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Shields and Brooks: Will Voters Think Democrats Have Gone Too Liberal?

July 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks speak with Jim Lehrer about how voters will view the Democratic Party headed into this fall's midterm elections and what impact the ethics charges against Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York could have.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, are all hands going to be on deck for the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think Judy’s piece really identified what the problem is for Democrats across the board, Jim.

The Democratic Party is a coalition. Its strength and its weakness is, it’s a coalition of interest groups, caucuses. It’s a lot less homogeneous than the Republican Party, where people tend to believe the same things and oftentimes look alike.

And it was probably best put by P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative satirist, who said, the Democratic Party believes that government will make you taller, smarter, richer and cure your crabgrass of your lawn as well, while the Republican Party just believes government doesn’t work, and then gets elected and proves it.

Well, the Democrats do have…

JIM LEHRER: This is what P.J. O’Rourke said?

MARK SHIELDS: P.J. O’Rourke said.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Again, and the — but the Democrats have this high level of expectation of what government can do.

And it’s been — remember, it’s been a generation since there was a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress at the same time. You have to go all the way back to 1992 and Bill Clinton. So, the hopes were high, and Barack Obama, as we listened to those speeches, hope and change are great themes. And you can read a lot into it. You know, when you’re sitting there in the audience and cheering, you say, well, he’s obviously talking about the kind of change I want.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But I don’t think there’s any question. E.J. Dionne, I thought, put — pointed out, if unemployment were at 6 percent or 7 percent right now, or 5 percent right now, there wouldn’t be that sense of malaise and dissension in the ranks, I mean, given the rather remarkable legislative achievements that Obama has accomplished already.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read this thing?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, still — we all look alike. I’m thinking about that. I mean, Ann Coulter and I look alike. But, aside from that — no, I’m mystified by it.

You have a country…

JIM LEHRER: Mystified?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, by the disappointment.

You have a country that is 20 percent liberal, 40 percent conservative. You have a country where maybe 22 percent have faith in government. If you’re a liberal, it’s just going to be tough. And you should just expect that. And it’s tough for people on the right, too, because they don’t get what they want either if you’re, say, a libertarian.

So, you have got the country sort of against you. And, nevertheless, you have a president…

JIM LEHRER: So, you’re always working against a majority that is against you? That’s what you’re saying?

DAVID BROOKS: There’s the basic mathematics.

JIM LEHRER: OK. OK.

DAVID BROOKS: Look at the numbers, 20 percent liberal, 40 percent conservative, the rest moderate. So, it’s going to be tough.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

DAVID BROOKS: And, nevertheless, you get a president who passes the $800 billion stimulus act, money going through the state. You get, you know, the nationalization of health care, whatever you want to call it, health care reform.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, health care reform.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. You get the nationalization of the means of production. I think you have the Trotskyist agenda. No.

DAVID BROOKS: No, you get a pretty — a pretty — you get financial regulatory reform. You get a lot of stuff.

I think, from any perspective, that is a pretty good step from the left. And, by the way, it’s such an aggressive expansion of government, you have scared the middle. And so the middle is now swinging over to the Republicans. So, it seems to me that the Obama administration, from a liberal perspective, has moved about as fast as humanly possible and achieved as much as humanly possible in a year-and-a-half.

And I understand you’re disappointed about — because your issues were not on the top. Immigration got pushed behind. But wide-scale disappointment, I just don’t understand it.

JIM LEHRER: How serious is all this, Mark? I mean, does it — does the — the progressive community, as it’s called, if it doesn’t rally, does it really mean serious losses for the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it does, Jim.

And I would remind David that Barack Obama did get a higher percentage of the vote than anybody has in this country in 20 years. I mean, it was a resounding victory. I mean, whether his core constituency was 20 percent or what, his electoral constituency, which is how we measure elections, was 53 percent, which was, you know, historically high, the highest of any Democrat, other than Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, so, which is…

JIM LEHRER: But how bad is this for them?

MARK SHIELDS: But this is — it’s bad in this sense, Jim.

All about midterm elections is turnouts. And turnout is measured by enthusiasm, intensity, how interested are people. And President Obama — candidate Obama had it on his side in 2008. The Democrats had it on their side in 2006. The enthusiasm, the intensity, the passion was all on their side.

Right now, by a measurable gulf, a gap of sometimes 18 to 20 points, it’s on the Republican side. So, you have got to get your people out. And if they’re indifferent, if they’re cranky, if they feel neglected…

JIM LEHRER: For whatever reason, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And there is some criticism, let’s be honest about it, legitimate criticism. They don’t feel that the administration has gone the distance, whether it was on the public option on health care, whether they waited too long on pushing the Senate on climate change.

Time and again, there was a sense that they didn’t give that sense of urgency.

DAVID BROOKS: Visit Ohio. Visit Indiana. I mean, if you’re in Berkeley, maybe the public option seems like an easy thing to do. But if you’re trying to govern a whole country, it’s actually kind of a hard thing to do.

I mean, Barack Obama won such a big electoral mandate because a lot of people thought he was — transcended partisan and ideological barriers and was going to put aside the old debates. So, he was able to get a lot of moderates and a lot of independents. And so those are the people who are now disappointed, because they see him as too far to the left.

The number of people who say the Democratic Party is too liberal has risen by 22 percentage points. And so that’s the key fact of the electorate. And if you are thinking about this election, well, they are not going to lose House seats in Berkeley or Austin, Texas. They’re going to lose House seats in Ohio, in Central Pennsylvania, in Indiana, and places like that. And that’s — to me, that’s where the focus would be.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s be specific for a moment.

The death of — the declaration of the death of the energy bill by the Senate, what happened? What caused that to happen? How does that fit in to all of this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, this was always going to be a tough fight. I think we have talked about this before.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: You had the Republicans who didn’t want to raise energy taxes, as they perceived it. And you had a lot of coal state Democrats, from the Midwest, places like that, who didn’t want to punish coal producers.

So, it was always going to be a very tough fight. And I guess the one thing that sort of frustrates me is that we have had a lot of information about global warming from Al Gore and many others. And, yet, while that has happened…

JIM LEHRER: And an oil spill.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and an oil spill.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But while the — all that has happened, support for a response to global warming has gone down in the American public.

And that’s because a lot of the global warming information, including by Al Gore, was very partisan. So, it drift — it pushed people away who are not liberal Democrats. And, to me, that was a mistake. That’s been a mistake for 15 years. They should have made a much less partisan global warming campaign. And I think — I’m not sure you would have got people in the near term, but you would have had more public support behind this legislation.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m sorry, I mean, I just — I have to dissent here.

We have — we have gone through David’s own paper, this — documented it this week, the first decade of the 21st century, the hottest we have ever had. We have had — living through the hottest summer. We have not only an enormous oil spill in the Gulf. We have an enormous oil spill in China.

Now…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, we reported that in the news summary. It’s extraordinary.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And I don’t care how many overtures you make. There wasn’t a single Republican in the Senate who moved on it. I mean, you know, do you have to pass everything with nothing but Democratic votes?

I mean, do Republicans not breathe the same air? I mean, do they not worry about their children’s lungs as much? I mean, this has become a partisan issue. And it’s so obvious. I mean, it has to be. We’re in Washington, D.C., right now. It was 101 on my car thermometer as I drove over here today.

That isn’t what it was 20 years ago. I mean, this is a serious problem. And this was a serious effort to do something about it. The House did act on it. Now, I don’t think, quite honestly, given the political climate at this point, that the — it would be tough to pass it in the House today.

But, Jim, the — I don’t know what the atmospherics are going to be necessary to finally get the Senate to move on climate change.

DAVID BROOKS:Well, let’s separate the broad global warming.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree. I think it’s real. I supported this bill, the Kerry-Lieberman bill, to do something about it.

But there are two ways to push legislation. There’s what I think of as a way Al Gore did it, which was sort of a partisan way. And then there’s the way Bono, for example, has pushed some of his foreign aid legislation.

And he says, if I’m going to meet a Democrat, I’m going to meet a Republican. If I’m going to talk to a liberal Democrat, I will make friends with Jesse Helms. And Bono has made friends with Jesse Helms — or did while he was alive — made friends with Jesse Helms. He made sure it was totally nonpartisan. And he took an issue that was kind of partisan and made it a lot less partisan.

That’s just, to me, a much better way to pass legislation. And if we’re going to get global warming in the long term — and it’s going to be a long-term thing — to me, that’s what you have got to do.

MARK SHIELDS: Al Gore has not been involved in this fight. I mean, with all due respect, in recognition of his work, a Nobel Prize and everything else, this hasn’t been his fight. This has been the administration’s fight.

DAVID BROOKS: We are sort of cross-talking.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m talking about the global — the big debate and why there’s much less support for global warming in general.

JIM LEHRER: Two final things.

What’s your reading of the impact, if any, on the midterm elections to the ethics problems of Charlie Rangel?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s just one more sign. Public appreciation for Congress hit a historic low this week, 11 percent support. And this will be just another sign. People don’t see it as Democratic or Republican. They will just see another guy taking advantage of privileges to maybe hide a little money, do other things. So, it’s just another corrosion of trust in the institution.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: The reality is that the ethics record of this Congress surpasses any in my lifetime. I mean, there’s a…

JIM LEHRER: You mean in a positive way or a negative way?

MARK SHIELDS: Positive. The first time we have an outside ethics panel, against overt Republican opposition, over many Democrats’ opposition. No lobbyist travel — can pay for travel for any members or gifts any longer.

In addition to that, we have, every earmark, you have to put your name on it, legislative earmark, no more profit. And — but I agree that this is — this hurts.

I mean, Charlie Rangel — and I will be very up-front about it — I like him. I have always liked him. I think he’s been a good public servant. And it’s an American tragedy, because it’s a great American story. He was an 18-year-old high school dropout on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, was about to be drafted. He joined the Army, went to Korea, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, came back a staff sergeant, went to high school, college, and law school on the G.I. Bill, became a reformer, and beat a man who was there who was in trouble because of the hubris and because of his own sense of grandeur.

And, ultimately, ironically, 40 years later, those are the charges against Charlie.

JIM LEHRER: OK. I wanted to ask you also about the Shirley Sherrod thing, but we only have about 10 seconds left.

Do you have something you could say in five?

DAVID BROOKS: You have got to be loyal to people beneath you. Be more loyal when…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, loyalty goes up and down, and the Obama administration did not demonstrate that this week at all — and the shame, shame, shame on the new media, or whatever the hell they call it.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree.

JIM LEHRER: Time’s up. Thank you both.