April 9 2009

Michelle Bernard: 'The Republican Party Needs to Find Its Soul'

Editor's Note: Michelle Bernard has become a bit of a celebrity as of late. Though president of the Independent Women's Forum, Bernard is perhaps most recognizable as a regular political analyst for MSNBC and The McLaughlin Group. Bernard recently took some time from her busy schedule to sit down with wOw's Andrew Belonsky to discuss the state of the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, the evolution of her career and what she's learned along the way.

wOw: Michelle, what are your thoughts on the Republican Party and, also, Michael Steele who, of course, took over as chairman?

MDBMICHELLE: I think the Republican Party needs to find its soul again. There are many Republicans who still look at the era of Ronald Reagan as nirvana. But this isn't 1980 anymore. One of the things that the Democrats have done that Republicans have not is to look at how our nation has changed politically and culturally, and keeping up with those changes. That doesn't mean Republicans should give up their belief in limited government or free markets. I don't think that's the case at all. But the Republican Party needs to find a way to reach out to many, many people, not just the religious right. That's not enough people to win elections. If the Republican Party is going to have a future, you've got to find a way to reach out to women, to African Americans and Hispanics. And there's a way to craft messages so that they are appealing to those groups.

wOw: And what about Michael Steele? Do you think he's doing a good job?

wOw: Yes, it certainly will be. Thankfully for us, right? Now, let's talk about Sarah Palin. You once wrote about how Palin really started to shine after she broke free from the - I think you actually did use the word - sexism, the McCain campaign.

MICHELLE: Yes.

wOw: Do you think that is just a part of his campaign staff, or is that a Republican problem?

MICHELLE: No. I don't think it's a Republican Party problem and I certainly hope it's not. I think that whoever was handling his campaign just didn't get it. And it might not have been conscious. It might not have been intentional, but it clearly seemed as if somebody thought, "We've got to tell this woman what to say. We've got to tell her how to dress. We have to make her out to be what we think she needs to be in order to win." And that seems somewhat paternalistic and somewhat sexist even if that was not the intent. It was the unintended consequences of their actions.

wOw: I see.

MICHELLE: And this is obviously subject to debate, but from my perspective, when we started seeing that there was some friction between Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign folks, and she started going off on her own, she seemed like a much better candidate.

wOw: Do you think that she could or should run for president in 2012?

MICHELLE: Well, I think the Republican Party has to do some soul searching before anyone decides who's going to run for president in 2012. I think time will tell with Sarah Palin, but I definitely believe that she has a political future ahead of her.

wOw: Michelle, I'm curious: What motivated you to study political science and to go into politics?

MICHELLE: You know, actually, I was a philosophy major in college, with a minor in political science. I started off being a science major thinking that I was going to go to medical school, but I took a class called Philosophy of the Law as an elective and on the very first day of the course I absolutely fell in love with philosophy of the law. I changed my major that day.

wOw: Wow.

MICHELLE: I can't remember who we were studying or what we were reading, I just remember thinking, "Wow, I finally found my place." And I knew that I wanted to go to law school; I knew that I wanted to fight against injustice.

wOw: And was this your freshman year, or sophomore?

MICHELLE: Oh, God, no. This was so late. I was a junior, so I had to go to summer school and take an outrageous number of credits every semester so that I could still graduate on time. My parents were really not very happy with my decision, to put it mildly.

wOw: Are your parents still alive?

MICHELLE: Oh, yes.

wOw: And they watch you on television?

MICHELLE: They do.

wOw: They must be so proud.

MICHELLE: They are. Very. During the Democratic convention they were watching me one night on the air and were almost speechless and just said, "We're so proud of you."

wOw: And what about you? Did you ever image this path when you changed your major? You're sort of a political celebrity, aren't you?

MICHELLE: Well, some people say that. Back then - even a year ago - I never imagined that I would be doing what I'm doing today. I never imagined that I'd be on MSNBC as a political analyst, analyzing the politics of now and particularly looking at the possibility of a black president.

wOw: You said that you're political analyst. A lot of people would call you a pundit. How do you feel about that word?

MICHELLE: I hate labels because a pundit to one person means one thing; it could be positive to one person and negative to another. I don't know what it means.

wOw: To a lot of people it is, in fact, a very negative term. Some people think that pundits simply get in the way of discourse. But the actual, first definition is "a learned person expert or authority," and it comes from the Hindi pandit, which is a learned man or, in your case, a learned woman. So, if anybody ever gives you hell for being a pundit, you should bring that up and say, "You know, it's actually quite an honor."

MICHELLE: Absolutely. I will do that.

wOw: Readers probably see you on television, but you also head the Independent Women's Forum. Could you tell us what your organization is all about?

MICHELLE: Sure. IWF is a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, DC, and we have a philosophical belief that women are not victims. We believe in limited government, free markets and personal responsibility. And we believe that free markets are really the great equalizer, and will allow women to become truly equal with men in areas where we still may be unequal.

wOw: And do you still believe in the free market after everything that's happened with Wall Street?

MICHELLE: I do. I think it's a mistake when people blame what has happened on Wall Street on the free market, rather than on greed. There are people who are greedy, there are people who are criminals and there are people who engage in all kinds of acts of fraud at the white-collar level. That's the problem. It's not the free market. It's greedy, unethical people.

wOw: Couldn't someone also argue that the free market encourages or seduces somebody to be greedy?

MICHELLE: We could have a philosophical debate on that: whether or not it actually seduces somebody to be greedy or whether somebody's actually born greedy. I strongly believe that there is good and that there is evil in all aspects of life. Our group doesn't believe in deregulation. We just don't believe in overregulation. Part of the problem we have seen is that we needed more regulation in certain areas, simply because so many people turned out to be more corrupt than one would have thought.

wOw: You and your organization have been criticized because people say that you're not, in fact, independent: You're very "right wing." Considering your politics, that's an understandable argument. So, what's the independent part of your group?

MICHELLE: We believe that women are really independent minded. Women's voices need to be heard on all policy areas that affect us, whether it's education policy, terrorism, environmentalism, energy work. My issues are no different than your issues because I'm a woman and you're a man, and that's where the independent comes from. I've been president of IWF for three years now and have worked very hard and I think we have been largely successful in reaching out to black and white women, independents, libertarians, Democrats and Republicans. Many people will always think of us as a conservative organization because we believe in limited government and free markets, but we can reach common ground with other people on certain issues. That's our goal. We want women's lives to be better.

wOw: Along the same lines of you drawing fire for your politics, you're blowing up on MSNBC and have received a lot of attention, some of it negative. People write not very nice things about you on the Internet. People say you're a nut or you're toeing a party line. That probably ruffles your feathers, but are you ever concerned about your family and your children's safety?

MICHELLE: I don't consciously worry about it all. Well, it's not at the forefront of my mind, although I am very cautious about how I travel, who I travel with, not being along in a parking lot late at night. Those kinds of things I am more aware of than I was before I was on television.

wOw: And you are married to Joe Johns, who works for CNN. Does that make easier? To be with somebody who's in the business?

MICHELLE: We are married but we're separated.

wOw: Oh, pardon me.

MICHELLE: Oh, it's OK. You know what, it doesn't really matter either way. It just doesn't really matter. I will tell you, being married to Joe ... When we first got married I was still working in a law firm and not doing any media at all, and that is the most unsafe I have ever felt. And it wasn't because of me being in the media, it was because of him. Just as a quick aside, he was covering a story about a Republican member of Congress. He was out West covering a story and someone was unhappy about his reporting. And they made physical threats against me, and said that they were going to find his wife and they were going to rape her. It was absolutely terrifying. And I used to save the nasty e-mails he would receive, like, "You nigger reporter," just as an example of how awful human beings could be. And I can say that my early experiences with him and the threats against both him and me have made it easier for me to let a lot of the stuff roll off my back.

wOw: What do you think is a more potent institution in the United States, or even the world: sexism or racism?

MICHELLE: You know, it's so difficult because I'm a double - a black person and a woman. I know a lot of my peers will disagree with me, but I feel that racism is still a lot stronger than sexism. And maybe that is based on my personal experiences. I have had people say nastier things to me about my race than I have about me being a woman.

wOw: That could also be because racism is easy. It's on the tip of the national tongue. It's more openly discussed in the United States.

MICHELLE: Exactly. It's clearly very, very possible. I can tell you of instances when, coming up as a junior lawyer, I was working with one male partner who would not work with women attorneys who had not played a team sport in high school or college. He thought that if you criticized a woman litigator who had not been involved in sports, she might cry. That was sexist and absolutely ridiculous. And I'm not that old, so that was not so long ago.

wOw: Earlier this year, right after going into office, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which you have not been a very enthusiastic supporter of because you think it tells women they're victims. I can understand that aspect of your argument, but then you said that Ledbetter may dissuade employers from hiring women. But it seems to me that this policy would be an incentive simply for employers to equalize their policies.

MICHELLE: There will be people who - whether the Lilly Ledbetter Act was passed or not - would already have equalized their policies. I think for every bad apple out there, there are ten good apples. I very seriously worry though about this constant "women are victims" language. And there are many women who don't want to hear it or don't want to be put in a position where an employer will consciously or unconsciously say, "Eck, I don't want to get in trouble. I don't know how to make sure that we are doing what is required by the law." I'm very worried about the unintended consequences. Unfortunately we won't know what they are for quite some time.

wOw: Obama recently created the White House Council on Women and Girls, which has been criticized by some women's groups because they say it doesn't have a strong enough central leader and its mission seems to be a bit unclear.

MICHELLE: My criticisms would be largely the same. I don't know Valerie Jarrett personally, but from what I have read about her, I have absolutely nothing but the highest regard for her. But I do wonder more about what the mission is and how they're going to figure it out. Initially, I was disturbed because it looked like they only reached out to left-of-center women's groups. I feel that people need to realize that there are many other women who have an interest in "women's issues" and how those issues are defined. This should not be dictated just by the left.

wOw: After Obama's election, everyone said, "Oh, how great, a post-racial United States." I understand that you think that racism is still a bigger problem than sexism, but do you think that we are going toward a post-racial United States?

MICHELLE: I do think that the election of Barack Obama demonstrates that we are moving toward a post-racial society. A lot of my black friends on the left make jokes about that and say, basically, "Michelle, you're crazy." But, if you don't see that, then you don't realize the significance of this country electing Barack Obama. It's huge. No one could have ever predicted it would happen as soon as it did. And I think that alone says volumes about where we are headed as a nation, in terms of race.

wOw: Now we've just got to get a woman in there.

MICHELLE: Exactly. And I think that's going to happen, and I think it's going to happen in our lifetime. I don't know anybody who would ever want to run against Hillary Clinton, for president or anything else. She is incredibly smart, brilliant, an excellent campaigner, and I think her time will come.

wOw: And if not her, somebody else.

MICHELLE: Exactly. Absolutely.

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