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Shields and Gerson on Obama’s Gains, New Political Realities

December 24, 2010 at 6:51 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and Michael Gerson talk to Jeffrey Brown about the week in politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the analysis of Shields and Gerson — that`s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight. Welcome gentlemen.

Mark, the president left town on Wednesday proclaiming, “A season of progress.” Was he right? And if so, how did it happen?

MARK SHIELDS: He — he was right. It was a season of progress in the sense that the level of expectation, especially after the 2nd of November`s shellacking. The, the gerund of the year was — was quite low. Right? Democratic spirits were low, disheartened. Even made further low down by the president`s surprise tax deal with Mitch McConnell.

And then he went from being James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore to being a little Teddy Roosevelt. And by the end of having passed START treaty, and — and “Don`t Ask, Don`t Tell,” he — there were flashes of FDR. I mean, it was — it was rather remarkable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Quite a transformation.

MARK SHIELDS: Quite a transformation, and showing once again the restraint and measured good judgment of all our colleagues in the press.

MICHAEL GERSON: Over the press…

MARK SHIELDS: Who over — who overwrote and over reacted to the story. But…

MARK SHIELDS: There`s no question that Democrats were heartened by the fact that he did not look like he was going to be a pushover in the next session. I think that as much to anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, maybe we get back to the press in the narrative.


JEFFREY BROWN: But first — but first, how did it happen? What do you — what do you ascribe it to?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I — I do think it`s mainly an indication that if a president is willing to make a deal, he can usually get a deal. I mean, he did that on the tax bill. Essentially, this second
stimulus package was pretty much what Republicans wanted the first time around on the stimulus package.

And on the — even on the START treaty he gave specific assurances about nuclear modernization. And — you know — so I think he gave Republicans something. And — and got something in return. That`s a
real contrast for example to the way that healthcare was passed. In an — in kind of a march of party line votes.

And this is a different way of governing. I think it`s important to say though that on the — the budget issues, the fiscal issues, the Republicans really didn`t budge. They defeated the Omnibus spending
bill — a trillion dollar package with 6,700, you know, earmarks. And that I think is a preview of the battles we`re going to have in the next session.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you think in terms of lessons learned, if we think about the president, it was compromise — work with Republicans? That`s what you think happened?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well I mean you have to give something in order to get something. And that`s usually the case, even when you`re President of the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think — lessons learned for the president?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I — I think that many — that several — that — first of all I think the — the president himself got more engaged. Michael raised healthcare. I think there`s no question that especially
during that fallow four month period was with the Senate Finance Committee, healthcare languished when they were going to strike a deal with all these Republicans.

And as soon as the first tea — the Tea Party — the first town meeting was held, it was pretty apparent you weren`t going to win any of those Republican votes. But still he didn`t get personally involved and
engaged, the same way he did in this session. He did certainly on START. I think that START was a great testimony to — that there is life after a presidential campaign. John Kerry did a masterful job. I
mean, Republicans acknowledge that. Dick Lugar (ph) was — is — he always is a stalwart on these. And it was a — it was a single victory in the sense that you defeated the two leaders of the Republican party who were all out against him.

Mitch McConnell and John Kyl were out against this totally. And John McCain the last — as time standard bearer. So it was — it was quite a — an achievement. But I think the fact that the president
himself was involved made a major difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: So continue with the lessons learned here for Republicans. What — what should Republicans take from the last week or so?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you know, there`s a lot of debate among Republicans on these issues. Some people saying that they rolled over in this — in this last period. They didn`t really have much choice. I
mean, the president on the tax bill in particular — we`re going to end up in the four years of the Obama administration with tax rates the same as when it began, which Republicans would not have predicted in — in this circumstance.

And so they had to take a victory in a certain way. They couldn`t refuse it in — just to hurt the president. And this is a case where the president`s interests in a growing economy are the country`s interests. And so I, you know, I — I think the Republicans here, you know, were put in a position, particularly on those two votes — “Don`t Ask, Don`t Tell and START — those were more votes of conscience.

I don`t think that — that McConnell and others pressed hard on those issues. They were really, you know, in that category of votes of conscience. I think the fiscal issues are going to be the dividing ground here. And going to be — that — that`s what we`re going to see in the next time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But — but on the — Lindsey Graham — a quote was, “When all is going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch.”

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I saw that. And — and it`s interesting, because Lindsey Graham, if anything — what I find most fascinating about the Republicans, and I think Mitch McConnell is the epitome of this, is that the Tea Party is a major player. They are mindful of what happened in the 2010 primaries. And certainly McConnell is mindful of what happened where his own favorite candidate, Trey Grayson, the Secretary of State, was wonked by Rand Paul and — and the Tea Party.

And so I think — and Jim DeMint (ph) kind of roams the Senate as the unofficial Tea Party leader. So I — I think there`s a — a lot of that going on. Even in Lindsey Graham who kind of succeeded to the John McCain role of the negotiator with the other side. He`s pulled back, he`s mindful, he`s up in 2012. He`s got a primary challenge already announced against him in — in South Carolina.

And he`s kind of turned into a fierce border patrol man on the — on the immigration bill. So it`s — I — I think there are lessons there for the Republicans. I think they were very — and understandably so, cause the Democrats were really down. They were really full of themselves after — after…

And don`t forget this. There`s a entirely different cast of characters as of January 5th. I mean, all of a sudden 63 new Republicans are coming in. Michael mentioned the — the victory on the budget bill. In a strange way, that`s going to be a difficult moment for John Boehner, because it expires on the fourth of March — the funding of the government does. And that`s going to run right up to face cheek to jowl with the statutory raising of the debt ceiling.

And those are going to be tough votes. And for John Boehner as the speaker of the House, majority party`s responsibility is to provide the votes for that. And I think it`s going to be a tough slating for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well so when you look ahead to next month and the new politics that`s coming here, do — do we look at this past week or two as — as a kind of blip marking the end of an era, or — or — or — or a harbinger of what might come in terms of compromise and getting some things passed?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I do think that at least the early months of the new term are going to be characterized by battles over healthcare, because Republicans are absolutely committed to both do oversight hearings to try to make the case against healthcare. And also to defund the implementation of healthcare which they did by opposing the — the Omnibus bill which…

… of that was — was kind of — you know, was intended for that purpose. And so there`ll be a huge battle on that, and then a huge battle on budget and fiscal issues. The president — that`s going to be very interesting, the state of the union which I am very interested in — how he positions himself on those fiscal issues.

They`ve already said this is going to be the focus of his remarks. How does he turn that corner and go towards this? Does he talk about entitlements which are the real problem? Those are the big issues there. Can he put Republicans on the defensive on spending. That`s — that`s the question?

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think when you look ahead? I mean, do you see this period…… we`re back to…

MARK SHIELDS: We will look back on this period nostalgically.

Yes, I really do. I think this was probably the — the height of cooperation and collaboration. I mean, cooperation and bipartisanship because in — in many corners from this points forward cooperation won`t be seen as collaboration. And make one — put one at political risk for doing so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about one issue that the president — another issue that he brought up at the press conference. That — I mean, he was talking about his evolving thinking on gay marriage. After
the repeal of “Don`t Ask, Don`t Tell,” is there some kind of momentum that you see for going further?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, there are 30 years of momentum on the gay rights issue. It`s really an extraordinary change in American views and mores and values. There is odd heroes of the gay right movement — gay rights movement in this case, because it`s really Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen in the military that drove this through. They didn`t want the courts to decide this. They wanted to do it on their own terms. They — so they made this decision to move forward. This is an issue where I think Americans are very much decided that homosexuals should have equal rights. I think gay marriage is still very much a 50-50 debate in America. So even if you have a vote in California, you know one of the most liberal states in the country, you get a vote against gay marriage.

But I think Joe Biden was right this week, that the trend line is pretty clear on where this is headed.

MARK SHIELDS: Six years — If I`m — 2004 where in the reelection campaign of President Bush it was an issue in a number of states — the same-sex referendum questions that were — were encouraged. It`s —
support for it has doubled for the — for the legal same-sex marriage. Even among Republicans it`s — it`s doubled. Not — now it`s still only 25 percent of Republicans favor it unlike both Democrats and Independents. But I — I think there — there is a move.

And the president I think did something very smart. He tied the “Don`t Ask, Don`t Tell” to service and sacrifice. I mean, these are people who love their country, who want to serve their country, are willing to die for their country. And who are we to deny them full citizenship?

And I think he made the same argument for the Dream Act which did not pass; which was for — for Latinos who are — grew up in this country, who were brought here by their parents at the age of 5, 9, or 11. And then grew up here and want to — again, could serve in the military to — to reach citizenship status. And — and I think he`s making that same argument. And I think it`s a very persuasive argument.

There`s people — service sacrifice and — and the civil rights go with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me in our last time — maybe I should come back to the media bashing that you

started here.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I just ate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You couldn`t resist?

MARK SHIELDS: It is — it`s just — I mean, you know, it`s 10:00 in the morning on one cable station. It`s literally — he`s Ulysses Grant and — and by noon, you know, the president has been transformed to a little bit of Harry Truman, a dollop of T.R. and — and flashes of Jack Kennedy. I mean, it — it`s just over writing and — and overheated.

MICHAEL GERSON: I agree with that. I — I saw it in government. There`s the tendency to play the game of up, down, weak, strong — that`s the narrative of — of these arguments. I think they exaggerated the president`s weakness in a certain way. I mean, the president, particularly if you have one or both houses of Congress is never irrelevant.

I mean, he has a — you know, a significant role in this. And I think they exaggerated the upside, you know, or the — you know, the upside now as well. I mean, this is a case where the president is going to face a whole new world in this — in this coming year.

There are at least 42 hard fiscal conservatives in the Senate that are going to control a lot. And the new House leadership. And it`s — you know, he`s going to face a different world.

MARK SHIELDS: At least three quarters of whom had earmarks in the — in the Omnibus spending.

JEFFREY BROWN: Couldn`t resist, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, a fiscal — fiscal — fiscal conservatism and fiscal conservatism…


MARK SHIELDS: Open definition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stay turned then. Mark Shields…

MARK SHIELDS: OK. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: … Michael Gerson, thanks a lot, and happy holidays.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you. Merry Christmas.