Full Episode: Democratic Dilemma, GOP Plight and the Tea Party

Oct. 23, 2014 AT 12:37 p.m. EDT

The panelists analyze the multiple controversies facing Obama and Democrats including problems implementing the Affordable Care Act. Plus, the internal struggles among Republicans trying to overhaul the partyahead of the 2014 midterm elections. Joining Gwen: Amy Walter, Cook Political Report; Alexis Simendinger, Real Clear Politics; Reid Wilson, National Journal Hotline; Molly Ball, the Atlantic.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a tough week in Washington when both major parties are digging themselves out of political holes. See why tonight, on “Washington Week.”

Their problems may be deeper than meets the eye. The White House is defending its health care plan and its attorney general.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: (From tape.) With regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I’ve ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.

JAY CARNEY: (From tape.) The president has confidence in the attorney general.

MS. IFILL: And Republicans are defending themselves from themselves.

CHRIS WALLACE: (From tape.) What do you think of your party, of the Republicans today?

SENATOR BOB DOLE (R-KS): (From tape.) I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says “closed for repair.”

MS. IFILL: Can the Democrats get back on track? Can Republicans agree on what’s next? We explore that tonight with Molly Ball of the Atlantic, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, and Reid Wilson of the Hotline.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. It’s been a strange and interesting week, one that tested the bounds of politics and the policy. Speaking to party loyalists at a Chicago fundraiser on Wednesday, President Obama himself conceded that – the bind that he now finds himself in.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) We’ve got a politics that’s stuck right now and the reason it’s stuck is because people spend more time thinking about the next election than they do thinking about the next generation.

MS. IFILL: Now, of course, what the president means by that is that he’s having trouble getting enough people to agree with his worldview. Starting with one of the biggest achievements of his first term, the affordable care act, what’s the problem there, Amy?

AMY WALTER: Well, if you talk to even Democrats, they range in concern to relatively concerned to absolutely terrified that this is going to be a disaster. You heard Senator Max Baucus, of course, say he worries that this is going to be a train wreck, Democratic senator from Montana. They look back to 2010 and they say the White House was terrible at messaging this and you look even at how much money has been spent advertising on the Affordable Care Act. CMAG, which covers advertising, political advertising said that $475 million has been spent on advertising on the Affordable Care Act, $400 million of it has been opposing the Affordable Care Act.

MS. IFILL: So people don’t even know that –

MS. WALTER: So people don’t know any positive –

MS. IFILL: – good for that.

MS. WALTER: And that’s the next piece that they’re worried about is the actual implementation about it. Nobody knows what to expect. Voters and Americans don’t know anything about this. Businesses have no idea how they are going to implement this or what they’re going to do. And it’s everything from what will the exchanges look like, are people going to get angry when they see that their premiums have gone up. Are they going to get kicked off their health care? There is tremendous, tremendous concern from Democrats that this is going to look like 2010 but worse because you can’t just make it all about the demagoguing of a concept. It’s actually going to be playing out.

MS. IFILL: So Alexis, help me with this. Today the White House came out and they said we have a new report that shows that Medicare will not go – the Medicare trust fund will not go bankrupt as quickly as we thought, got two more years, and that’s because of “Obamacare.” Is that the beginning of a new messaging?

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, they have started – they actually have a plan, which is probably good, maybe late, but it’s good, that they’re going to go – walk all the way through the fall because we’re going to see this October 1 deadline where folks who have no insurance and are going to be eligible for this can get in to sign up for the exchanges.

So they’re starting to do that already, but the president is also stretching a little bit with this information about what this report actually shows because, remember, Amy just told us, this is a law that gets fully implemented next year.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MS. SIMENDINGER: So if they want to say that everything that’s good that’s happened to Medicare in terms of the cost curve, bending the cost curve, going down, it can’t all be related to Affordable Care Act, which is a law that is not fully implemented. But it could be some of the industry implemented – private sector industry implemented improvements that the Affordable Care Act was trying to encourage. So this is a beginning of a messaging, but this is – you know, this is way, way early in that what should have been started probably earlier according to some Democrats.

MS. IFILL: It’s hard to do the big stuff when the little stuff keeps distracting you, as I think John Boehner said this week, drip, drip, drip, or maybe it was last week. So Reid, let’s talk about one of the drips, and that’s Attorney General Holder, who has spent the week saying, no, I don’t hate the press. I’m just trying to do my job. And not making that case particularly well.

REID WILSON: No, he’s not. I think the White House learned last week, when they tried to have an off-the-record session with reporters who then sort of blew it up and weren’t going to acquiesce to an off-the-record session –

MS. IFILL: Made it all about them.

MR. WILSON: Forced it – force the discussion of the IRS and DOJ wiretaps into the briefing room. The same thing kind of happened this week, when the off-the-record meeting between five outlets yesterday with the attorney general showed up in all the newspapers this morning because the AG’s office sort of backed off some of that. But this is – you know, Eric Holder has always been a boogeyman for Republicans. He’s been the guy that – the member of the administration that Republicans could most easily go after and raise a bunch of money off of for their campaigns.

Now, however, the press has turned on him, too, and in doing so is casting a much more skeptical eye towards a White House that frankly has been prosecuting liquors and making journalists jobs all the more harder, much more so than any of their predecessors.

MS. IFILL: Molly, the president said this week he’d like to hit the pause button and get to what?

MOLLY BALL: And get to what –

MS. IFILL: Immigration, to get to tax reform, to get to what? What is it – what is not happening because he is spending all of this time fending off issues like Reid was describing?

MS. BALL: Sure, I mean, it’s – there was – there has been a lot going on in the Congress with the immigration markup, with – there’s still some will to restart the gun debate, bring that back despite the failure. We still do have some of these fiscal deadlines looming that are going to have to be negotiated around, although the debt ceiling keeps getting pushed back in part because of the improving economy. But you know, President Obama has this habit of describing things he doesn’t want to deal with as distractions because he’s distracted from the things he would rather be talking about, but that sort of doesn’t give him a pass to avoid talking about things that his opponents would rather talk about or that the press or whoever else sees as legitimate issues.

MS. IFILL: Is the – are the polls on his side? Is the public on his side about talking about these things or not talking about these things?

MS. WALTER: Yeah, I mean, look, we know that the public is much more concerned about the economy and jobs and those sorts of things than they are about scandals in Washington. And quite frankly, I think when it comes even to Eric Holder, this is a story that if you’re just the average person watching this, you’re talking about taps of journalists and phone records and all these things, and the back and forth and the polarization about what they don’t like about Eric Holder already. And I really do love everyone around this table, but not many other people in this country love us all that much – (laughter) – so government versus journalists, a lot of people just tune out.

I think if Republicans are going to make any traction at all, it’s on the IRS issue. That’s something everybody has a relationship with. Nobody loves the IRS. And this is where the “Obamacare” question comes in because the IRS is responsible for a lot of the process involved in “Obamacare.”

MS. IFILL: Why is that?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that – you have to carry insurance. You have to be insured, right? And there’s going to be a requirement that goes into effect that you have to show some proof of a marginal baseline of insurance. And the IRS will be the final arbiter of providing you some of the tax benefits to afford the insurance that you want. There’ll be some supplemental government help if you can’t afford it. And then, when you file your taxes in 2015, that spring, if you have not had proof of insurance, the IRS is going to fine you based on your income and all of that. So the IRS, unpopular in the past, unpopular today and perhaps looming to be even more unpopular.

MS. IFILL: Go ahead.

MR. WILSON: I was just going to go back to one point that Amy brought up. The polling is short of showing that – it demonstrates exactly what Amy was talking about. While immigration may be a top priority of the administration, a top priority of Republicans in the Senate, probably a lower priority of Republicans in the House, but we’ll see how that moves forward, the average American doesn’t think we can get it done.

MS. IFILL: They don’t favor it or they don’t think we can get it done?

MS. WALTER: They favor a pathway to citizenship. More than 50 percent of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship. Fewer than one quarter think that we should deport undocumented immigrants. However, when you ask them if they think Congress will actually get something done this year – this year, by the end of the calendar year, Quinnipiac poll out today shows that only 24 percent of Americans think something will happen by the end of the year.

And let me tell you, with the House of Representatives being controlled by Republicans, Republicans who are – for whom immigration is a third rail within their own party system and within their own party primaries, it’s – I think this bill has a real problem moving forward. It can pass the Senate with 75 or 80 votes, but that doesn’t mean it can pass the House of Representatives, which we’ve seen before.

MS. IFILL: Who does that hurt more, Molly, if it doesn’t go anywhere?

MS. BALL: If it doesn’t pass? Well, I think the first thing going off this poll is that the American people don’t have any confidence in our political process to solve big problems and –

MS. IFILL: No matter what the big problem happens to be.

MS. BALL: No matter what the big problem happens to be and, as Reid said, they’re probably right about that. And so the first thing that it hurts is just this general anti-Washington feeling, this general feeling that our government is not capable of fulfilling its responsibilities. Of course, we hear a lot about the Republican Party’s problems with Hispanics and with the Latino vote. And it certainly is not going to help that any. But you know, Democrats have had a hard time convincing – the president has had a hard time convincing Hispanics that he really has their back and is committed to pursuing their priorities. And I think there might be a flagging of faith there as well.

MS. IFILL: Well, you lead very sweetly to what we’re going to next, which is the Republican side of the story. We’re not just picking the Democrats. It’s just that the Republican fight is more of an internal one, as mainstream Republicans figure out how to deal with the party’s principled upstarts. Bob Dole’s comments about the party apparatus closing for repairs gave voice to a dismay that has been growing for months. One of those upstarts, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, announced this week she is quitting Congress, pointing out she was always willing to fight Democrats and Republicans.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): (From tape.) Even when it means resisting the policy positions of many in my own political party, I’ve always strived to be first and foremost a public servant and do it as best for the people and never acquiesce to being a political servant. There’s a difference.

MS. IFILL: Boy, that music. But the tea partiers are not the GOP’s only problem. Molly, you wrote about that this week.

MS. BALL: Yeah, well, what I wrote about was sort of the parallels with the Republican Party’s problems now and the problems that the Democrats had in the 1980s. It’s actually kind of eerie. Both parties have or had lost five – lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. But you have a lot of people within the party saying, it’s OK, we still win midterms. We still have majorities in Congress. We still have majorities of governorships. But increasingly, you have these voices of reform within the party saying, if we want to be a true national party again, not a regional party, not a party that people talk about becoming – in the case of Republicans today – a Southern party or maybe a pure opposition party that doesn’t have a national governing role, if they want to correct that, there needs to be some reform that really goes deep.

And as you say, there’s sort of a civil war going on within the Republican Party between the reformers who see the problem as one of policy and philosophy and needing to change their whole orientation to speak to different parts of the electorate, and others who say, no, we just got beat because, you know, the Obama campaign had better computers and smarter pollsters and better, you know, get out to vote apparatus.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask you about this, Reid, because it seems like it affects – this problem at the top affects – trickles down throughout the party – how does this affect the party’s positioning for the presidency?

MR. WILSON: Well, I think it has a huge impact because the driving force behind the Republican Party right now is the House of Representatives, and it’s the only branch of – the only lever of government that they control and it is run by what I think is a very weak leadership right now. John Boehner does not have a lot of power over his Republican conference. Eric Cantor, the number two, doesn’t have any much more power than Boehner does. They’re simply not – the leaders are being driven towards whatever the younger members, the freshmen first elected in 2010 or 2012, even back to the few members who were elected in 2006, like Michele Bachmann, or 2008. You know, this is a very young Republican conference.

One of the interesting things, though, is that after the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, there’s – I think there was one difference between the Democrats sort of rebuilding through things like the Democratic Leadership Conference, which you brought up in your piece, and what’s happening today, and that is there was a base for the Democratic Party of Southern Democrats, like Bill Clinton, people who were in, not only the West and Mountain West and the Northeast, but also places like Arkansas and Louisiana and Florida from which to build and from which to move the party into another direction.

MS. IFILL: So the Democrats had a base in red states, but the Republicans don’t necessarily have any –

MR. WILSON: Nowadays, there are no Republican members of Congress in any New England state. There are no –

MS. IFILL: Well, Susan Collins –

MR. WILSON: Member of the House, exactly. Susan Collins is the only Republican left as a senator from – excuse me, Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, too, but along the West Coast there are no Republicans in the U.S. Senate from there. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip, is from California, but, you know, he is dealing with a Southern party, a party that is based more, you know, in the Midwest, the South, and then to some extent in the Mountain West, than the Democrats were when they had a much broader base.

MS. IFILL: Well, interesting point. Today, Eric Cantor, the House whip, came out with a – wrote a memo to members of the House Republican caucus saying what a great month we had in May. We conducted more than 100 oversight investigations into things like Benghazi. Is that the solution? Is the path forward for the Republican Party?

MS. WALTER: No. But I will say this is the balancing act that Cantor and Boehner both have in the House, which is trying to make sure that they (assuage ?) these young, you know, upstart types and make sure that they’re keeping them happy, while on the other side of it saying, here’s why we need to do immigration reform. Here’s why we need to work on issues that are important to working women. Here’s why we need to soften our tone when it comes to a whole host of issues that we’ve gotten on the wrong side of.

Look, I think Republicans – their biggest concern right now is the demographic piece of this. And being the party out of power always means that you are – you don’t have a person that you can point to to say this is the person who’s going to deal with this for us. You have to wait until the next campaign. And that’s why you – going back to demographics, that’s why you’re seeing so much attention on Marco Rubio and so much attention on immigration.

MS. IFILL: And so much attention on Ted Cruz and – I called Eric Cantor the whip. He’s the majority leader.

Let me ask you a little bit about that, just the same questions I asked about Democrats, Alexis: Is this perception, is it reality, is it both?

MS. SIMENDINGER: About the Republicans, you mean? So I think one of the things that Amy is talking about that’s so interesting to me is this tension between the desire to find a new center of gravity, right, but also as Amy was saying, the polling is showing that the base of the party is very animated by these investigations, much more interesting, paying close attention to it, very – you know – giving donations. The tea party claims that it’s getting new membership because of this.

But then, on the other flipside, there are Republicans – and I’ve talked to some of them – who have been spending some time, for instance, schooling the chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, Mr. Issa of California, on how to be moderate, how to appear in the hearings. Don’t overreach. Don’t – let’s not blow it. You know, and the White House was counting on the fact that the Republicans will overreach.

MS. IFILL: Well, and that’s why, for instance, Michele Bachmann leaving is not necessarily good news for the Democrats, who thought maybe she would be the queen of overreach and they could defeat her.

MR. WILSON: Yeah and to the point at which the Democrat who was running against her dropped out today, after she had said she wouldn’t run again because he could really only win that district, the district that Mitt Romney won by 15 points and she only won by a little over 1 percentage point. You know, he was only going to have an opportunity to win that district if she had been the candidate.

It’s fascinating. And Michele Bachmann was a very prolific fundraiser on her own. She didn’t fundraise a lot for the Republican Party, but, boy, she provided a lot of donations for the Democrats.

MS. IFILL: She was still actually fundraising up until last week, which is one of the reasons this was so surprising. But get to the presidential thing, I just want to button that up. Does this mean that Ted Cruz, Rand Paul are in good position but are out of position with where the party needs to go?

MS. BALL: I think it means that the Republican primaries for 2016 are going to be the front of this war – that you’re going to see, you know, the candidates running in their sort of different lanes. There will probably be, you know, a sort of social conservative candidate, maybe Rick Santorum again. You’ll have a candidate who speaks mainly to the tea party, to the base, whether it’s Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or both of them. And then you may have some candidates who are perceived as more moderate now, like a Chris Christie or a Marco Rubio, ironically, because he also came up with the tea party. But you will have them sort of playing different roles and waging that ideological battle. And that is how this is going to play out in practice.

MS. IFILL: Now, the dream that everybody says they want, both sides, is bipartisanship. If only we can talk to each other, the president said if he could just break the fever in Washington. So today, we – yesterday, we saw him nominate James Comey to be FBI director, a Republican appointee in the Bush administration. Is that olive branch going to work?

MR. WILSON: It will be interesting to see if it does – I don’t think it will because James Comey was not exactly in line with the Republican neoconservatives. Remember, he was the one who stopped an extension of a part of the Patriot Act when some of the more conservative members of the administration tried to get John Ashcroft to sign it in a very –

MS. IFILL: At his sickbed.

MR. WILSON: – hospital. But by the way, this is yet another national security position that President Obama has chosen to go with a Republican instead of a Democrat. For a grand total of 608 days, I think it is, the Pentagon, under President Obama, has been run by a Democrat, Leon Panetta. For the rest of the time, it has been Robert Gates, a Republican; now Chuck Hagel, a Republican. We’ve got now the director, the next director of the FBI is going to be a Republican. You know, at some point, do Democrats get a little nervous that they haven’t had a shot at a young and up and coming national security –

(Cross talk.)

MS. IFILL: We’ve got a minute left. What do you think about that, Amy?

MS. WALTER : About the – yeah, about the Republican piece of this. That makes a very good point, especially that, you know, Democrats for the first time now, especially with the president having an advantage on issues like terrorism and national security, an issue that was always seen as a Republican issue, so does that translate post-President Obama if there aren’t other Democrats to take that?

MS. IFILL: Alexis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: My question is what has President Obama gotten for it, really.


MS. SIMENDINGER: That, you know, he’s done it, I can understand the reason. But when you look in the history books, you look back and say what did you get for it.

MS. IFILL: And that’s what a lot of Democrats are saying. Every time you reach out with that olive branch, it’s snipped off. Final thought?

MS. BALL: Well, I think it’s a case with a lot of different issues, arguably health care that Obama has taken the Republican position that what was once the conservative side of things and instead of Republicans rushing to agree with him, they’ve tried to find some new way to oppose him instead.

MS. IFILL: We’ve come full circle. So yeah, we did that. See how we did that? Thank you, everybody. The conversation has to end a little early tonight because it’s Pledge Week, which gives you the chance, I know that you’re craving for, to support your local station. Go do it now. But we’ll continue on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where among other things, we’ll (hip ?) you to this year’s and next year’s most competitive races. You can watch that live online at pbs.org/washingtonweek, beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

Keep up with daily developments with me over on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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