Journalist Ron Brownstein

Journalist sheds light on what President Obama may be thinking this midterm election eve and what his administration’s first steps will need to be after the polls close.

Veteran journalist Ron Brownstein is political director for Atlantic Media Company, publisher of The Atlantic and National Journal. He was previously a political correspondent and columnist with the Los Angeles Times and chief political correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. Named one of Washington's 20 "best and most influential" journalists by Washingtonian Magazine, Brownstein has twice been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received several journalism awards. He's the author/editor of six books, including The Second Civil War.



Tavis: In just a matter of hours polls will open on the East Coast and then, of course, around the country for the most anticipated and expensive midterm elections in a generation. For a last look now at the political landscape on this election eve, pleased to be joined by Ron Brownstein, political director and columnist for “The National Journal.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Ron, as always, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Brownstein: Hey, Tavis, good to be here.
Tavis: First of all, congratulations on “The National Journal.” A lot of us saw that wonderful piece about the transformation of the “Journal” in the “Times” the other day. Let me ask you a quick question about how the coverage of these elections has changed and what prompts these kinds of moves where the “Journal” is concerned.
Brownstein: Well, what we’re trying to do is occupy the intersection of policy and politics. We want to be sophisticated and knowing about why things happen or don’t in Washington, but also serious about the what. Too much, I think, of political coverage now is almost like sports coverage. We’ve been reduced to kind of play-by-play commentators commenting on each pitch, each decision by the manager, without really giving much focus to what is at stake in these elections and what’s at stake in these congressional deliberations.
“The National Journal” has always been a publication oriented toward decision-makers in Washington. Now we want to have a much broader public focus with our website, where we bring to bear our signature, I think, which has been kind of an understanding of how policy and politics intersect, but infuse it with a little more urgency, a little more immediacy, and a little more determination to help shape the national debate.
Tavis: Speaking of urgency and immediacy, the “Journal” just had a big interview with President Obama, of course, on the eve of these midterm elections, and I found your piece recently to be a bit fascinating. Compare and contrast for me Bill Clinton on the eve of the midterms when he got spanked by the Republicans, his attitude, his demeanor, and that of President Obama on the eve of what some think might be a spanking that he takes by Republicans.
Brownstein: Yeah, no, coincidentally I had interviewed President Clinton on the Sunday before the 1994 elections which brought the Republicans the control of both the House and the Senate, and of course with one of my colleagues we interviewed President Clinton – I’m sorry, President Obama last week in the Oval Office for this inaugural issue of our re-launched magazine and the contrast really could not have been, I think, more stark.
With President Clinton you could feel almost physically the weight of the repudiation settling on him, and he kind of was agonizing over and over about how he got himself in this position. He alternated between being furious at what he thought was the blind obstructionism and partisanism of the Republican opposition, but also going over what he felt were his own – second-guessing his own decisions and lamenting how he had lost the thread of connection with voters.
There was almost none of that in the conversation we had about 10 days ago with President Obama. He didn’t seem shell-shocked and he didn’t seem defiant. He seemed very matter-of-fact, thinking in a very concrete way, and it was clear that he is beginning to think in a concrete way about how he will try to navigate through a Washington with a lot more Republicans in it.
There wasn’t really a sense of second-guessing. There was a little bit of, “Well, I should have communicated better, but events were cascading on me too quickly, really, to give the time that was needed to explain some of these decisions.” It was just very different.
There was not that level of self-doubt, agonizing and introspection, and that has been a great strength of his, his equanimity. But you almost wonder if it can be carried to a fault. A president, if, in fact, tomorrow goes as badly as it might for Democrats, it may require a little more rethinking of their fundamental course than they now seem on track to do.
Tavis: To your point now, Ron, there is history that suggests – namely, history with regard to Bill Clinton – that suggests that things can get done with a divided government because it forces the president to the middle. Republicans can no longer be, as they’ve been called, obstructionist.
You can’t just say no to everything if you’re in the leadership. You’ve got to put something forward. So why is it that we should not believe that divided government might actually yield some good public policy?
Brownstein: It might, in fact, yield a few, and President Obama, much like President Clinton said to me in ’94, almost echoed each other’s words, where he said that with – I’m quoting “Spiderman” here – with great power comes great responsibility. (Laughter) He didn’t quote “Spiderman,” I am.
But basically, what he said is that Republicans, if they do win a chamber or both chambers, which is not outside the realm of possibility, will have an obligation to be more constructive, and that was his argument. They will have to put forward solutions. He identified in the interview a few areas where he thought he might be able to reach agreement with them, particularly education, infrastructure, the transportation bill and some small-scale, bite-sized energy initiatives.
But he also made clear that on some of the bigger issues – extending the Bush tax cuts for all earners, efforts to roll back and repeal his healthcare bill and efforts to kind of reopen the idea of creating private accounts, diverting part of the payroll tax into creating private accounts for Social Security, he was going to draw a line.
I thought it was also an ominous sign that really about almost exactly the same time that we were talking to President Obama, my new colleague, Major Garrett, formerly of Fox, now covering Congress for us, was talking to Mitch McConnell, and Mitch McConnell said that job one for a Republican Senate or even just a stronger Republican minority is going to be to make President Obama a one-term president.
So that implies a certain amount of limitations on how far they want to go in making deals with him. And of course, Tavis, the other thing that, as you are well aware, a lot of these Republicans who win tomorrow are not going to feel as though they were sent here either to defer to the Republican leadership or to make deals with President Obama.
They’re going to be very leery, almost – there’s a big portion of that very conservative electorate that is driving some of these gains who by definition are going to feel that anything that President Obama signs is something that Republicans shouldn’t accept, and there are going to be, I think, new members in both the House and the Senate who are going to be reluctant to cross that sentiment.
Tavis: I think I can make this argument; you tell me if I’m walking on eggshells here or if I’m completely in left field.
Brownstein: Hey, it’s your show; you can make whatever argument you want.
Tavis: (Laughter) I’m thinking through this as I say it out loud on national television. I think I believe there’s a difference, Ron, between repudiation and referendum. The president could, in fact, be repudiated tomorrow at the polls – that is to say, Republicans could take back both houses of Congress, for that matter, and it not necessarily be a referendum on him.
So am I right about the fact that repudiation is one thing, referendum necessarily something else?
Brownstein: Well, I have to think through the distinction you’re making there. The one thing we know from history is that in these big wave elections – ’94 in the Republican direction, 2006 in the Democratic direction – there is a pretty strong correlation between the way people feel about the president and how they vote, at least in the House races, and to a large extent the Senate races as well, although they can get some more independents.
In ’94, just over 80 percent of the people who disapproved of President Clinton voted Republican and in 2006 just over 80 percent of the people who disapproved of President Bush voted Democratic according to the exit polls. I think you’re going to see a strong correlation.
I think part of the challenge that Obama is going to face after this election, and I have been struck by this; I don’t know if you have as well, is that many Democratic candidates have simply given up the effort of trying to defend and explain what they have done over the last two years, and have really shifted their efforts almost entirely to trying to disqualify their Republican opponents.
I think that means that essentially for the last at least two or three months of this election we’ve had Republicans making the case that the Obama agenda has failed and other than the president himself, not a lot of Democrats loudly refuting that.
So I think he is going to come out of this election in a rather deep hole in terms of public perception of what the impact of his agenda has been over the past few years with a lot of ground to make up.
Now, whether that’s a repudiation or a referendum on him, I think it is a reality that he faces that for example, in polling that we’ve done, the share of Americans who want the healthcare bill to be repealed is going up, and I think that’s in part because Republicans are saying repeal it and you’re not hearing Democrats loudly defending it.
Tavis: So a two-part question, which is dangerous in media, but let me do it anyway. It’s one thing for us to talk about this; does the president, since you just talked to him days ago, does he view this election as a referendum on him, and to those Democrats who are running away from everything they have, in fact, accomplished in these first two years, is that cowardice, political convenience or something else?
Brownstein: Well, they would argue it’s political necessity. Basically what they argue is at a time when we’re looking at what, three-quarters of the country saying America is on the wrong track, it is kind of suicide to go out there and say, “We have made things better.” They feel that there’s just no backdrop for doing that.
Look, the whole Democratic plan for the election was enough economic growth in 2010 that they could make the case that look, yeah, things are not perfect yet, but we’ve turned the corner, we’re beginning to climb out of the ditch. Do you want to go back?
That is the message, in fact, that the president is still using, but as I say, the vast majority of candidates have abandoned it because they feel the backdrop isn’t there for it, that you can’t really make the case to voters that things are getting better, because they don’t feel it.
Now, the president himself, as I said, I think he seems very level about what is going to happen. He struck me as a man who is just accepting the reality that he’s going to be dealt a very different hand and is beginning to think, in his systematic way, about how he responds to it.
But if the question is what happened in ’94 shook Bill Clinton to the core and ultimately led him to reassess his presidency in very fundamental ways, take some radical steps like bringing in an entire new set of political advisers led by Dick Morris, who’s now out raising money to defeat Democrats, but you do not get the sense from anything that President Obama has said or done so far that he is looking at that kind of fundamental reexamination. Look at the two big personnel decisions we’ve had. He’s elevated existing staffers to the top two jobs – chief of staff and national security adviser. There’s nothing yet that says he sees this as such a fundamental threat that he needs to reassess in a basic way what he’s doing.
I suppose there are going to be Democrats who ask after this election, is it possible to be too calm and collected in the face of catastrophe? They may want a little more urgency and reassessment.
Tavis: Well, I am certain of one thing – that whatever happens tomorrow, we will be talking to Ron Brownstein in the coming days about what happens tomorrow. So Ron, thanks for coming on and thanks, as always, for sharing your insights.
Brownstein: Hey, thank you.
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Last modified: November 5, 2014 at 10:54 pm