MS. IFILL: Reaping the whirlwind, what this week’s election results mean for Washington and the rest of the country, tonight on “Washington Week."
CHRISTINE O’DONNELL: Ladies and gentlemen, the people of Delaware have spoken. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: Start your political engines as a newcomer shakes up the Republican Party.
KARL ROVE: Just a lot of nutty things she’s been saying.
MS. IFILL: And Democrats try to make the most of it.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It’s real tough for the Republican Party. It’s really kind of hung out a shingle – no moderates need apply.
MS. IFILL: But if this is a fundamental shift, who benefits? And how will that play out in an economically unstable time?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Their platform apparently is “no se puede.” Is that a bumper sticker you want on your car?
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Americans, Mr. President, have had it.
MS. IFILL: The fed up electorate prepares to send a message, any message. Covering the week: Dan Balz of “Washington Post,” Jeanne Cummings of Politico, John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News and John Harwood of the CNBC and 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."
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We appear now to be in the middle of a wave election when everything changes. But who is behind the wave and who is likely to get swamped? Christine O’Donnell this week’s big winner in the Delaware Republican Senate primary thinks she knows. She was in Washington today to address the Values Voter Summit.
MS. O’DONNELL: The small elite don’t get us. They call us wacky. They call us wing nuts. We call us “we the people.”
MS. IFILL: Defeated Republicans like Delaware’s Mike Castle, Utah’s Bob Bennett and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who was announcing a write-in campaign today, are still trying to figure out what hit them. But Democrats are baffled, too, including defeated incumbents like Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and struggling incumbents like Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and President Obama himself, who knows he must convince voters the economy can improve.
PRES. OBAMA: We stopped the bleeding, stabilized the economy, but the fact of the matter is that the pace of improvement has not been where it needs to be. And the hole that we had dug ourselves in was enormous.
MS. IFILL: The scary truth appears to be that rattled voters appear ready to lash out at lots of people for lots of reasons. Let’s go through some of the reasons here, panel. Starting with you, John, give me a reason.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, the economy. I’ll take the easiest, biggest target. The economy is bad, which means is affecting people in their lives and if it’s not directly affecting them, it affects somebody they know, which means everybody’s anxious. And so in this time of anxiousness and anxiety, they then turn to Washington and they see people they dislike, distrust and think are just buffoons. These approval numbers for Congress are terrible and because people look here and they say “they’re doing nothing that’s going to help me in my life.”
MS. IFILL: How about that, Jeanne?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I think that’s definitely a part of it. I think also action in Washington is driving a lot of this. The Republicans, many of them are angry because Obama won and because the Democrats actually passed some major piece of legislation. And so now they’re taking out incumbents who they think might have helped in that process.
Independents, I think, are full of high anxiety. A lot has happened in Washington – the big projects to help the economy pass, they didn’t quite work. What will health care do to me and my family and my job? Not quite sure. Will this Wall Street reform, if they even noticed it, make any big difference in our lives and fix things on Wall Street? I think so much has happened that it’s difficult for them to absorb and it’s made them very nervous about what is happening in Washington.
MS. IFILL: It’s difficult for me to absorb yet, too, because I keep coming up with different answers to the question. What’s yours?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, look, I think it has to do with the fact that we’ve seen a Republican president leave office, terrible numbers, people perceiving his policies as a failure, a lot of hope invested in this new, young Democrat who came in. And now people look at his policies -- even if he’s right, even if they are working and people just aren’t seeing it, they’re not feeling it. And so you have this tremendous disappointment. And I talked to a couple economists – Democrats and Republicans – who said “step back and look at the big picture.” We were financing overconsumption based on a housing bubble. People were borrowing against their homes. Wages haven’t been rising and now we’re ringing that out of the economy. It’s a deleveraging in the system. The result of that is going to take years to get out and we’re going to have more electoral instability. We may have two-year periods where whoever is in gets thrown out and then the other party comes in.
MS. IFILL: Well, one of the things we’re always looking for at moments like these, when it seems like moments are bubbling out of nowhere, is a leader -- someone to lead the race instead of chasing after the circus. And if there is a belle of the Republican ball after a week like this, it’s probably Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor in 2008, vice presidential nominee, who is spending tonight in that most conventional of venues, a political party dinner in Iowa. That’s a hard trip to resist for any national political reporter, so Dan Balz did not resist. He’s there tonight. I spoke with him a few minutes ago.
Dan, so there you are tonight, in Iowa with Sarah Palin. Is this as obvious a move as it seems?
MR. BALZ: Well, everybody thinks it is. She’s clearly at least testing out whether she should test the waters. So the anticipation of a candidacy is part of the discussion here in Iowa, has been all week when it was clear that she was going to do this. We obviously don’t know what she’s going to do, but nobody comes to Iowa who’s in her position who isn’t at least thinking about running, and she gave another hint on that this afternoon in an interview with Fox.
MS. IFILL: What did she say?
MR. BALZ: Well, she was asked whether she would run. She said if she thinks the country is ready to be shaken up, if she thinks the country is ready for that, then of course she would give it a real consideration. She would be prepared to do it. She left herself some room not to run, obviously, but she certainly didn’t sound like a Shermanesque kind of statement saying, no, I have no interest in doing this.
MS. IFILL: If you are an insurgent outsider like so many people in the Tea Party movement and even Sarah Palin herself describes herself, what are you doing at such an insider event like a Reagan Day dinner in Iowa?
MR. BALZ: Well, I will say one thing about Sarah Palin. If you’ve been the former vice presidential nominee, you are, in part, part of the establishment of the Republican Party. She has cast her lot certainly with the Tea Party. But she’s been occasionally strategic in some of her endorsements, Iowa being an example. She endorsed the establishment candidate in the gubernatorial primary, Terry Branstad the former governor, over a conservative candidate. There are parts of the conservative wing of the party here who are unhappy with her because of that. So while she’s mostly a Tea Party kind of candidate, she knows how to work both sides of the street.
MS. IFILL: Why – how – Terry Branstad, he’s one of the handful of governors who are running for – former governors running for their own seats again this year. What is it about him that makes him a Sarah Palin kind of candidate?
MR. BALZ: I can’t answer that, Gwen. It’s a question that everybody has been asking since she did it. She endorsed him in a typically a Palinesque way. She called his headquarters, spoke to the person who was answering the phones, said, this is Sarah Palin, I just want you to know that in a half an hour, I’m going to be endorsing Governor Branstad and your phones will probably begin to light up right after that. And the person on the phone said “well, let me get you in touch with Governor Branstad, he’s not here.” And she said “no, I’m sure he’s got more important things to worry about. I just wanted to let you know in advance.” That’s the style of politics she’s been practicing.
Now, will that translate in a caucus state where you have to do retail politics, make those one-on-one connections? That’s a big question that surrounds her because of the way she is kind of the candidate who makes her views known through Twitter and Facebook and social media.
MS. IFILL: Well, we know that 2012, at least, is still a distance away, but we’ve got just a few weeks till the fall elections. To what degree did this week in which Sarah Palin endorsed Christine O’Donnell and saw her win and endorsed Kelley Ayotte in New Hampshire and saw her win, even though she was considered to be the insider candidate -- how much did that help Sarah Palin’s profile in this power?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think it helps in a significant way. It reminds people that she is a force. You could say that there are a variety of reasons why each of those candidates may have won, but there’s no question that with Sarah Palin’s name attached to it, she gets some of the credit. And I think Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said today she’s obviously a formidable person inside the Republican Party and perhaps the most formidable person inside the party right now.
When you have that kind of reputation and you continue to take some chances in your endorsements and win more than you lose, I think people begin to pay attention and recognize that she’s got strength inside the party.
MS. IFILL: You talked about the difference in Iowa. Do Iowa conservatives, who are very familiar with, very religiously based conservatives, do they – are they equivalent to Tea Party conservatives as they have come to be defined?
MR. BALZ: Not quite, Gwen. When I’ve asked people over the last day about the Tea Party in Iowa, the uniform answer is that it is not like it is in other states. Here the religious conservatives have dominated the Republican Party, but there is not the kind of active or energetic Tea Party movement. There are some Tea Party people here in the state, but I don’t think it’s the same as we’ve seen in a number of the other states around the country.
MS. IFILL: Dan Balz, I get the feeling you’re going to be back and forth in Iowa more than once. She’s not the first. She won’t be the last candidate and we’ll be checking in with you from time to time.
MR. BALZ: Thanks, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: Okay, here’s what puzzles me about all of this. We read the polls. We all read the polls. And it is clear that Sarah Palin, when her name is put out there, is just not that popular in the public at large. What is it about her or is it something about her that’s driving this?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think you’re exactly right about the polls. CBS did a poll this week. If you look inside the Tea Party movement, she’s quite popular and her Midas touch on a candidate really helps. If you ask that question of the general public, it’s absolutely reversed. People are repelled in larger numbers by the candidates she picks. She sends a perfect message to the Tea Party candidates – activists, which is “I’m with you; forget these elites who don’t get it.” And to the extent that the elites come and knock her and say things like what I just did about poll numbers, it only, boys, makes her stronger because it’s seen as this kind of elitist Washington mindset that is after her and since people hate that elitist Washington mindset, they can only like the thing that’s being attacked.
MS. IFILL: What’s to like about elitism? One of the interesting things I think we saw Christine O’Donnell talk about this week was the intraparty cannibalism, which she said – her take on it is that the elites were attacking her. Among those elites, Karl Rove, who was the architect for so many years, and now makes it look like he’s not only out of step with this part of his party, but that maybe his old boss might be, too?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I think that she’s right. The elites were attacking her. I think the Republican Party made it pretty clear that when it came to her candidacy, they felt like things had really gone too far.
MS. IFILL: Now, it should be said she has a checkered background of things she’s said and done.
MS. CUMMINGS: She has financial problems in her background, she has issues in which her description of events don’t jibe with others, shall we say. And there are many – and I think what was so stinging for many Washington Republicans, and party activists and leaders, is that that was the seat that could cost them the Senate. And so that was a seat they really had in their column, Mike Castle they felt confidently was going to walk right into that Senate seat. They didn’t have to give Delaware a second thought. In losing that one, they may have very well lost the opportunity to win the entire chamber. And so I think that also helped – she was late in the game, the stakes were that high for them, and I think that drove a lot of the intensity toward her candidacy that they couldn’t afford for her to win.
MR. HARWOOD: Let’s don’t forget, the George Bush administration, George Bush as president, signed the legislation that bailed out the financial system. That’s where the $700 billion TARP program came and a lot of the initial burst of energy in the tea parties against Obama, some of it was retrospective against President Bush.
MR. DICKERSON: And we should also – just as a little note, Sarah Palin supported that TARP bailout and that now has all been erased as well in terms of the new – because if your name is associated with TARP now, you’re doomed.
MS. IFILL: You bring up this whole idea about the financial crisis. We now saw today Elizabeth Warren, who is a darling of the liberals in the Democratic Party, brought in not exactly to run this new consumer agency, but kind of as special advisor to the president so she can kind of not escape confirmation scrutiny. Who is she, what does she bring to this, and to what degree was this decision to bring her in a political one?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think it was very political in the following respect. They passed – consumer protection was one of the hallmarks of the Democratic approach to financial regulation, although interestingly, Hank Paulson, the Bush Treasury secretary, when he recommended financial regulation a couple of years ago had a consumer protection component to it as well.
Elizabeth Warren is somebody who’s been a consumer advocate for years as a college professor and someone who’s spoken out. She’s been on the congressional oversight panel for the TARP program, trying to see how that’s been administered. And she’s somebody who is going to stand up that agency. They face a huge fight. Republicans are fighting the administration across the board on major and controversial appointments of this kind so the administration’s choice is “do we go ahead and have that fight, might have some political benefit in the election, or do we get the agency going and tell our base that we’ve actually won by going around the Senate and doing it?” And that’s what they did.
MS. IFILL: It felt to me like for both parties this was a week which crystallized something interesting, which is that they’re all running as fast as they can to catch up with the oncoming train before it rolls them over, but neither party – mainstream in either party – seemed to figure out how to do it.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I think also this decision regarding Elizabeth Warren is shortsighted because they did it in some respect because they know they can’t get the Senate votes right now. That she would be blocked by a filibuster. It’d be a big, nasty fight. But what they have done – we here in Washington see appointments made, recess appointments made that go around the system, but this is a whole new way of going around the system. This appears to be designed to put a puppet in charge of the real office while Elizabeth Warren directs from afar from the White House. And that I think takes everything to a whole new level in terms of circumventing the power of the Senate. And I think it delegitimizes that office that was supposed to be the staunch advocate for consumers. That was sort of the progressive’s heart of financial reform. And for a short term victory, I don’t get that.
MS. IFILL: But in a year where short term victories count for something, when you’re trying to do whatever you can to speak to people and tell them “I’m on your side, I can’t quite turn around the unemployment rate but I can protect your credit cards,” don’t short term victories count as victories?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, and didn’t John Maynard Keynes say “in the long run, politically we’re all dead.” That’s a joke.
MS. IFILL: He’s quoting John Maynard Keynes, very good. It’s true.
MR. HARWOOD: Because it’s not just in the long run they’re all dead. In the near term, they’re all dead. They’ve got to do something to save themselves.
MS. IFILL: Which brings us to this question of where voters are? How do voters – is pragmatism dead when you see winners saying things like “we don’t care” – Jim DeMint saying “we don’t care what they say. We’re going to do what’s right and what the Constitution tells us is right.” Does it matter when moderates are completely at sea, no one’s speaking to them, playing to them, they seem to have abandoned the president and abandoned both extremes of either party?
MR. DICKERSON: It seems like everybody is on their own. And all these candidates are on their own. In the polls there is an interesting disconnect. You have a situation where the overwhelming feeling is get the people in Washington out. And so what happens in the polls is you ask people “do you like Democrats or Republicans?” They say “we prefer Democrats to Republicans.” Do you like Democratic policies to Republican policies on issues like the economy? They prefer Democratic policies. So then say “so who are you going to pick, the Democrat or the Republican? They say the Republican. So there’s a disconnect.
It’s like you don’t like two different kinds of fast food, but you’re stuck, you have to go to McDonald’s or Burger King. You prefer McDonald’s to Burger King and prefer all the things they serve you at McDonald’s over Burger King, but you’ve been going to McDonald’s for seven days in a row so –
MR. HARWOOD: And you’ve got a stomachache. (Laughter.)
MR. DICKERSON: – so you go to Burger King, to which the Democrats say well, and you’re going to be disappointed when you go there if Republicans ultimately take control.
MS. CUMMINGS: I think we still have – there’s still more to be seen because if you look at getting back to the independents, if you look at like the “Wall Street” Journal and the NBC polls, I go to this point again, the independents are in a different place than the Republicans. The Republicans are just plain mad and they want to win and they want to beat Democrats. Okay, we get that.
MS. IFILL: Democrats are mad, too.
MS. CUMMINGS: Democrats are apathetic and frustrated. But the independents have no confidence in Washington anymore. They put their hopes into Obama. They are very disappointed. They’re really unsettled by what has happened in Washington, in addition to the fact that Washington was focused on issues that were important to them for so long. But nobody’s really tested these voters with the kind of nominees from Republican Party the angry base has turned to. We have not seen where the independents are going to weigh in. And if – can the Tea Party candidates – and I think some of them can, some of them may not – but can they convince the independent voters that they should have confidence in them, that they can restore some –
MS. IFILL: That’s part of the battle that Lisa Murkowski is trying to figure out tonight. She is running a riding campaign in Alaska with the understanding that there’s going to be some folks out there who aren’t necessarily, for general election purposes, buying into the Tea Party.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly and it worked for Joe Lieberman a couple of years ago. But here’s what –
MS. IFILL: It wasn’t a riding, but yes.
MR. HARWOOD: Right, here’s how we’re going to know that – whether or not pragmatism is dead. When we get after the – it’s certainly dead for the fall, but if we get after the election, if let’s say Republicans win the House and President Obama says, “I’ve got to work with Speaker John Boehner,” is John Boehner going to be so concerned with the Tea Party conservatives in his caucus and out in the country that he’s not going to be willing to come together with President Obama. That’s going to be the –
MS. IFILL: Why would he be after the election if he’s not before the election, if 2012 was just around the corner?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, because at that point, John Boehner would have some responsibility for running the government and might feel, as Newt Gingrich did as some point with Bill Clinton, the obligation to make a deal. The question is can you make a deal when they’re after you?
MR. DICKERSON: And independents in a presidential year play a larger role than in an off year. So the weight of the independents, a big question is are they going to turn out? Are they going to participate in this off year? In a presidential year, they do participate by larger numbers normally. So the pressure on Boehner and all those 2012 Republican candidates will be, “do I listen to the Tea Party or do I keep myself alive for the –
MS. CUMMINGS: But I think the dynamics are different than 1994 in a couple of ways. First of all, Newt was a clear leader of the revolution. He didn’t have a revolution forced upon him. Boehner has not been the leader of this. He’s sort of been hanging on.
MR. HARWOOD: He’s going to be more scared.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. He’s just trying to hang on to the bulls as they run through the streets. That wasn’t the case in 1994. And because Gingrich was the leader of the revolution, I think he felt more obligation to then prove he could lead. Once he got into office, Boehner won’t have that – that sort of motivation spurring him as well. So I think the chances are he may be more inclined to watch his back and to go to the table. Right.
MS. IFILL: Is everybody getting a little – overreacted to this – or getting a little nervous about this? I saw today – this week “Roll Call” wrote that of all the incumbents up for reelection this year, 98 percent are getting reelected.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right.
MS. IFILL: So it’s not as if they’re really throwing all the bums out. They’re just very selectively and in a spectacular and high profile ways throwing certain bombs out.
MR. DICKERSON: Right, but when the throw the bombs out mood costs you perhaps a Senate seat that was going to give you control of the Senate, it’s worth getting worried about.
MS. IFILL: And that’s what happened with Scott Brown, as well, which people forget. We’ve been through these upheavals before.
MR. HARWOOD: But even if most incumbents get reelected, as they will, what we’ve seen is a wider band of seats being contested. We went through a period of time during the decade of the 2000s, when people assumed that because of polarization, because of redistricting, the number of seats that could go back and forth would be very narrow. Look what happened in 2006 and 2008. Thirty or more seats in both of those, or at least 25 seats in each of those elections flipped. We’ve now got more seats on the table now than we thought we were going to have on the table six, eight years ago.
MS. IFILL: Since we don’t have a crystal ball that can tell us what’s going to happen in six or eight weeks, let’s talk about what’s – let’s go further ahead and talk about 2012. So we today the Values Voter Summit. We saw Mitt Romney out there appealing to the conservative voters. We’ve heard a tale of Tim Pawlenty. We see Sarah Palin in Iowa tonight. What are they chasing after? Is there a voter they can grab at this point?
MR. DICKERSON: They’re chasing after a moving target. In the old days, the Republican Party used to have a pretty orderly process. You joined the establishment. You ran. You (made laws ?). Then you were the picked person. And to the extent there is one this time, it would be Mitt Romney. But the establishment ain’t what it used to be. It keeps getting yelled at by the Tea Party folks. So you have to figure out which of those two things to play and who the power broker is there. And then on the other side of that, in the CBS poll, 62 some odd people said they didn’t know who the leader of the Republican Party was.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. DICKERSON: So the people on the other side have no idea either.
MS. IFILL: And as a result, we see things like Dan mentioned, Robert Gibbs at the White House saying, oh, yes, that Sarah Palin, she’s quite formidable. They want to decide who the leader is going to be. What did Democrats do –
MR. HARWOOD: I think at various times, they’ve nominated Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and now Sarah Palin –
MS. IFILL: What do they do, though? The Democrats still have to speak about themselves and make their own case, especially with the economy.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think they got a pretty good idea who their nominee is going to be. The question is going to be what’s the condition –
MS. IFILL: How do they sell their nominee?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, they’ve got a hope that economic conditions lift them in ways that they thought might happen this fall, but are not happening. Some of that is time and good fortune. We’ll see whether they get it.
MS. CUMMINGS: And most economists I talked to say it’s almost impossible for Barack Obama to go into 2012 with an economy this bad. That it’s got to start turning around at some point. That it will recover some.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well, we’ll be watching all of that. Thank you, all. It was a very quick roundtable. It seems like the general election is going to require seatbelts. I hope you have yours.
Thank you everyone. Before we go tonight, our condolences go out to the family of Claire Bieber. She passed away this morning. She was a big “Washington Week” fan and not only because her son, Jeff, is our executive producer. Our thoughts are with Jeff and his family on this Yom Kippur. And we’ll see you next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.