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Shields and Brooks on Trouncing of Democratic Moderates

November 3, 2010 at 6:06 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks speak with Judy Woodruff about moderate Democrats' widespread losses on Tuesday, and how President Obama will have to change his administration's political strategies with the House headed for GOP control.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Judy Woodruff receives election analysis from Shields and Brooks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Gentlemen, welcome back from last night and election coverage.

So, you have had a few hours to look over these results, 60-plus seats in the House, pickups in the Senate, the statehouses. What does it mean, Mark? What are the voters trying to say?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, Judy, the results speak very loudly for the voters.

I mean, of the 60 seats that the Democrats lost in the House, 48 of them, by the calculation of one senior party strategist, were moderate to conservative. So, the sort of middle of the Democratic Party has been carved out. The Democratic Caucus…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean those who lost?

MARK SHIELDS: Those who lost. And so the Democratic Party in January will be a far more liberal, more homogeneous party than it was.

What the voters were saying — and I think Michael Barone, the conservative author, deserves credit for identifying this earliest — and that is, blue-collar voters in areas of the country that have been hurting economically for more than a generation, Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, instead of voting Democratic, voted Republican in 2010.

They expressed their dissatisfaction about their own political pain and dislocation, and sustained dislocation, by voting Republican. I think that was a loud message…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and you’re saying moderates took — took a hit…

MARK SHIELDS: And moderates — moderate Democrats took a hit. I mean, a lot of the Democrats who had won in 2006 and 2008, where there had been a concentrated effort by Rahm Emanuel and Chris Van Hollen, the leaders of the party’s campaign committee in the House, to recruit candidates who could win in Republican areas, who didn’t meet a liberal litmus test.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read the results?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I actually have the same thing. I came prepared to say the exact same thing.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hmm.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, you take these working-class voters. They had, surprisingly — they had been with the Republicans under Reagan. They had supported Bush.

But then, as the Bush term went on, they became disaffected with Bush, and especially Bush economic policies. And, in 2006 and 2008, they switched, not all of them, but a significant number of them switched to the Democratic Party. But then what happened was the stimulus package.

The exit poll shows that a third of voters think it was harmful and a third think it made no difference, so two-thirds thought ineffective. And then — so they just decided: I’m not seeing income growth. I have tried tax cuts. I have tried debt. They’re not helping me.

And, so, they flipped away from the Democrats on the grounds that the Obama economic policy, which was the stimulus package essentially and some other things, wasn’t helping them. And that doesn’t mean they have embraced the Republicans, but it was those working-class voters who shifted overwhelmingly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You look at the exit polls — and there were different ones — but the ones I looked at, when you — people were asked, what’s the next — the top priority for the next Congress, 37 percent — 39 percent said reduce the deficit. Almost as many said spend to create jobs.

So, when John Boehner today, the — presumably the next speaker, Mark, says he wants to listen to the voters, which message is he saying they should listen to?

MARK SHIELDS: Whichever one he chooses.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, I think the deficit is not an unimportant issue. And, certainly, Ross Perot proved that in 1992, that could it be the basis of a major national candidacy.

But I think what it really comes down to, Judy is economic growth and jobs. And I think if the president talks about anything else or is concerned with anything else, I think he does it at his own political risk, and at the risk of just separating himself, estranging himself from his voters.

And I think the same is true for John Boehner. I mean, John Boehner has got a more complex job, because he’s got a more complex caucus, I think, than Barack Obama is dealing with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was the message so clear?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, I think there’s a lot of projection going on here. If you looked at the exit polls, the independents were more likely than other voters to really be alarmed about the deficits. They were also more likely than other voters to want to protect Social Security, Medicare, and all the things that create the deficits. And so a lot of the upset about Washington over the last couple decades is really projecting our own problems onto the Capitol.

If the American people are not willing to square that circle, then how can you expect elected leaders to do that? And that was evident in the exit polls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we saw President Obama today come out and say he felt bad for those Democrats who had lost. And, at one point, he said he took a shellacking. Mark, was this what you expected from him today?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it was reality-based. I mean, the Democrats did take a shellacking. We heard that they had lost 19 state legislatures, control of houses in 19 different state legislatures.

This was an across-the-board defeat for the Democratic Party. And it was the Democratic Party’s record of the past two years that voters were rebelling at and — and electing Republicans.

I thought the president’s best answer today was this — the question that Jake Tapper of ABC News asked about, how do you feel, the one you referred to, and he said, “I feel bad.”

But then he immediately switched and talked with some admiration, appreciation, and even sadness about members who had lost, and the votes that they had cast, and that he admired them so much. And it’s a tough election when you lose, I think, people that are giants and respected on both sides of the aisle, like John Spratt of South Carolina, Ike Skelton of Missouri, Jim Oberstar of Minnesota.

But that’s the legacy of the past two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that came through today?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think the president will ever be a “feel your pain” president, like Bill Clinton was. I don’t think he connects emotionally the same way Ronald Reagan did.

But I thought his words today — the music might not have been there, but I think the words were appropriate. And I think there was a ring of sincerity about his words.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you hear any music?

DAVID BROOKS: No. No.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And I think, tell a story. There’s these two modes of thought, paradigmatic thought, which he does, which is legalistic, and then narrative thought.

Most of us communicate in narrative thought. We tell stories. And he — if he wants to connect with the American people, he doesn’t have to be all sweetness and light. He’s in a down moment now. Talk about the story he’s engaged in.

Clinton could do that. Obviously, Reagan could do that. And you could forgive them. You would be with them there in the down moments, and then you would expect them to rise.

Obama didn’t do that. But that wasn’t the main problem with the press conference, you know? And, by the way, I thought he was reasonable and smart, as always, in the press conference.

My main problem was, he was asked several times, were there any policies implicated in this defeat? And, again and again, he sort of dodged that question, or said no, and said, it was the economy.

Now, the economy was obviously a big part of this election. But to say that a whole series of unpopular policies, cap and trade, health care, stimulus, bailouts, were not implicated, well, that — I think that’s, A, wrong, but, B, draws the wrong impression, that you don’t have to change anything.

And so, when he talked about the stuff he had done wrong, it tended to be procedural or message-oriented. But there are some policy implications here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does that tell you that he’s not going to change anything?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he’s still — I think it was premature for him to have the press conference today, because I think he’s still working it out. I really do.

I mean, I don’t mean to sound like a shrink, but — because he hasn’t come to grips with the reality that the policies were rejected. I mean, in campaign after campaign across the country, Republicans ran against specific policies that Democrats had voted for.

So, I mean, it wasn’t just the unpopularity of the economy, though I think that was the dominant theme and issue in establishing the narrative of 2010, but there were specific policies that did serve as political liabilities for Democrats who lost on Tuesday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do you — I mean, are you saying you think that, once he has a chance to think about it, he may just say, I’m not going to compromise, or…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he’s not going to compr — I don’t know. I had a chance to listen to the wisdom of Bob Dole this morning, and he had a piece of advice for Republicans. He said, look, you can spend all the time, effort, and energy you want in repealing health care. He said, then nothing is going to come of it.

And I think both sides are starting to work this out, just exactly what their arrangement and accommodation. They now — it’s a shotgun marriage. I mean, it really is. It’s a forced marriage. I mean, neither party sought this out.

But now they have co-responsibility for the nation’s economy and well-being, Republicans in the House and a Democratic president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see? I mean, what do you see?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s not a surprise. We knew it was coming. I know, though — I know for a fact the White House has been thinking about this for a long time. And we knew it was coming.

And I would say, having interviewed — spent a lot of time interviewing White House people and Republican people, the Republicans are a little further along in being aware of the limitations upon them right now, that there’s not a lot that they can do. They can’t repeal health care.

And I think they have sort of begun to think through a strategy. I’m not sure the White House has begun to thought — think through a strategy. When your successful Senate candidate in West Virginia takes out a gun and shots shoots one of your proposals, well, that’s a signal that maybe there are some policy implications here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The cap and trade.

DAVID BROOKS: And the second thing that has begun to come out of the White House…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which he did today suggests he’s moving beyond…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, he has to.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: The second thing that we have begun to see in this White House, which we have not seen, is some back-channel leaking from people on the White House staff saying they are a little upset about the fact that there are really only five or 10 people who make all the decisions, and some of the other smart people in the White House say, it’s time to open that up a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that tell you, that we are going to see some — some changes?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there’s going to be criticism. I mean, the old Washington phrase, mistakes have been made. I mean, mistakes have been made. You’re at the top of the game. You’re the elected majority in 2008, and you walk into a midterm election, and it’s the worst right-direction/wrong-track number in the last five midterm elections in this country, including 2006 and 1994.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to get back to your question, Mark, should they have been — I mean, should the president have been thinking about these things, since the polls have…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes, he should. But — yes, he did it openly and notoriously in an interview with Peter Baker in David’s Sunday “Times” magazine.

You know, it would appear that he has accepted — he accepted this verdict before Democratic candidates whose names were on the ballot on Tuesday even faced their fate. So, I think they will — should have a plan developed.

But they are feeling themselves along the way. He’s got to work out a relationship with John Boehner and with the Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we won’t hold to you a date, unless you’re prepared to give one now…

DAVID BROOKS: When…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … for when the White House is ready to work with…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they will. And he said this. There are some moments — there are some issues upon which they can work together — I think they know that — education, energy. Obama listed them today. It won’t be the main story, maybe, of the next two years, but it will be a subplot.

MARK SHIELDS: START treaty, I mean, there has to be one, certainly. I think infrastructure is another.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: They have got to work together on the taxes, or, otherwise, they jump up on the 1st of January. And I don’t think either side wants that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re glad to work with the two of you. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.