Analysis: How The Parties Fared In The Debt Debate

Steve Inskeep talks with Mark McKinnon, a strategist who advised George W. Bush and John McCain, and Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and political adviser, about how the debt ceiling and deficit debate has affected the parties and the implications for 2012.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And let's get some analysis now, from Republican strategist Mark McKinnon who's advised George W. Bush and John McCain. He joins us from Blue River, Colorado.

Mark, welcome back to the program.

MARK MCKINNON: Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks. And we have another Mark here as well, Democratic pollster and political adviser Mark Mellman, who works for a number of members of the House and Senate. Welcome back to you, as well.

MARK MELLMAN: Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: He's in our studios.

And, gentlemen, what seems to be the lasting political effects - and I guess by lasting, I mean up to next year, 2012 - of the debt crisis?

MCKINNON: Well, I think that the big problem is that everybody thought raising the debt ceiling would avoid the train wreck, and it feels a whole lot like a train wreck, even though they've raised the debt ceiling. You know, in Washington, only in Washington the deficit reduction deal mean we actually increase the debt limit. And that, you know, we had a real sour market response so doesn't seem to have done anything for the recovery. And it feels like we're trying to reduce drunk driving by increasing the blood alcohol limit.

And so, across the political spectrum, Republicans, Democrats and independents are feeling very badly about things, politically, in America right now.

INSKEEP: Mark Mellman.

MELLMAN: Well, look, the question here was, was the United States going to continue to pay its bills? Great nations pay their bills. We had to do that. But there is a fall out - political fallout - from the way this was handled. Nobody really looks good from this, but I think Republicans end up looking a little bit worse in the end. They looked divided. Speaker Boehner couldn't even get his own bill through his caucus. They look uncompromising, the voters - Americans - believe that the president is going to reach across party lines and work with Republicans, that Republicans were not willing to do likewise. And finally, Republicans look extreme. They were really enthralled to the farthest right elements in their party. Those images are not going to help Republicans over the long term.

INSKEEP: You can say divided, uncompromising, extreme, but they also won. They can say they won.

MELLMAN: Well, they can say they won. That's a function of numbers. I mean our system is biased in that way. If they control one House, which they do, and they were solid and united, they can stop anything. So the fact is they did win some concessions from this president, from the Democrats.

INSKEEP: Mark McKinnon, does it hurt Republicans that the approval rating of Congress is down to 14 percent according to CNN and Republicans seem to be a little bit worse than Democrats in that regard?

MCKINNON: Well, it is getting to a level where the approval only seems to come from Congressional families and friends. But I disagree with Mark. I mean I think actually the Republican Party was very unified and they won three different big battles with the president and the Democrats over the last year. They made whole argument and debate in Washington about cutting spending, rather than raising taxes or increasing revenue.

So I think the party's been very unified and now we'll see where that goes next year and I think it's going to be a big - you know, this debate is going to pale compared to the ones upcoming, so it's going to be a fascinating year, politically, next year.

INSKEEP: How is this likely to affect the presidential campaign in 2012? The Republican presidential candidates of course - some of them denounce the debt deal, some of them disapproved, others kind of stayed away until after it was over. Mitt Romney comes to mind. How does it affect them at all?

MELLMAN: Well, you know, almost all of the Republican presidential candidates, as far as I know, all but one, denounced this deal. What they were essentially saying was they wanted the country to stop paying its bills, stop sending Social Security checks, stop paying military families, stop paying veterans. It made no sense. That's, I think, a position that's going to haunt them over the long term. And, again, they looked, I think, extreme and uncompromising. That's the way the Republican Party looks to voters these days. That is not a way to engender support from the middle of this country.

INSKEPE: Mark McKinnon.

MCKINNON: Well, again, I respectfully disagree, and just in the sense that I think Republicans are reframing the debate. I do think there is appropriate criticism to be leveled at those who didn't take a position throughout the entire debate and then only took a position once the debt ceiling was raised, and that applies specifically to Mitt Romney.

INSKEEP: Mark McKinnon - I've just got a few seconds for each of you here - but you got involved, Mark, in this no labels movement which was all about avoiding partisanship and practically solving problems. This debt ceiling debate seemed to be about labels and all about partisanship on some level, didn't it?

MCKINNON: It sure did, and we've been trying to - we've tried to be very active in the no labels community that there's been various exercised about this and has participated daily with the message that everything should be on the table and everybody should be at the table. And that's the message that we continue to send to Congress and the leadership as they select the members for this new super committee.

We think that we need to get bipartisan people, people who are willing to work across the aisle, and people that recognize that everything needs to be on the table and everybody should be at the table.

INSKEEP: Mark Mellman, you've got the last word.

MELLMAN: Everything should be discussed, people should be willing to compromise, but that's the fundamental problem here. The Republican's vision of compromise seems to be do everything we want exactly the way we want. That's what we call compromise. That's not what most people think of as compromise.

INSKEEP: Democratic Pollster Mark Mellman, thanks very much.

MELLMAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, thanks for joining us as well.

MCKINNON: Kick it, thanks.

INSKEEP: All right, and we'll continue covering the politics as 2012 approaches. It's NPR News.

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