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Palin Resignation, Minnesota Senate Election Resolution Top Week’s News

July 3, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and Michael Gerson mull Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's surprise resignation announcement and the Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling that Democrat Al Franken defeated Republican Norm Coleman for a U.S. Senate seat.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

Well, let’s start, Michael, with that shocking news about Sarah Palin, that she’s not only not going to run for re-election, she’s getting out of office this month.

MICHAEL GERSON, Washington Post Columnist: Yes. You know, I felt like politics is a tough business, and she’s had a tough run, but it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, the announcement today.

I mean, you know, high office is not just an honor like she talked about; it’s a responsibility to, you know, keep your commitments, in this case. She seems to be leaving for reasons that are entirely unclear. I mean, she didn’t make them clear in her announcement.

It seemed fundamentally unserious, which is problematic for someone who has a seriousness problem. And today I felt like she seemed more like a spoiled celebrity than a serious public official, and that’s bound to hurt her.

Sarah Palin's plans unclear

Michael Gerson
Washington Post
If you look at the exit polls from the last election, she really alienated college-educated voters, voters on both coasts, women. That's not the way to rebuild the Republican coalition, and that presents the Republican Party with a real difficulty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We don't really know what her plans are, Mark. She didn't say. I mean, there's some speculation she's getting out of politics; other people say, oh, no, she's definitely running for president.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I agree with Michael, that her case that she made for leaving today was not persuasive.

But Sarah Palin still remains one of the most fascinating people in the entire political landscape. She's probably the most charismatic figure in the Republican Party. And that was best demonstrated in the wonderful, inspired question that the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll asked during the campaign, recognizing that the personal vote for president and the vice president, that you really want someone you're comfortable with and someone you can have confidence in.

And they asked, "Which of these four candidates would you most want to have dinner with?" In other words, at a personal level. Barack Obama was the first choice, not surprisingly, at 40 percent. John McCain was 15 percent. Joe Biden, 7 percent. Sarah Palin was the first choice of 33 percent. I mean, the least-known, and yet -- so real appeal.

But at the same time, Judy, when asked, "Do you think Joe Biden or Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, if necessary?" By a 4-1 margin, 74 percent-18 percent, people said they thought Joe Biden was qualified and, by 55 percent to 40 percent, a landslide margin, they did not think Sarah Palin was qualified.

John McCain undercut his own case against Barack Obama -- inexperience -- by choosing her. And, you know, we've seen this going back and forth with the McCain campaign. I don't know what the reason is, but I will say this, that her leaving at this point, under these conditions...

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the middle of her term.

MARK SHIELDS: ... in the middle of the term, on the Friday of Fourth of July weekend, does not appear to be anything planned out to a larger view.

MICHAEL GERSON: No. Well, I agree. She was not ready the last time, which was obvious. If she's ready the next time, which a lot of people believe, it presents a huge challenge for the GOP, because she is very popular among a certain group of the Republican Party because of her manner and conservatism.

But if you look at the exit polls from the last election, she really alienated college-educated voters, voters on both coasts, women. That's not the way to rebuild the Republican coalition, and that presents the Republican Party with a real difficulty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But she does have this fiercely loyal base, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: She does. And the more she's attacked and criticized, the more fervent the base becomes.

I mean, I do think that she faced a serious logistical problem to try and run. It's 4,715 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to Concord, New Hampshire, and that's a long flight. And being away as governor, as we've learned recently in South Carolina, people expect the governor to be on call and to be available, so running for president from the governorship I think would have been incredibly difficult.

Minnesota Senate battle resolved

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the 60 is more a target for Republicans to criticize -- in other words, that, "Well, you've got 60. You know, there's no more obstructionists in the Senate," wink, wink -- than it is a dependable voting bloc for the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Staying with politics, Democrats, Michael, got their 60th vote this week. Al Franken, finally, after six months of this recount or count in the Senate race in Minnesota, is confirmed as the new senator from that state. What does that mean? The Democrats have 60 votes that they can normally count on. What does that mean for their agenda, for the president's agenda?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it's important from a certain perspective. I worked as a staffer in the Senate for many years, and a lot of votes are partisan votes. And on partisan votes, it helps to have 60 votes in the Senate.

But a lot of votes, like health care and, you know, cap and trade, are not going to be those kind of procedural partisan votes. They're going to be much more oriented towards the conscience of the members.

You know, so the president now has kind of a partisan super-majority. He doesn't necessarily have an ideological super-majority. And the reality is that there are still people like Landrieu, and Ben Nelson, and Arlen Specter who are not necessarily going to be predictable.

So I think it's important; I'm not sure it's going to be decisive in some of the biggest issues.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the 60 is more a target for Republicans to criticize -- in other words, that, "Well, you've got 60. You know, there's no more obstructionists in the Senate," wink, wink -- than it is a dependable voting bloc for the Democrats.

I think you're going to put together different coalitions on different issues, whether it is cap and trade, or health care, or taxes next year, that there will be shifting coalitions. And in the final analysis, it will be the middle -- the moderates in both parties -- that will make that decision.

I do think that Al Franken has been the model of restraint and discretion over these past eight months, I mean, almost humility. And the test will be, with his coming in, whether, in fact, he'll be able to sustain those Mother Teresa-like qualities.

MICHAEL GERSON: Especially because he has been one of the most poisonous and partisan figures in American political life in the past. When he refers to opponents, it's often with vulgar epithets. He's attacked Catholic bishops as unprintable words. He has a terrible...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean pre-this campaign.

MICHAEL GERSON: Pre-this campaign. He has a terrible history. Now, everybody can change, but there's a lot to change here. He's not been a good force for civility in American life. And, you know, he has a lot to make up for.

MARK SHIELDS: He has jousted with Rush Limbaugh -- not exactly the soul of civility himself -- and the question is, can he resist that temptation? Because the invitations, whether it's to go toe to toe with Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity or Limbaugh, you know they'll be knocking on his door. And the toughest job in Washington is going to be Al Franken's press secretary and be able to say no.

Economic recovery long way off

Michael Gerson
Washington Post
You look at cap and trade and you look at health care and both of those things would be easier if it looked like the economy was coming out. Both of those things are harder now that it looks like we haven't really sounded the bottom very effectively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The economy, Mark, some bad news yesterday on the unemployment front. It persists, more people laid off. The recession, it looks like, is even deeper, going to last longer than some of the worst predictions were. What does that say for the president, for President Obama and his agenda?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it certainly -- the numbers, yesterday, Judy, deflated somewhat inflated hopes that the recession was over.

The numbers are daunting. I mean, the fact that the administration had earlier predicted there would be at 7 percent unemployment. At this point after the stimulus package, we're at 9.5 percent, the highest in 26 years.

Unemployment, we're told over and over again, is a lagging economic indicator. Unemployment is a human economic indicator. It reflects pain and suffering that real people are -- it's not the exchange rate. It's not the Dow Jones.

Behind every one of those figures, there's an individual story that's sad. And Americans look at unemployment, and that's their measure. And I don't think it helps inspire confidence or expansion.

MICHAEL GERSON: All right. The bad news was pretty bad, and not just on unemployment, but also wages, which is an important predictor of future consumption, which really drives our economy.

I think this means two things for Obama. The first one is the stimulus just hasn't stimulated very much, and that, I think, a lot of the economists predicted, because these were spent through government rather than given directly to individuals, and that takes time. It's a slow process when we needed a quick one.

I also think it has a bad effect on his agenda. You look at cap and trade and you look at health care, and both of those things would be easier if it looked like the economy was coming out. Both of those things are harder now that it looks like we haven't really sounded the bottom very effectively. So, you know, I think this is bad news for the president in many ways.

Turning points in two wars

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The very fact that we are withdrawing was an agreement of the last administration forced upon by pressure at home by lack of enthusiasm for that war and pressure from Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm going to turn, very different subject, Iraq. We saw, Mark, I guess you could say a milestone this week, American troops continuing to pull back. Now they're saying they will only do joint missions with the Iraqis. They're lowering their presence, especially in the cities. How important is this moment, in America's presence?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it's one of relief. It's not one of exultation, certainly, Judy, I mean, that we're withdrawing American troops from the major cities. It's not a -- I mean, it's still a long, unresolved war, and we don't know what the results are going to be.

And all we do know is that, you know, six-and-a-half years ago, the United States went to war against a nation that had never threatened us on the fraudulent charge that that nation had weapons of mass destruction and was going to represent a threat to the United States. It was neither a just nor a justified war.

And the country violated one of its great principles in that war, and that is that war demands equality of sacrifice. And this war, all the sacrifice has been borne by less than 1 percent of Americans, those who wear the uniform and their loved ones.

And the rest of us pay no price, bear no burden. It's been a terrible war. The one burden we've been asked to take a tax cut so that we didn't have to pay for the war.

And it just -- it really has been a sad, sad chapter. Great efforts of valor and courage and bravery on the part of the military, but it's been a tremendous cost individually and institutionally to the United States military, so...

MICHAEL GERSON: I understand those concerns, but there's a different story at work here, as well. One of the comparisons you can make is not necessarily to six-and-a-half years ago, but to two to three years ago, when it looked like the strategy of standing up Iraqi forces as we stand down was doomed. It looked like a total failure.

Barack Obama had proposed as a senator an almost immediate withdrawal in those circumstances. If we had withdrawn at that point, it would have been a failure for the American military and American will.

Now we're withdrawing two to three years later, and it's no longer a failure of American military. They adjusted well. It's no longer a failure of American will. They have a decent chance at success, and that's a genuine accomplishment when you see a turnover like this.

MARK SHIELDS: That is not why we went to war. I mean, six years ago, the president of the United States said, "Mission accomplished." Five years ago, we said Iraq is a sovereign country. We've remained there as an occupying power. Four years ago, the vice president, then Dick Cheney, said we're in the throes, the last throes of the insurgency.

I mean, the military, I think, has performed above and beyond. And I don't think anybody questions that. But the very fact that we are withdrawing was an agreement of the last administration forced upon by pressure at home by lack of enthusiasm for that war and pressure from Iraq. It actually gave Obama a legitimacy in the campaign of 2008 that the withdrawal was scheduled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final word?

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, I think that's actually mistaken. This was not forced on the administration. It was the plan for the last three years that was interrupted by a major insurgency, by other things. But you had a readjustment of American strategy that was very, very successful, and that needs to be recognized in a moment like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tough subject, 130,000 U.S. troops are still there.

MARK SHIELDS: Are still there, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, thank you both.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.