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Brooks: Obama’s Reelection Hopes Face Danger in Midwest

November 5, 2010 at 5:56 PM EDT
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Columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks analyze this week's top news with Jim Lehrer, including whether outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's decision to run for minority leader makes her a political liability for the Democrats, what John Boehner's agenda will be and where President Obama's re-election hope stand.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what do you make of Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she wants to continue to lead the Democrats in the House?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a very human statement. I think that Nancy Pelosi, by any measurement, has been the most effective speaker, certainly of the past generations, and there never would have been a Barack Obama administration legislative program without her. And there wouldn’t be a national health care bill.

And she became demonized in this campaign. And there were millions spent against her. She became a liability in many districts. And having been the architect of the Democrats’ takeover of the House in the last two elections, she became the piñata in this campaign.

And I don’t think she wants to leave. I can understand it at a human level, you know, skulking off the stage, having been vilified and demonized. And she would like this volatile era, perhaps to — that it swings back in two years, and, as Sam Rayburn did in 1946 to ’48 — he was knocked out of — in the minority.

But, you know, I think…

JIM LEHRER: And Sam Rayburn stayed as minority leader, did he not?

MARK SHIELDS: Sam Rayburn — Sam Rayburn did. That’s unlike most since then who have — Newt Gingrich left when he lost five seats. But she’s always been a better inside player than she has been an outside player. She is the inverse of Gingrich.

Gingrich was great outside. Gingrich was great at a lectern or on a TV show. He was terrible inside. He had a revolt of his own members. She is — the caucus is now more liberal than it was, sadly, before last Tuesday’s election, because many of the losses were sustained by Blue Dog Democrats, moderate to conservatives that she had recruited. But they lost.

And so there is not a question in my mind that she will be reelected if she wants to be. The question is, should she be, and is it in her historical interests, reputation, or is in the interests of her party?

JIM LEHRER: How do you — what do you…

DAVID BROOKS: It may be in her interests. I understand not wanting to leave at the moment of maximum defeat.

I don’t think it is in the party’s interests. The fact is, if you are a Democrat running for Congress or the House in North Carolina, or Ohio, or Indiana, it is harder if Nancy Pelosi is the leader of your party in the House. She just has a reputation. She is from the liberal wing of the party. It is just harder.

And it’s harder for — it will be harder for her party to win back a majority if she is there. And it is a sign, I think, to me, that the party isn’t ready to change. And maybe it’s early. It’s just been a few days. But if I were House members, I would want a new face. I would want at least a new face, and maybe a slightly new direction. But that doesn’t seem much in evidence.

JIM LEHRER: Did you expect her to just step down?

DAVID BROOKS: Uh-huh. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: You did?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I think, you know, she can go — if she left now, which she’s not going to do, but she could say: I passed major legislation. This will be on the books for the rest of our lives. And she can say: I accomplished this. We suffered a political setback, but the good of the party means that it has to be a different face.

Obviously — and it’s obvious — she is a political liability, whatever you think of her as a — her performance as a speaker.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark that, if she wants to do it, she can do it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, she is extremely smart and she’s an extremely good speaker, I mean, tactically and legislatively. And so I assume, if she started off on this bid to win this job, minority leader job, I assume she can count the votes, and I assume she has got them in the bag.

JIM LEHRER: Well, do you agree that, that she would never have made this announcement if she didn’t already have the votes?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean, she met with Steny Hoyer, her — who has been the majority leader. His job is now abolished. There is no more leader on the Democratic side. There’s a — other than the minority leader. So, and she told him that. And he announced that he would not oppose her…

JIM LEHRER: As speaker — I mean, as minority leader.

MARK SHIELDS: As minority leader.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: But, no, I think you have to look at it in this perspective. Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, those have been the three leaders of the Democratic Party. Who has been the most effective in the past two years? I don’t think anybody could argue.

JIM LEHRER: From the Democratic point of view.

MARK SHIELDS: From the Democratic point of view.

JIM LEHRER: Liberal Democratic point of view.

MARK SHIELDS: Nancy Pelosi.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree with that.

MARK SHIELDS: Nancy Pelosi has been.

DAVID BROOKS: But you just lost 60-some-odd seats. So you are going to go to the next election with Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Nancy Pelosi.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Harry Reid is reelected. And Barack Obama obviously is still there.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean — so, I think it is — from a personal point of view, I can understand it.

I think David’s argument is one that undoubtedly has been made to her, will be made to her. You know, it’s going to be tough. Some of the stuff that was used against her this year, I mean, to the point of her face being in a urinal in some of the TV spots and stuff, it was really just ugly.

I never heard her complain about it. So, she was — she was quite manly. And I don’t understand why she has been demonized quite as much. I really don’t. I mean, I know she’s rich. I know she is from San Francisco. She’s a woman. I don’t know — I don’t know what it is. She is a liberal. But, you know…

DAVID BROOKS: She’s a rich San Francisco liberal. If you are running for office in Tennessee, that’s the opponent you want to have. And…

MARK SHIELDS: She’s…

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s move quickly to the tavern owner’s son from Ohio who is…

DAVID BROOKS: Who is probably a little rich, too…

JIM LEHRER: … who is going to replace…

MARK SHIELDS: No, he’s not rich.

JIM LEHRER: … Nancy Pelosi.

What is the heavy lifting that he is confronting at this moment, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if he uses the word humility anymore, I am going to — I don’t know what I will do.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But he has used that word a lot. I actually think it is the right word to use.

He has got a number of things to do, first, to actually have an agenda. And I think — still think they are searching. They sort of know the outlines of the agenda. And it is going to be modest and incremental. And it will be about every week coming up with some piece of legislation that is going to make it easier to hire or to cut spending.

And it’s just incremental things. They are going to try to beat us down with one idea after another. But, politically, the problem is obviously unifying a group, which, frankly, we don’t really know what it is going to be like, and neither do they, with these new members, but also damping down expectations.

JIM LEHRER: Particularly the Tea Party people, the…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I, frankly, don’t think it will be a big deal. You know, Michele Bachmann, who is sort of their representative, is going to run for a leadership post. I would be stunned if she did very well. The Tea Party is active outside Congress, not so strong inside.

But, nonetheless, they have got expectations from people who voted for them that something big is going to change. And that’s not going to happen. And so they have got to try to damp that down. So, they are moving in all sorts of directions. I think the key thing is this humility theme.

And that’s the right theme, because there is not a lot they can do. And people don’t trust politicians. So you better be pretty humble.

JIM LEHRER: Well, but then Mitch McConnell, who is the Republican leader in the Senate, has said his number-one priority remains making sure that Barack Obama doesn’t have a second term.

That is not — is that humility?

MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t.

JIM LEHRER: I’m going to ask David that question first.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no. If I were Mitch McConnell, I would focus — I would say, it’s not complicated. What are you try doing in Washington? You are trying to create jobs and economic growth.

That’s all you talk about. Those are your strategic goals. Talk about that. Do not talk about your tactical goals, what politician you want to beat in order to get there. I would keep it nice and simple.

But he’s chosen not to, and I think to remind people, if Barack Obama is still there, we can’t get a lot done. We still want you to mobilize against him. But I think it’s just unfortunate and self-destructive to talk that way.

MARK SHIELDS: Unfortunate is the understatement of the week.

I mean, give credit to Major Garrett of “The National Journal,” did the interview with him. He said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

We had Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Paul Krugman talking about 15 million Americans who don’t have a job to go to this morning, will not have a job to go to Monday. That is not as important as beating Barack Obama, finding work for these folks. We have lost 5,800 Americans, without — families without a father or a sister or a son or a daughter in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s not as important as beating Barack Obama, not the deficit, not national health care.

I mean, this is so far inside the beltway, this is so far removed and out of touch with the American people and their desires about how they want people to work together. I mean, Mitch McConnell is playing inside politics so deep on this.

He himself endorsed Trey Grayson, the establishment candidate in Kentucky. Rand Paul, the Tea Party candidate, humiliated in his home state. He beat him. Then he won the Senate seat. He’s coming here as a national figure. He’s got Jim DeMint, who is the de facto minority Republican leader in the Senate.

So, he’s going to prove his street cred by the one thing that unifies all these fractious elements in the Republican Party: anti-Barack Obama. And he’s making John Boehner look like Henry Clay and Thomas Moore at the same time.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, John Boehner looks terrific by contrast to Mitch McConnell.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I more or less agree with that.

I think it is inside baseball. And I can understand why he is doing it. I mean, I asked some senators, was it a slip of the tongue? And they said, no, Mitch McConnell doesn’t have a slip of the tongue.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: That’s not…

JIM LEHRER: He really means that.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And if I’m putting myself into my head, imagining it, listen, he wants to show he is not going native, and he wants to remind people their expectations shouldn’t get too high. But I agree with Mark. Focus on what people actually care about.

One thing, though, about Jim DeMint, who is sort of the Michele Bachmann of the Senate — there was an episode a couple weeks ago where Jim DeMint really wanted to take Lisa Murkowski and kick her off all her committees, because she was running against a Tea Party candidate.

And so it was interesting. Inside that meeting in the Republican group, very few senators — I think almost none — supported Jim DeMint on that. And that is a sign that people like DeMint or Bachmann have an outside game, but not a lot of inside presence. And I’m not sure that is going to be a huge problem for McConnell.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, let’s talk about the president.

The Republicans have accused him, Boehner and McConnell, among others, that he has practiced denial about what happened on Tuesday. How do you read his — we have had a few days now. And now he has gone to Asia. But how do you read the — what — how the president has handled what happened on Tuesday?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think shellacking is the operative word. I mean, he was a long time coming to it in that press conference, that…

JIM LEHRER: But is he acting like a man who knows he has been shellacked?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think he’s really adjusting to the reality, the new reality, and the diminished expectations of the next two years.

I mean, he always knew and the White House always knew that their big bite at the apple was going to be the first two years, with the big majorities. But I think this has been a little bit of a shock. And I think the real test will be the State of the Union.

And, in a strange way, this trip, this long-postponed trip — David and I kidded earlier about, he is going to visit American jobs in India — but that he…

(LAUGHTER)

It couldn’t come at a better time for him, because the Republicans are going through this restiveness and restlessness right now.

JIM LEHRER: What about — David, what about Barack Obama 2012? Is there — is there something there at risk here?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, absolutely. And I think they vastly — in the White House, they vastly underestimate the dangers they face here, in part because, in Ohio, they are — and it’s hard to win without winning Ohio — they are so far down, I could beat Barack Obama in Ohio. I mean, anybody could.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s not get carried away.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, OK, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But any plausible person could.

(LAUGHTER)

Anybody taller than me could.

(LAUGHTER)

So, they are in trouble. And it’s hard to win the presidency without winning Ohio or the entire Midwest. And they don’t quite — I don’t think they quite register that. The second thing…

JIM LEHRER: So, you think he is at risk, his reelection is at risk?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. I really do. The more you look at the results, one way to read it is that the outlier was 2008, that what has happened now, it’s swung back, and that there is a Republican coalition there. And that would make it hard for him to win those people back in 2012.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it there. Mark, David, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Brooks for president, Ohio?

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Yes. You said it. I didn’t.

(LAUGHTER)