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Gerson and Dionne Define the Year in Politics

December 31, 2010 at 4:39 PM EDT
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Washington Post columnists E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson look back on what happened in politics in 2010 and look ahead to the dynamics in play for the new Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to the analysis of Dionne and Gerson, that’s Washington Post columnists E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson. Mark Shields and David Brooks are off tonight. Welcome to you, gentlemen.

MICHAEL GERSON, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Happy New Year.


JEFFREY BROWN: So it is the end of the year, so we’re allowed hawed to think big, not just the week.

What defines — what defines this year in politics?

MICHAEL GERSON: I don’t know. I — I think it was a year of impatience. The American public was…

JEFFREY BROWN: Impatience?

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes. The American public was really impatient with a Democratic

Congress that seemed to, you know, be on every issue except the ones they were concerned about; impatient with a president that didn’t seem either as inspiring or effective as he seemed two years ago; impatient with an economy that can’t like kick into gear, you know.

And I — I think it was evidenced in the — the election cycle. But Americans want results. And that’s really a warning to Republicans and to Democrats kind of moving forward into the next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were they right to be impatient?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think so. I — you know, I mean I think that they were — it was not just a — an undifferentiated impatience with the political class. It was really directed at Democrats that didn’t seem to be focused on job creation and the economy in the way that Independents and conservatives and others wanted them to be.


E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: You know, I think the great political scientist, Bono, explained the last three elections — they still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t remember…

E.J. DIONNE: And I think they’re…

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t remember that song.

E.J. DIONNE: Yes, it’s the…


E.J. DIONNE: But, you know, I think this — we are so divided as a country that I think everybody defines the year differently. For Democrats, it was the year of great achievement. When you look back, I think when we look back, the passage of health care reform and a slew of other reforms — financial reforms, student loan reform the fact that the economy was stopped from going off the cliff, these are great achievements. And Democrats are always going to look back on it that way.

I think Republicans see the year as the year of the Tea Party, the year of conservative comeback, the year of this election victory, which was, indeed, based on impatience.

I think the rest of us — and maybe this is as much of a — a hope as a — a piece of analysis, but I hope this is a year with where we kind of pulled back and said we can’t go on with politics like this any more. I mean we’re at the point where if Michelle Obama says obesity is bad, some conservatives feel they have to say, no, obesity is good, go out and get two Big Macs and triple fries…




E.J. DIONNE: It’s crazy. And we’ve got to get out of that. I hope…


E.J. DIONNE: — this is the year…


E.J. DIONNE: — where we finally got rid of that.

MICHAEL GERSON: It does seem to be too petty for the problems we face.


MICHAEL GERSON: And maybe that’s a call to maturity in this next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying what defines the year is that we

can’t even define…

E.J. DIONNE: We can’t even agree on how to define the year…

JEFFREY BROWN: We can’t agree on how to define it.

E.J. DIONNE: And, indeed, those two things are true, that it was a great year of progressive achievements and it was a great year for conservative politics. And that maybe…

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, what is…

E.J. DIONNE: You know, maybe the two are linked to something big.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Well, you wrote about that in your column yesterday.

And what — what about that notion?

I mean Democrats had a lot of victories, but you said they don’t even seem to want to accept it.

E.J. DIONNE: Right. Well, I think that — that, you know, there’s been this dysfunctional relationship between the president and, if you

will, the left or whatever. We don’t have a big left in America, but the progressive side, you know, where the president gets really impatient with them, whereas outside groups’ job is to push the

president to test the limits of the possible.

And then the left looks at the president, it doesn’t look at well, gee, ensuring 32 million people, if that’s not a big social reform, I don’t know what is. They tend to say but why wasn’t there a public

option, why isn’t this better? This is a dysfunctional relationship that doesn’t have to exist. Presidents and their more fervent supporters have actually worked in tandem before. FDR and Sidney Hillman in union movement or Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. You know, they’ve got to figure out how to do it better.

JEFFREY BROWN: And on the Republican side, the question would be, do they understand what — what they just accomplished?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. I mean we’ve seen the cycle of — I think, of overreach and backlash. Health care was a matter of principal to the president, but regarded by many Americans as an overreach in a time when we were — you know, we need to confront deficits.

But Republicans could face the same dynamic. They’re driven by a deeply ideological movement that’s — that’s intolerant of — of incrementalism. And they could well overreach in this cycle, as well.

Republicans really do need to be reformers, not revolutionaries. They need to be competent, not scary. And that’s, I think, the challenge for Republicans moving forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I said we’d think big, but I do want to — I want a couple of small things this week. We didn’t hear much from the president. He’s in Hawaii, right. But we did learn this week that he made a call to the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles to praise him for giving Michael Vick, the quarterback, a second chance.

That got a lot of attention, didn’t it?

E.J. DIONNE: It did, partly because until the last game, Michael Vick has had an extraordinary season. I thought it was a good thing. And I thought it was a good thing because we’re a country that has half a million people or more coming out of prison over the next several years. If you don’t give people in prison a second chance, then what you’re doing is saying we want to you go back and live a marginal life and probably get involved in crime again.

Now, sure, it’s not a perfect example. Michael Vick has certain skills that the rest of us could only dream of having.

Nonetheless, I thought, this is a good thing. And I’m glad he did it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, maybe it goes to E.J.’s earlier point that some people then said, what’s the president doing, you know, worrying about sports?

E.J. DIONNE: Well…


MICHAEL GERSON: Well if you love sports…


MICHAEL GERSON: — you should talk about it more.

JEFFREY BROWN: And apparently he does. Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, there — there was some reaction that the president was being too reactive to popular culture. And you don’t want it to appear that the president is watching “Entertainment Tonight” every night, reacting to the — you know, the entertainment news of the day.

But I agree. I think that this was important. I mean, you know, we do have hundreds of thousands of people, every year, actually, that come back from prison into communities. If they don’t get a second chance, our society is in trouble. This applies to Michael Vick and to everyone

else in this circumstance. When the president says that, that’s a hopeful and important statement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, another story of the week was the weather. The weather always — you know, this is the oldest story in the book with politics, right, is the mayor — what — how does the mayor respond, right?

And so this week, it sort of hit some mayors that have had pretty good records — Bloomberg in New York.

E.J. DIONNE: You know, we were in New York for Christmas. And we were driving in Brooklyn. And there was an access road to the Belt Parkway that looked like an unplowed country lane in Vermont. I mean it was a mess.

And Bloomberg has a reputation as a good manager. In many ways, he’s earned that reputation. But this just didn’t work.

And when you are compared, God bless his soul, to John V. Lindsay, the legendary mayor who got into huge trouble in 1969 for not clearing the outer boroughs, that’s bad news.

And then you had Governor Christie, who was on vacation in Disney World, making it much easier for Christie’s…


JEFFREY BROWN: Who got some of…

E.J. DIONNE: — opponents…

JEFFREY BROWN: — the first bad press of his life.

E.J. DIONNE: Right. And there…


E.J. DIONNE: — a progressive group that has a “Where’” Web site. But it was good for two politicians. The Senate president, Stephen Sweeney, in New Jersey, was the acting governor. He did pretty well. And because he did pretty well, he didn’t have that much interest

in criticizing Christie.

And Corey Booker, who if he was practically, you know, clearing individual cars out of the snow…


E.J. DIONNE: — in Newark and then Tweeting about it. So everybody knows how much he was up to.

JEFFREY BROWN: You follow the politics of snow?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I — I do think Mr. Bloomberg was also hurt from an initially dismissive attitude.

E.J. DIONNE: Yes. Right.

MICHAEL GERSON: He urged people to go to Broadway plays, to, you know, kind of wait out the snowstorm. And, you know, he backed off of that. He apologized, eventually, for the — for the reaction.

But — but I think people, you know, punish him for — for a perception, at least, of being dismissive about a major crisis. And he does have this reputation as not just a manager, but a kind of

non-partisan or post-partisan super manager. And that was clearly undermined by a management problem.

E.J. DIONNE: I liked our colleague, Gene Robinson, two rules for mayors — be there, do something.

I think that sort of covers it.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now next week, next month, new politics, right, when everybody comes back.

Do you expect Republicans — and especially the House Republicans, newly in power now — do they come and hit the — hit the road running, all kinds of — do we expect to see a lot of action or do people come back and — and think about, OK, test the waters; how much can we get

done; what does the public want from us?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think the new House leadership is actually afraid of its right, that if they don’t act…

E.J. DIONNE: Me, too. Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: — that is they don’t act swiftly enough, boldly enough, that you could have real Tea Party revolt. You know, the Tea Party movement, there are 82 some members — I think, new members in the House of Representatives, many of them Tea Party members. They don’t

really trust Boehner, for example. They don’t view him…

JEFFREY BROWN: So they’re going to…

MICHAEL GERSON: — as a natural ally.

JEFFREY BROWN: — be testing him, you say?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, testing him. I think that’s a problem for the Republican leadership as they approad — they approach things like the debt ceiling increase, which the government needs to do, but the Tea Party may not support.

So I — I think there are tensions within that coalition that would be very interesting the way they play out.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see coming?

E.J. DIONNE: Boehner is a deal maker with a bunch of guys behind him — and women — with guns to him, saying don’t you dare make those deals.

I think it’s — it’s going to be fascinating to see how he deals with what.

The Republicans seem to want — in the House — and, again, they can pass a lot of stuff and it will never go anywhere. So they’re in a position of passing a lot of bills with the full knowledge they’ll be killed in the Senate or vetoed by Obama.

But they will be sending a signal about who Republicans are and what they’re really for.

They’re going to try to repeal the health care bill — the health care law — right off the top. Now, in some ways, that could be significant as a sign that they’re serious about doing it. It could

also be significant that they just want to get this out of the way. They know it won’t go anywhere. And then what they’ll…

JEFFREY BROWN: And make the statement…

E.J. DIONNE: — to make the statement. And then they’ll try to undermine it in small ways, because I think if you were for this health care law, there would be nothing better than to have a full scale debate over it, because you could remind people of the things in the law that they’re for, the protections if you have a preexisting condition, for example, and a lot of other specifics in the law that poll much better than the idea of the health care law as a whole.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Last minute.

Do you want to make any New Year’s resolutions for American politics?

You can go first.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I do think that this is going to be a year of austerity and the first of a few years of austerity. I think that it’s going to be important for Americans to be mature about that. We’re not going to be able to do these kinds of cuts just with easy cuts, things like the Education Department or whatever. This is going to involve entitlements. And I — Americans are going to have to be adult about that. It’s going to be difficult.

E.J. DIONNE: For Democrats, make the moral case for what you’re doing. Realize — and this is especially true of the president — that you’ve got to explain, you’ve got to persuade, you’ve got to inspire.

Republicans, remember that you have to govern and the government is not a bad word. Government can actually solve problems and promote fairness. And fairness shouldn’t be a bad word, either.

And for the rest of us, let us at least base our arguments on facts. No more death panels.


JEFFREY BROWN: E.J. Dionne, Michael Gerson, nice to talk to you and Happy New Year.


E.J. DIONNE: Nice to be with you.