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Shields and Brooks Assess Oil Spill’s Political Fallout, Primary Races

April 30, 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 White House's decision to suspend plans for offshore drilling expansion in the wake of the Gulf disaster and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's announcement he will break from the GOP to run for Senate as an independent.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times David Brooks.

Gentlemen, let’s talk about Arkansas.

David, what does Blanche Lincoln’s predicament say about Democrat and Republican races around the country?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is — as Spencer was saying, it’s a national — it’s a couple of national trends here, one, the movements, like MoveOn.org and the national — or the labor unions on the left or Club for Growth on the right.

If they can knock off somebody like Blanche Lincoln, a moderate in their own party, A, they enhance their power in Washington, and they enforce party orthodoxy in Washington. So, they have an incentive. Even though it may be bad for the Democratic Party in the long term, they have a short-term incentive, ideologically, to knock off moderates.

So, there is that anti-moderate trend. And then the second trend, which is also national — it’s sort of like a British parliamentary system — we don’t have — the candidates don’t matter as much. The national trends matter — which is, it’s just a horrible year to be a Democrat in a state McCain carried or in a district McCain carried.

The Democratic Party favorability rating has dropped 22 percentage points in a year. They had an 11-point party I.D. advantage about eight to 15 months ago. That is entirely gone. So, it is just a bad year. So, those two things are happening, one against the center and two against Democrats. So, that’s tough for Blanche Lincoln, if you are both.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, not so good to be a Democrat in some places and hard to be a moderate almost anywhere.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. I would just add one little fill-up to David’s. And that is, we don’t want to leave the impression that the Republicans are thriving. In virtually every measure of public opinion, most recently in the Washington Post/ABC poll, the Democrats now have a double-digit lead on which party is better.

But they have plummeted overall in their — in favorability, and especially — David’s right — in a red — an increasingly red state. John Brummett’s point, Spencer Michels’, I think, is a very, very good one, that Arkansas has become — even though it continues to have a Democratic tradition of sending people to Washington.

There is only one Republican in the entire Arkansas delegation. There’s only been one Republican senator there, Tim Hutchinson. So, I mean, it has this tradition. The fights have been on the Democratic side. For the first time, in 2010, there really is a sense that the Republicans have a great chance of winning the Senate seat.

And that’s why the eight people in that primary. It is going to be coveted — I don’t think there’s any question that the words that Blanche Lincoln used, common sense, practical, common ground, results, those are traditionally words that effective, electable pragmatists, middle-of-the-road, use.

But she is defending now the fact that she was one of 12 Democrats in the entire Senate that voted for the Bush tax cuts…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: … the only Democrat in Arkansas who voted for Bush’s Medicare prescription drug. So, she is very much on the defensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Primary — we’re talking about this primary in Arkansas. And, David, we were looking at a primary, Republican primary in the state of Florida. But Governor Charlie Crist just yesterday announced he’s not going to do — in fact, when I interviewed him a few weeks ago, he said, “I have no intention of running as an independent.”

But that is what he is doing. He’s leaving the Republican Party.

DAVID BROOKS: I was stunned that didn’t — he wasn’t fully candid with you.

DAVID BROOKS: That is just shocking.

Yes, and it sets up an obviously interesting race. It is a party that actually doesn’t have a lot of independents among — I mean, it is a state among various states — it is a state where the voters are reasonably committed Republican and Democrat. And so it sets up this gamble for Crist, which is, Rubio is a strong candidate, and I think he is going to lock in the Republican vote.

Meek is a strong candidate on the Democratic side. And, so, he’s got to say — Crist has got to say, who can I get? And he’s really putting a large gamble, I think, that the teacher unions, who he just defended with this veto, will leave the Democratic Party and stay with him. I think that’s a long shot. I doubt that’s going to happen.

He is going to have financial problems. And then the core thing — and this runs through moderates nationwide — is, what exactly is he running on? A lot of moderates, people like the idea that you are a reasonable and pragmatic, but they still want an agenda and a philosophy.

And I personally — I haven’t seen that out of Crist, like a lot of moderates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can an independent win in the state of Florida, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. I think an independent in present climate, giving the feeling of people toward both parties, could win.

It’s tougher for Charlie Crist because he’s been a very successful politician. He was elected statewide education chief. He was elected attorney general, elected governor. So, it’s hard to say, “I’m an outsider,” coming from that. But he is a proven quantity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. He has spent his entire adult life…

MARK SHIELDS: He has. He has, but he — even more than his adult life. He was elected to school board when he was still in high school.

MARK SHIELDS: So, I mean so Charlie showed early form, and he has lived up to it.

And he — but he has had a record as attorney general in particular, and I think you could say as governor, that is — that has borrowed from column A and column B. He hasn’t been rigid. But I think it is going to be tough. He could not stay in the Republican primary, Judy.

He was going to stay there for four months, and it had become a religious ritual for national Republicans to come to Florida to beat up on Charlie Crist to prove their conservative credentials by embracing Marco Rubio, who most of them couldn’t have picked out of the police lineup six months ago.

MARK SHIELDS: But they are going to show how enough tough they were. He would have been a pinata for the next four months and lost the primary.

So, he had — if he was going to run, he had to get out. And I just — I just pointed out, we have had a lot of people in this country who have gotten out of parties. Dick — Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, who taking up regulation, was a Democrat until the Republicans took over the Senate in 1994.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And we have had two men in American history who voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt and once for Harry Truman for president, two men who were president — one was Harry Truman; the other was Ronald Reagan — who switched parties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we — Marco Rubio, who now has the Republican primary all to himself, or the Republican nomination, David, is one of the few Republicans in the country who is criticizing that Arizona anti-immigration law.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now you see the Democrats in Washington coming up with an immigration reform bill. They rolled it out yesterday. What are the prospects, seriously, for immigration reform?

DAVID BROOKS: I think really grim.

Chuck Schumer has been pushing this issue. He wanted President Obama to do it right away, Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York. He’s head of the committee. And he’s pushing hard. And I think he’s sincere about it. He has been doing it for so long.

Nonetheless, I still think the reason we’re talking about it now, as we mentioned last week, is that Latino voters are so far a little apathetic. Democrats need them. Especially, Harry Reid in Nevada needs them. And they are trying to get them to come out to vote by having — putting immigration top-burner.

But the prospects of it passing, A, depends on them doing the real preparatory work in the Senate, which has not been done. You know, think how much Ted Kennedy and John McCain did last time. That stuff hasn’t been done — and, B, an utter change in public opinion.

If you just polled publicly right now, should we put up a fence and — or should we do comprehensive immigration reform, well, put up the fence would win with both parties. The number of people who now want to do the comprehensive reform, which involves dealing with the millions who are already here, that is very slender.

So, I think the political landscape is just horrible for actually getting anything done. So, I think it’s a political ploy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, even with all the anger over the Arizona law, Mark, is there the impetus to get something done nationally?

MARK SHIELDS: There more conversation. There is more attention to it. But I don’t think there’s — getting to 60 in the Senate is next to impossible. I mean, John McCain, who was the stalwart, has withdrawn from the battle, now Lindsey Graham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Facing a challenge on his right.

MARK SHIELDS: Facing — Graham, on the issue, in the very state that is the cauldron, Arizona. Lindsey Graham, who became the successor, for reasons that he expresses, and I think also for internal pressure within the party, is not joining Chuck Schumer in this effort.

And I don’t think there’s any question, Judy, that — John Cornyn, the Republican Senate Campaign Committee chairman from Texas, said yesterday to a group of us reporters, very candidly, you’re not going to pass immigration reform when there is 9.7 percent unemployment.

It requires a certain confidence and optimism on the part of voters to take a step this large. And I don’t think it’s there. I think there’s a hunkering-down. I think there is a defensiveness. And I think — I agree with David that just the atmospherics and the mood are not there.

DAVID BROOKS: And, I mean, just to flesh out the Lindsey Graham point, he was promised that — by Harry Reid — that he was going to really stick his neck out on energy and climate and that stuff, and that the Democrats wouldn’t throw immigration on top of that, because it’s too heavy a lift. He didn’t think you could ask the country, or the Senate, especially Republicans in the Senate, if he was going to take these enormous personal risks on climate, to also throw in immigration.

And they backed out on that deal. They didn’t deliver the promises. And, so, he was outraged, and I think properly so. And, so, it’s not only messing up the immigration, but it’s messing up climate, where there really was a greater, much greater chance of some bipartisan agreement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I do want to get to — get to climate, if we have time, but I have to ask you about — on the subject of energy, David, it was just, what, a month or so ago, the president announced he was going to live that moratorium on offshore oil drilling.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Look what’s happened in the Gulf.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that say about — can the administration go ahead with this? Has the climate now on that issue completely changed because of this disaster…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, among the other barriers to get to a climate bill is this…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly.

DAVID BROOKS: … because we had achieved something important, which was, we used to fight over renewables vs. the current energy sources. And I think both parties, led by President Obama, said, we need it all. Let’s have it all.

And now, because of what happened in the Gulf, it’s just hard to pass a bill that includes even an element of offshore drilling. And you cannot pass anything unless there is offshore drilling in it. And, so, it just becomes politically tough.

The only final thing I would say is, hey, there is no energy source that comes without risk. We were just talking about a mine disaster a couple weeks ago. Every single energy source has risks and costs. That doesn’t mean you can’t rely on them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we are looking at some pretty bad pictures.

MARK SHIELDS: We are. We’re looking at terrible pictures, Judy. And there really was, I think, a growing confidence. And that is why the resistance on the environmental left to offshore drilling, I think, had diminished at the time the president came forward, because of the advances in safety equipment and strategies.

And now we have the real possibility that this rig’s device to prevent a blowout didn’t operate properly. And this is deepwater drilling. And it has worked in the North Sea. I mean, with very cold water and very rough seas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the prevention efforts.

MARK SHIELDS: They have been able to manage it.

But just one of these — and it is increasingly serious. I think it is a bigger political problem, because, right at the outset, there was sort of a, well, it’s contained. And now it isn’t contained.

And I think you see people like Bob Menendez, the senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, who had held their fire, coming out against offshore drilling, the threat to the New Jersey shores.

And the real source of energy is in the Eastern Gulf. That is where it is. It is shallow, off the Florida coast, the northern Florida coast. That requires separate legislation to approve offshore drilling there. I don’t think there is any way it gets through…

DAVID BROOKS: I think the White House is handling it reasonably well.

Listen, they put a moratorium, and that is understandable. But the president came out today and still said, the drilling is part of our strategy. We need that.

It’s not walking away. You know, we have to be able to assess risks in this country. You know, tankers coming from Saudi Arabia are also a risk. Coal is a risk. Everything is a risk. And so we have a terrible episode, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the whole energy source.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we’re going have to dismiss both of you, but only temporarily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We want you back next Friday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields…

DAVID BROOKS: Like Rembrandt operating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … thank you both. Dismissed.