that ideology did come first, but it was ideology that was accessible, ideology that you could explain sitting over a cup of coffee and a donut. Their effort was to win in places that Republicans had not won, by running candidates that were not typical of the GOP. This is the first time that it wasn't business-focused, and if it was, it was small business, not corporation. And the people that they recruited weren't that happy with Wall Street, were not in bed with the big banks. In fact, as time went on, they became more and more pro-credit union because it was smaller, much more like the Cheers of banking, where everybody knows your name.

The candidates that they looked for were not lawyers, so they were small-business owners and teachers and people with nontraditional careers for someone running for office. And they really fanned out across the country, and they recruited some incredible people. In many cases, they had never held public office, but they had compelling stories, and they were willing to work hard. They didn't sound like politicians because they weren't politicians.

I credit Young Guns with so much of what happened in 2010 because they took that mood out there, attached candidates that best fit that mood, found candidates who were really good communicators, that could speak to that anger, and they stopped funding all these people who would get re-elected automatically, and instead channeled the money into those that really needed it. It was just a different environment.

But a large majority of them were Tea Party-oriented, and their success came from Tea Party folks that felt they were good, very good for Washington. They were also people that tended not to believe that compromise was a good route to take. They were also the people that eventually would cause a lot of heartburn for the leadership of the Republican Party once they got into Congress.

... It is somewhat ironic that the 2010 class owe their political allegiance to Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Yet they are more loyal to their own voters back home than they were to their political leadership in Washington.

The rise in 2011 of the birthers, and specifically 2011--not rise; it had been in a lot before that, but that Donald Trump [is] jumping onboard.

You can skip this, because it's not relevant.

Not relevant because?

It's not a big deal. They don't matter. Tea Party mattered. Birthers is just like a little sliver of the Tea Party.

But the fact that Donald Trump sees that as something to jump onboard?

It's still not relevant, because Trump did not become relevant until he talked about a wall. ... Trump was not relevant until he said that many of these Mexicans coming over are murderers and rapists, which became this huge story. And then he talked about building a wall. And the more that he got attacked, the higher his numbers went. The more that he got attacked, and the more that people started to protest, the more people started to pay attention to him.

The truth is that the people [who] created Donald Trump aren't the people on the right. It was the news media and the people on the left. Trump would have been irrelevant, but the comments that he made upset people so much in the media that they reported it and criticized him. And every time they criticized him, he got to fight back, and his numbers went up, so they criticized him even more. This is the ultimate example of political correctness. And if you were a conspiracy theorist, you would say that the networks and the establishment were complicit in this, because they made it possible for Trump to get so much airtime everywhere. Even on MSNBC they're giving him airtime for him to launch into stuff that everyone said they disagreed with. But the more that he said it, the higher his numbers went.

... Respond to the fact that this idea that there's a racist--

You're wasting time. I'm not trying to be funny here. I am answering all your questions. This is not relevant. If I'm watching this show, and you spend more than 30 seconds on the birther stuff, then something is wrong.

Grand Bargain: Was there ever a chance for anything to be done? Boehner was there; Cantor was eventually working with them. But did they misunderstand the realities of what their house was all about?

They came so close. They were within hours of making a deal. The problem was that the political forces on both sides were so strong. But if the leadership had not caved to their own side, they could have achieved it. If Barack Obama said to Nancy Pelosi, "No, we're not going to increase taxes by another $300 million. We're not going to do it, Nancy. I'm sorry. We're going to do this for the good of the country," it could have happened.

If Republicans had been more willing to stand up for Simpson-Bowles, as so many of them were quietly but not publicly, it could have happened. We got involved, to some degree, in the language there. I believe 100 members of the Republican House delegation would have voted for Simpson-Bowles if they had the chance. That's how upset they were with the spending, how afraid they were of the deficit and how willing they were to compromise to be able to get this whole fiscal thing in order. One hundred members would have been willing to say, "I'm going to support tax cuts as a part of this process." That doesn't exist anymore. You wouldn't get more than 40 at this point. But at that moment, during that whole negotiation, so-called Grand Bargain, it was one of those things in history where everything got aligned at the same time.

And just as Obama and Boehner connected emotionally and had a meeting of the minds, so did Joe Biden and Eric Cantor. So you had these two different negotiations going on. And everyone, for the most part in good faith--but then the extremists in the parties blew it up. I mean, you've got to understand, I have met her; she has been nice to me. But in watching on the inside and asking members repeatedly, I have nothing nice to say about Nancy Pelosi. And the reason why: It's not the tone, it's not her comments; it's her poisoning the relationship between Republicans and Democrats. They used to play cards together in the cloakroom. They used to go out to dinner together in restaurants. They used to find--

So it was both sides unwilling to play the game?

But it's not a game. It was both sides unwilling to go home and say that they compromised, because that would have been heard by the left of the Democratic Party and the right of the Republican Party as selling out. They came so close. They were within hours of making this happen.

I'm going to jump ahead because we're almost out of time. The shutdown, the Ted Cruz filibuster, the shutdown, why Boehner agrees to go along, he's going to teach a lesson: What was going on at that moment in time? Was that all emotion? Was there any possibility that Obama was ever going to step back from Obamacare at that point?

This is the Republicans always overplayed their hand and never, never approached any of these strategic decisions with any form of humility. The shutdown was a disaster for the GOP in terms of public support, but it did set the tone for 2014. So let me say where people like me got it wrong. I mean, let's take an overarching look at it. Every day that the shutdown continued, the Republican numbers fell, and the Democratic numbers rose. But every day that the shutdown continued, the right of the Republican Party, or the populist wing, because it's not always ideological, got stronger and stronger and stronger, and the dislike for the establishment grew and grew.

So you're having this shift within the GOP internally that is not visible to those on the outside. You see the numbers dividing further and further. And it got pretty bad for the GOP. On the day that the shutdown ended, the Democrats had, I don't know, 15-point, 20-point advantage, when normally they have a two- or three-point advantage. They won it. They won the battle, but they lost the war, because those Republicans who watched this shutdown and said, "You know what? To hell with Washington. To hell with the spending. To hell with the taxes. To hell with the regulations. To hell with the lobbyists and the special interest groups. Screw 'em," those Republicans were so energized and so enthusiastic that they came to vote in incredible numbers in the following election, whereas the Democrats who were supposed to back Barack Obama, they sat at home. They watched all of this, threw up their hands, and said: "This is a mess. I don't care." Republicans threw up their fists and says, "Damn it, I'm going to change it." So hard to believe, but what was a political disaster on the day that it ended became an incredible triumph at the next election.

2014 election happens. Obama turns more toward executive action. He doesn't have the House; he doesn't have the Senate. He's kind of feeling a little freer in what he's going to be able to do. What does that do to the Republicans? And what do you think the thinking is about this president at that point?

The breaking point for a lot of Republicans was the executive action on immigration, which so many of them thought was unconstitutional. And sure enough, it was thrown out by judge and panels. That led to Donald Trump being able to say that we need to build a wall, that the people coming over are bad people. You've got congressional Republicans furious at Barack Obama for ignoring Congress. You've got Donald Trump taking the most extreme position of anybody else at the very moment that our borders, that kids are flooding through, and there are a number of high-profile violent acts at the border or by illegal immigrants in the country.

Just as you see in so many of these cases, particularly in the last 10 years, history came together at that one moment. It was perfect for Trump and actually the opposite for Obama, that he took a position that Democrats wanted him to take, and he was prepared to use the White House to make it happen. But the fact that they were able to hold it up told voters back home that if Republicans only fought more, they could have overturned so much more.

So the Republicans in the House particularly were never able to explain that, even if they controlled the House and the Senate, you don't control the government; that the president can ignore you. And their small victories such as immigration actually fueled the reaction at home that they're not doing enough. Instead of getting credit for holding up immigration, they were blamed for not holding up even more.

So, once again, the battle lines are drawn. And with each one of these conflicts, the populist percentage, the populist component of the GOP was bigger and bigger and bigger, and the establishment, the status quo component, [was] getting smaller and smaller.

We've got to talk about the puzzle piece just before this. Then, after the 2012 election, there's the Republican "autopsy." And it's like: "OK, we've got to win back some of the Hispanic votes. Immigration has got to be something that we all deal with." ... And then what happens? What was the feeling, and how did it change? And why [does] immigration become what it becomes, and nothing is done on it?

The secret of the time is that there were between 120 and 140 House Republicans who wanted to do something significant on immigration, not a path to citizenship, but some sort of path to legalization, some sort of path that said that you will pay a fine; you'll learn to speak English; you'll have to have a job; you go through a background check. But that the status quo was no longer acceptable.

Some pretty hardcore conservatives had come to this conclusion. They were begging Barack Obama to sit tight and wait, because with each passing month, another two or three or four House Republicans switched from supporting the status quo to supporting some sort of reform. But Obama wouldn't wait. Obama saw the political benefit of turning this into an electoral issue, of trying to turn Latinos and Hispanics against the GOP.

So he does this executive action. And of course there's going to be an explosion. And of course you now have Republicans who quietly were ready to compromise now unwilling to do so, because they felt they had a president who wanted all or nothing. And it blew apart a consensus that actually was developing.

There were meetings that are going on between Ryan and [Rep. Luis] Gutierrez (D-Ill.). There were meetings that were going on between [Rep. Mario] Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and some of his Democratic colleagues. You had the Gang of whatever number, because people were coming and going, of Republicans and Democrats meeting every single week. And even though they were unsuccessful in putting something forward on the House side, the Senate actually got something done.

It was all there. The ingredients were there. It takes time, and Barack Obama decided either that he was unwilling to give them that time or that he wanted to make a political issue. But either way, it doesn't matter the reason why. His executive action blew up any chance at getting something done, and that was part of his desire, at that point, just to do what he wanted to do.

The position on their side, of course, is different. They say Obama wanted to do more, but he was told "Shut up" by the Gang of Eight. "We've got to get this thing done." They do get it done. It passes in the Senate. It goes to the House, and Boehner holds off, and nothing happens, because he knows what the game is. But the problem is that there's no compromise to be had among his own people.

It's happening. The fact is, it's happening. I was there. I sat in on the meetings. It was happening. Movement was happening. Agreements were happening in rooms like this, two, three, four members hashing it out, little edits here and there the principals agreed to. You know, it's interesting, because probably the single biggest sticking point was Obamacare and immigration. Would you give Obamacare that was available to anybody else? Would Obamacare be available to those who were not citizens, who came here illegally? That was a bridge that Republicans were not willing to cross. That was a bridge that Democrats demanded that they cross. That was probably the biggest sticking point. But even on that, they felt that they would have some way to work it through.

Was there ever a point where it could happen? I mean, Boehner thought after the shutdown that maybe at this point he could bring it forward again.

Before Cantor's loss, the assumption was there would be a vote in September. After Cantor lost, people tried to label it a loss because of immigration. Cantor was a supporter of getting some agreement done, and when he was defeated, people claimed that that was the reason why he was defeated, which it wasn't. But that killed it. At that moment, Republicans decided, you know, "We can't do this."

Because?

... At that moment Republicans decided, "We can't do this because it will be too much of a backlash at home," and nobody trusted the president and Washington. You cannot underestimate just how distrusted Barack Obama is by every Republican and almost every Democrat. The level of distrust on Capitol Hill, it's the only thing that they're bipartisan in. It's the only thing they agree on, is that they cannot count on the president to do A, B or C. There's no faith in him right now. The Democrats blame the Republicans. The Republicans blame Barack Obama. But they still agree that this administration can't be trusted.

But what about the autopsy, the decision that, for the good of the Republican Party, we had to do something?

It was smart. They were right. I studied politics. I studied demographics. I study attitudes and language. You cannot win a national election by getting 27 percent of the Latino vote, the fastest growing segment of the population in America. They were right. You cannot win an election if you're losing younger and middle-aged women. You cannot [win] an election if there are some places where you're no longer competitive in.

Republicans have perfected winning in the off years, and the Democrats need the same autopsy for why they fail miserably in off-year elections, why they can't win governorships, why they just, if it's 2010, 2014, 2018, it's a disaster for them. They need to do the same thing Republicans are. But the Republicans did a sobering study of where things stood. They realized after 2012 that America is changing, the demographics, the attitudes, and that if you wanted to win the White House, not just Congress, you had to appeal to younger voters, Latinos and women. What has happened in 2016 is that they have lost the support of younger voters, Latinos and women.

Is there anything else that you think, out of these eight years, you look back at it, and the understanding of this bipartisanship that never happened, where we have arrived today, what's the lesson of these eight years?

The most significant moment for me was in the three or four hours before President Obama took the oath of office in 2009. I came down very early, because I wanted to see everything that was happening. I had great credentials, so I could walk everywhere. I was shocked at how incredibly wealthy, well-dressed, elderly white women were hanging out, talking to hip-hop, urban, 16-year-old black kids. I was just blown away by every size, shape and color of American interacting with each other, and everyone being polite, and everyone--The lines were awful, the crowds were stifling, and yet everybody was so well behaved and so considerate and so civil and so excited. I ran into so many people who did not vote for Barack Obama and still felt good that day. I cannot begin to tell you what an amazing, euphoric moment that was for so many people. It really was a coming together. It really was America at its best.

And to think of how poisonous and toxic it has become, and you really care about the country, and you set aside your partisanship, you have to be angry, because these elected officials betrayed us. We had that moment in time to do amazing things, and we blew it. Our country has become weaker as a result, less able to solve our problems as a result. It's a less fun place to live and to grow and do things we want to do. The American dream is weaker today than it was back then.

On Jan. 20, at 11:00 a.m., it was America at its best. Today, as we do this interview, it just feels like America at its worst.

And you blame who for this?

All of us, all of us. I blame the people behind the camera. I blame the pollsters and language people. I blame the elected officials. And I blame the American people, because they could have demanded more. They could have stood up and said: "Enough. Just enough. Let's talk." And instead they decided to yell, and it's gotten us nowhere.

And your overview of the 2016 elections? I mean, the two candidates that are running, what's your bottom line on it?

We have two candidates that haven't said anything positive about anything. In maybe two or three decades, you have two candidates that rose to the top of their profession by attacking the others, and we're going to get the politics that we deserve as a result. I wish we had a Ronald Reagan. I wish we had a JFK. If those were the nominees, wow, we could be great again.