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Shields and Brooks Mull GOP Retirements, Convention Plans

August 8, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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As an increasing number of GOP House members announce they will not run for re-election, analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss possible power shifts in Congress and emerging plans for the party conventions.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, do you agree with Deborah Pryce that the — what she calls the thoughtful middle has been run out of Washington?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, I do, and for a whole bunch of reasons. Redistricting is part of it. The team spirit is part of it.

Deborah Pryce is a fascinating example. I remember meeting with Deborah Pryce and a whole bunch of Republican moderates years ago. They knew their party was in trouble. They knew they needed to change course.

They couldn’t get the resolve, the muster to actually change course. And now the Republican Party is in the state it’s in.

Deborah Pryce is from the area around Columbus, Ohio. It’s a swing district, very close. And as a result, she has run and had to face a series of tough competitions. She had to face a vicious campaign last time, where — vicious ads were run against her. She ran vicious ads against her opponent.

And at one point, Pryce told me, her mother called her up and said, “I’m ashamed of the ads you’re running.” It wasn’t the opponent’s ads that bothered her.

JIM LEHRER: Her own?

DAVID BROOKS: It was the ads she was running on her own behalf. And at a certain point, you come to a point where you say, “It’s not worth it.” And a lot of these folks are coming to that point.

GOP Retirements

David Brooks
New York Times
[The centrists] have not generated the ideas. They have not generated the institutions. The centrists in this world complain about it. They just haven't mobilized.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you see Democrats having the same thoughtful middle deficit that Deborah Pryce is talking about?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it is. I think the redistricting really has a lot to do with it, Jim. In other words -- say, by redistricting, we organize the congressional districts so that you have a 70 percent, if you're a Democrat, a 70 percent Democratic seat, I have a 70 percent Republican seat, David has a 70 percent Republican seat, that means that the only worry we have is not an Election Day in general election, it's in a primary.

JIM LEHRER: It's a primary, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And the only -- so it's on the left of the Democratic Party that you have to be nervous, so you're constantly looking at your left flank, whether it's, on the right side, whether Club for Growth is going to come in and spend a couple hundred thousand dollars for you because you may have even suggested that, you know, a tax would be helpful, or necessary, or wise at a time of war.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just add one thing...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sure.

DAVID BROOKS: ... that's all true. Another part of it is the middle -- there are people who are centrist in Congress, but they're relatively quiet and they're relatively subdued.

When you go to a conservative dinner in Washington, there are academics, there are think-tankers, there are activists. When you go to a liberal dinner, there are academics, think-tankers, and activists. When you go to a middle dinner, a centrist dinner, there are a bunch of lobbyists.

They have not generated the ideas. They have not generated the institutions. The centrists in this world complain about it. They just haven't mobilized.

There's Heritage Foundation. There's Center for American Progress on these two ideological sides. There are very few institutions that give ideas to centrists.

MARK SHIELDS: Can I just say one thing about Ray LaHood?


MARK SHIELDS: Ray LaHood, in that piece...

JIM LEHRER: ... the Illinois Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: ... congressman, he's a man of the House. Washington will be a less civil and less humane place because Ray LaHood is leaving. This is somebody who never had an enemy's list. He refused to demonize people across the aisle.

I mean, Dick Durbin, the Senate Democratic whip, I mean, and a formidable partisan operative, told me that Ray LaHood was one of his three best friends in the entire Illinois delegation, which includes, I think, 14 Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: Dick Durbin is a liberal Democrat.


JIM LEHRER: Leader of the...

MARK SHIELDS: And a dozen Democrats who don't make his list. My point is, he's somebody who's reached across the aisle. He's always accepted that the other person may have a point of view and there's goodwill. And I have to tell you, I mean, it's an enormous, enormous loss to have him go.


David Brooks
New York Times
It's culture. It's loyalty to team replaces loyalty to the truth...The redistricting hurts a lot, but I think there's also a culture here that has to be broken.

JIM LEHRER: David, unless I've missed something, I don't see a solution out there to this. Nobody's -- we're lamenting a problem, but it doesn't have a solution?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, leadership. You know, when I take members of Congress or they take me to lunch or dinner, I always leave that lunch or dinner with this phrase in my head: reasonable in private. In private...

JIM LEHRER: Reasonable in private?

DAVID BROOKS: They understand the flaws of their own arguments, the strengths of their own arguments. They hate the system they're trapped in. They feel conformed to meet the party line.

And it's only when they're retiring they can give interviews like we just saw, where they're a little more honest about Katrina and things like that.

But once they're there, they have to voice the team party line. And it will take a president, frankly, to get them out of those teams.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think we have the potential of both of these men, I mean, have demonstrated...

JIM LEHRER: Obama and McCain?

MARK SHIELDS: ... Obama and McCain, an inclination and an interest in working across the aisle. And I think that's -- I think that's encouraging in itself.

But I don't want to in any way underestimate, Jim, the importance of the redistricting. I mean, I think...

JIM LEHRER: But that's not going to get fixed? That's not...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, but it can be fixed. And it's fixed in Iowa. I mean, Iowa as a consequence has a delegation where the lines are drawn not on, you know, some political get-even or "gotcha" operation, but are drawn by an independent commission.

And, I mean, there have been attempts to do this. And I think the recognition -- for one thing, you can maximize the number of your own party if you say to people, "David, you can win with 55 percent." "No, no, I have to have 75 percent." It becomes a matter of ego and vanity to have these huge...

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with you totally, but the Senate is almost as polarized as the House, not quite, but almost as polarized. And there's obviously no redistricting in the Senate.

And there, I think, it's culture. It's loyalty to team replaces loyalty to the truth.

You go to these policy lunches on Tuesdays, if you're a senator. They give you the message of the week, especially on the Republican side, and you're supposed to hew to that message. And that's just a matter of culture. The redistricting hurts a lot, but I think there's also a culture here that has to be broken.

The Clintons at the convention

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Hillary Clinton has gone from an interesting, independent, formidable political figure in her own right... Now we're back to thinking of them as the Clintons, which is a soap opera and it's a psychodrama.

JIM LEHRER: The presidential campaign -- quickly here, Mark -- Hillary Clinton has now suggested that maybe there should be a vote on her during the Democratic convention. Obviously, she's going to lose it, but for symbolic reasons, et cetera, et cetera. What do you think of that idea?

MARK SHIELDS: The only thing worse than a vote on the floor for Hillary Clinton, her being nominated, is perhaps not having a vote on the floor. I mean, in other words, if the protests are going to be part of the story...

JIM LEHRER: So that would take the edge off...

MARK SHIELDS: It might take the edge off. I would say this. You know, we're seeing this week why Sen. Clinton was not on the long list or the short list for vice president. I mean, we're seeing abundant evidence of it. I mean, from Bill Clinton's frosty non-endorsement of -- and sort of petulant non-endorsement of Sen. Obama.

JIM LEHRER: Just a couple of weeks ago?


JIM LEHRER: ... on interviews.

MARK SHIELDS: ... ABC. And then Sen. Obama scurrying, saying, no, no, he thought he was set up for that question. He told the New York Post yesterday that they were trying to push President Clinton.

I just -- I think, Jim, what we have here is -- it's interesting. Hillary Clinton has gone from an interesting, independent, formidable political figure in her own right, which she became during the primaries, especially that string of victories, and it was an impressive performance.

Now we're back to thinking of them as the Clintons, which is a soap opera and it's a psychodrama. And this is not helpful going in.

The comparable experiences, 1976, with Reagan and Ford, where that party was never put back together after Kansas City, 1980, where Jimmy Carter probably couldn't have won against Ronald Reagan under any circumstance, but with Ted Kennedy, that was divided, and '68 with the Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: But those were at least ideological fights. This is a fight about nothing.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: Except personal power.

JIM LEHRER: Is it really a fight about nothing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's a fight about naked politics. I mean, it's existing on two levels.

On the public level, it's sort of a new age therapy group, where they say, "We need to have catharsis. We need to have closure. We need to heal the chi and the feng shui," or whatever that stuff is. "We need peace."

But that's not what it's really about. Those are just the talking points. There is some negotiations going beneath the level over I don't know what, speeches at the convention, who gets what job in an administration. At some level, it's got politics, and this is just being used as leverage. I can't -- personally don't think they'll have the vote.

MARK SHIELDS: I can't either, David.

JIM LEHRER: You don't think they will?

MARK SHIELDS: I can't either. But, I mean, you know, why do they have them on two separate nights? I mean, there's only four nights of the convention. So that means half the nights...

JIM LEHRER: They're going to have Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night and have Bill Clinton on Wednesday night.

MARK SHIELDS: And Bill Clinton on Wednesday night. I mean, at least the Republicans are quarantining Bush and Cheney to Monday night, on Labor Day, you know, so that they're in and out, out of the Twin Cities.

JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting, David, that maybe the Clintons don't want Barack Obama to win after all.


JIM LEHRER: You don't go with that?

DAVID BROOKS: ... I remain innocent about this. I could be naive, but I just believe people generally want their party to win, even if it's not -- but there is...

JIM LEHRER: So you think they'll suck it up by the time of...

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, I think so, but there's an ethos that, "We're going to be hard. We're going to be tough. You want to admire that. We're going to be ruthless. Ruthless is good." And you see that in the Clintons.

And, frankly, you see it in the McCain and Obama in the way they flip-flop on all these various issues. There's an ethos now that the more ruthless you are, the more macho you are, that proves you're a tough customer and you're the best thing. No holds barred, we're going after this thing.

Strategies of McCain, Obama

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
McCain is trying to make energy a proxy for the economy. He's in terrible shape on the economy, whether it's being branded too close to Bush, carrying the Republican brand on unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and sort of a pessimism.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, Mark, both Obama and McCain have been talking a lot about energy, energy, energy, energy. Are they saying anything important this week?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, for McCain, it's been a godsend, because McCain is trying to make energy a proxy for the economy. He's in terrible shape on the economy, whether it's, you know, being branded too close to Bush, carrying the Republican brand on unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and sort of a pessimism.

But if he can make energy sort of the proxy for the economy, it kind of works for him, I think in the sense of off-shore drilling. You've seen -- I don't know what will be the consequence, Jim, of Obama, you know, moving to a compromise on...

JIM LEHRER: On drilling and...

MARK SHIELDS: ... off-shore drilling, but I do think that McCain feels that this is the one advantage he's been given. And he's just trying to grab it, because he's obviously lost his advantage -- because of the president and his own initiatives to save his legacy, I think, on Iran and on Iraq, he's been deprived of some of his talking points and his positions.

JIM LEHRER: But a lot has been made about the fact that McCain had a couple of commercials this week that seemed to be pulling away from Bush as best he can. What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you'd better. You know, 80 percent of the country thinks the country is going in the wrong direction. You'd better. You'd better move away.

And I think it's obviously the smart thing to do. The thing he's got to do -- and I'm told the thing he's going to do in the convention -- is give a narrative of where the Republican Party went wrong. Those Republican moderates who are leaving the House...

JIM LEHRER: We'll be hearing some of that, you think?

DAVID BROOKS: We will be hearing some of that.

JIM LEHRER: From John McCain, we'd be -- we would be...

DAVID BROOKS: In his speech, he'll distance himself. He's got to distance himself not only from the Bush, but the recent history of the party.

And he's got to hit Obama. I agree with Mark. The energy thing has been the best issue McCain has. On the stupid political sense, he's talking about off-shore drilling, not that it will help, but he's forced Obama into a series of policy shifts which detract from his era of new politics, the windfall profits tax, totally stupid tax, the petroleum reserve, and sort of agreeing to off-shore drilling.

He's dented Obama and put him really on the defensive. On substance, of course, none of these things will make any difference. But on politics, it's working for McCain.

MARK SHIELDS: It's fascinating, Jim, I mean, that John McCain preempted the Ronald Reagan phrase, "We're worse off than we were four years ago." I mean, that shows to me a sensitivity of the charge that he's running for George Bush's third term. He's trying somehow to immunize himself against that charge by his being more critical of the last four years and what's gone on than even is Obama.

JIM LEHRER: But Obama, that is his major theme, is it not? You want another Bush term, vote for McCain.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and it's the smart thing. It's sticking in the polls. The only thing I would say, in times of change, there are occasions when the conservative candidate wins because people want change, but not that much change. And there's an opening there for McCain, if he can articulate a sort of reform that's not radical change. He hasn't done that yet.


MARK SHIELDS: The argument that Obama is confronting is this. Independents and Democrats have doubts about Obama. They're not sure who he is. They don't have doubts about George W. Bush. They know where they stand on him. And so, if he can tie McCain to him, that works than trying to simply fill in his own biography.

JIM LEHRER: And I thought this worked really well tonight. Thank you both very much.