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Analysts Assess Upcoming Congress, Democratic Agenda

January 2, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: A divided nation, Mark. Can Nancy Pelosi be a healer, in the context we were talking about earlier, about Gerald Ford and others?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Probably not. I mean, she can be speaker of the House. She can certainly start a healing process.

You know, I think, if Gerald Ford were the speaker of the House, he probably wouldn’t preside over a House where only he’d bring legislation that had a majority of his own party before he brought it. He would seek across the aisle.

I think that’s the test of healing, in the process and the good faith. But, first of all, I just thought that was a terrific piece that Spencer Michels made and this group did.

JIM LEHRER: … that Spencer Michaels did. He had some great old footage. My goodness.

MARK SHIELDS: Great footage. Great footage. And he really did.

JIM LEHRER: Well, describe what you expect, in terms of style and approach, from this speaker of the House.

MARK SHIELDS: Nancy Pelosi is a political anomaly. I mean, she did not go into politics in an electoral way until she was 47 years old.

I mean, you think about these people who, you know, literally do start running for the state legislature or wherever else until their last child is in the last year of high school. She wouldn’t do it; she wouldn’t work full-time outside the home.

And she — I mean, the rise is rather phenomenal, in that sense. I mean, she came to Congress in 1987. She’s now the speaker of the House.

There’s two things about her that are fascinating. One, obviously, the highest-ranking woman ever elected. I mean, she’s third in line for the presidency.

But the other thing — and you can’t forget it — is she’s Italian-American.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s important?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s important because every minority group waits for the first of its own to get there, and there’s a sense of acceptance. There’s a sense that, well, people are going to have to look at us differently.

The sense of pride in the Italian-American community about Nancy Pelosi is — irrespective of — the same was there for Mario Cuomo. It’s there for Rudy Giuliani, as well. There’s never been an Italian-American running for president. So, in that sense, she’s the highest ranking Italian-American.

I think how well she does perform — I mean, she presided over a Democratic Party, it was the most united — according to Congressional Quarterly, which keeps tracks of these things — of any party in the Congress in the past 25 years, but that was in opposition to George W. Bush.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about when she was House minority leader.

MARK SHIELDS: When she was House minority leader.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, but it takes great discipline to do that. It’s a lot different when you’re in the majority, I mean, to hold that same kind of discipline in your ranks.

And she’s got to prove in the next two years that the Democratic Party is capable of governing, of moving the country, and of moving legislation that people see is in the benefit of the nation.

Partisan divide?

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the prospects?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, not for healing. That's not what she is.

JIM LEHRER: Not for healing?

DAVID BROOKS: She's smart; she's tough; she's political effective and certainly energetic. Those are her upsides.

Her downside are she's a wooden speaker. She's a poor television performer. When it comes to new policies, I think she's overshadowed by other people in her own party. That's sort of not where her emphasis is.

But I think her main drawback is that she is -- and her main drawback and success, their flip sides -- is that she is a Democrat to the bone. And she is a very partisan figure. She's grown up with a tremendous loyalty to the Democratic Party and tremendous partisanship.

And so, whatever her talents are, spanning the partisan divide is not one of them. I think she'll reinforce the partisan divide, which is not to say that Tom DeLay was not a hyper-partisan before her. But she is a hyper-partisan.

And to me, one of the problems with Washington now is loyalty to team takes precedence over loyalty to the truth. And I don't think that's going to change with her there.

JIM LEHRER: How liberal is she?

DAVID BROOKS: The rap that she's sort of a San Francisco extremist, I don't think that's fair. I think she is a pretty much mainstream liberal Democrat, but not a "San Francisco progressive," as her opponent in the Democratic primary said.

She has spent a lot of her time in San Francisco with enemies on the left, with a primary force of criticism coming from her left. She was a fund-raiser. She was a fund-raiser and a very successful fund-raiser in the Democratic Party; that meant she spent her time with rich Democrats.

Rich Democrats are not on the fringe. They're not extremists. They're liberals. And so I think that's about where she is, and that's where her record has been.

And her record in Congress has been sometimes policing the liberals, sometimes telling them to shut up for the sake of political electability.

JIM LEHRER: Can she govern just with the Democratic majority?

MARK SHIELDS: No. And that's where I disagree with David. I think that, yes, she is a partisan. There's no question. She was California's State Democratic Party chairman. She tried to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee even before she came to Congress and lost.

But I think she's smart, and I think she understands that the Congress has become a balkanized institution, where Republicans only talk to Republicans, and that the people are looking to see that...

JIM LEHRER: But is she going to do it differently?

MARK SHIELDS: ... a sense of -- she has to. She has to.

Republican involvement

JIM LEHRER: Practically, how does she do that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: She's got two tests. She's got product and process, all right? There's got to be a product that comes out of this, but it has to come, and people will judge her by the product.

JIM LEHRER: You mean a piece of legislation?

MARK SHIELDS: Are there fewer uninsured children two years from today? Has she worked with George W. Bush? She can save George W. Bush's presidency; she really can.

I mean, if George W. Bush's only legacy is Iraq, he's a dead man, politically and historically. If he wants to reach something on Social Security collaboratively or to do something on any number of issues -- the environment, on energy -- and she could be his most valuable partner.

But there has to be a process that she includes Republicans. Republicans can't be excluded as Democrats have been under the Republican leadership, from offering amendments, from participating. You can't have conference committees meeting with never inviting the minority, letting them have votes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see that happening?

DAVID BROOKS: It's possible, but so far we don't see it. So far what we see are stories suggesting the first 100 hours, which is their first burst of legislation, they are not going to be bipartisan. They are going to move quickly, sacrificing any sense of bipartisanship.

And you can understand it legislatively. I think it would have been tremendously effective to say, "We're not only going to pass different legislation; we're going to run this place differently," I mean, does something ostentatious in the first few days that was bipartisan. They elected not to do that.

And the second thing -- I think she's made a series of mistakes in its early days yet, and the substance is still to come. But the first one was the fight -- we talked about weeks ago -- with Steny Hoyer.

But the second one is, in the next week, she's on a publicity tour, which is a bit self-aggrandizing, making her the center of attention rather than her party, rather than the Congress itself. And I think that's a political mistake.

JIM LEHRER: Do you?

MARK SHIELDS: I think David -- I think that there's a certain over-the-top quality to the inaugural event, the big...

JIM LEHRER: The coming of the speaker of the House.

MARK SHIELDS: ... the coming of the speaker of the House. However, I think it makes sense for her, coming from where she comes from and given the enemies, the Newt Gingrichs of the world, who stand up there and say "San Francisco Democrat" with a snarl and a sneer, for her to point out that she's going to Trinity College, a Catholic school here in Washington, D.C., in which you graduate, go to mass, go back to Baltimore to the neighborhood from which she graduated, that there is somebody here, that she wants to shatter the negative stereotypes before they set in.

I do think that perhaps the third day of the inaugural might be...

JIM LEHRER: Might be different.

MARK SHIELDS: ... too far.

Standards for success

JIM LEHRER: David, for both of you, beginning with you, David, what are the standards for judging a successful speaker? Do you agree with Mark that it is product, that things have to happen, and that she has to be responsible for things that do happen?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Legislating is a terribly difficult skill, and I don't think too many people in Congress have it right now. Lyndon Johnson obviously had it. It is incredibly difficult, incredibly complicated.

The first burst of legislation, a lot of it will pass, minimum wage, things like that. It's small beer, but getting to the uninsured and some of the bigger problems will take in -- holding her own party together will be incredibly difficult, let alone bringing some Republicans and not getting vetoes from the White House.

And that will involve the sort of gamesmanship and insider playing and a set of skills of how to negotiate a deal that -- I think a lot of those skills have been lost in the last 20 years. I'm not sure many people have them on Capitol Hill of either party.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think she has them?

DAVID BROOKS: So far, she hasn't had a chance...

JIM LEHRER: She hasn't had a chance.

DAVID BROOKS: ... because Republicans shut them out, so they didn't have a chance to practice any of those skills, one of the reasons I think that's gone.

But when you talk to people, even as late as Richard Darman, who was in office 15, 20 years ago, and they describe how they did stuff, it's a level of sophistication that I rarely hear from sitting politicians today. Those skills have simply been lost from the common vocabulary.

MARK SHIELDS: I'll tell you one thing that could work from the outset, is to work five days a week, not because they're working five days a week, because it will mean that they'll bring families here and that they'll get to know each other. They'll know each other's families; they'll know each other's children.

JIM LEHRER: Rather than the two or three days a week...

MARK SHIELDS: Two or three, and you just go back...

MARK SHIELDS: ... and you never feel yourself as part of any organization, institution. There's no friendships across the aisle. I mean, you see somebody Tuesday night, and they're gone Thursday. And your entire life and focus is elsewhere.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that brings us back to Gerald Ford. When he was sitting in Congress, airplane travel wasn't as common, so people lived here and couldn't go back.

Second, drinking was more common, and people would drink together. And when they drank together, they built relationships. That stuff institutionally just doesn't happen.

'Saving' President Bush?

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of Mark's point that it's possible that Nancy Pelosi could save George W. Bush's presidency?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, she could do it in two ways. One is by really messing up.

But the second way is by saying, "We've got in the House a working majority, but in the Senate a razor-thin majority. And therefore, we really do need to work with the president. We need to rediscover that Democratic-Republican relationship that existed in the first six months of the Bush administration."

I think that's possible, and I think the Bush White House is a more skilled White House than any time before. I think they've had talent upgrades in chief of staff, in treasury secretary...

JIM LEHRER: Talking about Josh Bolten particularly?

DAVID BROOKS: ... and up and down the line. So it's more possible now than it was in the past five years.

JIM LEHRER: So, though, Mark, as we saw in Spencer's piece, almost the closing sound bite from Nancy Pelosi is: "My first priority is stop the war in Iraq." How is the speaker of the House of Representatives going to do that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that we'll see it -- the Democrats in Congress will be in tandem. I think that we're going to start three weeks of hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate.

I think that there will be hearings of Henry Waxman's Government Operations Committee on just -- Jim, when we rebuilt Japan after World War II, not a single contract went to a United States company, a corporation.

Iraq has been a gold rush, a gold rush for rip-off artists. I mean, I think the building enmity, dissatisfaction, anger with the war, you can orchestrate that without ever making a speech.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, we'll see. The president is going to make a speech next week, and he's going to probably suggest sending more troops. We will see how strong the Democratic opposition will be at that point. There's clearly going to be some opposition...

MARK SHIELDS: And Republican, and Republican support.

DAVID BROOKS: ... and Republican, but I doubt they'll vote to cut off funding for troops and that sort of thing.