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Shields and Gerson on Voters’ Economic Fears, GOP’s ‘Party of No’ Payoff

August 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, sitting in for David Brooks, analyze the week's top news stories, including voters' ongoing economic concerns headed into the midterm elections and the White House taking on "the professional left."

JIM LEHRER: Now the analysis of Shields and Gerson — syndicated columnist Mark Shields, “Washington Post” columnist Michael Gerson.

David Brooks is off tonight.

Mark, the signing of the $600 million border security bill today, how does that fit into the politics it of immigration right now?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist:Well, it fits in this way, Jim, that the elements of this election year, the temperament of the voters, is fear and fury with a large overlay of pessimism.And in that sort of environment, us against them argument, is very appealing to voters who are scared.And I think that’s been —

JIM LEHRER: Scared about?

MARK SHIELDS: Scared about their future, scared about their job, scared about their retirement, scared about their kids’ future. Just scared.

JIM LEHRER: And so immigration fits in, illegal immigration.

MARK SHIELDS: Immigration, I think it fits right into that.And I think it’s a necessary, we hope helpful.But, I mean, I think it was a response that was more political than it was substantive.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON, “The Washington Post”:I do.And it does show that Congress can act in a bipartisan, swift way when they are scared to death.

I think they’re trying to avoid a kind of preempt state action on some of these issues because a lot of states are very up set about federal immigration policy.But the immigration reform groups themselves are not happy about this.

This is normally the sort of thing you do as a bargaining chip to get something, you know, in comprehensive reform.But they gave away the bargaining chip in this case in a way that I think does not bode well for the future of comprehensive reform.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s pick up on what Mark said then, Michael, on this whole thing of the politics of today and the political spirit and everybody.But you heard what he just said.

Put the results of the primaries in to this context.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you know, I think we’re seeing two things on Tuesday night.The first one is that we really are, you know, pre-French Revolutionary levels of discontent in the electorate.

JIM LEHRER: Pre-French Revolutionary?

MICHAEL GERSON: Exactly.And, you know, as the majority party, the party in control, Democrats are going to be hit by this.

But I think we also saw that candidate quality still matters.Republicans benefit from the anger of the electorate, but they don’t really benefit from having angry, scary candidates themselves.I think that this may be a serious problem in the Senate, where at least three candidates are quite problematic, Republican candidates.In other election cycles, would not have gotten these nominations.

JIM LEHRER: Kentucky, Nevada and —

MICHAEL GERSON: And now Colorado.

JIM LEHRER: Colorado.

MICHAEL GERSON: And, you know, so I think there’s a real problem there.The Republicans, because of this, because of these candidate issues, could fall short on the Senate.This could prevent them from taking over the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: What do you see from the election?

MARK SHIELDS: I will quote our old friend Peter Hart who said I think it’s a JetBlue.

JIM LEHRER: Democratic pollster.

MARK SHIELDS: Democratic pollster, and “The Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll with — I think it’s a JetBlue election.Everyone is frustrated.Everyone is heading to the emergency exit.

JIM LEHRER: Which is a reference to this JetBlue flight attendant.

MARK SHIELDS: The meltdown, that took the emergency chute down.And I think that’s where the electorate is.

I think I agree with Michael that the Republicans would be more competitive, in better shape if they had nominated the establishment candidates, if you would — Trey Grayson in Kentucky and Jane Norton in Colorado.In the case of Jane Norton in Colorado — and I would add to that Rob Simmons in Connecticut, who would be a far better match-up against Dick Blumenthal, the attorney general.

JIM LEHRER: Than Linda McMahon.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank Linda McMahon.


MARK SHIELDS: But, Jim, this is quite unlike any electorate I’ve ever seen before.It’s not a seesaw.There’s usually a seesaw.When one party is up, the other party is down.

This is a case where the ins, the Democrats, are down.And the outs, the Republicans, are further down in public esteem.I’ve never seen this before.

Now, I don’t think it’s going to cost the Republicans in the fall, because I think the fury is there. The intensity is and excitement and interest is on the Republican side. But probably the only encouraging sign for the Democrats is in the last three months, the margin, which is the real key, I think, to understand this election, any off-year election, is where is that interest and enthusiasm and intensity?

Thee Republicans had a 21-point edge on that in June, and it’s now down to 11.And I don’t think it’s because the Democrats have blossomed and bloomed.I think it’s, quite frankly, because the Republicans just are trying to run a Tom Dewey election.I mean, they’re sitting on a lead, and they’re really not doing anything or standing for anything.

JIM LEHRER: What about your point though, Michael, that some of this also has to do with the candidates that the Republicans have finally nominated?Do you think that is hurting their cause, it could hurt their cause in a major way?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I do.I think Republicans are riding a wave.But if you are a bad candidate, you can drown in the wave, even if you’re a Republican.There is no question that that’s true.

Now, I think Republicans still have a very good job at the House.The reality here is that this is very similar to other change kind of elections where you have a Democratic majority that looks out of touch, arrogant, and there are corruption issues here as well.

So I think that Republicans are doing fairly well without an overarching message.I don’t think they can do that in 2012, in a presidential candidate.You have to have a series of policies and approaches.But right now being the “party of no” is paying off fairly well.

MARK SHIELDS: It is, Jim.I’d just add this — that we’ve been through now two predicted political realignments.

Karl Rove, the architect and engineer of George Bush’s victories, said we’re having a new McKinley era, that there was going to be a new Republican majority. Then Barack Obama won in 2008, and it was obvious that he had assembled a new realignment.

I think anybody who is predicting realignments at this point ought to be looking at his or her —

JIM LEHRER: And neither one of are you, right?


MICHAEL GERSON: Not long term.But Americans are very concerned about the economy, continually.

Two-thirds of Americans think we haven’t hit bottom yet in our economy.And 60-some percent of those are voting for GOP candidates.It’s — you know, that’s the main fact in this upcoming election.And I don’t see it changing between now and Election Day.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s real, is it not?

MARK SHIELDS: It is real, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And that cross all party lines, all theologies and philosophies.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. I was reminded when Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the argument came about going to war in Iraq. And Jim Baker, then the secretary of state, said the reason we’re going to war is jobs, jobs, jobs.

Well, jobs, jobs, jobs, 20 years later are the answer.I mean, the Democrats can point to a legislative record under President Obama which is really quite historic, whether you agree with it or not.

But, I mean, the stimulus package, which has now been paid back by the banks, the auto companies are thriving.Medical national health care, the financial regulation.But it doesn’t cut anything in the face of jobs and unemployment.And that is really the enormous albatross and weight the Democrats are carrying into this election.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what do you make of Defense Secretary Gates’ reform proposal for changing and cutting the federal budget — I mean the defense budget?

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.I think it might be best described as preemptive budgetary warfare.

He sees the cuts coming.He wants to control the agenda of those cuts rather than have Congress do slashing cuts.

In the course of making these announcements, he made some important points.I mean, budgetary resources are going to be constricted, but the threats are not being reduced in America.So how we do this build-down which is coming — he knows it’s coming — is going to be quite important.

He argued that we’ve done it very poorly four times in American history when he made this announcement.He said, I’m not going do it poorly.And so he argued for reforms, cost-cutting reforms, a series of cost-cutting reforms, and then taking that money and putting it into modernization programs that will allow the military to do what he thinks it needs to do.

JIM LEHRER: But to do this, Mark, he’s got to confront two major forces — the Congress and the defense contractors.Right?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. I think he did an enormous service to President Obama and to his successor, because whoever Bob Gates’ successor is, he or she will not have the same level of bipartisan credentials or bipartisan support. So he’s going to —

JIM LEHRER: That Gates has.

MARK SHIELDS: That Gates has.

JIM LEHRER: Just as an individual.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.So, he has taken that out and he is preempting the Congress.

I mean, he knows if you leave it to the Congress, it’s going to be an entirely different outcome.He wants to make a decision based upon his overall view, which I think is smart.So I think he does the president a real service by doing this.

And don’t forget, Jim, we’re facing that budget deficit commission, Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson, by the end of the year, and that is going to put further pressure on cutting defense, as well as cutting elsewhere.

JIM LEHRER: Is he likely to get it done?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think so.I think it’s smart.I wish other cabinet members, by the way, would be this farsighted when they approach things.

JIM LEHRER: Instead of defending their turf, they are giving some of it away.

MICHAEL GERSON: Exactly.But give it away in a productive way.So, whether HHS could do that or Education or others.

I mean, he’s trying to get ahead of the wave, ahead of the curve.I think it makes a whole lot of sense.

I hope he succeeds in this.But, you know, the reality is, we’re going to face next year a completely different budgetary circumstance.It’s going to much more like Great Britain, where almost every department of the government is going to be — have to take cuts.

And, you know, the manner in which that is done is going to matter greatly.The difference on defense though is, you know, just because we don’t have the money, doesn’t mean we don’t have the threats.And that was the point that he was making.

MARK SHIELDS: But we have doubled the defense budget in the past 10 years.I mean, now we’re spending more than the next 13 countries in the world on defense.I mean, it isn’t — we have now more four-star admirals and generals, as many as we had at the time of Vietnam, when we had twice as many men and women in uniform.So this thing — there’s places to cut.And any time you cut the brass, enlisted men —

JIM LEHRER: You’ll hear a lot of squeals.

MARK SHIELDS: A lot of squeals, but there is kind of a certain glee on the part of those of us — those of us who weren’t four stars, or any stars, or bars of any kind.


JIM LEHRER: I got you.

Where do you come down, Mark, on this thing with Robert Gibbs? The president’s press secretary raises “professional left” idea and has already gotten some pushback.

Is that real or is that just talk?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, it was dumb on —

JIM LEHRER: On his part?

MARK SHIELDS: — Robert Gibbs’ part, yes.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, when you talk about the “professional left,” or the “professional right,” you’re talking in terms — those are pejorative terms.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, no kidding.

MARK SHIELDS: But what you are talking about are people who earn their keep and earn their livelihood by stirring up intensity in their mailing lists and contributions and so forth.

Barack Obama was nominated, make no mistake about it, by the amateur left.OK?Because he won the caucuses.

Hillary Clinton won the primaries.All right?He won the caucuses.

And that was — those were the people who had the passion and the intensity.And why?Because Barack Obama was the only Democratic candidate who was against the war.And it wasn’t the “professional left” or the interest groups that dominated by any means.

So, it was — I don’t know what Robert Gibbs gets out of it.He complained that he gets it from cable —

JIM LEHRER: Watching cable television.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, tonight on cable television two million Americans will watch Fox News.All right?And I don’t mean any disrespect to it.I point out two things.

In the 2004 election, Fox News viewers voted more strongly for George Bush, 94 percent, than did NRA members, than did born-again Christians, than did Republicans or conservatives.These are people who watch for ammunition, not for information.And for that reason, I’d simply say, you know, Robert, 310 million Americans —

JIM LEHRER: Got to get some Michael some time here.


MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I have to say I completely empathize with Gibbs in the circumstances having spent some time in the White House.There is also a “professional right,” where you are never pure enough and they kick you when are you down.OK?So I understand the frustration.

But you don’t give vent to the frustration.The reality here is intensity is an issue in this election.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

MICHAEL GERSON: They need their core base to turn out.You don’t attack them under these circumstances.And I do think there are some real tensions here, particularly on Afghanistan and some other issues, that are likely to emerge.

JIM LEHRER: We have to go.Thank you both.