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Shields and Brooks Weigh Illinois, RNC Actions

January 30, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks consider the Republican National Committee's selection of a new chairman and Illinois politics following the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

JIM LEHRER: And now, in the other news of the day, the new governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, vowed to clean up state government. He made that pledge a day after former Governor Rod Blagojevich was removed from office by the State Senate for abuse of power. Quinn held a news conference in Springfield, his first since being sworn in last evening.

GOV. PAT QUINN, D-Ill.: We’ve had a body blow to our politics and government in the last seven weeks and two days, but that’s over. Today is a beginning, a start. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to start to fumigate state government from top to bottom to make sure that it has no corruption. We’re going to work hard at that.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama welcomed the transition in his home state. In a statement last night, he said Illinois had been crippled for months by the crisis in leadership. But now, he said, “that cloud has lifted.”

The Republican National Committee today elected its first black chairman, Michael Steele. The former lieutenant governor of Maryland defeated four challengers over six rounds of balloting. They included the current chairman, Mike Duncan, who dropped out after the first three rounds.

Steele said Republicans want to be inclusive, but he warned, “Those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.”

RNC elects new chairman

JIM LEHRER: Now back to Mark Shields and David Brooks.

What does that mean? What do you think Michael Steele means, get ready, Steele means?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: I think Michael Steele is a very charismatic, compelling platform speaker. He's somebody that -- it was an interesting decision, Jim.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, spoke to the Republican National Committee yesterday, and he said, "We're in danger of becoming a regional party," regional being the South, the Mormon Mountain West, basically, and a couple of Great Plain states. I mean, other places, the area of the country, they're not competitive. We've lost 13 Senate seats and 51 House seats in the last two elections.

JIM LEHRER: So does Michael Steele change that?

MARK SHIELDS: Michael Steele comes from blue -- the bluest of the blue states, from Maryland, where he won statewide office as a lieutenant governor two terms ago. And he was -- he beat Katon Dawson, South Carolina, the reddest of the red states...

JIM LEHRER: In the last -- in the last round this afternoon.

MARK SHIELDS: In the last round this afternoon. So it was an interesting choice. It was a recognition -- it was a move away from what had gone before, and that was the face being George Bush and Newt Gingrich being the face of the party.

A new direction for GOP

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, David?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Yes, I see it as a big step forward. The essential fight in the party over those who think the Republican Party lost because they strayed from their conservative mission and they have to return to conservatism, conservatism of Barry Goldwater, very limited government, that's one school of thought.

The other school of thought says Reagan was great, but we've got to reach out more toward the Northeast, toward the Midwest, in a more moderate direction.

Now, Steele is a conservative guy, but he's also, as Mark said, a blue state guy and a guy who emphasized that you need to reach out to the Northeast. You have to have moderates. You have to have the people Rush Limbaugh calls "RINO," Republican in name only.

So he's for a much broader party. And I think it's -- it's a big step in the right direction.

There's still a long way to go. There has to be the intellectual revolution. But at least it was a positive sign there's a recognition that you can't return to Barry Goldwater and think that by getting the hardest of the hardcore that's somehow how you can win. And I'm impressed the committee acknowledged that, actually.

JIM LEHRER: But he is considered more moderate than, of course, obviously, than the other candidates, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he's not -- I wouldn't say he's a moderate. He's a conservative.

JIM LEHRER: He's a conservative, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: There's no question about that.

MARK SHIELDS: He is a conservative.

DAVID BROOKS: But he's more of a broad-tent conservative. I think you'll see a lot less of the sort of anti-immigrant rhetoric that you might have seen.

The road ahead in Illinois

JIM LEHRER: Finally, you have any parting words about the going of Governor Blagojevich, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's tough for Jay Leno and David Letterman. But, David, the state is $5 billion in the hole, the state of Illinois. It's $60 billion in the hole on its retirement state pension fund. It's $30 billion in deficit on its retirees' health plan fund.

And David Broder, who's a native of Illinois, said, "Look, you know, others can laugh about this in the country."

JIM LEHRER: Yes, this is no joke, David...

MARK SHIELDS: This is no joke. He said the states of Indiana, and Iowa, and Wisconsin, all adjacent states, have had enlightened governors for the past six years while Illinois has labored under this, and these are the consequences, two Democrats and a Republican, but...

JIM LEHRER: But Blagojevich really did go out with a show, did he not?

DAVID BROOKS: He is his own man. He quoted Tennyson. It was a step down from Kipling, in my book, but it was fine. He's good at quoting. He went out with his speech, denying all innocence...

MARK SHIELDS: Denying all innocence?

DAVID BROOKS: Denying all guilt.

JIM LEHRER: All guilt.

DAVID BROOKS: He said his problem was that he was too selfless in office, wasn't selfish enough. And so he -- he goes out the way he came in.

I looked for some counterintuitive nice thing to say about the guy, but there really isn't. And the issue is, he never cared about policy. He was a political hack or is a political hack, never cared about policy. And the results were the ones Mark described.

Blagojevich still to stand trial

JIM LEHRER: And there's still -- of course, there's another act to come, and that will be in a federal district court in Chicago when he stands trial.

MARK SHIELDS: Eventually this year, Jim, in an Illinois prison, one convict will turn to another and say, "The food was a lot better here when you were governor."

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my. He waited all day...

DAVID BROOKS: He lives to tell that joke.

JIM LEHRER: ... and all evening for that, didn't he, David?

MARK SHIELDS: David is absolutely right. When you ask a politician, "What's your one shortcoming?" they say, "I'm just too impatient for change."

MARK SHIELDS: And that was Rod Blagojevich.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you very much.