MS. IFILL: Political broadcasts, Pentagon costs cutting, and this debatable question: “is Washington broken,” we’ll talk about it all tonight on “Washington Week.
LINDA MCMAHON, CONNECTICUT REPUBLICAN SENATE CANDIDATE NECTICUT GOP SENATE CANDIDATE: They don’t want to send the same politicians to Washington and get the same politics out of Washington.
KEN BUCK, COLORADO REPUBLICAN SENATE CANDIDATE: It is time Republicans started acting like Republicans. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: Outsiders rule. Political novices and upstarts carry the day in the latest round of primaries, as running against Washington becomes all the rage. Will a presidential endorsement help or hurt in the fall?
SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO): We’ll have to see. We’ll obviously do what’s right for the campaign.
MS. IFILL: Or do polls and tea partiers prove the pox is on both houses?
In Washington, Pentagon Chief Robert Gates proposes slashing military spending. And not everybody’s happy about it.
REPRESENTATIVE RANDY FORBES (R-VA): What we’re witnessing is the piecemeal auctioning off of the greatest military the world has ever known.
MS. IFILL: Does all this mean that Washington is broken? And if it is, why is everybody still trying to get here? Covering the week: Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers, and Todd Purdum of “Vanity Fair.”
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. It is our job to valiantly interpret the meaning of what happens at our nation’s ballot boxes, even when there’s no single message, no single winner and no single loser. These summertime primaries are telling us how little about a lot. The Democrats are facing a host of dire questions, according to the latest polls. Has the economy hit bottom? Sixty four percent say no. Do you approve of the job the president’s doing? Forty eight percent say no. Of the job Congress is doing? Seventy two percent say no.
Okay, so that’s good news for the Republicans, right? Not necessarily. Forty six percent have negative feelings about the GOP and even the vaunted Tea Party movement is viewed more negatively than positively. That’s the way everybody is feeling right now. So how did all that unhappiness play out in this week’s primaries? Let’s start in Colorado. Dan, Chuck -- Dan why don’t you start?
MR. BALZ: Well, in Colorado what we saw, Gwen, was on the one hand a good night for the incumbents, that was on the Democratic side where appointed Senator Michael Bennet fended off a very difficult challenge from former Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. So a good night for incumbency and President Obama who had backed him very strongly.
On the Republican side, a good night for outsiders. Ken Buck, the Weld County prosecutor, defeated the former lieutenant governor and establishment choice Jane Norton. He was the Tea Party candidate, so to speak, and he defeated her in the end fairly handily. So you can take whatever reading or meaning you want out of Colorado and it would be right.
MS. IFILL: How about in Georgia?
MR. BABINGTON: In Georgia, a former congressman named Nathan Deal won the nomination for – the gubernatorial nomination there. And that was seen as somewhat more of an establishment candidate. He had Washington ties. So you can’t – it’s not across the board, Gwen. But it does seem to be in general in part because of what Dan was talking about, that the anti-establishment feeling is more robust within the Republican Party. But even in the Democratic Party it’s sometimes hard to sort these things out. On the Democratic side in Colorado, Andrew Romanoff, the sort of the challenger, had been the House speaker in Colorado, had been legislator of the year. So he had a lot of accomplishments as an elected Democrat. Michael Bennet, even though he’s the incumbent senator, was running his very first campaign ever because he’d been appointed to that job. So you could argue that he was Washington but not really establishment and Romanoff was –
MS. IFILL: Okay, I want to throw one more thing into this because it also requires some understanding about this in Connecticut where – were these insiders who won, outsiders who won? Linda McMahon, the World Wrestling executive?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think you would have to say there the outsider, Linda McMahon, won over Rob Simmons –
MS. IFILL: With a lot of her own money, though.
MR. BALZ: – but she won. She won in a classic old-fashioned way, which was she bought the nomination. She spent tens of millions of dollars to win the nomination. But she clearly was the outsider and the newcomer in that race.
MS. IFILL: And what about Ned Lamont? Wasn’t he supposed to be making his big comeback running for governor of Connecticut?
MR. BABINGTON: It didn’t work out. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: It didn’t work out by an awful lot.
MR. PURDUM: What do those internal divisions in the parties say about each party’s prospects in the fall? The parties don’t have their ducks in a row inside their own –
MR. BALZ: No, they don’t. I think that – there’s nothing that happened this week, whether it was through the election results or through the public opinion surveys that we saw, that changed the basic direction of the year, which is to say, the Democrats are going to lose a lot of seats probably this fall at this point. Everything’s tilted against them. It’s a year of anti Washington anti-incumbency. Most incumbents will still win, but Democrats will take a bigger hit on that. But as Chuck said, there is more ferment right now in the Republican Party. There’s more intensity. So what you’re seeing is that in Republican primaries, establishment candidates are getting knocked off. The voters are not taking their cues in the Republican primaries from the Republican establishment. They are also nominating some candidates who may be weaker in the fall than the establishment candidates might have been. On the other hand, because there’s so much energy that we’re seeing on the Republican side, Republicans say, in the end, that’s what will help us.
MS. YOUSSEF: So given that, are the Republicans worried about how these anti-establishment candidates will do in the fall election?
MR. BABINGTON: They are somewhat worried about that, Nancy. And the Democrats are very much hoping that these outside the mainstream nominees that the Republicans are nominating will be too much for the general election voters to swallow. It’s not clear that that’s going to happen. Probably the best chance for that to happen is in Nevada, where Sharron Angle, a Tea Party candidate, got the nomination to run against Harry Reid, who’s in terrible trouble there, all kinds of bad numbers. But she may be so unacceptable -- and of course Reid is spending a lot of money making her unacceptable --that he can get elected.
But if you look at a state like Kentucky, Kentucky’s a Republican state. A mainstream competent Republican candidate would probably win the Senate election there. Well, they – the Republicans nominated Rand Paul, who’s not in the mainstream. But does that mean he can’t get elected? I don’t think that’s at all clear.
MS. IFILL: But tea parties aren’t necessarily the automatic key to the kingdom either because in Colorado, as you pointed out, the nominee was a Tea Party candidate and in Georgia some of the incumbent Republicans are telling Sarah Palin and the Tea Party to stay out.
MR. BALZ: To butt out – that’s right. The Tea Party – we’ve all had difficulty really getting our arms around what the Tea Party really is. It varies from state to state. In a place like Kentucky it’s quite strong, obviously, in what it did in that primary. I was in Ohio recently and asked some of the Republicans there, what’s the Tea Party movement like here? They basically said it’s a movement with a small “M,” not a capital “M.” So we don’t know how it’s going to work. The Democrats have been, I would say, very aggressive in trying to lump every candidate who seems slightly out of the mainstream as a Tea Party candidate. Linda McMahon, she’s not particularly a Tea Party candidate. There’s not much of a Tea Party movement there.
Ken Buck certainly is a tea party candidate, but I don’t think he’s in the mould of Sharron Angle in nearby Nevada.
MS. IFILL: Democrats have some problems, too. This week, we heard that White House press secretary kind of step into it a little bit. He gave an interview to the Hill, in which he said, among other things – let’s see – he said, “I hear these people saying, he” – that would mean the president – “is like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” he said. “I mean, it’s crazy. They’ll be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.” Well, he walked that back a couple of days later, but not before he’d really made a lot of liberals unhappy.
MR. BABINGTON: Gwen, I was kind of surprised that there was that much reaction to what Robert Gibbs said because there’s a tremendous amount of frustration within the White House towards the hardcore – what he called the professional –
MS. IFILL: The professional left.
MR. BABINGTON: – yes. But the hardcore liberals certainly did have a lot to do with getting Barack Obama elected. And yet at the same time there’s a sense in the White House that they’re not being cognizant enough of how things work, especially in the Senate where even a diminished minority, which you have in the Republicans, can stop almost everything and they feel like, come on, guys, give as you break. We’re doing the best we can. We had to make a lot of concessions on health care, for example. We got a bill, you should be happy with that. And the left is saying, no, we don’t think you’ve tried hard enough. There’s a lot of frustration in the White House.
MR. PURDUM: Don’t presidents of either party usually wind up disappointing their most ardent supporters? Republicans fight with the Republican base, the Democrats with the liberal, left base. President Clinton was singularly effective, it seems to me, in bridging some of those divides, but he came in for his share of criticism.
MR. BALZ: He did. I think that if the “professional left,” quote-unquote, were as disaffected as it’s sometimes made out to be, you might have seen a different result in Colorado because I think Andrew Romanoff had all of the sort of tools and attributes to be able to tap into that. President Obama is not as popular in Colorado today as he was two years ago, which is the case in many states. So I think there is frustration on the left, but I don’t know at this point how significantly it will play out.
MS. IFILL: If you look at these poll numbers we saw this week, it looks like everybody should be frustrated. And I wonder whether parties are at any point hunkering down and saying, “okay, here is our strategy for getting out from under all of this dissatisfaction, all of this disapproval from the American public.”
MR. BABINGTON: Well, the Democrats, oddly enough, are running not so much on their accomplishments as one might think, given that they got the big stimulus bill, the health care bill. This is landmark legislation. Because those things are still not proving very popular, what they talk about the most, and this is true of President Obama, is, let’s don’t go back to George Bush. Every speech he makes, every political speech he makes now, he uses that analogy of they drove the car into the ditch, now they want the keys. Don’t give them the keys back. Now, a lot of Republicans say, that ain’t going to work. George Bush has been out of office for two years. You got to take ownership. And that may be a strong point for the Republicans.
MR. BALZ: There’s a Gallup poll that came out Friday that asked, what are the issues that are important to you? This is overwhelming. Fifty eight percent either cited the economy or jobs and unemployment. Everything else pales. The question of, we hate Washington, 12 percent. Seven percent said health care. Four percent cited either the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.
MS. IFILL: So in the end it’s all what does it have to do with me? Are you talking about me? As it often is.
MR. BALZ: Exactly right.
MS. IFILL: Well, thanks, Dan. Thanks, Chuck. Well, a funny thing happened this week on the way to balancing the deficit. The secretary of defense, whose budget has doubled since 2001, has actually proposed eliminating thousands of jobs and shutting down an entire command.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Training joint forces, generating joint forces, creating joint doctrine and experimenting with that doctrine are all valuable tasks. However, they do not necessarily require a separate four-star combatant command.
MS. IFILL: Secretary Gates and President Obama portrayed this announcement as responsible and accountable spending. How real is all of that? Nancy?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, on the face of it, it looks like a big deal, cutting one of 10 military commands. But Joint Forces Command does a lot of important tasks that will be sent off to other commands like STRATCOM in Ohio – excuse me, Omaha, Nebraska, and CENTCOM or NORTHCOM, some of the other combatant commands. So how many jobs will be eliminated, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that big? And what was interesting is that the secretary, as he was proposing job cuts and cutting this command, he also suggested that the defense budget needs to remain high. And it is as high as it’s ever been. Usually the defense budget falls sometimes precipitously after a major conflict, but the secretary suggested that that needs to stop and that defense spending needs to continue.
MS. IFILL: Sounds like a conflict here. On one hand saying, “we are very” – and the president came out with a statement and then patted him on the back, look at us, we’re going to cut our own budget, but don’t cut it any more than that.
MS. YOUSSEF: Yes and it raises the question, is this about being fiscally responsible or is this about streamlining the budget? Because the budget – every budget is always an eye into what the priorities are of the department. And think the secretary’s trying to channel his priorities and leave a real long-term legacy on the department, not just in terms of dealing with the wars, but the direction and focus of the Defense Department because since 9/11 everything has grown under the Defense Department. And I think there’s a recognition that under these economic pressures it can’t continue.
MR. BALZ: What’s been the response on Capitol Hill to this?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, not surprisingly, I imagine, that the secretary made this announcement while they were in recess – (laughter) – but some took some time to voice their opposition, particularly those in Virginia because JFCOM, as it’s called, Joint Forces Command is based in Norfolk. Traditionally liberal Democrats have been for pushing – have pushed for cuts in the defense budget and with all the economic problems the country is in right now, there’s, I think, an expectation in the Pentagon that they’ll start to hear more pressure when they return from more centrist Democrats as well.
MR. BABINGTON: Nancy, is Secretary Gates making such a big deal about spending and budget cuts that this will be a huge part of his legacy, given that we do have two wars going on and you might think that the pure military aspects might define the secretary of defense at wartime?
MS. YOUSSEF: It’s funny. He has said at that very press conference that he wasn’t leaving any time soon. This was the secretary who used to cary a clock that counted down to the end of Bush administration and then vowed to leave a few months after that. And I think the feeling is that he keeps staying through budget cycles because he really sees the way you have a real impact on the Defense Department long-term is in this budget and where you put things. He didn’t just cut the JFCOM, but he also wanted to cut the number of generals he has.
MS. IFILL: How do you do that? How do you cut generals?
MS. YOUSSEF: I don’t know. I don’t know if you wait for them – you rip a star off. I don’t know. But he – I assume it’s attrition. But he didn’t spell that out, probably for the best. And he proposes cutting the fat within his own office, which has grown exponentially just in the last 20 years. And so I think he sees the budget as the way you really shape the military and military spending in the future.
MR. PURDUM: Nancy, he agreed to stay on and serve President Obama. He’s been there, as you point out, in some ways longer than we might have thought he would be. What’s his relationship like with the White House and with the president in particular?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, he has spoken about it briefly once and got in a little bit of trouble because he talked about that President Obama seemed to be more inquisitive than his predecessor. I think he certainly has a lot of leeway. He’s the only Republican holdover from the Bush administration. And you get a sense that he’s really been given the room to shape both policy and budget under this administration.
MS. IFILL: Speaking of Republican holdovers, General Petraeus, he’s now on the ground in Afghanistan, and he has gone public. He’s now giving interviews and talking about what’s actually going to happen a year from now when the withdrawal is supposed to start.
MS. YOUSSEF: It’s interesting. They’re sort of trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Because when they announced this July, 2011, withdrawal start date, a lot of people reacted. The Afghans reacted. The Taliban reacted. The Pakistanis reacted. And a lot of people reacted by saying, “you know, you can’t count on the Americans, they’re leaving.” And for a commander, particularly one in a counterinsurgency warfare, there’s never been a counterinsurgency won with a deadline. And so you’re starting to see General Petraeus back away from that as much as he can and really he’s the best person to do it because he is one – in some people’s eyes, one, counterinsurgency means fighting another. And so I think you’re going to see in the next few days a concerted effort to walk away from that deadline and the best person to do that is General Petraeus.
MS. IFILL: Is General Petraeus. That’s why he’s there. Thank you. Well, with all the stops, the starts, the dramas and declarations and the credit claim and denied, it’s easy to believe that nothing ever happens in Washington and that when it does, it’s bad.
REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES RANGEL (D-NY): If it is the judgment of people here for whatever reason that I resign, then, heck, have the Ethics Committee expedite this. Don’t leave me swinging in the wind until November. I don’t want anyone to feel embarrassed, awkward. Hey, if I was you, I may want me to go away, too. I’m not going away.
MS. IFILL: Charles Rangel, who will did he fending himself against ethics charge, may be right. He may be wrong. Nothing is ever simple in Washington, not ethics trials, not getting laws enacted. Not getting the trains to run efficiently. But is Washington actually broken? Todd Purdum goes inside the White House in this month’s “Vanity Fair” to try to get at that question and your answer is, Todd?
MR. PURDUM: Well, Gwen, when I watched Congressman Rangel on that floor speech this week – and I’ve known him for more than 20 years. I use to cover him in New York politics for the “New York Times.” I just thought how rare it actually is that you see anybody making a speech on the floor of the House that’s real and substantive debate. I think his speech was partly aimed to his constituents but it was also aimed at his colleagues and the truth is not much happens in Congress in front of other members of Congress that can persuade them to vote another way. Everyone has their preset talking points. And I think that is part of what most people think is broken about Washington today -- that there’s not a genuine exchange of ideas. There’s not much willingness to have give and take and make the kind of legislative compromises that the country’s been known for at the best moments of its history.
MS. IFILL: Into all of this walked President Obama, who vowed to change the culture of Washington – where have I heard this before – how’s he doing and is it even possible?
MR. PURDUM: Well, I think he is, in my opinion, one of the few presidents of recent years who is willing to talk out loud about that effort in a continuing way. His commencement speech at the University of Michigan, other speeches, in the exchange with the House Republicans in Baltimore last year or last winter, he was willing to engage this topic and talk about it. The White House – all his aides acknowledge that working in Washington is very hard. They don’t complain about it. They don’t whine. They just say, that’s the cost of doing business and they’re in there pitching every day in the same dirty game as everyone else. They are not purists. But I do think the president emphasizes the notion and it’s been born out in health care legislation and the financial regulatory reform legislation, that it’s worth taking some pretty bad short-term political hits if you think you’re doing something that will bear fruit in the long-term.
MS. IFILL: I’ve heard them complain and whine. (Laughter.) I don’t know about you, but –
MR. BALZ: Todd, do you think that the feelings that you found among the advisers to President Obama are identical to what you would have found if you had talked to advisers in the Bush administration in the last couple of years of that administration?
MR. PURDUM: I certainly think they’re very comparable. Nicolle Wallace, who was the White House Communications Director under President Bush, said to me the other day that she felt very – she felt – it was very familiar what she was hearing the Obama people talk about. And let’s remember that President Bush, talk about the professional left, President Bush faced some terrible trouble from the professional right in his own party on questions like immigration, even his supposed second-term signature issue, Social Security privatization, in which he ultimately got very little support from his own party. So I think it’s just tough to be the boss. And the government has gotten so big and complex and everything, one way or another, funnels through the White House that I think it’s almost inevitable that any president would face comparable issues now.
MR. BABINGTON: Todd, you talked about the lack of give and take in Congress and the working back and forth to get things done. And it’s certainly true. I’m just wondering if the way that the elections are going now are going to help that? When a Bob Bennett gets kicked out as the senator of Utah because he’s not conservative enough, I just wonder, that type of thing, Arlen Specter – he had his faults and he switched parties, but he certainly was somewhere in the middle, he’s gone. I’m just wondering if things are going to get better.
MR. PURDUM: Well, the truth is the trends do not suggest they will. Each party’s getting redder and redder and bluer and bluer. And we’re now in a situation where there’s going to be another decennial redistricting happening. And so the state legislatures and governors who are elected this fall will play a role in that. And it’s already a hyper-partisan process involving consultants who use Census data down to the last block to try to, A, protect incumbents and make sure that the districts are more safe for either Republicans or Democrats. And as you point out, Chuck, the challenge most members of Congress now face is from the true believers in their own party, on either the right or left. So there’s really no incentive. There’s no structural incentive in the way there used to be to work with members of the other party to get something.
MR. BABINGTON: Lindsey Graham being an example.
MR. PURDUM: And he’s probably going to pay a big price in South Carolina for his support of Elena Kagan’s nomination to Supreme Court.
MS. YOUSSEF: Todd, how does the modern media climate that we live in, the pace of it, change how today’s White House conducts itself and how it does its job?
MR. PURDUM: Well, really the origin of this piece for me was my own memory of having covered the Clinton White House 15 years ago. And I thought the pace was brutal and crazy then. And we used to say we had a 24/7 media culture. We really didn’t. Now, with the internet, Twitter, Facebook, a single laptop, any place in the world could launch a terrorist attack or could launch a story that the White House has to respond to. And I think that’s really something new under the sun.
MS. IFILL: It certainly is. Well, before we go tonight, we note the passing this week of two influential lawmakers – Ted Stevens, who died in an airplane crash, and Dan Rostenkowski, who passed away from cancer. Both were larger than life figures in Washington and both left under an ethical cloud, Stevens later vindicated, Rostenkowski convicted. But each man will be remembered for more than just that. Dan, you covered them, both of them.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think both of them, yes. Ted Stevens symbolized the power of the appropriators through a long era in which earmarks were kind in Washington. He was also described back home as the king of Alaska for all he did for that state. He was a politician who dominated his state and dominated a part of the Senate.
Dan Rostenkowski was one of the last of the true white ethnic big city pals. He loved the game and he played it extremely well. He was a classic deal maker. And he loved to tell people how he did it. I remember a dinner that we had at the “Washington Post,” a group of us with him one night. He spent several hours regaling us with inside stories. I’ve never heard anybody explain how Congress works any more happily than he did that night.
MS. IFILL: Chuck?
MR. BABINGTON: Gwen, just a few years ago, I was covering the Senate. There was a vote going on and some – the reporters would hang out just outside the chamber. An elevator door opens. This man comes running out because he thought he was late for the vote, nearly knocked me over. It was Ted Stevens. He was 83 years old.
MS. IFILL: I thought you were going to say Rostenkowski, who’s a big guy. (Laughter.)
MR. BABINGTON: Well, this is a little guy, but he was moving like a high school linebacker. He was in remarkable shape. A lot of these guys and women in Congress, one thing about them – to an extraordinary degree, some of them are in excellent health – Charlie Rangel is 80 years old and he’s still going strong.
MS. IFILL: Yes, we saw him dancing the other night.
MR. BABINGTON: Yes, we did.
MS. IFILL: Yes, well, we just want to send our condolences to the families of Dan Rostenkowski and to Ted Stevens.
Thank you all for watching. Keep up with daily developments on air and online at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll also see you on air and on line right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.