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Shields and Gerson on Emanuel’s Exit, Boehner’s Future

October 1, 2010 at 4:41 PM EST
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson analyze the week's top news stories, including the change in leadership within the Obama administration and House Minority Leader John Boehner's political future.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

Mark, farewell, Rahm Emanuel. What is your reading as to why he would go now, one month before the midterm elections? Did he have any choice?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think it just became important for him, if he is going to make the race, and it probably became in the White House’s interests to end the soap opera.

JIM LEHRER: Now, that was — what do you think, Michael? Should anything be read into the fact that he was willing to go at a crucial time for the president?

MICHAEL GERSON: It’s not normal for a White House chief of staff to depart the White House a month before a midterm election.

It is a sign of stress. I think it’s quite possible that, if Rahm Emanuel had stayed until after the election, he might be forced to leave the White House, if the outcome is really bad. That happens with chief of staffs.

So, I think this was a good choice for him, in a certain way. And — but it does indicate that — where the administration is, to some extent.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes, I think, more than that, it shows the uniqueness. If we’re talking about White House chief of staff, there is no definition of it, and — of the job.

JIM LEHRER: It really is up to each person, each president.

MARK SHIELDS: Each person creates his own. And every White House staff, in my experience in Washington, is ultimately and inevitably a mirror reflection of the person at the top. And if you are talking about the best White House chief of staff — and, by most people’s definition in this city, Democrats and Republicans, I mean, there’s a lot of people listed, but the dominant consensus choice is Jim Baker.

And the irony of Jim Baker was — Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff — was that he had run the last two campaigns against Ronald Reagan. He had run George Herbert Walker Bush’s in 1980 and Jerry Ford’s in 1976.

And Reagan was secure enough to reach over and say, this guy is the guy. I like Mike — I love Mike Deaver. Ed Meese is a loyal guy, but this is the guy I need. And he was — what made him a special chief of staff, he mastered policy. He knew politics. He was trusted by the press and liked by the press and the Hill and Congress. And he was somebody who delegated very, very well.

MICHAEL GERSON: Emanuel’s frenetic style was quite different than Obama. It was a contrast, not a reflection, in that way. And he drew a lot of attention to himself.

I can’t remember an example where the press knew every time he disagreed with the president on a key decision, the Manhattan trial for — the terrorist trial, the timing of the health care bill. The press knew when he disagreed with the president. I worked for two chiefs of staff. That wouldn’t have been permissible.

JIM LEHRER: It wouldn’t have been permissible?

MICHAEL GERSON: Absolutely not.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

MICHAEL GERSON: This is a very high-profile figure in his own right. And I believe that this new chief of staff is much more the normal model of a chief of staff, a low-profile loyal…

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about Pete Rouse.

MICHAEL GERSON: Pete Rouse, a low-profile, loyalist. And this might be a White House that needs a good manager, who serves the president quietly, instead of creating the kind of drama that Emanuel created.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you could say that President Obama, which Bob Woodward reports, for example, that he really did go after him. He wanted Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. And Rahm Emanuel was central to passing the legislative package.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, Obama courted Emanuel.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he did.

JIM LEHRER: Emanuel was reluctant to come at first.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But whatever passion for anonymity Rahm had, he had overcome it at that point.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And the idea of a chief of staff going…

JIM LEHRER: To put it mildly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: … on “Charlie Rose” and saying, yes, I would like to be mayor of Chicago some day, I mean, if he was working for Lyndon Johnson, or for Ronald Reagan, or for Jack Kennedy, or for Bill Clinton, he would have had his own desk cleared out that night.

MARK SHIELDS: And he would have gone back this morning — the next morning with the locks changed. I mean, that — now, it’s a tribute, in a way, to President Obama that he could have somebody around who was so high-profile. But will you not see Pete Rouse on “Charlie Rose” or on “Bob Schieffer.”

JIM LEHRER: What about the NewsHour?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the NewsHour” is a different show, because it is a substantive show, where you can speak to the nation on a thoughtful, serious matter.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, he read it just exactly the way I wrote it.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: But, I mean, do you think that Rouse is going to be that different, that we’re not going to really hear about him in a public way, and the president will be better served by him than he was by Rahm Emanuel?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think he’s highly respected, both on the Hill and within the administration. There is a long background with Tom Daschle in leadership in the Senate. So he knows the Hill. And he has a good reputation among Republicans on the Hill. So, you know, I think there’s a lot to commend him, at least as a transitional figure.

Now, he is not guaranteed this job from now on. That is a difficult position to be in. And Obama may need to reconstitute his administration in reaction to an electoral reversal in the midterm. And you may need some kind of high-profile, you know, outreach…

JIM LEHRER: Bring in a Howard Baker type from the outside or something like that.

MICHAEL GERSON: Something like that. That’s possible.

JIM LEHRER: But only after the election.

MARK SHIELDS: Michael is right. The key is November 3, I mean, when the president has to stand up there and say, “I heard you,” right?

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: That’s got to be the opening line, “I heard you,” given…

JIM LEHRER: “Heard you.”

MARK SHIELDS: … the results. But Pete Rouse does have the passion for anonymity. And he will — there will be no style profile pieces on him in The Washington Post, or he won’t be seen at the Cafe Milano or the fancy watering holes around town. That isn’t his style. That isn’t who he is.

He is the staff person who submerges his own ego and ambition, in the service of his principal, in this case, the president of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: And he always has. He did that with Tom Daschle, whoever he was working for.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: That’s your point, yes. Now, speaking of the midterm elections, obviously, President Obama, Vice President Biden, they have been out. And they have had an interesting — they have an interesting message now. They have been talking to their own folks lately, haven’t they?

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. Well, they have — he has two big political problems, the intensity of his own base, which is lagging, and reduced support among independents. And it’s hard to solve both those problems at the same time, because they require different messages.

They have really concentrated on the base, trying to get progressives more engaged. Now, I have some questions about the way that they are conducting that message. If you look at the “Rolling Stone” interview with the president, he tends to scold the base. He tells them they are irresponsible for not being energetic. He tells them to buck up.

Usually, you want to inspire people, not really try to shame them into enthusiasm. That’s not the way it usually is done. But there is some evidence that Democrats are coming home a little bit in the run-up to the election in the generic ballots and some other things. And, so, maybe it’s working a little.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it’s working. The measurements, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, that the interest…

JIM LEHRER: Charisma?

MARK SHIELDS: … the interest and high interest among African-American and Latino voters has significantly increased.

The Democrats have been so long with any — from having, receiving any good news that even semi-bad news is good at this point, I mean, because, still, there is a double-digit margin when they just measure the voters who are most interested in this election. So that has to be part of the job. But I am — when Joe Biden said, stop whining…

JIM LEHRER: Stop whining, right.

MARK SHIELDS: … that is a phrase that, in American conversation, is probably not really a starting of an interesting colloquy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, you know, I have never…

JIM LEHRER: When you’re talking to the whiners.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. There has never been a person I know who said, oh, that’s a good point.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: A child, an adult? Stop whining.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: So, no, I don’t — I think that he is energizing in the sense of, obviously, Madison, Wisconsin. I think the blue states is where you will see it most dramatically. I think Martin O’Malley in Maryland, the governor, has opened up a lead, according to the polls, Barbara Boxer in California.

I mean, I think that’s where his impact will be felt the most.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. The Democrats had hoped to or at least said they wanted to go out on this — of course, they did — the Congress has just gone out of business until after the election, but they wanted to go out having done something about tax cuts, middle-class tax cuts. And nothing happened.

What did happen? What caused — what went wrong for them?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, a month ago, the White House was leaking that they thought this was a great issue, trying to pit the middle class against upper-income voters. And this was going to be a great populist issue.

And it backfired completely, and not because of Republican obstruction, but because of Democratic detections in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It’s the reason that they couldn’t even produce a bill in the Senate. They didn’t introduce legislation to do what they wanted to do in the Senate, because they couldn’t get agreement…

JIM LEHRER: They wanted the tax cuts for all. They didn’t want just for the $250,000 and below.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. Exactly. And many of the Democrats were making the case that a lot of people do, that this was the wrong time to increase taxes on anyone.

So, you have a reluctant Democratic Party in this. And what happened is, for that reason, instead of sprinting to the finish line, they really stumbled across it.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that — I don’t argue with Nancy Pelosi. She has proved herself to be the most effective vote-counter in my time in Washington, demonstrated by passing national health insurance.

She was confident and certain that she had the votes to pass it. And I think she had the votes to pass it in the House. There was no point in passing it in the House if it wasn’t going pass in the Senate. And, there, the Democratic…

JIM LEHRER: Why not? Why wouldn’t they get points for doing it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, because — because then you have cast a vote that, in some of those districts — the vulnerable Democrats mostly come from districts that John McCain carried. Those are — 49 Democrats hold the seats that John McCain carried in 2008 against Barack Obama.

And in those districts, they have to win Republican votes to survive. And among Republicans, there is one galvanizing principle. There is one Holy Grail, and that is no tax cuts — I mean, ideally, no taxes.

And the leverage that Pelosi has is that, as of January 1, the inheritance tax, or, as the Republicans love to call, the death tax…

JIM LEHRER: Death tax.

MARK SHIELDS: … will go from zero, which it is today, to 55 percent on estates over $1 million. So, the Republicans will negotiate. They cannot accept that, and in — in the rump session.

But I think, politically, it had become difficult for a number of those Democrats Michael mentioned, and the 31 who had signed the letter to the speaker. But she’s quite confident that they will pass it.

JIM LEHRER: On the Republican side, Michael John Boehner, the minority leader, left after making a speech a couple of days ago where he called for reforming the way the House of Representatives operated.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: And everybody did just exactly what the two of you are doing, laughing. Is that — should they be? What that a — is that a serious thing? What do you — how do you read what he was trying to say there?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think that, you know, congressional majorities tend to change when you have corruption and when you have arrogance, OK?

And Republicans are trying to make the case that that is a reason to change, that there is a kind of corruption the way that Congress does its own business. I’m not sure John Boehner is the best messenger for that. He’s not really an outsider. He has a lot of ties to the lobbyist community.

He’s — you know, so, he’s a flawed messenger when it comes to internal congressional reform. But, you know, you add that to the pledge, and Republicans are trying to have some message going into the midterms.

JIM LEHRER: Have they got one?

MARK SHIELDS: From the party of no, they want to say something.

I mean, John Boehner called it a reform message. They asked him about earmarks, which are the biggest item of controversy. Republicans, when they are out of power in the House of Representatives, now are against earmarks — said, would you continue that if the Republicans are in the majority?

And John Boehner punted on that issue. So, it was a speech that didn’t get him in trouble, and just as the pledge doesn’t get them in trouble. But it is a little bit like a Chinese meal intellectually. You are hungry 30 minutes later.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Mark, Michael, thank you, both.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.