MS. IFILL: Is Washington broken? And if it is, who’s supposed to fix it? How an Indiana senator shook up the capital, what it means for Democrats, Republicans, and for you, tonight on “Washington Week.”
SEN. EVAN BAYH (D-IN): We’ve got a lot of good people in Congress, but they’re trapped in a dysfunctional system.
MS. IFILL: If Congress is indeed dysfunctional, is the answer to flee?
REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (R-FL): I will not seek a 10th term in the United States Congress this November.
REP. PATRICK KENNEDY (D-RI): My life has taken a new direction and I will not be a candidate for reelection this year.
MS. IFILL: With the White House agenda on the ropes, the president searches for the bright side.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: One year later, it is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second depression is no longer a possibility.
MS. IFILL: But has the opposition finally found its voice?
MITT ROMNEY: The gold medal that was won last night by American Lindsey Vonn has been stripped. Yes, it was determined that President Obama has been going downhill faster than she has. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: As Democrats and Republicans retreat to their corners, is the middle ground forever a lost? Covering the week: Gloria Borger of CNN, Alexis Simendinger of “National Journal,” Jackie Calmes of the “New York Times,” and Eamon Javers of Politico.
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. Evan Bayh’s surprise announcement that he would not run for reelection was the equivalent of a scab being ripped off the political tension that’s been mounting in Washington. Okay, maybe that sounds a bit dramatic, but consider the events of the week. Bayh quit, he said, because he could do more good in the private sector than Democrats have been able to do in the public one.
SEN. BAYH: For some time, I’ve had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress.
MS. IFILL: The president by his own party sees things differently. His economic recovery program, he said, is working, but he reserved his fire today for the GOP.
PRES. OBAMA: Many of the members of Congress who voted against the Recovery Act, called it a boondoggle – funny how they end up making appearances at ribbon cuttings for Recovery Act projects. It’s a sight to see. They’re up there cheesing and grinning. (Laughter.) They’re trying to vote against their cake and eat it, too. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Meanwhile – are you keeping up now – conservative activists plot to Washington to declare the end of the Obama era and the rise of a new movement. Among their leaders, though, were some faces we’ve seen before.
DICK CHENEY: The sky is the limit here. I think 2010 is going to be a phenomenal year – (applause) – for the conservative cause. And I think Barack Obama is a one-term president. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: Well, we know that Washington lawmakers don’t seem to agree on much, except perhaps that this week represented a turning point of some kind. Has all this been building up for a while, Gloria?
MS. BORGER: I think it has, Gwen. It might surprise people to know that while they don’t like the Congress, there are lots of people in Congress right now who don’t like the Congress either. They don’t like what it’s become. We heard that in Evan Bayh’s statement. And I think what Bayh was saying is that he’s essentially becoming endangered species. He’s somebody who likes to work across the aisle. He considers himself a centrist. And Congress has become more polarized and more partisan. And so folks like Evan Bayh are saying, you know what? I got more done when I was a governor. I am not getting anything done in this Senate and I want to leave.
The problem is, of course, for Democrats when they heard this sort of take this job and shove it sentiment, it was, wait a minute. We’re the folks who run the Congress. We’re the folks in the White House. And so if he was saying, okay, it’s not working in Washington, by implication he’s also saying that the Democrats are not doing a very good job of running Washington, and that got them kind of mad.
MS. IFILL: Alexis, it’s interesting. Sometimes you can’t quite see the thing that changes everything at a time, but this one we did. What I don’t get it is how Evan Bayh of all people ended up being this tripwire. Why was he the one that started this whole conversation about whether Washington is broken?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s a great question and I think in some ways, it had to do with the kinds of things that he’s most concerned about. He became a symbol of something. As Gloria was saying, he’s trying to operate as a centrist and he think that that is obviously very rare, but he also was very enamored with this idea of trying to curb deficit spending, the debt, by working hard at that, at the same time that we’re talking about stimulus and bailout money, which he voted for by the way. So he had been very, I think hopeful that Congress and the Senate were going to adopt this idea of a statutory debt commission, which we can talk about in a minute. And he watched some of the Republicans, who in the past had been his allies in this endeavor, switch over and not go for that. So that was one idea.
And then, as Gloria was saying, health care had gone onto the shelf. He had thought that the partisanship had increased. And in the end, it’s always a personal decision, as we’ve watched with these retirement announcements. And he thought that 54 there’re a lot of other things he might be able to do. And he thought also that he could send a message maybe.
MS. IFILL: A couple of weeks ago, we said that Scott Brown, his election in Massachusetts was the thing that was going to change everything. And now we’re saying Evan Bayh’s retirement is a thing that’s going to change everything. Were we over interpreting then or now or neither?
MS. BORGER: For the first time this week, Gwen, when I called a bunch of Democratic strategists who run campaigns and said, oh, my God, they said, for the first time we’re beginning to think we could actually lose control of the Senate. And I said, no, no, no, really? And they said, yes, because Indiana was considered a safe seat. Evan Bayh did not quit or announce his retirement because he thought he was going to lose. Lots of incumbents are doing that because this is supposed to do an anti-incumbent year. He did it because he’s kind of sick of the place. And so that was a seat they were counting on. And there have been five retirements. So they’re worried that they’re going to lose some of those seats. And Republicans have to defend some seats too here. But they’re beginning to think, gee, this could really wash over all of us.
MR. JAVERS: So what does that mean in terms of the kind of campaigns we’re going to see in 2010? When you have people panicking and feeling like they’re under assault like that, does that mean we’re going to see a ferocious battle here?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s so schizophrenic because as the year was ending, the discussion was, let’s talk about what we have done and what we are delivering. So the Democrats were saying, our campaigns are going to be about what we’re delivering – health care, an energy bill of some sort, financial regulatory reform, all of those things. And Evan Bayh, of course, was looking out at the landscape and thinking, we’re not going to be delivering any of that right now. The other element of it is a lot of Democrats on the left are saying, let’s make this an election about contrast. Let’s contrast our agenda with the Republican agenda and show the public what they supposedly really are. And so how do you marry the two? We have to deliver and work with Republicans. And we’re watching President Obama every day be these two people.
MS. BORGER: I was told by someone this week that he was advising his Democratic clients. The first thing you’ve got to hire is an opposition research person because these are going to be knife fights.
MS. IFILL: Even all Americans say that’s what they hate. They hate the knife fights.
MS. BORGER: And that is not the whole irony.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And especially independent voters where this election will swing.
MS. BORGER: So that’s the whole irony of all of this, is that people are going to get exactly the kind of election they say they don’t want.
MS. CALMES: Well and there’s no shortage of opposition research people now. So how much worse can it get.
MS. IFILL: And what about the Republicans? Are they the only – it’s not just the Democrats who are in trouble here. John McCain got a primary challenger in Arizona. We know that when we look at these polls, Republicans, in Congress in general are hated as much as the president.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, they’re debating what is it to be a Republican now? What is it to be a Republican? What is the agenda? What are they standing for?
MS. BORGER: The Democrats have the same –
MS. SIMENDINGER: And the Democrats are having the same debate. So this is an election that is, I think, going to try to draw lines.
MS. CALMES: It’s interesting. There was a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll and it asked the question, who do you most blame for the problems in the country right now and the failure to find solution. A plurality of 48 percent said congressional Republicans. Twenty-some percent – no, 41 percent said congressional Democrats. And then, in the 20 somewhere was Barack Obama. So I asked a Republican pollster, not the one – actually it was the one who did the poll – I said to him, shouldn’t Republicans be worried about this? Doesn’t this point to some vulnerabilities of their own going into the election? And he said, no, because every election you look at, where people are in an anti-incumbent mood, they may say throw the bums out, but the ones they throw out are the majority governing party.
MS. BORGER: The big question now is what impact Barack Obama will have. You could argue – and you could say, in 2008, that he really changed the composition of the electorate, that he brought out voters who hadn’t voted before, that he brought out younger voters.
MS. IFILL: He was in Colorado yesterday, the perfect purple state that he turned.
MS. BORGER: That’s right and now –
MS. IFILL: And now he’s trying to hold on to it.
MS. BORGER: – and now he’s trying to hold on to that Senate seat. And in Nevada, he was out there for Harry Reid. They’re trying to hold on to that Senate seat. So the question is will Barack Obama be able to bring out voters, to get some kind of intensity behind these candidates? Does he have the juice to bring these Democrats across the finish line?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Or – or will there be candidates who say, raise money for me. I don’t want to see you in my state.
MS. BORGER: Well, I don’t think – and that was sort of the George W. Bush model. I don’t know if it’ll get to that. I really don’t.
MR. JAVERS: Was it good for Harry Reid to have Barack Obama out there. Obama kept talking about Harry and I, Harry and I, Harry and I. Every third phrase was Harry in the speech.
MS. BORGER: I think it was because you want to remind the voters in the state of Nevada that it is important to have a leader represent you, not just another senator that Harry Reid actually runs the Democratic Party and he can do a lot for you in your state. So –
MS. SIMENDINGER: And it was consistent with how the majority leader’s running his campaign. That’s the way he’s running the campaign.
MS. IFILL: Okay, so let’s go back to Republicans for a moment here because it seems to me that everybody’s in trouble here. And we saw the Conservative Political Action Committee, which meets every year in Washington, and in past years, in recent years, not that much attention. This time they were on fire. They had Marco Rubio, the guy who’s challenging the sitting Republican governor running for the Senate in Florida, who threw red meat left and right. They had Dick Cheney we saw, Mitt Romney. They all came out, many people who we’ve heard of a lot. Where are the new faces? Where are the new voices? And are Republicans worried at all that they may get cannibalized by their own?
MS. SIMENDINGER: And Sarah Palin’s on TV running her own show. I think one of the things that was interesting about it is that search for what is the message about what a Republican is. And clearly the Democrats have helped tee up some of those strains of thought. They’re anti big government. They are against the public operation of everything, including our auto companies. They are about low taxes. That’s the traditional – and Ronald Reagan’s name kept coming up again and again. So it’s as if they’re trying to cling to the same old – old meaning familiar – kind of mantra. But what also surprised me was that Bush and Cheney, among conservatives, are back, right?
MS. BORGER: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: They’re back and popular, happy to see them, happy to hear –
MS. BORGER: Everything in politics is compared to watch, right? And I think honestly for 2010, the Republicans I talked to say, we don’t need a big plan for 2010. Being against Barack Obama right now and the Democrats in Congress, running against Nancy Pelosi, that’s just enough for us right now. They’re going to have to get beyond that after 2010 and see if they win a majority –
MS. IFILL: To see how much anti really works.
MS. BORGER: – right.
MS. IFILL: Let’s move on because as you know at this table we always try to make the link between politics and policy. And as the nation’s economy struggles to recover, we got to see this week how profound political differences can translate to real policy difference too. To hear Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine telling the president’s stimulus package was a soaring victory.
GOV. TIM KAINE: The stimulus has done pretty much exactly what it was intended to do, which is get the economy growing again.
MS. IFILL: While Republican House Whip Eric Cantor sees the exact flip side.
REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): There are way too many unfulfilled promises connected with the passage of the stimulus bill. I have gone so far to say it has been an utter failure.
MS. IFILL: So if you think they can’t agree on the stimulus, wait until you hear how politics is infecting both sides – how both sides view the deficit. Jackie, you wrote about that this week.
MS. CALMES: Well, let’s start with first. The argument of whether or not the stimulus worked is a mostly political one. You can hardly find an economist who will tell you that A, it wasn’t needed, and B, that it hasn’t worked. Has it worked as well as it was advertised by the administration at the outset? No. But the economy’s also worse than it was projected to be at the outset. So it’ll always be impossible to know what would had it been like without the stimulus. But I don’t think there any disagreement among economists without partisan axe to grind that it has been something you need.
When you have families and you have businesses that are pulling back, you have to have the government out there. That also means you’re adding to the deficit in the short term, so you need more deficit reduction. I mean more deficits. You know this state has had deficits amazingly enough for all but four of the last 50 years and those four were right there at the end of the ’90s. And deficits almost never make any difference to anybody, right? Remember Ross Perot. That was about the last time. So why do they matter now? They matter because, well, A, they’re big. But we’ve had this collision where as long as most of us have been doing this in Washington, there have been prediction that we were going to hit this wall in the 21st century, where the aging of the baby boomers and high health costs were going to be more than we could afford. We’re almost there. And then, just as we’re getting there, we have this recession that adds tremendous cost.
MS. IFILL: So if there is all of this, if this is such a problem – this is such a wall we’re getting ready to hit, Eamon, how important is it that the president can stick his flag on the ground, declare victory on this. He calls it his recovery package. Everybody else calls it the stimulus package, which for some reason has become a pejorative.
MR. JAVERS: Well, look, politics matter. Politics matter in this battle. It’s an election year. And right now there is a battle for the soul of the stimulus bill going on in Washington. And I’ll tell you the reason why. On February 17th of 2009, when Barack Obama signed that bill into law, he had no way of knowing that this was going to be the last major legislative achievement of his first year in office. Everything else that they had planned on doing for that year ran into a brick wall. They weren’t able to get anything else done. So his first year in office and maybe his first two years in office are going to have to stand or fall on the success or failure of the stimulus bill. That’s why the White House is rolling out this huge campaign. They were in 35 different communities around the country that –
MS. IFILL: Cabinet members and –
MR. JAVERS: – all the – White House aides, cabinet members, all selling the stimulus bill. And that’s why you see this furious pushback from the Republicans who are saying, this thing was a failure because if you can define that as a failure, you can really define Barack Obama as a failure because that’s all he was able to get done.
MS. BORGER: Isn’t a political problem here though that we all say, when you poll people do you like – are you worried about deficits, they all go – everybody says, of course, I’m worried about deficits. On the other hand, what would you like to do to fix the deficit? Would you like to raise taxes? I don’t think so. Would you like to cut spending that helps me and Medicare or Social – no I don’t think so.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So where is the political will that drove Evan Bayh crazy because he said Washington doesn’t want to sacrifice a thing?
MS. BORGER: Exactly.
MS. CALMES: Well, absolutely. Voters need to look in the mirror and say the problem is us because the most recent – just recently in a New York Times CBS poll was chockfull of questions about that elicited answers about how much people didn’t like Congress and the White House and they were failing to address the problems in the country and most of all deficits and debt. And then you get deep into the poll and they’re asked about would you want cuts in education and health care by two to one.
MS. IFILL: Oh.
MS. CALMES: No. Do you want to cut the Pentagon, military spending? A majority no.
MS. IFILL: So is the president right when he says that members of Congress are cheesing and greening at the – (laughter) – wonderful term – at these ribbon cutting ceremonies. And they’re displaying they’re own – I know you’re going to be shocked to hear this, Eamon – form of hypocrisy.
MR. JAVERS: Yes, he is right when he talks about that. There are members of Congress who’ve said that the stimulus is terrible, but except for the stuff that’s coming into my district. And that’s the politics of this. The question is with this deficit commission that the president is endorsing now, is whether they’re going to be able to present any credible results at all. The old joke in Washington is when you don’t know what to do or you don’t want to do anything, you create a blue ribbon commission.
MS. IFILL: This case with Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.
MR. JAVERS: So now we have a new blue ribbon commission.
MS. BORGER: But I’m old enough to remember when they worked, okay?
MS. SIMENDINGER: So what is the history of that?
MS. CALMES: Well, there really aren’t that many commissions that actually did work. People sight the Greenspan Commission of 1983, when Ronald Reagan formed – same thing with an executive order – a bipartisan commission. It was more weighted towards Republicans than Democrats, but pretty close. And it actually deadlocked on its recommendations. But because you had a political will there to get an agreement, Representative Jim Baker, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, and representatives for Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill took the recommendations, packaged them in a bill, and pushed and got it into law.
MS. IFILL: And it doesn’t feel like that’s sort of –
MS. CALMES: And it doesn’t – and so that would mean you’d have to have John Boehner and Mitch McConnell working behind the scenes with the –
MS. SIMENDINGER: And the crisis was right there.
MS. CALMES: – right, the crisis was right there, exactly. And we do have a crisis, but it’s not right in front of us. It could happen. We’ve had – there are some economists out there who’ve studied crises going back hundreds of years who said, it could happen any day. It would be the collapse of the dollar, something like that. But it’s more likely a couple of years or even five or 15 off.
MR. JAVERS: There’s an important technicality in all of this, which is the way this commission is set up, you’re going to need 14 out of 18 members to agree to pass anything to actually get a consensus.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And these are sitting members of Congress.
MR. JAVERS: Right. So you’re talking about the supermajority. So we’ve had this problem over the past year. With 60 votes in the United States Senate, getting 14 votes on this commission is going to be extremely difficult. The thought that they might be able to come up with anything is really a little bit farfetched at this point.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask you another question that kind of comes out of this, which is the solution we all say in Washington is transparency. And that’s where we’re going to see a health care cameras in the room. Sometimes isn’t transparency what kills things in Washington? (Laughter.)
MR. JAVERS: Well, that’s what they’re talking about, the process of making the sausage in Washington. You don’t – you want to eat the sausage when it’s done, but you don’t want to see how it’s made.
MS. IFILL: I don’t know about any of the sausages.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Here’s a question, though, and you guys are the experts on this. How much time do we actually have? We say Congress is a crisis activated institution. So when is the crisis come on the debt and the deficit?
MS. CALMES: I’ve asked people this and they all think that we could be – they’re saying 2011 or 2012 and which is really close. And at the outside it’d be upwards as ’15 is. Well, at that point, the debt has reached the point it’s projected that it’s as great as it was at the end of World War II, over 100 percent compared to the size of the economy. The difference was at the end of World War II, we were coming out of it. We had a young workforce and getting back to work, and we were coming out of the debt. Now, we’re going nowhere but up. And the workforce is getting old and retiring.
MR. JAVERS: The answer to that question is really not as much mathematical as it is psychological. It really depends on when markets begin to lose confidence in the United States’ ability to pay its debt. The United States Treasury issues T-bills on a regular basis. One of these days, and it’s impossible to know exactly when, as the deficit continues to go up, they’re going to issue some T-bills and there’re going to be no buyers out there.
MS. IFILL: Isn’t that the same psychological driver that affects whether we think the stimulus is working or not, which is as long as the jobless rate isn’t catching up with whatever jobs they claim they are getting out of this program, we’re still where we were?
MR. JAVERS: It’s what people feel, yes.
MS. CALMES: Well, talking about the politics earlier and how bad it is for Democrats in this midterm election year, you take the history of midterm election years, where they’re usually always going against the party that holds power, and you add to that a coming out of the recession when the unemployment rate is at 10 percent. It’d be a wonder if the Democrats weren’t in a lot of trouble.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And think about the voters who usually turn out at midterms, not the younger Obama loving voters, but usually older seniors.
MS. BORGER: Well, let me be a little less cynical here for one second and –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Skeptical. We’re skeptical.
MS. BORGER: – which is, isn’t there any scenario under which this could work because in the Social Security Commission, for example, I think that happened after the midterm election, Republicans have lost 20 seats.
MS. IFILL: You hit bottom at some point and have to –
MS. BORGER: So do you hit bottom at some point and then it’s in everyone’s interest to work together after the midterm?
MR. JAVERS: I talked to some folks over at the White House about this and what you hear back is a little bit scary sometimes. You get the sense that if there is some kind of crisis in the bond market, while this commission is up and running, suddenly this commission which is sort of off to the side might really be on center stage and politicians might look to them as a life preserver in a storm if something really bad happens.
MS. IFILL: So basically if everything just blows up, that point –
MR. JAVERS: Yes, it’s not a really heartwarming scenario, right. It’s a little bit scary.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Except that TARP and stimulus went before. That’s in the modern memory here. And obviously both parties have felt very opinionated about what the repercussions of TARP, the bailout, and the stimulus were.
MR. JAVERS: But they did TARP in a crisis, right? They –
MS. IFILL: Yes, once again.
MR. JAVERS: – there is a crisis mentality, people will look to solutions.
MS. BORGER: And the voters hated it.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Some regretted, yes.
MS. IFILL: Well, what all of this is really doing is laying out for us all kinds of possibilities for how they can work together because barring any action; we are headed towards some sort of crisis, where something has to happen. And at the very least 2010, November, is Washington Week own kind of political crisis. (Laughter.)
Thank you all very much for joining us. And by the way, congratulations to you, Eamon. He has just published his first or his latest new book called “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage.” You’ll be able to find a link to Eamon’s book on the “Washington Week” bookshelf. That’s just one new feature on our brand spanking new “Washington Week” website. Read “Washington Week” authors. Tell me what you think of my new blog. Deep into the vault where we feature classic episodes from the old “Washington Week in Review.” I think you’ll find Gloria there. (Laughter.) Read articles from our partners at “National Journal.” You’ll find a lot there. Or watch the whole show online.
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