transcript

May
24
2010

MS. IFILL: This was the week the voters turned conventional wisdom upside down in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Kentucky. Now, what comes next, tonight on “Washington Week.”

RAND PAUL: We’ve come to take our government back.

REP. JOE SESTAK (D-PA): A win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington D.C.

LT. GOV. BILL HALTER: Three more weeks, two more candidates, one choice for change.

MS. IFILL: This is what it looks like when American voters get in a bad mood. Incumbents endangered and the longer they’ve been in Washington the harder they’re falling.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D-PA): It’s been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania.

MS. IFILL: Both parties are scrambling to assess what comes next as surprises seem to lurk around every corner.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: On a few occasions I have misspoken about my service.

MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” John Dickerson of “Slate” magazine and CBS News, Susan Milligan of the “Boston Globe,” and Jeff Zeleny of the “New York Times.”

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.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. This week’s primary election provided us with the best chance yet to assess how the political turmoil around the nation is turning into a force that could alter not only the makeup of Congress, but also shake up the debates over immigration, Wall Street reform, health care and even the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

We start in Pennsylvania, where voters appeared to send contradictory messages, electing an insider Democrat from one end of the state to a seat in Congress and sending another insider, who hails from the other end of the state, home. The insider who lost was of course brand new Democrat and five-term senator, Arlen Specter, who was targeted in the closing days of the campaign by perhaps one of the most effective political ads ever.

SEN. SPECTER: My change in party will enable me to be re-elected.

MR. : For 45 years, Arlen Specter has been a Republican politician.

PRES. GEORGE BUSH: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate. I can count on this man. See, that's important. He’s a firm ally.

MR. : But now –

SEN. SPECTER: My change in party will enable me to be re-elected.

MR. : Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job – his, not yours.

MS. IFILL: The man who beat him is Joe Sestak, who three years ago won his House seat by taking out another Washington fixture, Republican Curt Weldon. So has Sestak been riding a wave here, Dan, that even we didn’t see perhaps?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think we saw that there was a wave out there, but I think it took new force on Tuesday. This is a wave that is described in lots of different ways, anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, but this was certainly one in which anti-insider took full force in on Tuesday. And I think that incumbents in both parties recognize the strength of that at this point.

MS. IFILL: Was Arlen Specter, John – just basically in the wrong place at the wrong time?

MR. DICKERSON: Yes, Arlen Specter in some ways doesn’t tell us a whole lot because he spent 45 years training Democrats to not like him, to vote against him, and then he switched parties and then asked those same Democrats to vote for him. And what was so punishing about that ad was not just the idea that he had switched for his own opportunism, but –

MS. IFILL: Which is bad.

MR. DICKERSON: Which is bad, wrong thing to do in this year. That – right off the bat, that would be enough. But the voice of George Bush in a Democratic primary is just nails on a blackboard for Democratic voters. And so the Specter race was – and he was trampled eight points.

MS. IFILL: Did we see it coming, Susan.

MS. MILLIGAN: I think you saw it coming at the end. He looked pretty unhappy. But one of the things that I think that we’ve seen starting with the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts earlier this year is that voters really seem to be seeking some sort of authenticity. And running as a Republican for five terms and then suddenly asking all these Democrats who’ve been voting against you for 30 years to vote for you doesn’t exactly catch on on the authenticity checkpoint.

MR. DICKERSON: Right, unless you’re authentically self-interested.

MS. IFILL: Well, which – these are politicians. We’re all authentically self-interested. We’re just not all asking someone else for help. So the White House, in the last few days, kind of didn’t show up after having clapped Arlen Specter on the back, welcomed him into the party, and kind of found a way not to campaign for him in the end.

MR. ZELENY: They did and the White House saw this coming. They knew within the last about two weeks or so, I’m told by senior advisors, that they had thought that he was falling, around the time that that ad started showing. And they also became more comfortable with Joe Sestak that he could be perhaps a stronger Democratic nominee and things, but I think the White House has perhaps learned at least one lesson from a lot of rounds of campaigning. He went to Massachusetts at the end and campaigned for Martha Coakley. She lost. There are two other examples in gubernatorial elections last year. So I think what we saw with this was – White House said, “well, he was on the phone. He did a TV ad for him. Joe Biden went up there five times,” but he did not go up there on the Sunday before the election, put his arm around Senator Specter, and try and turn out the vote. And probably it wouldn’t have helped. But it was interesting that he decided not to do tat.

MS. IFILL: We’ve a lot of races to talk about. Before we leave this one, I want to talk about what happens next in that race because Pat Toomey, who is a conservative who ran against – in fact, he’s the reason Arlen Specter switched parties because he imagined that he was going to be a real challenge for him in the primary. So what does this look like for Joe Sestak? Is he at a disadvantage?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, in the polls right now, he’s down by a tiny bit, but some people would argue that beating Arlen Specter, surviving this race, running that very powerful ad that got a lot of play, not just on the air, but all of us running it, improved Sestak’s standing.

One of the reasons Obama wanted to stay out, too, is that the people who were supporting Sestak, they need to come out again in this general election to beat Toomey, and also people who are long time Democrats across the country don’t want to see the president weighing in against somebody like Sestak on behalf of a turning coat like Arlen Specter. And so Sestak might – he has some support. The White House is very bullish on him now and so – (laughter) – they have to be – by the way, we should mention of course, after trying to get him out of the race in the first place. And there’s some uncertainty about what the White House did, but they definitely tried to get him not to run. And now they’re best friends with him.

MS. IFILL: At the other end of the state, the White House and Democrats in general are very happy about what happened in the congressional race outside of Pittsburgh, John Murtha’s old seat. What happened there, Dan?

MR. BALZ: Well, what happened there was that the Democrat, who was a former aide to Murtha, a guy named Mark Critz, ran a very, very effective campaign.

MS. IFILL: Isn’t he an insider by definition?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think what he was able to do was to associate himself enough with the good things that Murtha had done for the district and focus very much on sort of economic issues. And that’s – it’s an area of the state that’s been very hard hit. And – but because he was not an incumbent, so to speak, he was able to separate himself a little bit from the worst of Washington. He ran against the health care. He said he would not have voted for it that we won’t vote to repeal it. He’s pro-life. He’s pro-gun, as was John Murtha. And so he was able to fir himself into that district and make it a local race and focus attention on the Republican businessman named Tim Burns, and make him much more of the issue. And talked about his role as a businessman in outsourcing and things like that. And so they were able to turn the tables on the Republicans in that race.

MS. IFILL: I was surprised to see Republicans come out the next day and say, “my bad. We really dropped the ball on that one.”

MR. ZELENY: I think, though, the person who was perhaps the smartest strategist in that whole campaign was Governor Ed Rendell, the Pennsylvania governor. He set that special election purposely so it would be on that primary day so a lot of Democrats would be out. So I think we’ve all done a lot of talking and reading and writing about this race. We can’t lose sight of the fact that a lot of Democrats were there because they were voting for Joe Sestak, and that obviously helped Mark Critz. But it does show that the Republican ground campaign probably needs a little bit of work, so it’s a warning sign for them for November.

MR. BALZ: The thing I would add about that, though, is that I think there’s probably no doubt that the Sestak-Specter race had some impact, but Critz won that by eight points. And this turned out not be a close race. And you would have to say there was much more at work than – Rendell was very smart to do it, but there was something else happening in there.

MS. MILLIGAN: Well, the other thing that’s interesting is that the Republican was trying to nationalize that race and tie the Democrats to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and that clearly didn’t work. So we’re all trying to – inaudible – [00:10:50] elections or the tea party leads in this elections, the message is not clear in every single race. We’re sensing sort of an anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood, but running against Obama didn’t work in this district that went for John McCain in the last election.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, and that’s why this district – everybody was looking at. And of all the important races we’ve been talking about, the others were primary races. This is one where you had a Democrat against a Republican testing those national issues. But I’ve talked to some Democratic insiders this week, who said, “there aren’t actually a lot of districts like this where the Democrat can run with the mantle of this previously beloved guy in a district where, for 37 years, John Murtha trained them how to like Washington and the goodies it could bring.” So Democrats will run away from Washington as Critz did. They will run locally, but this may not be duplicated in every other place because finally the unions spent a lot of money and so did the national Democrats. They don’t have that much to spend all over the nation.

MS. IFILL: Perfect example of a place where the ran away from Washington worked was in Kentucky, where Rand Paul, the son of the famous libertarian congressman – famous among especially the people who find him so beloved – won a primary against a person who was actually the secretary of state, considered to be an insider, Trey Grayson, because all of the Kentucky powers that be endorsed him. And this is what he had to say on election night that kind of captured it.

MR. PAUL: Washington is horribly broken. I think we stand on a precipice. We are encountering a day of reckoning and this movement, this tea party movement, is a message to Washington that we’re unhappy and that we want things done differently.

MS. IFILL: What is the appeal of Rand Paul? He’s an eye doctor. He’s a political neophyte. But clearly there’s something there.

MR. ZELENY: I was with him the weekend before the election, had a couple of different stops with him, and I was expecting to see a kind of a young crowd because his father, of course, on the presidential campaign had a lot of young supporters. There were a lot of older supporters at these Rand Paul events. I think he is speaking exactly – he’s singing the exact song that fits into this campaign year. He was talking about term limits. He said the term limits message again and again and again.

MS. IFILL: Which we haven’t heard in a long time.

MR. ZELENY: No, we haven’t. And it’s a perfect one for this year. He was talking about – at least in the final hours, he was not talking about any of the controversial things we’ve heard since then, but he was saying things that made sense to a lot of people – smaller government in Washington, more common sense approach. Of course, he was not talking about abolishing the Department of Agriculture or Education or some of these other policies, but he became sort of a pop cult figure, I think, in some respects, and campaigned a lot, very approachable – talked to every last person. So his bio, I think, perfectly fit the time before the election.

MS. IFILL: But you’ve touched on something which is important, which is that people can embrace outsiders, people can embrace antigovernment crusaders, but then sometimes when you become the nominee, saying all government is bad can trip you up a little bit.

MR. DICKERSON: It definitely has tripped him up. And what’s we’ve saw this week was because he so perfectly matched that message of the tea party candidates, we saw Republican leaders, who had been against him, rush into his arms. Mitch McConnell, who was on the other side of this race, working against him, the other senator from Kentucky, immediately endorsed him. Well, then Rand Paul started to get asked questions on national television, pressed rather hard on the “Rachel Maddow Show” about his position on the Civil Rights Act, 1964. He had a very bad performance and in the end essentially said that although he hated racism, he thought it was a bad idea for the federal government to tell private business what they could do essentially. And so that a private business could have segregation and the government shouldn’t tell it what to do.

This required very Republican senator to distance themselves from him and Mitch McConnell suddenly had to say, “this man to whose arms I had been rushing, I am now away from.” And talked – Mitch McConnell spokesman talked about how one of McConnell’s great moments in life was watching the Civil Rights bill pass. So there’s a lot of confusion now. And Democrats, of course, are loving this, trying to make Rand Paul – they would be so happy for him to be the face of the Republican party. They might just concede the Senate seat.

MS. IFILL: But Rand Paul is consistent on this point. If you think that government’s the problem, then you’re going to say that government intervention – and even on things like the BP oil spill he criticized the president for saying he would put his boot on the heel of BP. That begins to expose something very interesting about the tea party movement.

MS. MILLIGAN: Well, yes, okay. It’s very popular to say “I want smaller government; I don’t want government interfering in your life.” And when you start detailing that and saying “well, it means I’m going raise the age of social security or get rid of the Department of Agriculture,” which is pretty important to a state like Kentucky, and all these other things, then it sounds a little bit more threatening to voters and it’s a little bit harder for them to swallow.

MS. IFILL: How did Trey Grayson become an insider in Kentucky?

MR. BALZ: Well, because he had the endorsement of Mitch McConnell and every other significant Republican in the state and ran advertisements promoting that. He accepted the mantle of being the insider, and frankly I don’t think ran a very effective campaign. I think Jeff’s right that Rand Paul fit the moment very well. But – and Grayson sort of stumbled his way into being on the wrong side of history right now.

MS. IFILL: Well, here’s someone who truly was an insider and survived but only a little bit. That’s in Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln, the senator from Arkansas, who is now engaged in a runoff against someone who’s running to her left. Let’s listen to her from election night.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN (D-AK): I believe I’m a part of the solution to what’s not working in Washington. I have not been a part of the problem and I’m going to continue to fight to go back to Washington and fight on your behalf. (Applause.)

MS. IFILL: Now, the interesting thing about Blanche Lincoln is the health care votes. She was, I believe, against the public option earlier and then in the end voted for the health care bill, which could be – I don’t know – described and has been as a kind of a flip flop on health care, but it didn’t really help her either way.

MR. ZELENY: At the end of the day she actually voted against the final, final step of health care in the Senate, when the Senate basically ratified the House bill. She has been a little bit all over the map on some of these issues, really trying to navigate this middle sort of stretch of politics, which is a pretty familiar place for a Democrat to be in Arkansas. It is a Democratic seat for like 100 years, I believe. So Democrats have held that. But she has just had – I spent time down there about a month ago with her. And the Democrats who’ve been voted for her and others for a long time just seemed disgusted with her. She sort of embodied Washington. And –

MS. IFILL: So who’s the guy who doesn’t embody Washington, who she’s now running against in what, three weeks? Bill Halter?

MR. DICKERSON: Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. And what happens here is we’ve been talking about the Republican side, where Paul was – show some of the fissures in the conservative movement. Well, now we’re seeing this in the Democratic side. The lieutenant governor supported by progressive groups and unions – unions are going – worked very hard in this race, not only because they wanted to punish Lincoln, but they wanted to send a message to Democrats more broadly. And that message was, “you better listen to what we say and we’re going to punish you and also we’re willing to take a loss in a Democratic seat, lose a Democratic senator, make it a Republican senator in order to make this point that you have to follow along with what we believe.” And so they’ve supported Halter. He now is in the runoff with her. They’ve got three weeks to fight it out and it’s neck and neck.

MS. IFILL: If there’s anything to prove that this week was just – that you could put it in a box and say, “ah, this is what it means,” it was Connecticut. Susan, you were in Connecticut. Richard Blumenthal, the shoe-in, the attorney general, Democratic nominee presumed for Senate, running for Chris Dodd’s seat, kind of had a little pothole.

MS. MILLIGAN: He did have a pothole, but it’s not a crater, the way it was, I think, seen in a lot of the rest of the country. It definitely makes it a race. Of course, what he did was he – the “New York Times” came up with a story showing on a number of occasions he exaggerated what he did in Vietnam. That he said, “when I was in Vietnam,” when in fact he was in the Reserves. He trained in Parris Island and then he was in Washington. And he was in the U.S. Marine Reserves. And that didn’t go over well with some people. But what amazed me when I was up there is that a lot of the vets are really standing behind him.

MS. IFILL: Even though he had five deferments for things which were like working at the White House and working for the publisher of the “Washington Post?” That sort of thing doesn’t work against him?

MS. MILLIGAN: Well, I think there’re two things going on. One, a lot of us have talked about the case of Bruce Caputo, who ran against – challenged Mario Cuomo in 1982 for governor. And he, of course, made up an entire military career that didn’t exist. Secondly, Vietnam was a little bit closer in people’s mind back then. It was a long time ago. The second thing is that Richard Blumenthal has spent a lot of time with vets up there. For30 years, he’s been going to the funerals. He’s been going to the coming homes. He’s been going to all these things and they see him as a fellow marine. And they said to me, “we know he was never in Vietnam. We never felt that he misrepresented that to us. And okay, maybe he said this a few times. But we all knew what the story was.” And they saw this as – the Republican saw this as a media attack on a fellow marine in the same way that they saw it as an attack on George Bush when people questioned his service.

MR. BALZ: I think it was a reminder of the ambivalence and, you might even say, guilt that a lot of people of that generation, my generation, carried for what happened to them and how they maneuvered around the draft.

MS. IFILL: I remember watching you talk to Bill Clinton about this very issue in 1992.

MR. BALZ: Yes, I had some very lively discussion – (laughter) – with then-candidate Clinton about it, and he was very much the same way. This was in some ways a replay of that. I think that what we saw here was somebody who served honorably in the Marine Reserves, but has been unable to talk about why he actually ended up where he was. The history of this is that he had a low draft number. He was going to get drafted probably the summer of that year and he was out essentially ahead of the sheriff because he probably didn’t want to go on active duty. He wanted to continue his career and he was able to figure out a way to do that through the reserves. And he was not able in that press conference to address that in a straight-up way. And I think that may still cause him some questions.

MS. MILLIGAN: Absolutely.

MS. IFILL: Let’s pull back a little bit from the election results and talk about the meaning for policy and what happens next. There are so many issues which are now kind of – everyone is waiting to see what you do between now and November to maneuver your weight, the White House, especially, on health care and on immigration, for instance, which is an issue which popped back up a couple of weeks ago because of Arizona and now we see the president, especially, kind of in a defensive crouch. Let’s listen.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I’m actually confident that we can get it done and the American people, including the people of Arizona, are going to prefer that the federal government takes responsibility and does what it’s supposed to do.

MS. IFILL: Now, that’s the president’s worldview that people are eventually going do come to their senses and say – people will think the federal government ought to fix this. Is that what we’re seeing in polls?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, we’re seeing people in polls supporting this Arizona law. And we also heard from the president at that press conference. He said, “we should do something, but I need 60 votes. I need Republicans on my side.” Now, that’s very different than what he said certainly on health care and what he said even on financial regulatory reform, which passed through the Senate. We saw, in that case, the president getting into the debate, fighting, calling out Mitch McConnell, saying he was in the pocket of Wall Street, speaking out on specific amendments in the bill. He was forcing it through Congress. He’s not doing that with immigration and that’s because it cuts all kinds of bad ways. It helps some – if you talk about immigration reforms, it helps some Democrats with a lot of Hispanics in their districts, but other Democrats in districts with a lot of moderate voters, it does not help them. And also the White House doesn’t want to wade into this battle and there are a lot of other ambivalent Democrats and Republicans. It’s just a mess.

MS. IFILL: Which party is more sobered by these week’s election results, Jeff?

MR. ZELENY: I think it’s pretty split down the middle actually. Republicans learned some lessons that they are definitely a vulnerable – their establishment Republicans are vulnerable. I think the sort of takeaway for everyone was if you’re a rubber stamp for whatever you represent in Washington with the Republican establishment or the Democrats, it’s not good. They’re sort of looking for the word “change,” which we heard a lot. So I think there were enough lessons to go around. But since Democrats are in control, since they have more seats to lose it is, I think, more of a sobering lesson to them. But in the next five months things have to improve economically or they’ll have a tough November.

MS. IFILL: Who are these angry voters? Who are the folks out there and what kind of message, if there is a single message that they’re sending?

MR. BALZ: I don’t think there is a single message. I think the angry voters are what we have seen. Some are very conservative and they’re very unhappy with almost everything that President Obama has tried to do and particularly health care, which has become the symbol of kind of government overreaching in their estimation. But there are, as we know, a lot of independents who have defected, who had voted for President Obama or candidate Obama in 2008, who are wary of what’s happened. They’re worried about the deficit. They’re worried about the direction of the economy. The Democrats need to get them back in some way by November. But I would also say, I think in some ways this was an important week for the Republicans as a reminder that – they kind of have had the House majority in their sights and almost thinking it’s almost in their back pocket. And I think this week was a reminder maybe not quite.

MS. IFILL: Bipartisanship – we keep declaring it dead but I wonder if this is a fresh evidence.

MS. MILLIGAN: Actually – well, I’m very curious to see what happens if we get a government next year full of people who actually hate government and I really want to see how they navigate that one. But actually, in a way, when the Democrats lost that so-called filibuster-proof threshold, which is ridiculous – the only party line vote is from majority leader – but it changed the chemistry of things actually for the better. And I actually think it was easier for them to get financial regulation done when they were down to 59 because it just changed the chemistry in the Senate –

MR. DICKERSON: The president’s going to meet with the Senate Republicans on Tuesday at their policy lunch. So he’s still trying to look bipartisan but when you hear him on the stump, he gets a little sharper each time going after those Republicans. He’s got to sell the economy and he’s also got to define the other team sharply.

MS. IFILL: Okay, well, if you want to keep reading the story behind the story, Dan’s book “Battle for America 2008” is out in paperback next week. I know you’ll want to rush to get it.

Thank you, everyone. We’ve got to go, but be sure to check us out online, where we take you back to another eventful election year, 1994, when Republicans captured the House for the first time in nearly half a century. And we talked about it right here on “Washington Week.” You can find it in the Vault at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Write me and let me know what you think about my hair back then. As always – I know you will – as always, be sure to keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour,” and we’ll see you around the table next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.

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