June 11, 2010

MS. IFILL: Hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the Gulf Coast disaster and on elections coast to coast, the winners, the losers, and the stalemates, tonight on “Washington Week.” Two California Republicans triumph.

MEG WHITMAN, CALIFORNIA GOP GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE:  Two businesswomen who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done.

MS. IFILL: While some incumbents fall –

NEVADA GOV. JIM GIBBONS: I stand here humbled and grateful for the four years that the people of Nevada gave me.

MS. IFILL: – and some survive.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN (D-AK): The vote of this senator is not for sale and neither is the vote of the people of Arkansas.

MS. IFILL: But outsiders rule.

SHARRON ANGLE, GOP SENATE CANDIDATE IN NEVADA: We have completed the first step to taking back our U.S. Senate seat.

MS. IFILL: Expensive elections, breakthroughs, and comebacks. What this week’s primaries mean for Washington. And the Gulf oil spill turns into a deadly serious numbers game.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D-MS): It’s quite clear that BP has known that this is much more catastrophic right from the beginning.

LOUISIANA GOV. BOBBY JINDAL: It is very frustrating that over 50 days into this they still don’t have a reliable estimate of how many oil they’ve released, how much oil is still out there.

COAST GUARD ADM. THAD ALLEN: I’m not going to declare victory on anything till I have absolute numbers.

MS. IFILL: What changed and what stayed the same with the reporters covering the stories: John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News, Alexis Simendinger of “National Journal,” and Karen Tumulty of the “Washington Post.”

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. We’re always on the hunt here for meaning and it is usually elusive. Depending on who you listened to this week, this was the year of the woman or the year of anti-incumbent insurgency or the year of the checkbook. But no matter whose interpretation you accept, there is one common storyline and one that does not bode especially well for the president of the United States. Everybody’s unhappy. Well, with one exception – Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, who not long ago was deemed political toast.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN (D-NE): I can tell you here and now, folks, Arkansas and this senator are going to be a part of the solution to what puts this economy and this country back on track.

MS. IFILL: But if even victorious Obama-endorsed Democrats like Lincoln are saying the country is off track, what does that say, Karen?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, what it says is voters are not particularly enamored this year with anyone or anything that looks at all like Washington. But we sort of knew that already. The fact is you can look at the results of this election, Tuesday night’s primaries, and take away a lot of messages. There were places where turnout was higher than expected, places where turnout was lower than expected. There were places like Nevada and South Carolina where tea party-backed candidates triumphed and then places like Virginia where all the tea party did was essentially splinter the vote.

It was a big night for women candidates in California and in Nevada and South Carolina and in Arkansas, but oddly enough none of these women candidates had really run on their gender. But the story of the night just absolutely had to be Blanche Lincoln.

MS. IFILL: So how did she pull it out? Everybody thought – I’m embarrassed. I took up the conventional wisdom. I scouted it out there and boy, did she turn it around.

MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. Those of us who were writing the post-mortems before the polls closed – what had happened – Blanche Lincoln was always going to have a very difficult year, but we all thought the problems for her were going to come in November. And then organized labor decides to move in and put a big target on her back, spending $10 million to support a primary challenge from the left, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter.

What happens is suddenly, instead of being a Washington insider, she looks like somebody who’s being beaten up by the Washington insiders. She got a lot of help from former President Bill Clinton, who has a lot of credibility in Arkansas, who essentially went to his home state and said don’t let these unions manipulate you. And sure enough she pulls it out by almost 4 percentage points, which I think shocked everyone.

MS. IFILL: including Bill Halter.


MS. SIMENDINGER: I was in Arkansas on early May doing some reporting on this race and followed Senator Lincoln around and interviewed Bill Halter. And it was clear that at early May – this was of course a month out – she knew that it was really looking very, very challenging. And it was interesting to me. She was focusing on African-American voters at that time in Arkansas, and I spent time with her in a very small group in Texarkana where she was wooing some very important African-American leaders in that community. And they were talking about what they’re going to do through the churches, that Obama was going to be participating in some calling out and some radio ads. And that there were these flyers. And it paid off.

MS. TUMULTY: But Arkansas, interestingly enough, is one of the few southern states where the black vote is not usually determinative. Blacks constitute something like 15 percent of the population there, half of what they are in Georgia. But this time around it mattered a lot and Barack Obama was an extraordinary asset because he essentially said “this is the candidate for me.” He cut radio ads for her. There were flyers and Barack Obama really became a big issue with the black community.

MS. SIMENDINGER: The other thing I wanted to add is that Bill Halter used to work for Bill Clinton. He was in the Clinton administration and President Clinton was supporting Blanche Lincoln in a way that was persuasive to enough voters. He was saying that on the things that he was charging her with, in terms of she was undercutting the economy, she helped create these problems, he countered that by saying “No, she voted with my administration when it really counted.” And so he was a very effective counterweight that she herself couldn’t be alone.

MS. TUMULTY: And having gone through this, she still has a very difficult general election race ahead of her, but having gone through this and essentially being beaten up by the left, I think she comes out of this a somewhat stronger candidate.

MR. DICKERSON: And the Democratic committee that’s helping her out sent out a mailer almost instantly saying she’s an independent because she fought against this key constituency. Otherwise, they would – this key Democratic constituency, they were claiming her independence because she’d fought against them.

MR. DICKERSON: Karen, I want to ask you about the CEOs. We now have two in California, outsiders to be sure. What’s the record for CEOs that have tied to run?

MS. IFILL: With lots and lots of money.

MS. TUMULTY: Right, these are first time candidates – Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, who are running as can-do businesswomen. They will bring business principles to government. It’s a great outsider message, but the history of CEOs in politics is not a particularly promising one. For every Mark Warner, the governor and then senator from Virginia or Michael Bloomberg who’s been very successful in politics, you have a whole lot of Al Cecchis and –

MS. IFILL: Who ran for governor, I guess, in California, yes.

MS. TUMULTY: And didn’t make it out of the primary or Dick DeVos in Michigan.

MS. IFILL: Or Jon Corzine, who got elected, but then didn’t get reelected.

MS. TUMULTY: And these are people who part with tens of millions of dollars of their own money and almost always lose. So again, this may be the year that is just exactly the sweet spot for the electorate, but the history would suggest it’s not necessarily an easy fit.

MS. IFILL: Briefly, in South Carolina we saw Nikki Haley, who had a bizarre kind of couple of turns there at the end of her race, but she won pretty definitively.

MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. And she was a candidate who had come from behind. I think a couple of months ago, people were not giving her much of a chance at all in this crowded primary field. She picked up some big endorsements – Mitt Romney was early, Sarah Palin subsequently. She had a lot of tea party backing. She really does seem to have captured the energy of the electorate, even as she was fighting off a – maybe we finally do have gender parity of a woman candidate having to fight off accusations of infidelity.

MS. IFILL: And even though she still has a runoff that she’s got to face because she actually gets the nomination.

MS. TUMULTY: And by the way we should point out she has denied those accusations.

MS. IFILL: She has denied the accusations. That’s right. Well, there was so much more because when the world is mad at the folks in charge, what are the consequences for the Democratic Party, since they’re in charge, and for financial regulation, and energy legislation, and presidential spending priorities? Alexis has been doing some reporting on that. So what’s the answer?

MS. SIMENDINGER: The answer is that there are consequences and it seemed to emerge almost instantly after Tuesday. And the immediate consequence was that you could see lots of division among Democrats, burbling up. You mentioned three examples: the financial regulation, legislation that the president has been fighting for for a year it seems like now, obviously energy, which is come back up. It’s never really deemed, but it certainly is no less complicated than it was because of the oil spill and the president’s need to deal with that. And then his spending priorities – there is lot of infighting about the budget and Democrats are starting to get very shy about this interest in the deficit, deficit reduction. So there’s lots of tension in all three of those arenas.

If you did a Google search this week with the sentence that began “Democrats split with Obama,” you saw lots and lots, lots of stories.

MS. IFILL: It seems almost like disrespect. They’re looking at the guy who’s in charge of their party and they’re saying “stay over there right for now because I don’t think we’re going to agree on anything.”

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, he remains a very popular figure, but the problem that they have is that his policies are not as popular as he is. His job approval is in most pools at 50 percent or under, and with the BP oil spill and lots of criticism about how he’s been handling it, you have Democrats who have had experience with him now going on what feels to them like two years, and there’re ideas – some of them have been saying he’s not as good as we thought he was. Maybe we overrated what it would be like to deal with the Obama administration.

MR. DICKERSON: Here’s a real big problem with that, is that the Democratic strategy relies on the president. It relies on him for two things, one to define Republicans. He’s got a big megaphone. He can define those Republicans. And the second thing is that the Democrats have said, unless we turn out the Obama voters from 2008, we’re going to get pasted. It’s going to be a bad year anyway, but unless we can turn out those voters directly tied to Obama, we are going to have a bad year. So they can’t step away from it.

MS. TUMULTY: And of course fundraising help and that we’re going into a very big quarter here, where everyone is positioning themselves. And they are counting on Barack Obama to also get people to open up their checkbooks.

MS. IFILL: There’re consequences for groups like organized labor, when they do things like go against the administration in order to try to defeat their chosen candidate. Are there consequences any more, even the Save the Whales people are running ads criticizing President Obama at this point -- people from his base?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, that’s a good question. What is it that they fear about this administration and this president? What is it that he can do to repudiate them? You see that the interesting thing on the Hill and certainly with organized labor is that the White House is of two minds about all of it. You watch them worrying about the distance that’s being created on the Hill and chasing after the lawmakers to try to narrow the distance. They’re trying to shadow them, not necessarily trying to tell them this is the way things are going to go because they know it’s becoming by the day, by the hour so much harder for them to indicate, “This is what we have to do. Stick with me.”

I remember early in 2009 that President Obama was coming to the Hill and giving this speech as a new president, “if you try to part from me, we will not prosper. We have to stay together.” And he’s still giving that talk.

MR. DICKERSON: And it’s amazing – labor is a key constituency in the Democratic Party. And not only did you have the Democratic Senatorial Committee boasting about how Blanche Lincoln fought against Labor, and then you had the White House and anonymous quotes to a lot of us, saying that Labor blew – threw $10 million away, wasted it in Arkansas when it could have been used to help –

MS. IFILL: Well, it was a lot of money.

MR. DICKERSON: – candidate. It was, but to really take it to Labor like that in these anonymous kind of sniping quotes, that is not the sign of a healthy family.

MS. TUMULTY: But for Labor to telegraph this is all about making a point and then to fail is certainly a big blunder.

MR. DICKERSON: Right, if you’re going to kill the king, kill the king.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Right. And being quite argumentative that they’re not going to change their ways, that, for instance, Blanche Lincoln has won in her primary and they are not going to back her in any way, shape or form, is what they say, right?

MS. IFILL: But there has been – well, it’s hard to imagine what they’ll do. They’re not going to support the Republican, which I guess is part of the reasoning here. But okay, but let’s assume that there are some victories along the way, for instance. The president had to turn back an attempt by Lisa Murkowski Republican senator from Alaska to try to undercut some energy legislation this week and won that battle.

MS. SIMENDINGER: He won that battle but the White House and the administration point of view is “this is what we have to spend our time on this week,” is arguing whether EPA can regulate on clean air. They’re very frustrated that that’s the ground that they’re fighting on. And in that particular vote, which was a resolution, six Democrats spalted in the Senate and went with the Republicans.

So yes, it failed, but there are Democrats who increasingly want to show their mettle and send signals, even verbally – Senator Max Baucus, who’s the chairman of the Finance Committee, was complaining this week that there is no Obama policy on China and trade. So they’re feeling much more free to express their frustration and the White House is trying to juggle all these things, whether it’s on spending or energy or financial reg.

Blanche Lincoln has a big part in the financial regulatory legislation, which is on derivatives, and it looks like Democrats are looking at her victory and saying well, let’s stay tougher.

MS. IFILL: They were thinking about tossing that out.

MS. SIMENDINGER: But let me tell you, the Obama administration does not like this part of the Senate legislation and has been thinking that they could throw that over the side, maybe not.

MS. IFILL: Maybe not so much. Well, it’s hard to keep all the political strands separate on a week like this, but we’re going to try. The escalating drama over who’s in charge and who’s to blame for the Gulf Coast disaster now involves international diplomacy with our old friend Britain, Washington maneuvering, and regional politics too.

GOV. JINDAL: Look, it’s obvious to everybody down in south Louisiana that they didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have an adequate plan to deal with the spill.

BILLY NUNGESSER: I still don’t know who’s in charge. Is it BP? Is it the Coast Guard? I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil.

PRES. OBAMA: I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially had the best answers so I know whose ass to kick.

MS. IFILL: Ooh, bad words. It feels like we’re all waiting for a moment where anger will change the momentum and it’s just not happening, is it, John?

MR. DICKERSON: It’s not happening, in part because presidents can’t get angry, because when you get truly angry, you’re out of control and presidents can’t be out of control. And this specific president doesn’t look good when he’s angry. We saw that clip. It didn’t convey. It didn’t come across. And one voice of the voices we heard today, Senator Nelson from Florida, a Democrat, also said, we’re 53 days into this and nobody knows who’s in control. If you look at the president here, he is limited in so many ways, limited by the office he’s in. He’s not a mayor. He’s not a governor. He can’t go down into the middle of this and concentrate only on that. He’s got lots of other issues. He’s limited in the situation.

People look at the TV. They see all that oil flowing out. It’s BP’s job to close that. The president can’t do anything. And temperamentally he’s limited because he’s just not – this is not his strength, this conveying thing. And then you look –

MS. IFILL: In fact, even in the comment he made, what he was saying was he was looking to decide whose butt he wanted to kick, not that he was just going to go out and do it. So – you know – research.

MR. DICKERSON: – so there are not many things he can do. And then look at the other scale. People look at this and they wonder who is on top of this? This week, we learned that the oil is coming out now twice as fast, 20,000 to 40,000 barrels, twice as fast as people thought. This boom that is out there is in some places untended, kind of looks like spaghetti, isn’t doing its job. There is a cut in the blowout preventer and there’s a big debate about how much new oil is coming out. Do these plumes exist under water or not? There’s a debate about that.

And then, they put a cap over the oil. It’s coming up nicely now, but BP doesn’t have a second ship onto which to put all of this new oil. There’s a report out tonight – now they may we to wait till July. You look at this and you wonder who is in charge and what’s going on.

And so the public polls show this. The public is very much against BP, but they also say in a large majority that the administration – they disapprove the administration’s handling.

MS. SIMENDINGER: So what are the consequences, do you think, for a president who is going to be dealing with this for months and months and months, obviously almost to the election period, if things go as badly as they seem to be going now? What are the ramifications, do you think, for his overall leadership?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, in his head, talking to White House officials about the way the president is. He is actually angry but the thing he’s angry at is – I think it was Truman who said about Eisenhower, he was a general and he’s going to come into the presidency and order people around and nothing is going to get done. Well, this is the anger the president has, is you try to order things and nothing happens. So that is in his head and that’s frustrating.

It’s also in terms of the election. His approval rating is down a little bit. This president’s gotten pretty beaten up. His approval rating stayed about 50. Now, it’s down in the 40s. We’ll see where that goes.

The good news is as much of a pounding as this president’s taken, in a “Washington Post” ABC News poll, this week, people were asked about his leadership qualities. Fifty seven percent said he was a strong leader. That’s not bad and in this time it’s quite extraordinary.

And the final thing, though, is every day he’s dealing with this he’s not out talking about the economy, he’s not out helping – he held events this week about health care, trying to re-kick off the selling of that.

MS. IFILL: Small business event.

MR. DICKERSON: A small business event. No one is paying attention to that, which means he’s not able to go out there and help candidates by talking about the economy, by beating up on Republicans, by doing things that will help them –

MS. SIMENDINGER: And I know on the Hill they would really like to just keep talking about jobs. It’s morphed into jobs and the Gulf Coast.

MS. IFILL: They can talk about it, but –

MR. DICKERSON: And that’s exactly right. Governor Jindal said this moratorium on deep water drilling is the second disaster because of all of the jobs. And so it’s now having these ramifications on the jobs.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And you can see that the president had to recalibrate on his initial feeling that a moratorium, right, on drilling, that’s what we need. Then we need it in shallow water, no deep water, no – and backtracking back and forth because of the pushback from the Gulf Coast on jobs.

MS. TUMULTY: But isn’t one of the – one of the issues they’ve got to worry about is what’s going to show up as a result of all these investigations in terms of what was going on within the administration? What signals were missed? What kinds of regulatory lapses were there? Can this get any better as a result of this?

MS. IFILL: Is this something they thought they were going to be able to put off until after they had – at least had the hole plugged?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, no, in part they want the investigation to go forward, though, because it keeps the pressure on BP. I think the view is that the BP lapses are so extensive – and we’ve all read coverage of this – so extensive and ongoing that these investigations show this and that in comparison the BP mess-ups that led to this are so far – so much larger and that the bad mess-ups the president has to worry about are the ones afterwards in terms of the cleanup.

MS. IFILL: We touched briefly on the energy bill and I wonder whether – the president has been coming out periodically and saying “hey, there’s no better time to clean this up,” then use this as a way of saying put the legislative stamp on what to do about this kind of regulation. Is this going to move it forward? Is it frozen like everything else?

MR. DICKERSON: Don’t let a crisis go to waste.


MR. DICKERSON: Politically Democrats are trying to use this against Republicans, claiming two things, one that Republicans are in the pocket of big oil or that Republicans want to lift this moratorium. Of course, in some places – there’s the Senate race in Louisiana where all candidates of all parties want to lift the moratorium. But in terms of legislation, comprehensive energy legislation is not going anywhere. This EPA vote we had this week shows the six Democrats that Alexis was talking about – the White House isn’t going to be able to get them, so they’re trying to figure out a smaller energy bill that they can pass. The problem with that is that Republicans might be on board with it too, which means you can’t use it politically to beat them up.

MS. IFILL: Ah, ah, there is just no simple way out of any of it, but we will keep talking about it anyhow. Perhaps one day when we talk about it, there won’t be any more oil. Thank you everyone. Once again, we have to leave you a few minutes early this week to give you the chance to support your local PBS station which in turn supports us. but the conversation continues online with all the stuff we didn’t get to on the air, plus you could read my blog in which I explain this week why I am so often wrong. To find out the answer, you have to find us at

Have a lovely summer weekend. Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.