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JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis of why it happened. It comes from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of “The Weekly Standard”; plus two pollsters, Republican Linda Divall and Democrat Stan Greenberg.
David, is there a simple explanation for these results?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, George Bush. There was this dumb, bumbling guy who couldn’t pronounce words right. And that was the George Bush of a couple of months ago. And now they’re measuring his monument out in the mall. He personalized the selection, presidentialized the election, nationalized the election, and he did it because he was more intellectually serious than the Democrats. You might not like his doctrines, but he had an economic doctrine, he had a foreign policy, preemption, regime change in Iraq, and he had a homeland security doctrine. And that was more serious, and if Democrats want to recover, they have to look in the mirror and say, “I’m dumber than George Bush,” and they have to say that every day.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you agree?
MARK SHIELDS: I think David with his characteristic understatement, Jim, but…
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree.
MARK SHIELDS: It was Bush’s victory. Make no mistake about it. He defied all political custom, all the odds, all the rest. He did in fact silence those critics, some of whom sit in this chair, who suggested that he was of risking his commander- in-chief stature by becoming campaigner-in-chief, fundraiser-in-chief.
The last three weeks, he was not President of the United States. He was a campaigner. He did clear the field in race after race, discouraged Republicans from running for office in places like Minnesota, so he could get Norm Coleman as the nominee. North Carolina get Elizabeth Dole. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. And he prevailed. It’s a major, major achievement. And I think David is right, the Democrats are a party without a voice and without a face, and this election just proved that.
JIM LEHRER: Linda, am I correct that it’s most unusual-let’s put it this way — most of the people sitting in chairs like ours did not realize beforehand that George W. Bush had successfully nationalized this election, am I right about that?
LINDA DIVALL: That’s correct.
JIM LEHRER: Why? How did we miss this?
LINDA DIVALL: Well, because the strategy was not to nationalize the election. There are fewer competitive elections than there ever were before, and so the goal was to take these few competitive races and run very aggressive campaigns. The President decided to invest his political capital to bring these races over the finish line. And you couple that with the fact that the Republicans had a very aggressive ground game. If you look at all the close races in 2000 and if you look at Senate races from 1994 through 2000, Democrats won 19 of 31 of the close elections, yesterday Republicans won nine of the twelve close elections in the Senate. So the Republicans had an aggressive ground game. They had a President willing to invest his political capital.
I would agree with David totally; there are some very compelling issue distinctions between Republicans, Democrats, and Republicans competed on issues, turf that was not normally theirs, like healthcare and prescription drugs, they are able to be relevant to voters, and they recruited good candidates, and, again, the President had a lot to do with that. Stellar candidates do win elections.
JIM LEHRER: Stan Greenberg what would you add or subtract?
STAN GREENBERG: There may be too much agreement on that, but I believe he nationalized the election. What I think we need to recognize, we’ve gone through 14 months. The country was attacked. The terrorist threat was ever real and was ever-present in quite dramatic moments — not from 9/11, but through snipers and the buildup to Iraq and all of that I think was there, and he chose to, I think, nationalize the election and produced this political earthquake. It was not an electoral earthquake-we ought to be clear — the impact was fairly small. That’s because the two the country was evenly divided before the election, very evenly divided after the election. But it was enough, you know, to push them over and produce this very important political consequence.
JIM LEHRER: As a Democrat, Stan, do you agree with what David said that the Democrats did a very poor job of responding to the nationalization by the President?
STAN GREENBERG: I think we… I think the point is right. David made the point before — that I think Democrats had a tactical election year. They pulled back from some of the biggest issues, above all the President’s budget and therefore were not in a position to articulate a critique or an alternative. That left it free for the President to nationalize the election and have the impact that he did.
JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, David, what could the Democrats have done to combat what the President did?
DAVID BROOKS: I really don’t know. They are about to have a fight. And they are in the midst of recriminations. I love Democratic recriminations. It’s like some people love opera; I just love them. But this is a little too savage, even for me. There is really a lot of hatred out there. If I were Terry McAuliffe the head of the DNC, I would be shopping for real estate in Bolivia, because it’s not a good time for him to be around Democrats.
Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt – there is really a lot of thinking, and I’m afraid, and a lot of Democrats I know are afraid that it’s going to fall back into the old left-right centrist DLC Democrats versus the left-wing Democrats, the left-wing Democrats will say we should have fought the Bush tax cut, we should have fought Bush on Iraq. They believe it. And they would have had the virtue of actually arguing for something they believe in.
On the other hand are you going to win Georgia with that campaign? No. You are going to lose. You are going to lose the South and the West. So they really are going to have a problem over the next few months finding something they believe in– which won’t be hard– finding something they can believe in that can deliver majorities in the South and West, which will be hard.
JIM LEHRER: Well, fortunately, we have an expert on all of this in the person of Mark Shields. Do you agree with David that was a division in the party about take on Bush or kind of go with Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: No, what David and Stan said has great merit to it. Jim, the Democrats decided tactically to take issues off the table. Let’s take Iraq off the table and let’s take the tax cut off the table.
JIM LEHRER: They did it for sheer political reasons?
MARK SHIELDS: They did it for practical reasons.
JIM LEHRER: Shame, shame, shame?
MARK SHIELDS: No, very practical reasons just as the Republicans didn’t talk about privatizing Social Security for very practical, tactical reasons. It was not a good climate to do it. The ten Senate seats that were crucial that Linda mentioned were in states that George W. Bush had won. They were, they involve many Senators who had voted for that tax cut.
So if the party itself took the honorable and traditional, and perhaps intellectually honest Democratic position that this tax cut unfairly and unjustly and unwisely benefits that top one percent who need the least help, they would have been cutting asunder and cutting lose their own people — on Iraq as well, the same thing. A majority of Democrats in the House did vote against the President’s position. But once you start taking issues off the table, you better have something to put in their place or else you risk what happened. That is the other guy running the table.
JIM LEHRER: So the end result was there was no Democratic message.
MARK SHIELDS: There wasn’t. I mean, all politics – and that aphorism is quoted too many times — all politics is local except when it isn’t. In this case, the Democrats did not have a national message. The analogy is to 1962. The Republicans lost a very close Presidential election in 1962.
JIM LEHRER: For those of us who were still in high school…
MARK SHIELDS: Nixon and Kennedy. Nixon had been accused of getting too close to Kennedy, of diluting what had been his conservative positions in the past. He loses to Kennedy and in ’62 the Democrats actually picked up House seats. I mean, Kennedy defies tradition so at that point a fight goes on in the Republican Party about are we going to stand for something? We have to be a choice, not an echo. The Republicans in 1964 obviously after the assassination and the tragedy nominated Barry Goldwater, who represented a true choice, and a set of believes and evoked conviction and passion in his followers. I think what the Democrats did was they had a constituency without conviction, without passion and sadly enough without a majority.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Linda, some people suggested today that the Republican message counter — on the other side was “anything you want. Mr. President.” Would you agree that was really the Republican message?
LINDA DIVALL: I don’t think so. I think there are a couple of things that work in this election. Clearly one thing that did work is let’s send Republicans to Washington and change the tone to get business done. The biggest challenge facing the Republicans now will be the capacity to govern. And there were some distinctions with Republicans on some small issues.
But I think the biggest distinction in terms of how Republicans ran campaigns this time around was one, they were much more positive; two, they had something to offer in voters in the terms of the issue structure that voters were concerned about, be that education, healthcare, Social Security, prescription drugs, it was not just on Iraq; it was not just on tax cuts, although taxes was a fundamental underpinning in terms of leading to job creation and another set of value that Republicans could espouse but it was more than that.
There was a positive issue structure at work, there was a sense that yes, we’re going to go to Washington to work with this President to get things done and now there is a sense that will be a united Republican team. We will see if that is indeed the fact because the Senate will still be very evenly divided and tough to move things forward in clear consensus.
JIM LEHRER: Stan Greenberg how do you read the Republican message beyond is that we support the President?
STAN GREENBERG: Well, the danger on the Republican side, that is the point I would make in light of David’s comments, the danger on the Republican side is they will over read the election and over read what the voters were doing. The President in nationalizing the election I think allowed voters to communicate. They wanted to support this President at a time when we face this kind of threat. But they did not give him a mandate on a broad range of issues. They would certainly be happy if individual Republicans supported a change on prescription drugs and protected Social Security.
But the broader Republican message on radical tax cuts and flat tax and other kind of proposals that are now being talked about were not, did not, were not chosen by the people in this election. The dangers is as in after the ’94 Congressional elections, the Republicans go too far, over read their mandate.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Starting with you David let’s go through each of you, was there a favorite election result or one that surprised you the most, a particular race that caught your fancy in terms of the results?
DAVID BROOKS: The whole state of Georgia. There was a state… I didn’t expect Max Cleland to lose, though I knew it was possible. And there is a case where I think voters voted issues that were not raised: Iraq and homeland security. September 11 — that was not a huge issue, though homeland security was raised very effectively by the Republicans in that state, but voters had a Cold War mentality in that state and a lot of these states.
This is suddenly a serious election, which President or which party is relentless in the fight against terrorism. You didn’t have to talk about it. People knew about it, and the Democrats fundamentally misread the homeland security debate when they sided for the civil service protections and their belief system of the civil service protections in that department. That was actually in Georgia I think probably a bigger issue than Iraq and what happened in Afghanistan — that Max Cleland, the guy is a hero, a patriot, someone who sacrificed for the country, made a bad judgment siding with the Democrats on this, and he was hit for it by the Republicans and paid for it.
JIM LEHRER: What race interested you the most?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the fact, Jim, that there are four open Senate seats in the South: In Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and in not one of them did the Democratic candidate break 45 percent. I mean, the idea David talks about the Democrats being competitive in the South; Georgia was an amazing surprise.
What happens after an election like yesterday is this: My friend Peter Hart, who has been on the show as well, said it’s like the Academy Awards. You say, “We won best cinematography and we won short subject and we won set design,” which is the governorships of Kansas and Oklahoma and Wyoming, which, you know, are nice victories for the Democrats, but the other side won best director, best picture, best actor, and best actress. So that I guess that is the real message for the Democrats. You have to say we lost. Why did we lose? What do we stand for? Were we rejected or do we stand for nothing, or do we try to be the remainder man in this election and just be the repository of dissatisfaction with the Republicans?
JIM LEHRER: Linda, I know you had some involvement in a couple of these races, but beyond the ones you were involved in yourself, was there any particular case that struck your fancy or stunned you with the results?
LINDA DIVALL: No particular race, but two trends: One, Republicans winning these very narrow elections in a very decisive fashion, and the second the fact that we have concern for the…
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. In other words, you might have expected one or a few of them to great their way, but not all of them.
LINDA DIVALL: Nine out of twelve of these close races going to Republicans suggests that Republicans have indeed improved their ground game. I think the second important thing to look at was the fact with so many voters actually split in terms of right direction, wrong track, that people seem to have faith in the commander-in-chief in terms of combating terrorism and the upcoming war in Iraq. We have a lot of economic uncertainty, but voters still seem to be saying the Republicans are offering a plan. “I’m going to trust the Republicans so that we do have a united team.”
I’m not trying to over read what voters were saying but they clearly weren’t saying let’s put our faith in Democrats, in terms of making certain that we had the focus on the economy. And I think it’s for the point that David made earlier that Democrats did not offer a strong competing alternative vision, and so, absent that, Republicans were able to make some very strong points in terms of tax cuts and jobs and talking about the economy and talking about the economy and not avoiding it. So engaging on issues that were relevant to voters I think did play an important role in this election for Republicans.
JIM LEHRER: Stan, favorite race or a big surprise?
STAN GREENBERG: Well, Tim Johnson is still standing is important for us – but I too would focus on the South. It was… it’s not just that the Democrats did so poorly compared to the trends over the last couple of years. It’s that the polls got it so wrong, whereas the polls I think were fairly accurate in New Hampshire and South Dakota and races like that but across the South, whether it was North Carolina, or Georgia or Florida or Texas, not only did the Republicans win, they won in some cases by double digit numbers that were not seen in the polls, which I think is largely a function of very big turnout there from differential, conservative white Republicans responding to the President, also I think the South in particular responding to a commander-in-chief calling on them to support their new Senator and that produced fairly dramatic results at the end.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of polls, this was also one of the few elections in recent times where there were no exit polls, so all of us could be poring over them and talking tonight well the exit poll in this state.
MARK SHIELDS: Agnostics. We carried agnostics. (Laughter)
JIM LEHRER: Right. Okay. Thank you all four very much.