TOPICS > Politics > Shields and Gerson

Shields and Gerson on conservative candidates, Shinseki under fire

May 23, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist MIchael Gerson join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week’s news, including primary election contests in Kentucky, Oregon and Georgia, and calls from some lawmakers for Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down after troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away today.

So, let’s start talking first, on the politics side, elections, May 20, big day. Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon had elections. So your biggest takeaway from this?

MARK SHIELDS: We who cover politics are frustrated sportswriters. We love to say an easy question is a softball or an unfair charge is a cheap shot.

And to use tennis jargon, a game that I have never played, you could say that Republicans this year have committed no unforced errors. They have not — they have put themselves in a position to compete, if not to win, in the competitive Senate races. They haven’t nominated people that they’re going to have to run away from who are seen as losers in May. That is seen an accomplishment to them.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes. No, I agree with that.

I think that the Republican establishment is not a myth or a paper tiger. I think Mitch McConnell is evidence of that. There’s something impressive about his utterly bland ruthlessness when it comes to these races.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL GERSON: And I think it’s true that Republicans have determined they want the Senate, they’re not going to make stupid mistakes.

And that, by the way, given recent elections, is a huge accomplishment for them. That’s not a — so I think they found, in the shutdown, that Tea Party groups, the leaders of the Tea Party groups are not appeasable. They’re not going to be brought into the coalition. They have to be fought. And we have seen a counter-reaction, the Chamber and others, to these groups, and they have been largely defeated.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, should the Democrats be concerned that Republicans are taking the necessary steps to win back the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. They should be.

They don’t have the gimmes that they had in Indiana, where Joe Donnelly could win as a Democrat, Claire McCaskill could win reelection in Missouri, Harry Reid in Nevada. The Democrats have five seats in the past two elections that the Republicans just gave up essentially by nominating unelectable candidates as Tea Party people.

What the Tea Party had going for it, more than anything else, was surprise in the past. And that element was gone because the incumbents this year were ready. Michael mentioned Mitch McConnell.

If you want to get an idea of what this year is going to be about, I mean, there was no lift of a driving dream, no inspiring vision, not even policy initiative in his victory statement. It was just he thanked his family, made the obligatory nod to his opponent, and then immediately launched a diatribe against his opponent, who was brought to you by Barack Obama and Harry Reid. She’s obviously a puppet and a creation.

And I think that is probably going to be the tenor of the year.

MICHAEL GERSON: I do actually think that Democrats have some good candidates in Kentucky and Georgia.

But the problem here is that the battleground of control of the Senate is in Republicans states this time.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s red states.

MICHAEL GERSON: And the Republicans only need a few.

And it’s in the sixth year of the Democratic president that is down in the polls. So there’s a swift current here that I think makes it very hard for even fairly good candidates to get traction in this election for Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I would not write them off anyway.

Georgia, though, is interesting, Hari, in the sense that the Republicans had five candidates. The true believers, sort of hard-liners, Tea Party finished fourth and fifth. And the two who won could be called country club Republicans or let’s mete for cocktails at 7:00. So they’re in a runoff, and that will be brutal.

MICHAEL GERSON: I think it’s even a little more because Republicans have opened up some routes like Oregon, I think, which is interesting, where they have a very strong candidate now in that race, in a traditionally blue state.

But the eastern part of the state is more like an inland Western state in many ways. And I think that Republicans are expanding the fields in these primaries, not just defending.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do we see this roll out to Arkansas or Alaska, where they are going to be some competitive…

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, sure.

There’s no question that the Republicans are eying, first of all, South Dakota, which had been held by Tim Johnson, who is retiring, and the president lost by 20-plus votes, and states that president — Mitt Romney carried by 14 points, Montana, where Max Baucus has left. And then in addition to that, you have got West Virginia, where the president lost by 27 points.

And, you know, those are sort of the immediate ones the Republicans have their eyes on. And then you have got to battle Democratic incumbents. But I would say every one of the Democratic incumbents is in a position to win. There’s nobody you’re writing off at this point, whether it’s Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Mark Pryor leads in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Mark Begich in Alaska.

They’re proven candidates, and I think they are going to be competitive races.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So is this idea of the Tea Party vs. the establishment a narrative that the media likes, or can we say that they have already had an impact in moving the party in a more conservative direction?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think there’s a clear difference here.

The Republican Party is more monolithically conservative than it has been in the past, there’s no question. But most Republicans are in a Reaganite kind of category. The Tea Party is making a fundamental critique of — Tea Party leaders of all of modern government. They would regard Reagan as a RINO.

So I think there is a clear difference in tone and style. And that’s why there is a serious fight here. But Republicans face a huge challenge in this. They can defeat the Tea Party and try to get their base out in a midterm election, which sometimes wins with a message as complex as Obamacare bad.

But that will not win the 2016 election and will — in fact, could lose the Senate in 2016, which is the flip side of the demographic advantage that Republicans have right now. So they’re going to have to make a shift. They can win in 2014 with a certain message, but they’re going to have to re-brand the party to win in 2016. Can they make that shift?

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, looking forward, June 3, Mississippi, a race that just got a lot more interesting in the last couple of days. We have got Thad Cochran, a little bit more of the establishment individual, and Chris Daniel — or Chris McDaniel.

And it was — I just want to hear your opinions on this, but I think four people have been arrested because supporters of McDaniel went into the nursing home of Thad Cochran’s wife, who I think is in dementia, and posted a video of her on — this just seems like a new low.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and all the story — the story is still assembling.

And the person who did it was with somebody who did it on his own. And the question is how deeply the McDaniel campaign either was aware of it, didn’t stop it or was even complicit in it?

I don’t understand — and Mrs. Cochran, sadly, is in dementia. She’s been in — she is in hospice care. She has been there 13 years. What possible advantage — you just ask what sort of perverted thinking leads to let’s get a video of this disabled woman, invade her privacy, and put it on the — what sort of a polemic politically can you use?

Anybody who did it ought to be disqualified from voting. They have demonstrated incapacity, quite frankly. And if McDaniel’s campaign is involved with it any way, even remotely, they are going to pay for it dearly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: McDaniel was doing well in the last few weeks.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, exactly. And Cochran is weak in many ways as a candidate. This is the last best hope of the Tea Party.

But I think that McDaniel is in serious trouble here. It was reported today that McDaniel, as a radio talk show host, had occasionally co-hosted the show with one of the people that was arrested, one of the four people that was arrested.

This is not a distant relationship. There’s no evidence that the campaign was involved yet, but you are going to have an investigation, criminal investigation that’s going to have e-mails. They’re going to review e-mails and have subpoenas and other things.

I can’t imagine right now that Mississippi Republicans would want to send a candidate into a general election that’s in the middle of this controversy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, let’s talk — shift gears a little bit to the sort of VA scandal that keeps kind of rolling out in the last few weeks.

Support for Eric Shinseki seems to be slipping from both Democrats and Republicans. Was the president too slow in doing something about this, as Bob Dole said to the USA Today?

MARK SHIELDS: The president and Eric Shinseki suffer from two — the same political disability. That is, neither one is able to emote upon demand.

Eric Shinseki is somebody who doesn’t beat the table with his shoe and doesn’t beat his chest and doesn’t — he’s a remarkable American with a record of service to this country basically unmatched. And the fact that he hasn’t been angry has aroused the ire of Jon Stewart and some other observers.

Is the president slow? Yes, it shouldn’t have been there for three weeks. And then the response itself seemed to be almost an emergency response. But I think it’s classic the president. He is going to wait for the report to come in, which will be in. They have expanded the investigation to 26 hospitals now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the president has said in multiple years over and over again, I will fix this problem.

MARK SHIELDS: And this problem — and I would argue that the VA has had a much larger mandate under this administration and this secretary.

They have expanded it to all the victims of Agent Orange from Vietnam. They have expanded it to PTSD, beyond — the presumption now is, if you’re in combat, we have a belief, we believe you have a problem. You don’t have to come in and prove it anymore.

And obviously it expanded the number of people being covered.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And I’m not in any way minimizing. If 40 people died, then heads should roll and people should be held accountable, make no mistake about it.

But I think the record of achievement and his record in particular will stand the test of time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But you have said in your column this week that this is the scandal that is going to stick with the Obama presidency. So, is this a leadership crisis? Is this a management crisis? Is this a systemic problem at the VA? Is there somebody else that could clean this up if it wasn’t Eric Shinseki?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think it’s a very good question. How much of this is leadership? And there’s a temptation to have scapegoats in this kind of matter. You could be giving too many responsibilities to a public institution.

The system itself could be poorly designed. This one hasn’t been reformed, fundamentally reformed, in a long time. But I think you have identified the problem for Obama is, this is a — there have been many problems over decades in this system, but he came to office identifying this as a problem, putting presidential credibility on the line, saying, I’m going to fix this.

And then he appears, like at the press conference that he had, and positions himself as an outraged bystander. That is more of a self-indictment than it is a defense in a case like this.

You’re the president. You have had five-and-a-half years to make a decision like this. I think that’s his real risk. You can’t just say, I’m angry. They put him out there in this press conference to say, I’m angry.

But you have to have anger plus action in order to be credible on these issues, and it hasn’t happened yet. It may.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but the report is coming in the middle of next week. And we will see. We will see what the president does.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

MARK SHIELDS: But I think this is his strength, as well as his shortcoming.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thanks so much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.