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Shields, Gerson Reflect on Historic Year, Challenges Ahead

December 26, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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After a year that saw a global economic crisis develop and a historic presidential election take place, Mark Shields and Michael Gerson look back on 2008's news highlights and discuss what to expect in the year to come.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, with some end-of-the-week and end-of-the-year analysis, NewsHour regular and syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, sitting in tonight for David Brooks.

Welcome, Michael.

And welcome, Mark, as always.

Let’s start with the big political news of the week, which was finally the release of the report, the internal inquiry that the Obama team did of its dealings with the Illinois governor, Blagojevich, over replacing Obama in the Senate.

Mark, what did you make of the outcome? And how do you think they handled it?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Well, I think, first of all, anything they do is going to be measured, inevitably, against Senator Obama’s repeated promises of transparency and greater openness.

And Greg Craig, who was the designated White House counsel for President Obama, conducted this interview. We’ve seen interviews before, investigations where the in-house counsel has done them, but he was under enormous pressure, I think, strong incentive to be totally forthcoming, Margaret, because, A, it’s his first. He has to honor that pledge.

And, most important of all, all the conversations probably are on tape. So if anybody leaves something out, there’s a good chance that Patrick Fitzgerald, rather than corroborating the report, will contradict it, and that would be a disaster politically.

But I think they’ve done a good job. They didn’t rush it out. I think they took enough time. It wasn’t dilatory in their presentation. But the proof will be when Patrick Fitzgerald comes forward.

MARGARET WARNER: And the conclusion, as we know, was that there was no, quote, “inappropriate contact” between anyone in the Obama team and anyone on the Blagojevich team.


MARGARET WARNER: Michael, this was their first exercise in crisis management. How do you think they did?

MICHAEL GERSON, Washington Post columnist: Well, you know, I think they did fairly well. This is a case where we haven’t seen nuclear revelations. I think that they did respond in a timely fashion.

But it is, of course, a selfish report, not a report from a broader source. Autobiographies always tend to be pretty favorable.

But it’s a case where they need to keep a few things in mind. One of them is, as many people in the Bush administration discovered, Patrick Fitzgerald is a dogged, thorough investigator.

Secondly, you know, many — as somebody like Scooter Libby discovered, sometimes the mistakes are made not in the underlying crime, but in the investigation itself, and that can be very dangerous. Any time you talk to the FBI, it is a very serious thing.

And, you know, I think, lastly, one of the problems here is that the governor’s defense team seems determined to drag in the Obama team, as they think it’s going to benefit them and as they do this.

And so, you know, the reality here is I don’t think it’s a massive crisis, but I also don’t think it’s over.

Discussing a historic election

Michael Gerson
Washington Post
I think that the financial crisis in many ways was the key political fact of 2008, and not just because it favored Democrats and hurt Republicans -- although it did that -- but because it was a test of temperament.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's talk now about the year. And clearly the most momentous political event of the year was the election of the first black president in Barack Obama.

Mark, if you set aside the tactical stuff, but really look at the big picture, what do you think it says about Obama and about the country that Americans made this historic and some would have said improbable choice a year ago?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it says a number of things. Two things that have gone essentially unmentioned in the treatment of Obama and this year, and the first is, Margaret, that Barack Obama is the first candidate in close to half a century -- 45 years -- not to have been a participant in one side or the other of the two most divisive experiences of that entire epoch, Vietnam on one side, and the cultural, gender, civil rights revolution on the other.

I mean, those have been fought out from George McGovern forward on one side -- Jimmy Carter would not have been possible but for Vietnam and Watergate -- to Ronald Reagan bringing back American values, all the way through to Michael Dukakis and boutique politics in George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton on one side of the Vietnam divide, and George Bush on the other.

It just -- you know, they were divisive, and he leapfrogs it, because it's irrelevant to him and to his life.

The second is -- and I think it's the first rule of politics -- timing is everything. He was cautioned. He was counseled to wait. "You're just -- you're new to Washington. You've barely got your feet yet. You don't even know the way to the Capitol on the subway. Wait. Get yourself six years."

If John McCain had been the nominee in 2000, he would have beaten Al Gore. He would have been president of the United States. John McCain in 2008, the timing was wrong, so those two factors were enormously important.

But I think about Obama himself, you have to say this: There was a thematic constancy to him. From that keynote speech at the 2004 convention in Boston, to his announcement in Springfield in February 2007, all the way through to 2008 in the last night in Manassas, Virginia, it was, "Not we're red states, blue states. We're the United States. We're in this together. It is change." And it was consistent and constant.

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. I think that the financial crisis in many ways was the key political fact of 2008, and not just because it favored Democrats and hurt Republicans -- although it did that -- but because it was a test of temperament.

This was a very close election up until September of last year, you know, after the conventions, very, very close. But after the financial crisis, John McCain, who was the experienced candidate for decades, was the one who looked shaky.

Barack Obama, who was brand-new to the public stage, looked solid and constant and like you could trust him and imagine him as president of the United States. He reinforced that in the debates. That's the political context.

The historical context is even larger. I mean, the great divisive debates of America were all about race. That was true of our founding, up to Civil War and Reconstruction, and civil rights, and all these things.

But this was an election that was not about race. That was an extraordinary development. And it's the reason that so many people are excited about this inaugural. It's a time to celebrate that, whatever your views of Obama. That's real progress in American history and in American politics.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. I think it's a great tribute to John McCain that he resisted what had to be an enormous temptation on the Reverend Wright issue. And Bill McInturff, his pollster, spoke for, I think, McCain when he said, "If we did it, we still would have lost by 3 million votes, squeezed out a victory of 273 electoral votes, and de-legitimized the presidency," but he chose -- he said victory is a price too dear.

What must Obama accomplish?

Michael Gerson
Washington Post
[T]he purpose of a presidential campaign is to raise expectations.

MARGARET WARNER: So if we're having this conversation next year -- I mean, you look at the huge expectations there are in the public for Barack Obama, his policies and himself, Michael, what is the realistic benchmark that you would set now that he has to meet that's meetable, perhaps, for the two of you to say, "A good year, a good start."

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the purpose of a presidential campaign is to raise expectations. The purpose of the transition is to lower them. You don't want people to have too high an expectation, but they're pretty high in this circumstance.

The first one is clearly the economy. The economy doesn't have to be purring in a year, but it does -- you do have to lay the foundations of recovery, some sense of hope that we're headed in the right direction. He'll be judged on that no matter what.

The second one is clearly health care, laying the foundations. I don't think we'll have a health care bill necessarily, but I do think that is the measure of success or failure of the Obama administration. He has to make progress on health care.

And, thirdly, I'd say he has to maintain at least a modicum of this bipartisan spirit as he moves along. You know, it's going to be so easy for the Democratic leadership of Congress to engage in culture war battles and to alienate business and to do a lot of overreach.

He's going to be measured on how well he manages not to oppose the Republicans, but to control his own Democratic majority in a period when they could very well overreach.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say that's even more true, Mark, because these problems -- certainly the economic one -- won't be solved in a year? He's going to have to have a governing majority for a long time.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think there will be. I'm not as concerned about the Democrats for him, because the Democrats -- remember, Bill Clinton, who did, in fact, lose his majority in two years, not a single Democrat who served under Bill Clinton in the House of Representatives had ever served in the minority before.

Every Democrat now has served in the minority four years ago. They know what it's like not to have the parking space, not to be a committee chair, not to have staff, not to be called Mr. Chairman or Madam Chairman, and they don't want to lose this in just sort of a riot of ideological mosquito bite-scratching.

I would say this. Jim Baker said the reason for the war, the first Persian Gulf War, were three: jobs, jobs, jobs, was the way he put it, in a very blunt, candid moment. I would say that's the test of Barack Obama.

He has to be transparent. He has to be open. He has to reach across the aisle. I think that's a condition precedent to everything else.

But most of all, there has to be a sense -- and that's why I think the infrastructure is important -- there has to be a sense that we can see that there's been a difference, there's been a change, that bridges are better, that roads are safer, that there is progress in the country, and I think that will be it. That's how he will be measured.

And that sense of optimism -- the biggest thing he's got going for him, Margaret, is that three out of four voters now believe that the problems he faces are more severe than those of his predecessors. And they see their own fate, fortune, and future tied to his doing well. So he's got a lot of people rooting for him; he's got a very long leash.

The future of the Republican party

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
They've got to break out of being a regional party. I mean, the Republicans now are a Southern party.

MARGARET WARNER: Very short, final thought from each of you on where this leaves the Republicans. In other words, what's their benchmark for a year from now?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, they're in a pretty sorry state. And they're going to need new leaders who are rising, new ideas. They can't just return to Reaganism. They're going to have to have answers.

And they're going to have to have opportunities, because every administration makes mistakes and alienates people with tough decisions, and they're going to have to know when to take advantage of that.

MARK SHIELDS: They've got to break out of being a regional party. I mean, the Republicans now are a Southern party.

And the South is a wonderful area of the country, but it is out of sync in many respects with the rest of the country. And I just think they've got to figure out a way to become competitive again, not simply in the west, where they lost in this last election, but in the middle west of the country and in the northeast, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mark and Michael, thank you both.