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Shields and Brooks on Troubles Facing Democrats Ahead of Election

July 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week, including the challenges facing congressional Democrats this election year -- from infighting to the prospects of unemployment remaining high.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

A full-scale civil war among Democrats and the White House, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Leader Boehner may have been stated it a little strongly, but I was reminded of words of Mo Udall, the late great Democratic congressman from Arizona, and briefly a presidential candidate in 1976, who said, when we Democrats organize a firing squad, we begin by forming a circle.

And I think there was something of that to this.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Is it real?

MARK SHIELDS: It is real. It’s real on the part of the House Democrats.

And look at it from their perspective. I mean, Barack Obama is not on the ballot in 2012. Two-thirds of the Senate is not on the ballot in 2012.

JIM LEHRER: 2010, you mean.

MARK SHIELDS: 2010.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: 2010. They’re not up until 2012.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s — 435 of them are. And they have done all the heavy lifting in this two years.

I mean, they not only passed everything that the president really gave as a priority item, but they passed it in the form in which he asked for it, in a tougher form, if anything, than — than had to go to the Senate. They had to wait while the Senate went through all of its, whatever you want to tonight call it, dance and…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Process.

MARK SHIELDS: Process. And anything that got 60 votes, then they had to then swallow and vote for.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And there is a real perception that — among a lot of House Democrats, that the White House, particularly the political operation of the White House — they don’t charge the president, but they certainly charge his staff with this — that they don’t see 2010 loss of control of the House by the Democrats as being that damaging to the president’s reelection chances in 2012.

And I think — so I think there’s a certain sense. Plus, if you think about it, I mean, the president has not been involved in House fund-raising to the degree that certainly the vice president has. I mean, he has done more fund-raisers for Barbara Boxer, the senator from California, than he has for the House Democrats.

So, I think there is an understandable resentment.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Understandable resentment?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I guess semi-understandable. House members always feel not respected compared to the Senate from the White House. That was true when the Republicans had control. It’s true now.

But I guess I would say, what did they expect? I mean, this was entirely predictable. They passed a series of bills that were major pieces of legislation, but which were unpopular. I think the strategy from a lot of Democrats was, we’re going to take our hits, but, over the next generation, we will have health care, we will have financial reform, we will have the big spending that comes out of the stimulus. We will have all this stuff, but we will take hits. And that is the calculus we’re going to make.

It has been perfectly obvious for a year or two that this stuff was unpopular and would cost Democrats in the fall.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Unpopular, you mean in the larger…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, in the larger country.

JIM LEHRER: The larger country, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so, this was the decision that was made. And so the country has reacted as the way it was obviously going to react for the past year. People were very suspicious of the increase in spending and the increase in the role of government. And they’re going to take it out on the Democratic Party.

Now, you could argue if you are a Democrat it’s worth it. We’re going to do badly this time, but we have got these major pieces of legislation. But that’s the deal. And I’m not sure there is anything the White House could do short-term, campaigning, not campaigning, that will really change that dynamic.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think Gibbs said something wrong? We just heard what he said.

DAVID BROOKS: I think, A, it was obviously true. I mean, I would say if you walked around K Street in Washington and said, will the Republicans take over the House…

JIM LEHRER: That is where they — that’s where the lobbyists are.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, any — even normal people.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, normal people.

DAVID BROOKS: They would say yes. I would say right now most people expect the Republicans to take over. In the last week or two, there has been some sense maybe even the Senate.

So, A, it was true. B, I think was politically smart. If you are running, as the White House and as Democrats should be running, against the scary prospect of Speaker Boehner, well, you have got to say, he has a chance of winning. So, I thought it was smart on both levels.

JIM LEHRER: Smart on both levels?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

Let me — I don’t think it was smart on both levels. I think, first of all, you have now put it out there. And Speaker Boehner and his lieutenants, predictably, had a major fund-raising meeting with the K Street lobbyists and fund-raisers, saying, look, the Democrats are already admitting that they are going to lose the House, a real prospect of it.

JIM LEHRER: So, get on board.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

Coming back to David’s first point, where I really disagree, they passed these. They were controversial. They were difficult. They were. What the House Democrat, I think, have been most surprised by is the failure of communications on the part of the White House. They have — this has been a failed communications effort. It certainly was…

JIM LEHRER: Well, whose fault is that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you have got to begin with the communicator. The successes — the successes of the program, the idea that Barack Obama has meant what he said and said what he meant. He said he was going to do all the things he did on health care, on the stimulus, on the financial regulation. He’s fulfilled his promises. He carried through.

What they didn’t understand or never grasped was they somehow would let this debate get away, that the president, who was such a compelling communicator in the campaign, has ceded the communications debate. He has not dominated the debate on any of these issues.

They passed controversial items. They expected, quite frankly, that he could make the case and would make the case. Now, I understand that this is all in the context of an economy where — 10 percent unemployment, which does dominate people’s concerns.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the communicating?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it really mattered. I’m always very suspicious of the idea that it is always a message problem. I think it is almost never a message problem.

John Boehner didn’t suddenly become a great communicator. Barack Obama didn’t suddenly become a bad communicator. To me, the Democrats are in trouble is first for the reason Mark mentioned that unemployment is still very high, the economy is still terrible, and may be trending down. So, that’s one.

But, two, we had a country that was — that has no faith in government — 22 percent of the people think the government does the right thing most of the time — we saw a sudden increase in the role of government in area after area — second, a country that had just come out of a big debt-caused recession or fiscal crisis, and we piled on debt.

Those two things were bound to scare the country, and they have. And I don’t think the messaging really made a difference.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me give an example where I think the messaging made a difference.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: The president — and this is a criticism you get from Democrats everywhere — he has run against Washington as being broken. All right?

Now, that is great if you are an outsider challenger candidate, as he was in 2008, seeking the White House. Once you are there, and you are the head of the Democratic Party and a Democratic administration, controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, for you to continue to say that Washington is broken — now, you’re an incumbent and you are trying to run in Centreville for reelection to the House, and your main voice, the loudest voice in your party, the dominant voice in the national debate is saying, Washington’s broken.

You are back there saying…

JIM LEHRER: You are talking about your own people.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

I mean, Democrats are the government. And they are the government party. And running — Washington being broken, saying, I’m so thrilled to be outside of Washington, be away from Washington, that’s great for Ronald Reagan. That’s great for an anti-government conservative. It doesn’t work for a leader of the Democratic Party.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think that messaging — if I were a House Democrat, I wouldn’t be angry at that messaging.

I mean, Obama’s tendency is always to transcend the differences within Washington, rather than stick with his team. He is a more transcending figure than a partisan figure. So, I do — I have been struck by the semi-act of semi-disloyalty down on that.

Nonetheless, I still don’t think it really made that huge a difference. People didn’t need to be persuaded to dislike Washington these days.

MARK SHIELDS: But it isn’t just communications as an art. I mean, the health care bill was handled so badly that it became a process fight for so long.

We still didn’t know what the White House stood for. So, for — we never knew what the product was of the health care bill until a year-and-a-half into it. And all the rest of it was the process back and forth. And, you know, I think that’s a failure of White House leadership. I really do.

JIM LEHRER: What about this ongoing or this relatively new split among Democrats? The deficit, of course, is a Republican issue, but now some Democrats, particularly moderate and Blue Dog Democrats, are saying, hey, wait a minute, we have got a deficit problem. At the same time, there are other folks saying, yes, but forget about it. We have got to do employment benefits. We have got to do another stimulus package.

Is that — is that a breaking point, a partially breaking point, among Democrats as well?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, this is an ancient fight in the Democratic Party.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: And, of course, I think President Obama would have been substantively and politically better off if he had governed a little more like President Clinton, more with those centrist Democrats.

But, for him, the political problem right now is, he has got to fire up the liberal base, who wants some of the bigger spending programs, but he’s got to try to win back some of the independents, for whom the debt is a big problem. So, he has got these two competing tendencies, which is the classic problem for both parties.

And I’m not sure quite how he does both. It’s interesting to see what is happening around the country, by the way. You are getting weird results over the past week. Harry Reid, the majority leader, suddenly has a seven-point lead on a relatively weak opponent.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin and in California, the Republicans are doing surprisingly well. So, you are seeing — even with this, I think, a national wave, you are seeing a lot of local variation, too, on issues like debt and other things.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the debt, the deficit thing is a national issue that is going to have traction for 2010?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think it is. I don’t think anybody has an answer for it. I mean…

JIM LEHRER: It’s something to talk about.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it’s something to talk about, and it’s something to address. And I think there’s real anxiety about it, and understandably so.

We’re talking about interest on the national debt being 5 percent of the total GDP.

JIM LEHRER: But people get that; people understand it?

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That just is crowding out all sorts of other things, whether it is for education or investment — research and anything else. I mean, that really is — infrastructure — it really — I think that is a — it is a problem for Democrats.

But I think the biggest thing, Jim, is joblessness, I mean, people being out of work, and the sense that the economy, that we’re not going to go back to where we are. I mean, it’s going to be — they keep saying jobs aren’t coming back. And I think that is — boy, I think that’s a killer.

JIM LEHRER: And then there is Afghanistan. Are you feeling — either of you feeling, both of you feeling that that may come back also as an issue politically?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you looked at what has happened, first in the polls and I think generally in the mood, it’s certainly negative in the last couple months.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Just the public opinion.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Public support for what President Obama has done, that is all trending down. There’s a sense that things aren’t working.

I would say, one thing I do think is working, first, we have a very first-class leadership team with Petraeus and General Mattis there. Second, what happened this week was giving some of the local villagers some police power. I think that is a risky thing to do, but I think it is the right thing to do and is a potentially very good sign.

MARK SHIELDS: When a thoughtful, serious Republican like Richard Lugar, the former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, starts to question what is success, how are we defining success, you have got to tell us what — you know, what success looks like, what victory or achievement looks like, and the administration witnesses cannot answer him before the Foreign Relations Committee, I think that tells you that there is an erosion of support.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think there is going to be a debate about it before we’re through, about this whole thing, whether the United States should still be there or whether the war is being fought right?

MARK SHIELDS: In this campaign?

JIM LEHRER: In this campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t, because I think it is in the Republicans’ interests to watch the Democrats basically — basically argue among themselves.

I mean, among House Democrats, there is a hemorrhaging of support for the White House and the administration in Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: So, what — what — how do they handle this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, they will talk about — who is going to raise the debate? I don’t think a Republican…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, I see.

MARK SHIELDS: A Republican isn’t. I mean, I think, if it continues, Jim…

JIM LEHRER: But I was thinking about — picking up on what Lugar — also, John McCain has been raising some questions, too, about how the conduct of the war…

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Right. But, if you look at the polling, the Republicans are more with the president and the Democrats are more against him on this particular issue.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: So, it cuts crossways to the — this election season.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I just don’t — I don’t see Democrats raising it, unless they want to get daylight for themselves.

If the president’s numbers continue to fall, then it becomes in the self-interest of some Democratic candidates to establish further daylight, and Afghanistan may be one place where you would seek to do that.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, the casualties are up.

MARK SHIELDS: The casualties.

JIM LEHRER: And everybody who knows anything is predicting they’re not only going to continue; they’re going to go up as well. And that, of course, affects public opinion.

MARK SHIELDS: Spike, that’s right.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And as — many of the people who are there are saying, we’re doing what we can. Maybe there is not enough pickup from the locals in there. So that leads to a sense of fatalism, which leads into fatalism about so many issues, including the economy, that we don’t seem to really get some traction, can’t get that progress.

JIM LEHRER: Can’t seem to get…

CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: BP was the one piece of good news.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. The gap, I mean, they closed it.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s a plus politically.

JIM LEHRER: The gap — I mean — I said gap. I mean cap.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, but it’s a plus politically for the administration, because that had taken the oxygen out of the room. And now you can get back to the economy and the jobs and what you are trying to do.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you both very much.