Time magazine Michael Duffy

Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief discusses the new makeup of Congress and offers his assessment of why Democrats are keeping such a low post-election profile.

Since joining Time as a Pentagon correspondent, Michael Duffy has served as the magazine's national political correspondent and Washington bureau chief. He was named assistant managing editor in '05 and has written/co-written more than 40 cover stories and covered Congress and both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He's also co-authored two books: The Preacher and the Presidents and Marching in Place. A native of Columbus, OH, Duffy also serves as Time's nation editor and was previously a staff reporter for Defense Week.

TRANSCRIPT

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Tavis: Tough questions today for President Obama at a White House press conference following an historic defeat for Democrats around the country last night. For more tonight I’m joined from Washington by Michael Duffy, Washington bureau chief for “Time” magazine. Michael, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Michael Duffy: Nice to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious – does the president get it, to follow up on Savannah’s question?
Duffy: It was a tough question, and I think he did a pretty good job of diagnosing there what went wrong, probably better than he’s ever done, I thought, of what went wrong in the past. He said a couple things, we’ve got to maybe do our policy differently, and I didn’t do a great job of selling this.
What wasn’t clear from the answer, and I’m sure you’ve picked up on this too – so I think he gets that, I think you can hear that. There was a fair amount of contrition, I thought; he said he got “shellacked.” He said it made him think a lot and he was sad about it, or it was sad that it happened.
I think what’s not clear, at least so far, and it’s only day one, is what he’s going to do going forward to show that he gets it. That wasn’t real clear at the press conference, and I’m guessing the reason is they aren’t quite sure what the next couple of steps are.
Tavis: We’ll talk more about that in a second. I did, in fact, hear that – so I’m glad to know that I’m on the same page with Michael Duffy – what I also heard, and I’m curious as to whether Michael Duffy heard this, was that distinction the president tried to make between an emergency response to crises versus his agenda.
Does the American public make that distinction? Does the resounding defeat they took last night, Democrats, underscore that they get that distinction, as he tried to explain, of an agenda versus a response to an emergency situation?
Duffy: This question’s almost as complicated as the one they asked Obama. I thought that distinction he drew today was interesting, also. He never quite phrased it quite like that – “What I did was to solve a problem, to solve the crisis, and we did it really fast because we couldn’t do it slow,” and that was a good distinction he said.
Then, “Some voters, maybe a lot of voters, thought that was our agenda, not just our emergency response unit.” They didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing that at the time. They didn’t really have time to draw clear lines. Today, he drew that in a way I hadn’t heard him do before – I’m guessing you hadn’t, either.
Tavis: Yeah, I had not, and I thought it was interesting. But while we’re on this, though, as you interpret what happened last night, do the American people think that what they’ve gotten from Obama the first two years, almost two years now, is his personal agenda, which he would continue to do had he not took the shellacking last night, or do they see this as his response to an emergency situation? I think it’s the former and not the latter, but you tell me.
Duffy: No, I’m with you there. I think that it had morphed into their fear about what his agenda was, and let’s not forget that wherever Barack Obama might have been about aspects of what took place in that emergency period, which went on for a while, there were other people in the Democratic Party who liked it just fine as a policy and an agenda.
Whether he did or not, there was a lot of different things being done with that stimulus money, that bailout money, when you start applying it to banks and auto companies and insurance companies and all the rest.
So it’s a little hard to slice the ham and say whose agenda was what, but I do think that the public had begun – not all Democrats, not all Republicans, not all voters – but a fairly large slice, maybe a majority, had begun to see this as indistinguishable, in their view. This was who he was, this was what his marker was going to be, and there was no reason to think, as long as there was a Democratic Congress or a Washington fully in Democratic hands, to think that would stop.
I’m not even sure I could have argued against all of that, so I think that was kind of a reasonable conclusion; I’m just a little surprised that we didn’t hear it until today, the way he dissected it.
Tavis: Speaking of dissecting, maybe this is just silly me, but I’ve been talking to my producers here on this TV show today and I’ve been watching a lot of television today, of course. They’ve been watching a lot of television. To our read – and this might be understandable, to some degree – there have not been a lot of Democrats out today talking, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed that, but if you have noticed that, is that by design?
Did some edict go out that we’re not going to talk until a time certain, or is it just me? I was expecting – I know they took a beating last night, but I have not – these Democrats have shut down today on talking to the media, basically. (Laughter)
Duffy: Yeah, it’s true. I think there was only one call I got today of someone sort of on that side saying, “We’d like to have a conference call today.” It’s probably a collective decision by some Democrats to let the Republicans have their moment. It’s probably some soul-searching, much like going on at the White House.
Also, I think everyone here was waiting to see how the president would respond, what he would say, because they’re going to take their lead from him, and I think both sides were looking for him to say certain things and set a tone, and there was no point in getting ahead of that or being someplace else.
So I think it was first the Republicans’ day, and then they were going to let the president have his say.
Tavis: So speaking of being someplace else, the president is getting out of Washington real fast. As we all know, he’s going to Indonesia on Friday, unless something changes, but he stuck around long enough to respond to, again, his word, the shellacking that he took last night, and he’s getting out of here Friday for greener pastures. Good idea, smart idea, bad timing? You tell me.
Duffy: Great American presidential tradition, Tavis. (Laughter) Whether you’re Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, this is one of the great go-to maneuvers you can make. Nobody can stop you, you don’t have to worry about two-thirds majority; the plane just goes.
He couched it today in the press conference in the manner of talking about going to some of these – these are mostly Asian countries he’s going to – and trying to open new markets and free trade possible pacts with some of those countries that he’s visiting.
So he tried to couch it, but it’s really a chance to get away, think. Foreign policy is a place where one person can have an impact who can set an agenda and sort of stand astride the globe and remind people that this is a job, really, that we only choose one person at a time to do.
Tavis: We’ll come back to the domestic agenda in just a second, but to your point now, Michael, Hillary Clinton, now secretary of State, was quick to say last night that this election does not in any way change our foreign policy, which dovetails now to the point you just made. Is she right about that, that we’re not going to see a change in foreign policy because of what happened yesterday?
Duffy: Yeah, I think that is right, and it’s because of two factors. One is that the president moved very early in his administration, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, to a very centrist position and in some ways in Afghanistan a more aggressive one than the Bush administration had had by sending more troops, making it more of a priority. That really has, I want to say, neutralized any criticism from Republicans about his conduct of foreign policy.
So it wasn’t a topic in a lot of places, Tavis. It didn’t come up in a lot of races, except issues that are a bit more secondary, like immigration and trade and occasionally America’s role in the world. But the front line questions, the things that the secretary of State and the secretary of Defense are working on day-to-day, they just weren’t issues in this race, so yes, you’re right.
Tavis: So let’s get to the fun stuff now. So the general consensus that I have been able to pick up in my conversations today, Michael, is that the president needs to move to the center – that is to say, become a more centrist Democrat – and focus on jobs. Move to the center, focus on jobs. Right or wrong, am I missing something here?
Duffy: I think that’s correct. I think that’s what most people here believe. I don’t think we can absolutely be sure, listening to him today, that he has wrapped his head around that completely. I think he probably knows intellectually that’s the right thing to do. He may even know that politically that’s where he has to go eventually; if not now, maybe as he heads toward reelection.
I think in the White House tonight there’s a feeling that they did good things in the first two years, that the campaign, in their view, was run in a somewhat dishonest and demagogic way by the Republicans, that they’re being tarred and criticized for things that aren’t really fair.
But politics sometimes isn’t fair, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. But I’m not sure they’ve completely wrapped their minds around okay, what are these steps we’re going to take now to reposition ourselves for the second half, and also leading into a reelection.
They will take those steps, but it’s unrealistic for us to assume that they’re going to take them today, or tomorrow, or even this week. I did cover Bill Clinton in his first three years in office, and he took months to make this pivot, Tavis. It’s oftentimes remembered now as something that happened abruptly or was under way before.
It wasn’t. It was a slow, glacial, secret process in which that president had to both reach out to Republicans but do it in a way that didn’t freak out his base on the left. It’s not an easy dance. It’s not something you can do fast, it’s not necessarily something you can do in public.
I was laughing today when one of the reporters asked him, “So, what will you compromise on?” as if he was going to sit there and in public negotiate with himself. I thought that was incredibly naïve and no president would agree to do it, and he wisely avoided it.
So this was something that we’re going to, I think, all be watching him do over the course of months, and I think he probably has the skills to do it.
Tavis: To your point about the glacial pace at which Bill Clinton moved so as not to freak out his base, one could argue that President Obama’s base, given what happened yesterday, is already freaked out, and that’s why what happened, happened. Would that be an accurate assessment or inaccurate?
Duffy: I think his relationships with the left wing of the Democratic Party are not great. They don’t feel particularly well-handled, coddled and talked-to, either. That’s making this, I think, a trickier transition. I picked up a lot of that today, so they may not have been having press conferences, but it’s not like they aren’t talking. I don’t underestimate the task here.
I think on another front, Tavis, I think another question to ask is whether he and the people around him are ready for this. This is a group of people that believes in Barack Obama pretty deeply and the agenda that they came in with. It’s not clear to me that he has any habit of – he has no real history of bringing in outsiders, overhauling his staff.
He’s got a group that’s not only fairly tight, it’s gotten a little tighter. We’ll see if they can all change, because it’s going to be – they’re all going to have to change or they’re going to have to bring some new people in.
Tavis: Well, one of the things you and I both know, Michael, that he’s going to have to do, not even just because of last night, but this was already in the works, he’s basically retooling his economic team. So what does last night say to the president about how he ought to re-tool that economic team, given that some of those persons have already announced that they’re leaving?
Duffy: Well, I think he’s going to have to probably have a different attitude about tax cuts, and he hinted at that today. He said, “I might be able to come a little toward the Republicans on some kind of stimulative tax cut program that I wasn’t really for before.”
He didn’t say it as cogently as I just did, and for good reason, but you get the idea that they are going to all join hands and extend those Bush tax credits for a couple of years, and they’ll probably do that before the end of the year.
There’s a deal to be done with the Republicans on that if there is movement on the other side about possibly making changes to some spending programs, and with the Democrats’ own entitlement programs. Big lift, but there is potential for that and both sides here are going to have to eventually decide what it is in the federal budget they want to do without. That’s going to take longer.
Tavis: Michael, a few days ago I had former President Jimmy Carter on this program, and he made a fascinating statement to me about how Republicans giving the president a shellacking might be to his benefit. Take a listen to what President Carter had to say.
[Begin video clip]
“President Jimmy Carter:” This is a strange thing to say – it may be better than it has been, because at least the Republicans, with control of one house of Congress, may feel some degree of responsibility, whereas in the past two years they’ve been totally irresponsible. They haven’t supported President Obama even when they knew he was right, because they just wanted to tear down what he was trying to accomplish.
[End video clip]
Tavis: So Michael, you hear President Carter basically suggesting that Republicans now have to take some responsibility. They can’t – I’m paraphrasing here now – they can’t just be obstructionist, they can’t just say no to everything. So what position does this put them in now, again, to bear some responsibility as we move forward?
Duffy: Well, I think President Carter is right, but I wouldn’t think of it as a blank check. John Boehner said in his press conferences today, and hinted at it in them last night, that he was willing to meet the president, at some point, halfway – I don’t think he used that word – but they recognize that they can no longer be the party of no. It got them to this point; it was a successful strategy for them. It will probably reemerge before the end of the next two years, but I think we’re going to go through a period here where both sides appear to take governing seriously.
It’s not easy for them either. They’ve just been reinvigorated, they’ve had a resurgence here in Congress, but when they come back, Tavis, they’re going to have a whole bunch of new members who are even less conciliatory than the ones they had last month; in fact, quite a few of them.
So it will be even more difficult, I think, for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to do the sort of outreach, their part of the handshake, that Jimmy Carter was suggesting it was now incumbent upon them to do.
Don’t forget, former presidents are excellent, but it is a really different Washington than it was in 1976, ’77, ’78. This is a much more partisan, much more divided, much more extreme set of parties.
Tavis: To your point about less conciliatory members on the Republican side, that in part is because of these Tea Partiers who won some significant races last night. I’m thinking specifically now of Rand Paul in Kentucky, who is on the record all over the news saying he’s going to challenge Mitch McConnell on certain things out of that state of Kentucky.
So tell me whether or not those persons who did win last night with that Tea Party support emboldens the Republican Party or challenges the Republican Party?
Duffy: I think it gives them multiple headaches. I think if there was a group of Republicans here who are inclined even briefly to be conciliatory to a Democratic president in the name of getting something done, they’re going to find themselves with a whole bunch of new pretty high-strung rebels, not just Rand Paul, but Marco Rubio.
We’ll see what he’s made of, we’ll see what – we still don’t know what’s happened in that Alaska race. There’s of course Jim DeMint and Mr. Coburn of Oklahoma. So there are going to be four or five guys in the Senate who are going to make it more difficult for Mitch McConnell, and over on the House side, in addition to all the new members there’s probably 30 or 40 others who ran Tea Party-like races.
There’s one other factor that’s going to make it hard for the Republicans to do that handshake that Jimmy Carter talked about with you, and that is there’s another election coming up and the Tea Party is going to be looking at a whole ‘nother round of Republicans they can run purity tests on, just like they ran this year in the primaries. That’s going to make a lot of moderate-minded Republicans think twice about doing those deals that we’re talking about.
So it’s a very tough row for them, very tough row for the president also, when it comes to joining hands and singing, “Kumbaya.”
Tavis: It would appear to me that whether one likes or loathes, agrees or disagrees with Nancy Pelosi, her style, her policy pronouncements, that while most Americans still are willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt, he took a spanking, no doubt about it, but every poll I’ve seen suggests that his personal numbers, people still have respect and regard for him.
Nancy Pelosi, not so. They kicked her to the curb last night, and all of her fellow Democrats in the House. So I raise that to ask this question – if Pelosi was the wrong person, is John Boehner the right person, just because he has the job or will get the job, we believe. If she was the wrong person, is Boehner the right person?
Duffy: It’s a great question, and it’s worth remembering that 40 years ago you probably didn’t see pictures of the Speaker of the House that much. You certainly didn’t see him on cable, and they probably weren’t features in television ads, because they were behind-the-scenes players. Men like Sam Rayburn and I was thinking of the man from Bugtussle, Oklahoma, whose name I can’t remember; Carl Albert.
These were not national figures. They were of national importance, but they were not celebrities the way Speakers became after Tip O’Neill, after Jim Wright, and of course with Newt Gingrich. They aren’t elected by anything like a popular system, they’re elected by members of one party in one chamber, and of course you don’t even have to be a member of the party in that chamber to be elected Speaker. They can elect anyone Speaker.
They elect usually the most senior leader in the caucus, and that’s someone who’s usually been in Washington for a long time, which is not a popular formula. So whether it’s Nancy Pelosi, who did not exactly seem like someone who came from the people, even though she did, and John Boehner could have this problem as well.
You make a good point, though, Tavis, which is that Americans still, even if they don’t support his policy, still have great respect for the president. They do that generally with presidents, and this one, I think, they think is trying hard, even if he hasn’t found the handle in every way that they would like.
Tavis: It was one thing, I think, Michael, to ask this question on the front side of the election. I think it’s a fundamentally different question on the backside, and that is, from your perspective, whether or not this election now, in the rearview mirror, was, in fact, a referendum – a rebuke of President Obama personally.
Duffy: Well not personally, no. In no way was it a referendum or a rebuke of him personally. It was certainly a measure of disappointment – I think first of all, a referendum on the economy, absolutely. A broad measure of disappointment about his economic policies and his policies in general? Yeah, it was.
I think it was also in equal measure almost a sort of metric or a barometric reading on how Americans feel about the future. They’re worried. I don’t think they’re as angry as they are scared. I heard a lot about anger this year. I’ve always thought this was more fear than anger, because I think we all look around and think, are our kids’ lives going to be as good as ours were? And we kind of think, uh-uh.
That has people scared, and the president, whether he’s Democrat or Republican, is going to be the repository of that disappointment. But certainly not personally, no.
Tavis: Finally, what a difference two years make. Two years ago, Democrats seemed to win everything; last night, they seemed to lose just about everything, although not quite. So the exit question is whether or not there is anything today for Democrats to be happy about, anything to take solace in at all?
Duffy: Well, absolutely, and it’s that the great, big pendulum will swing again. We used to think of politics as sort of 30-year cycles, and we’d have a progressive cycle, then we’d have a conservative cycle, and in the meantime, things would pretty much stay the same.
Last night was the third time in three consecutive elections when more than 20 seats changed hands. That hasn’t happened since 1952. We’re in an unusually volatile period where the Independent voter is swinging back and forth each time, because they don’t like what they see, they don’t feel they’re getting the results. I think they’re all worried about where we’re going in the future.
What that means is sure, they tossed the Democrats just as they tossed the Republicans two years ago, but it’s a warning also for whoever does win that they could toss the next group in the next round. I think a lot of Democrats probably are thinking okay, maybe we’ll learn this lesson. It took us two kicks to the head, but we may learn this lesson this time, and we’ll see if the Republicans learn it as well.
Tavis: Washington bureau chief for “Time” magazine on a very, very busy day. Michael, I thank you for spending so much time with us, to help us understand better what, in fact, happened last night, and for that matter, what will happen in the coming days and months. So thank you, sir, for your time. Good to have you back on this program.
Duffy: My pleasure, Tavis.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm