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Collision Course

Washington Post reporter Dan Balz talks about the 2012 election and more at the Festival of Books

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The Weekly caught up with Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz ahead of his appearance at this weekend's Tucson Festival of Books to discuss Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America. You can catch Balz discussing "Can Democracy Save Our Politics" alongside John Nichols and John Schwarz at the UA's Gallagher Theater at 2 p.m., Saturday, March 15, and "The Future of Elections in America" with Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel in the Integrated Learning Center at 11:30 a.m., Sunday, March 16.

What was the deal with Clint Eastwood and the empty chair?

This was Clint Eastwood freelancing. He had appeared at at least one and maybe a couple of fundraisers for Romney over the summer and the Romney team liked what he had to say. They gave a prime spot and they had a conversation with him in the afternoon that left everyone thinking everybody was on the same page about what he was going to do. And then he comes out and they see this chair and they think, "What in the world is going on?" and he does his deal and they were dumbfounded and alarmed and chagrined. (Romney strategist) Stuart Stevens was somewhere down in the bowels of the convention center and walked out of the room that he was in and was physically sick.

It shows the dangers of having an unscripted moment.

As you know, these things are scripted right down to the minute and nothing is left to chance and I think they thought that was the case here. And lo and behold, Clint Eastwood goes off script.

Mitt Romney told you after the election that he felt as though, "If I'm explaining, I'm losing." I've heard that from candidates in Arizona, too. Is political reporting increasingly a game of sound bites over complex stories about policy?

I think the whole world is like that. The speed at which information now moves past us is so much more rapid than it was 10 years ago and certainly 20 or 25 years ago. People who do political campaigns, their notion is, we have to drive our message. We have to figure out what our message is and we have to stay on that. And to the degree to which we are responding to criticism from the other side or criticism from the media or responding to some embarrassing moment—time spent on that is often wasted time.

You've been at this a long time. How do you think the 24-hour news cycle, the online news sources, Twitter and the like have changed political journalism?

They have changed it in several ways. One is that we're all fixated on whatever pops up at the moment and we're fixated on that very intensively, whether it deserves it or not. It's sort of the nature of the beast. We all gravitate to the latest sound-bite outrage. Small bits of information can have a significant half-life in the world of politics. The kind of one-quote outrage that generates a lot of discussion and talk is more common. We write more about less than we used to. All of us tend to write about something right there in front of us and we forget there are a lot of other things in politics that we should be looking at, whether it's issues or demographic groups or the contest of ideas or the shape of the country. Some of that gets lost in the Twitter world.

Immigration is a huge issue in Arizona. We are the home of SB 1070 and also the home of John McCain and Jeff Flake, who were both members of the Gang of Eight that got immigration reform through the Senate. But that has stalled in the House. McCain has made a point of saying that immigration reform is vital to the future of the Republican Party because Latino voters are being alienated from the GOP, but Republicans in the House seem to be opposed to the path to citizenship as part of any reform. Are they harming the GOP's chance of winning the White House in 2016?

I think that they are. Most House Republicans do not get elected by electorates that are significantly diverse, whereas when you run for president, you have to run across the entire country and the nation is becoming increasingly diverse. So many House Republicans are responding to their constituencies, and their constituents, for the most part, don't like the idea of a path to citizenship. They do see it as amnesty. And so it means that the Republican Party, as a congressionally based party, can continue to hold the House while having a majority of its members opposed to comprehensive immigration reform. But the McCains of the world and the Flakes of the world see how Arizona is likely to change in the future, or how Texas is likely to change in the future, or how difficult it's going to be for Republican nominee who cannot attract a significant percentage of Latino votes to win Arizona or New Mexico or Nevada or even some other states that will have a growing Hispanic population. So it is a tension between a party that is congressionally based and a party with aspirations to win nationally, and McCain and Flake are among those who are looking at it from a different vantage point and saying, we have to be aware of this. McCain makes another point, which is that passage of immigration reform is not necessarily going to win Republicans a single Hispanic vote. But his argument is that it at least kind of removes a sticking point and gives Republicans this opportunity to appeal to Hispanics on other issues where they believe they can make greater inroads then they've been able to do.

But then you have the arguments that Latinos are going to overwhelmingly vote Democratic, so you don't want more of them becoming voters.

That's in some ways kind of a defeatist attitude. It doesn't speak well of a party that says, "We are forever condemned to lose the vote of the fastest-growing part of the population by a 3-to-1 margin." Why should that be the case? Is there no way for Republicans in the future to find a way to compete to win a bigger share? Perhaps not a majority, but if Republicans consistently won 45 percent of the Hispanic vote, 43 percent of the Hispanic vote, as opposed to the 27 percent that Romney got, that would change the shape of presidential elections. But I think most Republicans who are thinking about winning nationally have not given up on the idea that they have to do better and there are ways to better.

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