In the first of an ongoing series of interviews with World Ahead’s authors and friends, our Founder and Publisher Eric M. Jackson sat down recently with Rod D. Martin, a World Ahead author and former colleague of Jackson’s at PayPal.com. Martin is widely respected as a prescient futurist and as one of the nation’s leading conservative strategists. And like many other former PayPalians, he is a technology entrepreneur and angel investor. [Ed. Note: World Ahead Media has since become WND Books]
August 24, 2007
Jackson: A lot has changed since you and Aman [Verjee] wrote Thank You, President Bush. Where do you think the parties stand going into the 2006 elections?
Martin: Well, there are a couple different ways to look at that. The conventional way — and it may prove correct — is to note that George Bush spent, perhaps misspent, a lot of his “political capital” very quickly in 2005, and Democrats stand to gain dramatically this fall. I don’t dispute that assessment, although I think we may well pull it out and hold onto Congress if nothing more goes terribly wrong for our side.
But I think the better way to look at this is to take a longer view. 2004 represented a watershed in American political history: Evangelical Christians, for the first time in a century, actually turned out and voted in something approaching — although still not close to — their full potential. This combined with Karl Rove’s and Morton Blackwell’s brilliant turnout strategy demonstrated something I’ve been preaching for sixteen years: that we’ve turned the corner, we’ve reached a natural conservative majority in this country, and running to the mushy middle is a recipe for disaster. The Democrats have to do it. We not only don’t have to, but when we do, we get clobbered, ala Bush ’92 and Dole ’96. And maybe Congress 2006, thanks to immigration and runaway spending.
But in reality, we — and by that I mean conservatives — have never been so strong. That’s the long term reality. When Beltway Republicans finally get that through their heads, our position will be secure for two generations and America will be a far better, freer, safer place.
Jackson: Would you write Thank You, President Bush today?
Martin: Absolutely. Bush is controversial right now, like Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan before him; but in time he’ll be seen as one of this country’s great Presidents.
Jackson: Richard Viguerie voted for Bush (admittedly kicking and screaming), but is now saying that Bush has betrayed conservatism. What do you say to that?
Martin: I would never speak ill of such a truly great man as Richard Viguerie, but I have to disagree with him. There are plenty of things I’m not happy about right now: spending, border security, McCain-Feingold, lots of stuff. But those just aren’t the sole measure of conservatism. I mean, my gosh, even Reagan passed an amnesty bill. How many people really got the border security issue before the Minutemen? Not very many. And opinion among true-blue conservatives is a lot more divided even now than Tom Tancredo would admit, so we have to be realistic about whether any of these things are “betrayals” or, as in the case of George Bush, precisely what the man said he’d do when he ran.
But let’s look at the Bush record a little closer. He abandoned the ABM Treaty and deployed real missile defenses. He didn’t negotiate with al Qaeda or beg for UN sanctions: he smashed them, immediately. He directed the Department of Justice to take the position before federal courts — for the first time in 40 years! — that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a gun. He enacted an outstanding Health Savings Account law, which is the single biggest pro-free market health care reform in the world; and oh by the way, its already making a huge difference in bringing coverage to the previously uninsured.
He’s enacted some of the most significant supply-side tax cuts in history, unleashing an investor boom that has reached every level of American society. He’s systematically revoked all of Bill Clinton’s abusive executive orders, and methodically put some of the finest judges in American history on every federal bench in sight. He’s defended the right to life at home and abroad better than any President in history, even Reagan. And he’s consistently stood up for people of faith and their values, even in the face of an ever-more-hostile establishment and press.
Maybe biggest of all, though, he put it all on the line for a free market overhaul of Social Security that no one believed any officeholder would ever have the guts to propose. And he’s still pushing it: he said just last week that it’s on his agenda for 2007. That’s just heroic.
Any one of those things would have made him a conservative hero a few years ago. Today it makes him a liberal to some of our folks; and honestly, I think that’s a pretty good measure of our success.
Jackson: So Viguerie is just off-base?
Martin: No, but he’s leaving out how far we’ve come. He’s exactly right to say that you can’t out-Democrat the Democrats. The Congress has let earmarks get out of hand, the President tried to buy off some of the left’s key interest groups with No Child Left Behind and the Prescription Drug Benefit — I’m not saying he didn’t believe in those things, just that belief was not his only motive — and I think we’re paying for that now. People elected us to do the exact opposite of those things: if they wanted Democrats, they’d have elected real ones, and they may do exactly that this fall. But if we’re going to be fair, and I’m not saying politics ever is, those are comparatively small things compared to this President’s real and genuinely conservative achievements.
Jackson: The group you’re planning to launch, TheVanguard.Org, has been called “the conservative MoveOn”. What do you think of that?
Martin: I think it’s premature. I think it’s a lot to live up to. I don’t have to agree with those guys to think they’re brilliant. But it is certainly what we need to be, and certainly no one else on the conservative side is doing what we’re doing.
Jackson: You say it’s premature, but in fact there’s a lot to be said for what you’ve done. Your site is already getting heavier traffic than a lot of long established, powerful groups like FreedomWorks, the Christian Coalition, even the NRCC and NRSC; you’re even beating the Minutemen. You have top national leaders on your board like Grover Norquist, Stephen Moore and Gil Amelio. Insiders say you played a key role in the death tax fight, the extension of the Bush tax cuts, and even in thwarting the UN’s 4th of July gun ban conference. You seem to be moving pretty quickly.
Martin: We are. But honestly, everything you just described came out of market tests. Despite some early overly-zealous coverage to the contrary, we’re not ready to launch yet. We’ve got so much technology we’re getting ready to deploy you just wouldn’t believe it. And we’ve still got some funding hurdles to climb: I can tell you, the Republican establishment is not terribly fond of what we’re doing: it transfers way too much power out of the Beltway to regular folks. But like the commercials used to say, “we will sell no wine before it’s time.” PayPal was like that too, you may recall.
Jackson: So you’re not going to “bootstrap” the site? Follow the “lean startup” model?
Martin: MoveOn raised about $33 million in 2006 and put half a million activists on the ground. That’s about the size of the United Auto Workers. No, we’re going to launch something truly excellent or we won’t launch anything at all, even if I have to eat my entire investment in this. The last thing the world needs is another crappy conservative website, and they won’t be getting one from me.
Jackson: TheVanguard.Org is new, but not your first group called Vanguard. What’s the story on that?
Martin: Well, first off, when we launch, we will not be TheVanguard.Org: we’re carefully focus-grouping names right now. But I actually got the domain name all the way back in 1998. It matched the name of my weekly column, and for all practical purposes the site was an early blog. But over time it grew, until we had a lot — and I really do mean a lot — of policy resources online. We started a group called The Vanguard because people wanted to be part of what we were doing, but it was an all-volunteer kind of thing: low budget, high grassroots.
Later, sometime in 2000 or so, we got the idea to turn it into a political action committee and so Vanguard PAC was born, sort of: we didn’t actually raise money for it because we didn’t get that far, and when I went to Silicon Valley that all kind of went out the window. We ditched the PAC idea but kept the name, changing it to Vanguard Policy Action Counsel.
Jackson: How did that go?
Martin: Extremely well, considering. With a volunteer staff, there’s only so much you can do, especially while we’re all doing things like PayPal. But we mobilized a lot of people: the internet is great for that. And that really paid off big, especially in our Florida voter turnout effort in 2004, in our long-term effort among Evangelicals, in the Roberts and Alito confirmation fights, in our work on the Bush Social Security plan, and perhaps most notoriously, in our opposition to the Harriet Miers nomination.
Jackson: Your group was the first to oppose her publicly, correct?
Jackson: This won you no friends at the White House, as I recall.
Martin: We upset some folks. But we were first, and we were far from last, and ultimately she withdrew, which was a very important thing. It saved the Bush presidency, because the rank-and-file were beginning to agree with Viguerie’s betrayal thesis, and it saved the Supreme Court, because she just wasn’t up to that job; and Sam Alito is one of the best justices this country will ever have.
Jackson: So if that was going so well, why change? Why now?
Martin: Vanguard PAC was fine, and it was pretty effective, but who really needs another conventional conservative group? MoveOn has shown the way, just as GOPAC did a generation ago. And just as an unanswered GOPAC overturned the old order, an unanswered MoveOn is a very dangerous thing too. Given our experience in Silicon Valley, we’re better positioned than virtually anyone to provide that answer, and so the way I see it, we have a duty to step up.
Jackson: Why the word “Vanguard”?
Martin: It’s Lenin’s term. The left is supposedly “the vanguard of the revolution.” I have always thought they were just the reactionary forces of a tyranny as old as Pharaoh, and that those of us who believe in liberty ought to be the vanguard of Washington’s revolution instead. Oh, and it annoys them.
Jackson: You like that part.
Martin: Yes. [He grins.]
Jackson: We were at PayPal together, though unfortunately I wasn’t able to write about you in The PayPal Wars because of your job function [ed.- Martin was Special Counsel to PayPal founder and CEO Peter Thiel]. Would you say you learned anything there that’s helpful in your current endeavors?
Martin: Oh gosh yes. PayPal is the ultimate viral marketing story and the ultimate underdog story all rolled into one. No one will ever top it. We draw on that every day. Indeed, I’d say PayPal invented much if not most of the technology and the ideas that make MoveOn possible.
Jackson: So what’s next?
Martin: Getting The Vanguard Project up and running. A number of business interests, mostly tech. Some charitable stuff: we’re looking at ways to alleviate poverty in Africa and hopefully save the environment over there from a bunch of particularly nasty leftist regimes. And more books of course. Always books.
Jackson: [Laughs] Yes, don’t forget that part. You have a contract.
Martin: Samuel Johnson said that it’s always the writer’s duty to make the world better. We’re darn sure going to do our best.
— Editor’s Note: This interview was originally posted at WorldAhead.com.