MS. IFILL: Pick your term – upheaval, earthquake, shellacking – no matter how you cut it, the political earth shifted this week. We’ll explain what happened and what it means tonight on “Washington Week.”
SARAH PALIN: I’m confident and I am hopeful because this is our movement. This is our moment. This is our morning in America.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): This election was not about Republicans. It was about the Democrats. They got a report card. They got an F.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.
DIANE SAWYER: No regrets?
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) [House Speaker]: No regrets. Because we believe we did the right thing.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [House Minority Leader]: There seems to be some denial on the part of the president and other Democrat leaders.
MS. IFILL: The winners, the losers and the new faces.
GOVERNOR-ELECT NIKKI HALEY (R-SC): We started a movement 18 months ago. It was a movement of the people, about the people, and for the people.
SENATOR-ELECT MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party. What they are is a second chance.
MS. IFILL: An election that raised as many questions as it answered for the Obama White House, for a newly divided Congress, and for the very idea of compromise. Covering this remarkable week: Peter Baker of the New York Times; Michael Duffy of Time magazine; John Harris of Politico; and Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post. Plus a final salute to one of our own, Charlie McDowell.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, by now you may have heard what happened on Tuesday, a wave so forceful that even political tsunami warnings didn’t prepare Democrats for what it would actually feel like. Tonight we’ll attempt to tell you why it happened and what’s next. The long and short of it, gridlock is so not over. Here’s the best the White House could offer in the form of an olive branch.
MR. BAKER: Can you name today areas that you would be willing to compromise on that you might not have been willing to compromise on in the past?
PRES. OBAMA: Well, I think I’ve been willing to compromise in the past and I’m going to be willing to compromise going forward on a whole range of issues.
MS. IFILL: Here was the Republican response.
SEN. MCCONNELL: The fact is if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all of those things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.
MS. IFILL: In the meantime, here is what at least one of the newcomers headed to Washington read into the election results.
SENATOR-ELECT RAND PAUL (R-KY): I have a message, a message from the people of Kentucky, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: we’ve come to take our government back. (Cheers, applause.)
MS. IFILL: Back to where is the question the nation’s lawmakers are now wrestling with. But first, the House, the Senate and the White House have to sort themselves out because in spite all that transpired Tuesday, it appears the leadership ranks will only be reshuffled, not overhauled, starting with John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi who will, just in effect, be switching gavels, Michael.
MR. DUFFY: I’m not even sure it rises to reshuffling. You know, 72 hours after one of the biggest political wipeouts in a long time, more than 60 years, I think to put it generously, both sides are still trying to figure out their next steps. The president, who made some sounds – I don’t think they’re anything more than sounds – at his press conference the other day about perhaps changing course, in response to your question, didn’t get very specific.
And in fact, there are lots of questions about whether he wants to or even can. The Republicans on Capitol Hill have got a nifty, after two or three days, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act going. We have a speaker who tried to start out by being conciliatory and a majority leader who, we saw, is anything but. And finally this afternoon, the former House speaker – I guess still the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided instead of going away, the person who essentially launched 1,000 attack ads is going to stay around.
MS. IFILL: She didn’t launch them. They were launched at her.
MR. DUFFY: Of course, they were launched at her. Yes. The face that launched 1,000 attack ads is going to stay around when I think a lot of people in the party would rather she stepped down.
MS. IFILL: It seems like different lessons were taken from each side from the same set of results.
MR. BAKER: Right. It’s fascinating actually to listen to them as you showed some of these clips. The Republican mandate, as they see it, is to stop what President Obama was doing, to reverse course. The mandate you heard President Obama talk about was it’s time for us to work together. These are very different ideas out of the same set of elections. I mean, you can, of course, find in poll numbers various things that will satisfy various interpretations, but the president’s interpretation, of course, is one of weakness coming out of a loss, a shellacking as he put it, in which he’s trying to find the best way forward. And when he says, the voters want us to work together, what he means is, don’t cut me out. I’m still relevant here, even though he wouldn’t use that phrase.
MS. TUMULTY: Except that I do think that – and having been through a few of these tumultuous moments in Washington, I thought the sense in calling around the Democrats around the country Democratic leaders that they weren’t quite as shell-shocked as they were, say, after the ’94 election in part because they did see this one coming. But also, unlike a lot of these big wave elections where at the end, almost all the close races go exactly the same way, in this case the Democrats did pull it out for some very high-profile governors’ races and very high-profile Senate races. So I think they are looking at this and seeing it as perhaps a different kind of wave and they’re taking some solace in history that has shown that the electorate is in a very sort of almost unstable place now.
MS. IFILL: It’s almost more like a pendulum election than a change election.
MR. HARRIS: Well, I mean, that’s right. If you think of the last five midterm elections, three of them have been so-called wave elections. We’re accustomed to a wave election being something that happens every couple of generations. This underscores obviously that we’re in this period of radical fluidity in American politics as they jump ball. But I think somebody would be in a state of denial as a Democrat if they saw like, oh, this wasn’t necessarily such bad news. This was the biggest turnover since 1948 in the number of seats in the House. And what’s more, it went deep into the states. A liberal state like Minnesota has both its houses of its state legislatures Republican now through the industrial Midwest, Republicans in the state Houses, governorships. This was a bad, bad night for Democrats.
MS. IFILL: It was a bad night for incumbents, most especially if you were a Democrat, as you point out, because when you think about it, 53 of them lost their jobs. Compare that to only three Republicans. But add it up another way, as we did at the PBS NewsHour, and you’ll discover Washington lost a combined 317 years of experience, including party leaders and committee chairmen. Of course, one person’s experience is another’s insider status. In any case, it didn’t help to have either of those labels attached to you this cycle.
MR. DUFFY: Really tough to be an incumbent. Just a couple of facts, statistics from Ohio. This is a state where interestingly enough turnout went down between 2006 and –
MS. IFILL: Your home state.
MR. DUFFY: Yes, it’s true. It’s a good bellwether and don’t forget the president went there 15 times in the last 18 months and both came – sort of sides closed out there. In congressional districts that usually go one way or the other by two or three points, they went Republican by 11, 12, 13. And even among voters who said that Wall Street was to blame for the economy – they broke almost five to four for Republicans. So you get this kind of no matter who you are, no matter what you are running for, if you’re an incumbent, you are gone.
MS. IFILL: But compare this to past elections. We saw the president say every president has to stand up here at some point and have this happen to them. We did see this happen to Clinton. We saw this happen to Reagan. Does it compare?
MS. TUMULTY: It’s interesting. I was talking to people at the White House about that today and they – you know, they have a number of old hands at the White House, starting with the Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, who have been this happen. But as they look back in history they say that the differences from 1994 and 1980 are at least as important as the similarities. And one of the differences is that they don’t believe that President Obama can essentially do small bore initiatives the way –
MS. IFILL: School uniforms.
MS. TUMULTY: – because they say that a time when unemployment is almost 10 percent, that is just going to look completely inadequate to the moment. The other thing they say is that they are operating in a much more partisan media culture than anyone else has had to deal with. So, yes, there are some historic parallels and, yes, there is reason to think that resurgence is possible two years from now. But they also know, they’re very aware that they have a very different kind of challenge.
MR. BAKER: Listen to how he talked on Wednesday. He interpreted the election results as not that he went the wrong direction but that he didn’t go far enough in the direction he was going – as we didn’t make enough progress fast enough, that voters were frustrated the economy has still not recovered as much as we had hoped it would be.
MS. IFILL: You see, but there are two interpretations to that and neither of them are flattering to the president – he’s in the rock and the hard place – which is, one, he didn’t hear what the people really said and the other is he just is kind of stubborn. There’s not a good interpretation of his reaction, at least his initial reaction to this drubbing.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, there’s also the question of – he talked so much about his specific policies and it was as though he assumed that a whole bunch of initiatives, a whole bunch of legislative successes would somehow add up in the voters’ minds to some kind of sense of purpose. And I was thinking back to the middle of September when I was down in Waco, Texas, sitting in his campaign van with Chet Edwards, who was facing his own political demise. And he said, you know, one time – I keep thinking back to what Bill Clinton told me once. He said, the problem with the Democrats is they don’t know the difference between an issue and a message. And I think that somehow all the things that President Obama, as gifted a communicator as he’s been, was trying to make add up, just didn’t in some respects.
MR. HARRIS: I think all of us here had covered the Clinton presidency pretty closely. And I agree – the times are completely different. It’s a time of war, that was not; the media environment. Many things are completely different. The fundamental challenge that Barack Obama has is the same. Bill Clinton was obsessed with getting independents who abandoned him in 1994 back. And he largely managed. Obama has had an even more drastic flight of independents away from him between 2008 and 2010. It seems to me that’s got to be his overriding task is how to win those voters back.
There’s an argument of how to do it. I don’t think he can. And probably temperamentally he’s not inclined to replicate Bill Clinton’s example. But he’s got to somehow replicate Clinton’s achievement.
MR. DUFFY: And I think the other difference here is that Clinton and Obama were really different critters. I mean, Clinton’s a man whose politics were defined by their elasticity. We don’t know how much elasticity is in Barack Obama and we haven’t seen much. And in response, again, to your question –
MS. IFILL: Even though liberals think he’s been too elastic.
MR. DUFFY: Right. But it’s – the record isn’t clear. And the way I heard him speak on Wednesday was he seemed to say, I didn’t do anything wrong. I just didn’t sell it very well. That’s not what the voters seem to be saying.
MR. HARRIS: But Michael, isn’t this like the stages of grief where you go from anger, denial –
MR. DUFFY: Right. I think there’s denial, anger, negotiation.
MR. HARRIS: And then all through that.
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible) – that first news conference.
MR. HARRIS: Yes, the first news conference, it’s all about, well, the turnout – if it was a little bit different turnout model as it will be next time, we would have been fine. If we had done this, we would have been fine.
MS. TUMULTY: But it also took Bill Clinton quite a while, a number of months to figure this out as well.
MR. HARRIS: It took him almost a year through a mix of conciliation, seeming to move to the center, finally conflict with Newt Gingrich. And both were essential pillars.
MS. IFILL: Well, we know what the dilemma is for the Democrats but the Republicans are being pretty cautious about this. We heard John Boehner say over and over again, this isn’t a celebration on Tuesday night. Everybody seems to be kind of meek in claiming the mantle of victory and it’s in part because they’ve got some tensions within their own party.
MR. BAKER: I think that’s exactly right. There’s tensions within the Republican conferences. The tea party movement has to be integrated now in there in a way that makes some sort of sense. You heard Rand Paul in your clips. Obviously, he’s going to be an exemplar of the no, no, no. We’re not going to go down that path model. Are Republicans going to be able to govern within their own conference? And the different though you hear in the message is also due to the fact that in 1994 when Republicans took over, Democrats had been in power in the House for 40 years. The public was willing to embrace Republicans because they didn’t have anything against them. It’s only been four years now since these Republicans were in power and the public is not necessarily enamored what happened four years ago. They’re just mad about what’s happening now.
MS. TUMULTY: But there was also a really difference in tone between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming House Speaker John Boehner. John Boehner was far more conciliatory, far more talking about needing to get things done, whereas Mitch McConnell said our chief political goal is to replace Barack Obama as president.
MS. IFILL: And when asked about it again, he said it again.
MR. DUFFY: It’s worth spending one more moment on Boehner because he’s something of a new –
MS. IFILL: On Boehner.
MR. DUFFY: – Boehner because he’s something of a newcomer. And if the Democrats are wondering whether Obama can ape Clinton, the Republicans are hoping that Boehner does not copy Newt Gingrich. Now, I remember 15 years ago, Karen Tumulty spent a week trailing Newt Gingrich, two weeks? In about this period of time –
MS. IFILL: She was working for Time magazine. Let’s be clear. She wasn’t just stalking him.
MR. BAKER (?): It was an assignment.
MR. DUFFY: Time could not so much as get a posed picture with Boehner this week, though he ended up on the cover, because they are so concerned about being out there, being forward, being front and public. They’re very concerned about making those mistakes that Newt had made.
MS. IFILL: Well, he’s also a very different person than Newt Gingrich. He’s not that much out there. And even though he came up from humble circumstances in Ohio, his reputation in Washington as being someone who kind of hangs out with lobbyists and –
MR. DUFFY: Right. And I think they’re very concerned that the tea party people will see him as just another round of old-fashion Republicans in Washington. I also think that the White House is hoping, regardless of how they feel about which way the president turns, that they will their role just the way the Republicans did 15 years ago. It’s not clear they will.
MR. HARRIS: It is unlikely they’d be as lucky as Bill Clinton was in their choice of enemies.
MS. IFILL: On the Senate side Mitch McConnell has to deal with Jim DeMint who is talking about putting on the boxing gloves in coming back to Washington. He’s not – that may be part of the reason why he can’t afford to be conciliatory.
MS. TUMULTY: They’d be doing boxing with Mitch McConnell as well.
MS. IFILL: Or Harry Reid, the actual boxer.
MR. BAKER: (The position ?) of the guy whose caucus did not win the majority is the one who’s being feisty. The guy who did win a majority, who has to govern on some level is the one trying to be conciliatory, at least from the start.
MR. HARRIS: Well, Gwen, I think beneath the surface in the Senate, the real story is not the more flamboyant characters like Rand Paul. It is the fact you’ve got a lot of authentically conservative but still kind of mainstream and conventional politicians who are going to be in the Senate, like Rob Portman won in Ohio, Roy Blunt won in Missouri. Even Marco Rubio, who’s a tea party favorite –
MS. IFILL: Even Dan Coats in Indiana.
MR. HARRIS: – a former speaker of the house in the State House in Florida. So there are a lot of these conservatives who were brought up with the New Gingrich example. And they’re serious minded legislators.
MS. IFILL: That said, we started the problem with a little clip from a Sarah Palin pack, mamma grizzly video. How much power does she bring based on who she endorsed or whose campaign she uplifted? How much power does she have behind the scenes now going forward?
MR. BAKER: She had a good night but not an unvarnished night. A lot of her candidates – Nikki Haley in South Carolina – a lot of her candidates that she had endorsed in New Hampshire and so forth did win. A number did not though, most prominently Sharron Angle in Nevada, fell much further behind Harry Reid, the majority leader, than people had expected. And in Alaska, more importantly –
MS. IFILL: He won by a decent margin. Yes.
MR. BAKER: He won by a decent margin, much better than the polls had looked like. And in Alaska, where Sarah Palin had come out pretty strongly against the incumbent, Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was running as a write-in, the write-in got 40 some percent of the vote beating both the Democrat and the Republican.
MR. DUFFY: I think the redress is one place where the Democrats really do have a silver lining at a night when there weren’t very many. Usually Hispanic votes decrease in midterms in Nevada. They stayed the same and broke six to one for the Democrat. That’s astonishing. California, the number of Hispanics as a percentage of the electorate, went up, which is really astonishing and of course broke against the Republicans there and that made a difference for them.
MS. IFILL: Let’s look at another piece of this which was mixed up which is the Democratic Conservative Caucus in the House, known as the Blue Dog Democrats, they’ve been basically decimated. Half of them were defeated which is why Nancy Pelosi can count noses and figure she can get elected. And on the Senate side, new senators like Joe Manchin who got elected by attacking, running against Barack Obama, I think that Mitch McConnell’s counting on him to vote with them.
MS. TUMULTY: Also very important, the map two years from now – it looks terrible for the Democrats. They have far more seats that are going to be – that they will be defending two years from now than the Republicans do. And these are a lot of seats in very conservative states.
MS. IFILL: First up, we have a lame duck session coming back and a tax cut vote. That’s the most obvious place for compromise.
MR. BAKER: What’s striking is how much there actually is to do before this new Congress even gets to town. The president left today for Asia for 10 days. He gets back, we have a lame duck session. We’re going to debate tax cuts. We’re going to debate the arms control treaty. We’re going to debate unemployment insurance.
MR. DUFFY: Debt limit.
MR. BAKER: Debt limit.
MR. DUFFY: And we’ve got to do a CR.
MR. BAKER: And we’ve got to do a continuing resolution to keep the government going. Then you go into December, you’ve got the Fiscal Commission that the president appointed will come back with no doubt very volatile recommendations about how to handle the debt. You’ve got the Afghanistan-Pakistan review by the president. There’s a lot on the table before Christmas.
MS. IFILL: My guess is that that debt limit debate, which sounds kind of arcane, is where the tea partiers get to really test how much more are you willing to raise the debt we go into in order to pay for government. Isn’t that a basic?
MS. TUMULTY: And more than the number of tea partyists who are now in Congress is the fact that every Republican in Congress is looking over his or her shoulder afraid of a primary challenge. And that’s going to suggest that the only safe vote for a Republican on anything that has money attached is a no.
MR. HARRIS: Gwen, I thought the place where Sarah Palin and the tea partyists are going to have the most lasting effect is in the presidential primaries which are basically going to be starting up in just a few months.
MS. IFILL: That’s where I was going.
MR. HARRIS: The message is unmistakable if you are in a situation like all the presidential candidates will be worried depending on grassroots activists that you’ve got to bow to them again and again in primaries. Those people showed their willingness to punish incumbent Republicans they thought were too moderate, and richly reward people who agree with them. And all these presidential candidates learned that lesson well, I think.
MR. DUFFY: The tea party has to have some learning in it and one of the lessons of Tuesday night was that well, voters really liked the revolt. There were some rebels that just didn’t like Christine O’Donnell, like Sharron Angle, like Ken Buck in Colorado. They were within, I guess, three more seats that would have taken them nearly to 50. So you have to expect that they will – some part of the Republican Party will say, okay, these places we went a bridge too far. We cannot continue to do that. We’ll see if they can wrap their arms around the tea party or they continue to be the problem.
MS. IFILL: On the Democratic side of this calculus the president basically has to have a Democrat who’s willing to challenge him in his own party, to be as weakened as it would take normally for a Democratic president or any president to not to win reelection. Is there any sign on the landscape of a Democratic challenge?
MR. BAKER: They’re looking for that. They’re very aware of what you just said, which is all the incumbent presidents who have lost after one term in modern times have been challenged first inside their own party: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush. And they’re on the lookout for that, but they don’t see somebody on the horizon right now. What they’re more concerned about ironically is from the middle: Mike Bloomberg, somebody like the mayor of New York who might come along, a self-financed candidate who might try to capture the middle away from –
MS. IFILL: Because self-finance worked so well this year.
MR. BAKER: Ironically not a good year for the self-financed candidates.
MS. TUMULTY: And another problem for Barack Obama is what happened in the governors’ races because if you’re running for president, the best friends you can have in a swing state is the governor. Look at a lot of these swing states where there used to be a Democratic governor there’s now a Republican like Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin.
MR. BAKER (?): Ohio.
MS. TUMULTY: Ohio. That could really change the electoral – (inaudible) – as well.
MS. IFILL: So it’s not an accident on the Republican side that one of the most enhanced possibilities for 2012 is the head of the Republican Governors’ Association, Haley Barbour.
MR. DUFFY: It’s true. He raised I think $80 million on his way to electing some of those. That’s a lot of money. He can probably do that again. Some of his people say in this year alone –
MS. IFILL: For himself and others.
MR. DUFFY: That’s right. He’s absolutely looking at it and he won’t make a decision until April.
MR. BAKER: It’s fascinating. Some of the TV programs, I think including PBS in the final days of the election you saw Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee –
MS. IFILL: I interviewed Tim Kaine and Haley Barbour.
MR. BAKER: – against Haley Barbour.
MS. IFILL: No sign of Michael Steele.
MR. BAKER: Michael Steele, the RNC chair. Haley Barbour was the face of the Republican Party for the last few days.
MS. IFILL: And even at the post-election press conference it was John Boehner. It was Mitch McConnell and Haley Barbour. So that must mean something.
MR. DUFFY: It means he’s seriously thinking about running.
MS. IFILL: And who else?
MS. TUMULTY: On the Republican side?
MS. IFILL: Yes. Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin –
MS. TUMULTY: Who isn’t? Who isn’t?
MS. IFILL: Mike Huckabee. Tim Pawlenty.
MS. TUMULTY: Mike Pence.
MS. IFILL: Mike Pence.
MS. TUMULTY: We have not had a sitting member of the House elected president in this country since James Garfield I think in 1880. But Mike Pence announced that he was stepping down from the Republican leadership to consider his options.
MS. IFILL: And he might run for governor as well of Indiana.
MS. TUMULTY: Right.
MS. IFILL: There is so much going on and it’s been so much fun but we’re going to have leave it here and pick up where we left off in the webcast because, before we go tonight, I’d like to take a moment to salute one of our own: Charlie McDowell, the Richmond Times Dispatch reporter and columnist who spent nearly 20 years at this table passed away today, suitably on a Friday. Charlie was a treasure, not only to us but also to others who recognized his rive brilliance like author Ken Burns who turned to him again and again for documentaries like the “Civil War” and “Baseball.” His voice just stuck in our heads. In 1991, when Washington was caught up in the spectacle surrounding Anita Hill’s challenge to Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Charlie directed his ire at lawmakers who, in his view, should have known better.
CHARLIE MCDOWELL: The quibbling of the committee got to people who don’t sit around and watch congressional committees very much. Here was quibble, quibble, quibble, political posturing hokum that happens on committees. These are the people who have the ethics troubles and who are caught in just a series of things that make people scoff and smirk. And here they were where the two people with any real class in the room looked to a lot of Americans like Professor Hill and Clarence Thomas.
MS. IFILL: Charles Rice McDowell Jr., a class act, was 84-years-old. Our hearts go out tonight to his wonderful wife, Anne.