PLAYBOY: Apparently you’d go much further even than many liberals. You’ve described yourself as a socialist. Doesn’t that alienate you from most people? During the campaign Obama had to defend himself against those who charged he was a socialist.
O’DONNELL: Which he is. He was accused of it by socialists. We’re all socialists, at least any of us who agree Social Security is a good thing. I’m a socialist because I support Social Security and Medicare. They’re socialistic. Everyone who supports these programs is supporting socialism—including most Republicans.
PLAYBOY: Critics have called Obama’s health care law socialistic. Is it?
O’DONNELL: It’s not. It’s the most absurd, ridiculous nonsolution and covers approximately half the people who need to be covered. That’s what the Democratic liberal ideal had become by the time we got to the Obama presidency. Half of them? That’s your idea?
PLAYBOY: Wasn’t that expediency? Isn’t it necessary to compromise to get legislation passed?
O’DONNELL: This president began with the notion that the smartest way to solve the health care problem would be to expand Medicare, which is correct. Medicare for people over a certain age works well. It would have taken time to figure out how to make it work for everyone, but it could, and the American public could have understood it, it could have eventually passed, and it wouldn’t have scared so many people.
PLAYBOY: But do you agree that compromise is essential in a country as polarized as ours?
O’DONNELL: If you compromise and compromise on what you stand for, then what do you stand for? Nothing. Mario Cuomo was willing to lose his governorship over something not a single Democrat would ever risk an election over again: the death penalty. Does anyone remember the death penalty as a political issue? Guess which side the liberals were on. Guess which side the conservatives were on. The death penalty is not on the list of litmus tests for liberals now. Liberals gave up.
PLAYBOY: For practical reasons? Because polls show most Americans support it?
O’DONNELL: It is about being practical, and it is entirely about that for politicians. For Cuomo, a Roman Catholic, no, it’s not about being practical. It’s his agreement with the pope that thou shall not kill. The trick question now for politicians in either party is, Over what would you be willing to lose an election? Bill Clinton would not understand the question. He wouldn’t. Over time, each adjustment you make, especially each moral adjustment you make, moves you closer to being nothing. If you watch the conservative movement on the abortion issue and over the same period of time watch the Democratic Party on the death penalty—these two things that people call death—you will notice that one utterly and totally abandoned any attachment to principle and the other gripped the principle tighter and tighter over time. In the 1990s I could have said to Republicans, “Look, can’t you see the country is pro choice now? The country is pretty close to two thirds pro choice. This is a bad formula for you.” However, for many Republicans and virtually all antiabortion Republican voters, this is a deeply important moral issue on which they will not yield. And their refusal to yield on a moral issue over time gives them a moral center around which to organize.
PLAYBOY: Why did Democrats give up on the death penalty?
O’DONNELL: There is no lobbying interest against the death penalty. You could be a member of Congress for 40 years and never have one visit from a person lobbying against the death penalty. On the other hand, a vast lobby and a vast voter population have a strong interest in preserving all reproductive rights as they exist now and advancing some of them. It’s why abortion remains an issue for Democrats as it is for Republicans.
PLAYBOY: Will a stalemate remain when it comes to gun control?
O’DONNELL: Democrats have been silenced on gun control and ammunition control. By the way, at this time they should be taking on ammunition control, which is more important than gun control.
PLAYBOY: What’s the difference? If you have a car, you need gas. If you have a gun, you need ammunition. They go hand in hand.
O’DONNELL: If you want to reduce air pollution in this country, you don’t have to limit the production of automobiles; you have to limit the production of gasoline. There are a couple hundred million guns out there right now that you’ll never get back, but they all need bullets. Ammunition doesn’t last forever; guns do. I don’t care if you have a gun. How much ammunition do you have, and how long is it going to last? Gunpowder deteriorates over time. If I can control your flow of ammunition, those bullets you have now, those 200 bullets, 10 years from now, you’re going to have none. The shooter in Tucson killed as many people as he did because we allow high-capacity magazines. It used to be that you had to reload after 10 rounds. Not now. Republicans, without a whimper from the Democrats, allowed the ban on those high-capacity magazines to expire. It’s not something they’ll take on. Nor will Obama.
PLAYBOY: You were a writer on The West Wing. How close to the real thing is The West Wing’s depiction of the Oval Office?
O’DONNELL: The Oval Office is a very formal environment, not like on the show. You wouldn’t want to be filming how stiff Oval Office stuff can be. In the end, The West Wing was about entertainment. Watching President Obama at work in the Oval Office wouldn’t necessarily make a show anyone would want to watch.
PLAYBOY: You see the results of Obama in the West Wing. Is he effective when he’s in that room?
O’DONNELL: The only way I could render a verdict on that is if I were in the governing chamber with him. I’ve never seen Barack Obama at work. I had moments with President Clinton in the Oval Office when he performed very well—quickly and brilliantly under pressure—and other moments when he was indecisive and slow and afraid of what his wife would think, at least on health care. That was peculiar beyond description: The problem is what the president’s wife thinks?
PLAYBOY: Are you disappointed with Obama’s first two years in office?
O’DONNELL: I’m not disappointed in Obama. He’s done a masterful job in many areas. He did a masterful job with his Supreme Court nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Overall, he’s done more than I expected him to do. The fact that the top tax rate did not go back up doesn’t surprise me. They didn’t have the votes to do it. It’s not up to the president. If it were, it would be back up. I get why Guantánamo as a prison facility is still there. Where are you going to put those inmates? We’ve known this about America for a long time: Whatever you want to do is fine, but not in my backyard. If “not in my backyard” applies to anything, it applies to Al Qaeda. Afghanistan is very complex, and the complexities of it change on a daily basis. What is a politician going to do when faced with the responsibility of dealing with those complexities? Obama didn’t run as a peace candidate. People projected onto him things he did not say. They projected onto him the idea that somehow his prosecution of what was going on in Afghanistan would make more sense to people than what was happening under Bush.