Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs got into a heated exchange with Chris Matthews last night during a pre-debate interview and accused Matthews of making “some crazy, unfounded accusations” against President Obama.
David Corn of Mother Jones was also on the program.
Matthews, who is clearly frustrated along with other liberals at the President’s recent performance and his declining poll numbers, asked Gibbs whether Obama is a liberal or a conservative. This would normally be a simple question for a reasonably intelligent person, but it threw Gibbs for a loop.
Matthews: Let me ask you Robert Gibbs, is President Obama a liberal?
Gibbs: If I could just interject for a second?
Matthews: No, I want to ask you a question. Is President Obama a liberal? Yes or no.
Gibbs: I don’t know that the President has really strong feelings about political labels on any sides. I think the President believes that—
Matthews: Well what do you think he is? What would you call him?
Gibbs: I think he is—
Matthews: You’re a political expert. Is the President liberal or conservative? What is he?
Gibbs: I call him Mr. President, Chris. I call him a friend, I call him somebody who is going to fight for the middle class to make sure that they get ahead because for years and years they’ve been falling farther and farther behind. Let me build off of what David said though. We’re not taking into account at least half of this equation and that is the way the American people view Eric Cantor and all of the people that you just listed—they didn’t come out of this debt fight smelling too great either. And imagine—can you imagine anybody standing up on that stage tonight saying anything that Eric Cantor disagrees with? Can you imagine that happening? It’s not going to happen tonight. It’s not going to happen on any day between now and election day. And the Independents—
Corn: But Robert, isn’t the issue—
Gibbs: But hold on, hold on, let me finish my point. Independents don’t want to see games, they don’t want to see more partisan back-and-forth, they don’t want to see Republicans that supported infrastructure spending six months ago who now oppose it, who supported a payroll tax cut six months ago and now oppose it. They’re tired of those games. Independents want to see change, and Democrats want to see change. So I think what we’re entering into is a time in which, Chris, the choice that you put to David and to myself, I don’t think the President has to be one or the other. I think the success is to bring everybody together and to scold anybody in Congress that stands in the way.
Matthews: Yeah, I just don’t think the American people know what President Obama would do if no one was standing in his way? What would he do if he had the power to set policy? Would we cut the cost of government? Would we reduce the size of government? Would we radically change Medicare? Would we do any of the things that we argue about? We don’t know because he hasn’t told us, Robert. He hasn’t told us what he wants to do.
Corn: I think that’s ridiculous and not true at all.
Gibbs: I think it’s clear—I think it’s clear—no, no, hold on David, let me—let me—because Chris is making some crazy, unfounded accusations that somebody needs to answer.
Matthews: Crazy and unfounded accusations? Tell me what the President wants to do with Medicare.
Gibbs: The President wants to make sure that Medicare is there for when you get old enough to be 65, when I get old enough to be 65—
Matthews: Okay, everybody says that.
Gibbs: And when even my son gets old enough to be 65.
Matthews: Everybody says that.
Gibbs: I don’t think that—
Corn: Chris, I think it’s clear that Barack Obama is a progressive-minded person. I think you look at his career, his record, what he talks about with passion, it comes down on the side of progressive values. I think he’s had the dilemma—this challenge—of having to govern in conservative hostile times with hostage takers and he hasn’t always known—put it this way—it’s been a calculation on his part on what to do in order to appeal to Independents and the left while dealing with these recalcitrant Republicans. And it’s a very—it’s a hard game theory to work out. But at the end of the day, I would say this to Robert, next year Barack Obama won’t be running for reelection against Eric Cantor or John Boehner. He’ll be running against a Republican who will be doing—probably following your advice, Robert—all he can to distance himself from those crazy Republicans in the House, and so it may not be a good enough campaign strategy to say, “Hey, the Republicans are doing even worse now than we are” when you’re up—when you’re up for reelection next November.
Even though Gibbs is no longer Obama’s official mouthpiece he is serving as an outside consultant to the Obama campaign and should have been able to give Matthews a straight answer instead of saying that the President doesn’t feel strongly about political labels on either side.
Gibbs didn’t want to label the President as a liberal, even though that’s what he is, because it would mean that he would have also been forced to admit that he is a failed liberal who is rapidly losing his base and offers little in the way of hope for the future.
Despite Gibbs’ lack of specificity when answering Matthews, Chris got the final word in:
Matthews: Okay. I think, Robert, you do me a disservice when you say my ideas are crazy, when I want clarity from this President. I think most Americans you talk to (inaudible) the number around the President want to know clearly what he stands for if he could do what he wants to do.
It remains to be seen if Gibbs learned anything from this experience, but one thing is for sure. Don’t insult the host if he is a fellow liberal.