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Shields and Brooks on Changing Political Landscapes in Florida, U.S.

April 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week, including the competitive GOP Senate primary in Florida, whether anyone will run as a moderate this year and the outcome of the Washington nuclear summit.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, how do you explain what happened to Charlie Crist?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, partly, it’s Obama. Obama’s quite unpopular, especially in places like Florida, and especially among Florida primary voters.

The stimulus package is wildly unpopular generally in the country, probably unfairly popular. It probably did some good, whether you supported it or not, and it’s given no credit by most people in the country.

But, to me, the big thing about this race is, you have Marco Rubio. You know exactly what the guy stands for. He’s a movement conservative and he can reel it off. And if there’s going to be a debate in the Republican Party with moderates debating conservatives, then moderates have to actually stand for something.

And I don’t know what Charlie Crist stands for. And the veto of the merit pay bill symptomizes that. Here’s a bill that most Republicans support, the idea of merit pay and ending teacher tenure. This is an issue on which Barack Obama has been very aggressive, going up to Rhode Island — or talking about a school in Rhode Island where they were firing some teachers.

This is something most reformers and most independents support, giving school districts the right to get rid of the very bad few teachers and to pay people depending on how kids do. So, this is an idea which has a lot of substantive support behind it and it has a lot of political support behind it.

And Charlie Crist vetoes this bill, which, to me, just should end consideration for moderates who, you know, why — why should they vote for him, a guy who is now to the left of Barack Obama on a crucial education issue?

So, to me, the central frustration is, the conservatives have something to stand for. The problem with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, too, is that moderates rarely can define a coherent philosophy. And Crist has not done that. And if you can’t do that, you’re probably going to lose.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Where to begin?

JIM LEHRER: Did you hear anything that you agree with?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I did. I did.

JIM LEHRER: What was that?

MARK SHIELDS: I heard — I heard David speak positively about the stimulus package.

MARK SHIELDS: Fantastic.

No, it is a remarkable — I mean, the — was it Tom Lee, the county chair — the former Senate leader, who said the change in the past 18 months. And it is. It is remarkable. Two years ago, we were sitting here, and Charlie Crist had just been the kingmaker in Florida. He had delivered Florida to John McCain.

He was the coveted endorsement. Rudy Giuliani so coveted it, that he — when he didn’t get it, he has gone back to endorse Rubio.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And he was a serious consideration for vice president.

And when he announced for the Senate, the entire Republican Senate Campaign Committee, the Republican establishment, backed him. Why? Because he’s a winner. He was somebody who could win.

And Marco Rubio is somebody who can win a primary. And as we sit here tonight, the question of the education bill, there was an awful lot of editorial criticism of the education bill in Florida, that it was too much of a concentration, a grab, that there was absolutely no consultation with school boards or any local. And it was concentrating in Tallahassee.

Now, whether that was the decision that drove Charlie Crist in vetoing it, because even though people who agreed with his veto questioned his motives, whether in fact he did it. So, I think that there’s — there’s no question we have seen an enormous change in the political landscape.

If you’re going to make the Republican primary in Florida or probably any other state a referendum on who is closer to Barack Obama or who most stridently and strenuously opposes Barack Obama, personally and his programs, then the person who is seen as the most intense and committed in opposition to the president will probably win.

JIM LEHRER: … Marco Rubio.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And in this case is Rubio.

MARK SHIELDS: It is Rubio.

So, I just — it’s interesting. A party is either in one of two states. It’s either seeking converts, as the Republicans did under Ronald Reagan, that is, welcoming in dissident Democrats, and the Democrats did under Barack Obama, or it’s going, true-believing, hunting down, and maybe searching and hunting for the few heretics.

And I think what you see is somebody in Marco Rubio who is an enormously attractive candidate, who may be nominateable — is definitely nominateable. The question is, is he electable? And Charlie Crist is the reverse. He is not nominateable, and he is — he has proven himself to be electable.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you see this politics of anger fitting into this? Is that — is that just a special case in Florida that Judy — Judy went through just now? Or is that happening elsewhere in the country?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, obviously, the anger is elsewhere. I would make a couple distinctions, though. There are two big races where you have got a genuine sort of Tea Party candidate running against sort of an establishment Republican, if you could put it that way. And that’s the Florida Senate race and that’s the Arizona Senate race, which is not to compare Marco Rubio to J.D. Hayworth, John McCain’s challenger in Arizona. Rubio is a much more impressive figure, by any stretch of the imagination.

Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that, in most states, the Republicans who are running for the Senate or running for governor are pretty conventional Republicans, and not Tea Party at all. So, you look at Rob Portman in Ohio, you look at Mark Kirk in Illinois, who beat a Tea Party candidate quite easily — in California, you have got people like Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman running.

So, the idea that the Republican Party is being taken over by the Tea Party, I think, is not true, though — in a couple of these races. Now, so, that’s one thing. The Republican Party is still basically the recognizable Republican Party, not the Tea Party.

But the anger is just tremendous. And, as I said, I think some Republicans are going to — incumbents are going to lose, because the anti-incumbent anger is so strong. And, you know, as I mentioned last week, the Democratic Party approval rating is at its lowest point since they started asking the question.

And, so, there’s just been this angry tide, and the Democrats are bearing the brunt of it. But some Republicans are going to get hit, too.

JIM LEHRER: But what about, Mark, Dave — David’s theory here that the real problem here with Crist, if he’s going to run as a moderate, he’s got to act like a moderate, and doing this bill isn’t enough?

I mean, you said his motives are being questioned, basically because they say this was a political move, right; he is going to run as an independent?

MARK SHIELDS: No, that’s right.

I mean, I think Charlie Crist…

JIM LEHRER: There’s three questions I asked you.

MARK SHIELDS: There is. And they’re all good ones.

MARK SHIELDS: Charlie Crist got into the race, and there really was — I mean, there were accolades. There was almost an audible sense of a sigh of appreciation from the Republican establishment.

So, he didn’t get in the way that most people get into a race, is, what is it that I want to do? What are the three things I stand for?

JIM LEHRER: He had the platform.

MARK SHIELDS: He was enormously popular.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He gets the nomination. He was going to be the next senator.

And I think that that’s, first of all, you know, a real complication, and a real problem for his candidacy. He does have a record. I mean, and it’s a fairly impressive record as governor in tough times. It’s interesting. Charlie Crist did something at the private meeting, dinner, with the governors at the White House, which is totally off record.

And he stood up in front of all the governors.

JIM LEHRER: Totally off the record. You’re now going to tell us?

MARK SHIELDS: No, totally off the record.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: And he stood up. One of the governors who was there — two of the governors there told me about it.

And they were surprised, because he stood up and he said: “Mr. President” — this is two months ago — “Mr. President, I’m going to say something everybody in this room knows is true. The stimulus package was the right thing to do, and it’s made a difference. And it’s made a difference in my state and it’s made a difference all our states.”

And the governors have told me that was just — you know, I said, wow.

JIM LEHRER: Wow.

MARK SHIELDS: Now, maybe — he’s got two weeks, Jim, to switch, to switch parties…

MARK SHIELDS: … to run as an independent. He was very calculated and careful in his words with Judy that he has no present intention and no current intention.

And he is stronger in a general election candidate — campaign — than he is in a primary, obviously, against Marco Rubio.

JIM LEHRER: Well, the polls show him right there with Rubio, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Leading both Rubio and Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just make a broader point to go to my core frustration which keeps me up at night, people often ask — we have got a bell curve country. And most people are in the middle. So, why don’t we have a bell curve Washington?

And there are a million things that contribute to this. But one of them is that centrists and moderates — and this is my frustration this week — don’t…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: … have coherent philosophies that they can explain: This is why I’m doing this. This is why I’m consistent. This is why I’m not a political opportunist.

And I often say, you go to a liberal dinner, there’s a bunch of academics, and they have got ideas. You go to a conservative dinner, a bunch of think tankers. They have got ideas.

You go to a centrist dinner, it’s a bunch of lobbyists. And, so, there’s sort of a vacuum.

JIM LEHRER: But they’re trying to get things done.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, it’s also an intellectual vacuum.

JIM LEHRER: I see.

DAVID BROOKS: And if you’re sort of rooting for the center against the extremes, you have got a frustration, because you don’t want people to have that intellectual…

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s move on from that issue, which is still — I’m going to stay on subject, but move into another question…

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: … which is what — how do you read the fact that all the Republicans in the Senate have now said they are not going to support the financial reform legislation? Is this part of this division that is not going to go away any time soon?

MARK SHIELDS: Politics is the most imitative of all human art forms.

If something works once, you do it over and over. Eighteen months ago, the Republicans’ party was dead meat. They had suffered the worst defeat presidentially of either party in 20 years. They had lost 52 seats in the House of Representatives in two elections.

Tom Davis, the Republican leader, said, if they were dog food, they would take them off the shelves, they were so — now, 18 months later, they’re leading in the polls. They’re expected to win House seats, maybe even reclaim the House this fall.

How did they do it? They did it by standing…

JIM LEHRER: Standing together?

MARK SHIELDS: Standing together against climate change, against the economic stimulus, and against health care. Did they come up with competing ideas? If they did, they kept them pretty quiet.

But they — that’s what they did. So, now, why not? What’s the risk of standing up now?

JIM LEHRER: You see the same thing?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, more or less.

I mean, there are two really unpopular institutions in American life. There are probably more, but two really un — ones are Wall Street and government. And, so, the Democrats are trying to say, they’re the party of Wall Street. And they’re trying to say — the Republicans are saying they’re the party of government.

And that’s essentially the messaging issue. It should be said — and the pause that makes me think, actually, there may be some sort of slight bipartisanship at the end of the day here is, beyond the messaging war, there actually is a substantive debate.

And a lot of people are very uncertain about how actually to regulate Wall Street. Does the FDIC — are they actually qualified to oversee a firm that’s about to go out of business and sort of take it over for a little while? That’s actually a substantive matter.

And on those substantive matters, there have been people like Bob Corker, who is a Republican senator from Tennessee, they have been deeply involved in actually crafting the bill. And even the Wall Street Journal editorial page today had an editorial saying the bill is moving in the right direction. It wasn’t one of these “hell no” things.

And, so, on the substance, there’s actually been some progress. On the messaging, though, it’s pure polarizing.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, two — just two quick points.

One is the argument that this is a bailout for the banks, and the banks want it. Now, if the bill that was written by Barney Frank in the House and Chris Dodd in the Senate was such a pro-bank bill, as the Republicans are charging, a big bank bill and a Wall Street bill, then why has Wall Street and big banks hired every lobbyist who isn’t under indictment or detox in Washington to work against it?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s the first — that’s the first point.

The second point is Goldman Sachs today.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I was going to ask about that.

MARK SHIELDS: Goldman Sachs, I think it made — I think it made opposition to financial regulation an increasingly unpopular political position.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, if you think it will work. I mean, Wall Street is already in the toilet. Nobody is going to be out defending Wall Street.

The question is, do you — do we actually think a bunch of people in the FDIC can anticipate when a firm is about to go under and create systemic risk? Of course, once you get into these issues of vanilla derivatives and all that kind of stuff, you’re well below politics.

JIM LEHRER: We have a minute left.

What about the nuclear summit, President Obama’s nuclear summit?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it was interesting to me because…

JIM LEHRER: Take 30 seconds, so David gets the other.

MARK SHIELDS: … every issue that Barack Obama has basically addressed, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or the bailouts or the economy, has been something he inherited.

This is his own — this is his own issue. This is something he has worked on. He didn’t work on an awful lot of issues in the Senate for a long time before he headed for Iowa and New Hampshire. But this is one he really has cared about deeply.

And the criticism is, well, they didn’t do everything. But you did something. And that — that’s an important…

JIM LEHRER: Positive — you think it was a positive thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I do.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I actually agree.

I mean, you look at some of the countries who weren’t caring about it this much and who actually did positive things to get control of their material, Ukraine, Chile, you know, it’s a positive step forward. And, so, he’s to be congratulated on it.

JIM LEHRER: And he deserves credit? Do you agree with Mark that this is something he didn’t have to do?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And it wasn’t the biggest thing in the world, but it’s a step forward. And I’m for little steps forward. Why not?

JIM LEHRER: All right. OK.

David, Mark, thank you.