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Shields and Gerson on a Rocky Week for Democrats

March 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and Michael Gerson sort through the top political stories of the past week, including the pressure on Democrats to pass health care and how well Obama's cabinet members are helping moving his political agenda.

JIM LEHRER: Now: the analysis of Shields and Gerson, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

Mark, what — first of all, what do you make of these Rahm Emanuel stories, these pro-Emanuel stories?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, in 45 years in Washington, I have never seen anything like it. It is inconceivable that a president who is engaged in the biggest fight of his presidency — that is passage of the health care, his defining issue — the stories are coming out, Rahm Emanuel, according to the reporters, didn’t talk to the reporters, but the people who did talk to the reporters are known allies and friendly to Rahm Emanuel, that, if the president had followed his advice…

JIM LEHRER: Just had listened to him.

MARK SHIELDS: … if he had followed his advice, he would be better off now.

Substitute Bill Moyers for Lyndon Johnson. Had Lyndon Johnson picked up the paper and read that Bill Moyers was — reported in the paper, his press secretary, having given him best advice and Lyndon Johnson would be a lot better off politically if he had followed it, Bill Moyers be packing that afternoon. He would be lucky to get out of there with his body intact.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Michael, you have some recent experience in the George W. Bush White House. What do you think what would have happened if a similar thing happened there?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I have to echo, I never have seen anything like it. I have served two chiefs of staff. And it is kind of their job to solve problems like this. Sometimes, a secretary of the state or whatever goes off the reservation or there are conflicts. It’s their job to be the honest broker and to make things work.

In a situation like this, it’s hard to imagine Rahm Emanuel now being the honest broker. He’s put his views out there. He’s — and called into question two very important policies, a kind of big bang on health care, saying, “I would have done something more limited,” in the middle of a health care debate, and then also the New York trials for the 9/11 conspirators, saying that he opposed this. And that’s a very sensitive issue, too.

That’s profoundly destructive to the president’s agenda. It’s — it — I have never seen anything like it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree it is profoundly destructive to the president?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, how does the president come off?


MARK SHIELDS: The president comes off in the stories disengaged, excessively cerebral, not terribly politically strong or decisive. And, in one of them, the rest of the staff, senior staff all go — come in for a punch, too.

I mean, it’s just there’s no reading of this that could be helpful. And if it’s true that Rahm Emanuel had nothing to do with it, then Rahm Emanuel probably ought to seek a public forum, a friendly forum, and go on and just blast these stories, and say that Barack Obama is the toughest, most decisive guy, and that his decisions have been the right decisions, and, “I’m there to serve,” I mean, because…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Do you think — yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I just think it’s unhelpful.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, though — you agree, Michael, that somebody’s got to do something about this; it can’t go on like this?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I agree with that suggestion.

JIM LEHRER: Just go out and get in front of it?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think that Emanuel himself is going to have to try to get in front of this.

I think that it’s probably out of the question to have a change in chief in staff in the middle of a health care debate. I think that that would be very destructive in and of itself. But it is hard just to pretend like it didn’t happen.


The point that was made, that John Boehner made in Ray’s piece, that the — you add up the Charlie Rangel situation, and the David Paterson thing, and now Congressman Massa’s resignation, you have got chaos among Democrats, do you see chaos?

MICHAEL GERSON: Not necessarily. These are — these things aren’t unprecedented. I mean, we have seen them before.

But it does add to a narrative, because Democrats were really hit in the health care process for a kind of legal corruption when it came to benefits for Nebraska or benefits for Louisiana. So, it kind of adds to a narrative of corruption that I think is destructive for any party in the majority.

We saw it in 2006 and in 1994, that people usually throw out majority parties when they look arrogant and corrupt. And Republicans have experienced that. And I think that, if Democrats don’t confront this, they’re really kind of sleepwalking into — into a very serious situation in November.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think — I think each of them is unique.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, David Paterson is — is the revenge of Eliot Spitzer. I mean, David Paterson is a — I’m sure a decent man, but he wasn’t equipped to be governor of New York in a very tough time. And that’s become obvious…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, Spitzer had to resign, and Paterson had to…

JIM LEHRER: He was the lieutenant governor.

MARK SHIELDS: He chose him as his running mate. It’s sort of the John Edwards award that goes to John Kerry for 2004 for picking running mates.


MARK SHIELDS: It does matter whom you do pick.


MARK SHIELDS: But I think that, the Paterson thing aside, I mean, Charlie Rangel is a — is an American tragedy. I mean, he’s a wonderful, wonderful, beloved figure. But what he has done, I mean…

JIM LEHRER: Combat veteran in the Korean War.

MARK SHIELDS: Combat — high school dropout, and was one of the Buffalo Soldiers…


MARK SHIELDS: … the black regiment in Korea, with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, combat, and came back and finished high school on the G.I. Bill, went to college at St. John’s and then at NYU and then St. John’s Law School.

I mean, it’s just a great story, up from the bootstraps and all the rest of it. But the sense of entitlement had set in. I mean, you’re talking about $500,000 unreported in wealth. And, so, to his credit, he didn’t say, “I’m doing this because of my health,” or, “I’m doing this to clear my family name.”

He basically stood up there and said, “Look, I have become a burden to my party and my colleagues and my friends. And I don’t want to do that.”

JIM LEHRER: “On my party,” right. Yes.

Michael, the phrase that Mark used, the sense of entitlement, the idea that you get to a certain place in politics where you are bulletproof, it seems to affect a certain group of people in politics, whether they are from the left or right or Democrats or Republicans. It just goes with it sometimes, doesn’t it?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it seems that way. We have seen it in other circumstances.

I mean, one of the reasons the parties changed in the House in 2006 was the Abramoff scandal and personal scandals that related to Mark Foley and…

JIM LEHRER: These are all Republicans, right.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right, exactly. And, so, you see this in the majority. It seems to be a recurring kind of experience.

But it’s not a helpful one now, where you both have ideological problems, the Democrats seem to, opposition to the kind of role of government they are proposing, and then you add on top of this a feeling that they are disconnected or corrupt. I mean, that is a serious combination.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading now about health care reform, after the president made his — his speech on Wednesday and where things look — where do they look? Do you think the Congress is going to in fact pass these?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, what we have seen so far is that there are no people who voted no the first time who said — who are saying, yes, I am going to vote for it this time, the Senate bill in the House. And there are few people who voted for it the first time who have said, no, I’m not going to vote for it in the House, OK? So, that is a problem.

But I do think that — I think Speaker Pelosi believes that there is an audience here that she — of people that she might be able to persuade. And these are essentially Blue Dog Democrats who like the Senate approach better than the House approach. You know, it is marginally less expensive. It doesn’t have the public option, OK?

She needs to get half-a-dozen, a dozen of — of these people to switch their votes from the first time around opposing to supporting this time. That’s not an easy task. But I also don’t think it’s an impossible task.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading? .

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought — I thought the president, in his speech on Wednesday, struck the right notes. He is talking — Michael is right. He’s talking to the Democrats. He is not talking to Republicans, but he drew — I thought he drew it quite well.

He threw out four Republican ideas, the personal savings account, that had come up at the summit, limits on medical malpractice. And I thought it showed that sense of willing to build a coalition, a consensus, to compromise, and knowing full well that he is not going to get any Republican votes, and sort of drawing the lines between the two parties.

And I think he did that well. He said he is willing to do anything. He’s going to go out and campaign for Ike Skelton of Missouri, who is against the bill, Jason Altmire in Pennsylvania.

JIM LEHRER: Democrats both.

MARK SHIELDS: Both Democrats who are in that group of 38 who opposed it.


MARK SHIELDS: But I think it’s tough, Jim. I really — I think it is a tough thing.

There is great mistrust and distrust on the part of House Democrats toward the United States Senate. There are right now 70 bills sitting in the Senate that passed the House with 50 or more House Republicans voting for them that the Senate hasn’t acted on.

And we saw in Jim Bunning this week holding up the whole thing that the place just doesn’t — it doesn’t function.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it’s not dysfunctional. It just doesn’t function. And so there is a great skepticism: Now, are we going to walk out and vote for that Senate bill, which is loaded with problems, not including the Cornhusker-Ben Nelson deal and all the rest of it from Nebraska, and then have it founder in the Senate, and we’re stuck out there? So…

MICHAEL GERSON: There are actually some Democrats who want a letter from 51 members of the Senate promising that they will do these things…

JIM LEHRER: Before they will do their vote.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right, exactly, before — because they deeply distrust that institution.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what do — do you have an analytical point that you would like to make about what Jim Bunning did?

MICHAEL GERSON: My analytical point is, of all the spending you could pick to object to, unemployment spending, in the midst of a recession, makes very little sense to me.

I mean, it’s this kind of Republican, in a very good, you know, I think political environment for Republicans, who could rescue defeat from the jaws of victory. I think this was a terrible message for the Republican Party to send. It’s the right — it’s the right message in one way, in a general way, you know, getting ahold of this deficit problem. But applying it to this problem in particular, I think it makes no sense at all.

MARK SHIELDS: He was a gift to the Democrats, for the reason that Michael cited. I mean, he put a mean face on the Republican Party for two or three days.

But, in addition, he made the case for reconciliation. You know, no wonder you need reconciliation. I mean…

JIM LEHRER: Can’t do it the regular or the other way?

MARK SHIELDS: They can’t do it. I mean, you can’t do it. You got 51 votes. For goodness sakes, these people over there can’t — you know, they couldn’t pass a Mother’s Day resolution.

And, so, in that sense, he made the case there, I think, although I think the case for reconciliation is stronger than it was a week ago.

JIM LEHRER: Staying with the Republicans, finally, the Texas primary race for governor, Rick Perry defeated Kay Bailey Hutchison. A message there?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it is certainly a message of anti-Washington.

I mean, Rick Perry now the longest serving governor in the history of Texas, running as the challenger against Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had been essentially undefeatable for 20 years.

JIM LEHRER: Very popular senator from Texas, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: You know, was a state treasurer and the United States senator. And she was put squarely on the defensive about Washington.

It tells you where the Texas Republican Party is. I mean, the regular party establishment was very much with Kay Bailey Hutchison. And…

MICHAEL GERSON: I’m not sure, because, I mean, a race like Florida, the primary, Republican primary, is shaping up as an ideological battle between a conservative and moderate.

JIM LEHRER: That’s Crist and Rubio, right…

MICHAEL GERSON: Right, exactly.

JIM LEHRER: … also for governor — I mean for Senate. I’m sorry.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right, for the Senate.


MICHAEL GERSON: But, in Texas, both of — the basic argument that Hutchison made was, “It is my turn.”

MICHAEL GERSON: It wasn’t an ideological critique. Much of this was rooted in a personal conflict between two camps of people in Texas that didn’t like one another very much.

There was a little bit of an ideological overlay. I think Perry eventually rallied some conservative support against Hutchison.


MICHAEL GERSON: But the primary, you know, argument here was a personality argument.

JIM LEHRER: She expected — she didn’t expect Perry to run again.

MICHAEL GERSON: No, she thought — literally, she thought that he had promised not to, that it was her turn to come back to Texas and do what she wanted to do.

But that is not much of a political argument.

MARK SHIELDS: This is a fellow who had entertained the possibility of secession, and made the bogus…

JIM LEHRER: You got a problem with that?

MARK SHIELDS: … made the bogus claim that it was part of the deal when Texas came into the Union.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right. Actually, as a matter…

MARK SHIELDS: And I would just remind Governor Perry, Texas did secede from the Union in 1861, and 623,000 Americans died in the conflict that followed.

JIM LEHRER: As a matter of history, when Texas did become a state of the Union, part of it was, they reserved the right to divide some day into five other countries — into four other — yes, right, right, or whatever, something like that.


Thank you very much, both of you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.