GOP Strategist: Obama Honeymoon Is Over
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The governors' elections in New Jersey and Virginia came just before a big debate in Congress. Republicans won victories just before the full House considers health care plans. Strictly speaking, one news event has absolutely nothing to do with the other. But politicians are always alert to who's winning elections and who's losing. We talked about this with long time Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
What did Republicans gain on Tuesday night?
Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Strategist): Well, I think Republicans gained two things that are very useful. One, they gained some confidence and energy. We won a Democratic state in New Jersey. We won a tough swing state now in Virginia. And we learned a lot about messaging. We had a perfect candidate, a more moderate Republican for New Jersey. And we had kind of a pragmatic conservative with a great message about the economy and things like that in Virginia.
The second thing we got, I think, is a realization that the Obama honeymoon is officially over. So I think we've gained some new power in Washington to get to the table and hopefully to have some Democrats now start thinking about a bipartisan approach, where they can sit down with Republicans and actually compromise, rather than asking Republicans to vote 99 percent Democrat and call that compromise. We could have new politics.
INSKEEP: We'll talk about that a little bit, but I want to ask a little more about these elections. You said Republicans learned something about messaging. Did they learn something about messaging, or did your party learn something about substance? There's a more moderate person who won in New Jersey, and somebody in Virginia who is fairly conservative, but didn't play that up very much.
Mr. MURPHY: Right. No, I think, you know, message and substance are interrelated. And I think the McDonnell campaign in Virginia was a great example of a pragmatic conservative - what I call a more modern conservative -who isn't simply about dogma, but appeals to a lot of voters by talking about problem solving and connecting to people, particularly on fiscal issues.
INSKEEP: If you got down to the dogma, he's very conservative, but that's not what he's about, really.
Mr. MURPHY: Right. Exactly. You know, I think - you know, the key to moderates(ph) in conservatism is to find a way to expand its appeal. And I think a wider approach - and I'm talking issues people care about. What are you going to do about schools? What are you going to do about the economy now, particularly jobs, is very, very attractive. So we have an opportunity now, and I hope we seize it.
INSKEEP: Why do you think, as you suggest, that these election results would cause Democrats in Washington and Congress to work a little more collaboratively with Republicans?
Mr. MURPHY: Because I think the great mistake of the Obama presidency, the thing that has taken his numbers among the critical independents who put him in office from very high to low now, is they were elected as a bipartisan problem solver, almost a post-partisan politician. But from the day they've been in, they got a little drunk on the power and they've governed as a one-party liberal party. It's been more of the Democratic dogma, particularly in the House under Pelosi.
And while they have the pure political power to force some things through with their majorities, the Democrats, in my view, are governing too far to the left. They're losing the middle of the country. And we have a terrible recession going on. And while the White House radio is set on a pure kind of liberal health care frequency, jobs and the economy is the issue. And the question to me is will the White House re-clock now and try to move into that space, or will they keep pounding away on this health care plan, which politically is hurting them?
INSKEEP: Now, when you say the Democrats should learn a lesson of not being too focused on health care, I mean, they're in it. I mean, they're going to try to pass a bill. How should this affect the health care debate for them?
Mr. MURPHY: Well, I think the only way to do something as difficult as health care - because you're guaranteed to offend a lot of the country when you change a big part of the economy like that - is to get both parties, tie them together and put them in a lifeboat together where they depend on each other for survival.
Because if you do one-party health care, you free up the other party to make a lot of trouble. And that's been their strategy so far. So a lot of Republicans, frankly - the tough-minded pragmatist politicians are happy to sit back, let Obama shove through a one-party health care plan and reap the political benefits. I don't think that's good for the country. But I think if the Democrats try to do this alone and ideologically, it's going to be very painful for them politically.
INSKEEP: But it does raise the question, I mean, aren't some Republicans, or a lot of Republicans more in a mode of feeling that if they can kill health care, if they can kill other Democratic initiatives, they have a chance to win back seats or even win back the Congress?
Mr. MURPHY: Absolutely. I think plenty are thinking that way. And I think there was a moment when Obama got elected, based on his centrist bipartisan rhetoric, where he could've done a big deal with the Republicans. Now, I think a lot of Republicans are, look, they made their bed, they're going to sleep in it -though I still think a bit of an offensive can work. There are people like Eric Cantor, who I think would like to see bipartisan work in the House.
INSKEEP: One last thing, Mr. Murphy. Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, was on television election night and offered his message, his lesson from this. And he said he thought the election was about leadership, paying attention to what people are saying. And when you don't listen, he says, when you don't take into account people's concerns, they will respond.
I wonder if when you look at surveys on health care, if those words might be turned right against him. Most people favor a public option, for example, a government option for health insurance, and Republicans are dead set against it.
Mr. MURPHY: Well, you know, I made a living for about 24 years reading polls. And I can tell you you have to be very careful, because polls that test hypotheticals - would you like a helicopter in your backyard that'll take you to work every day in four minutes - you can get a very good poll number. So I've seen the public option tested every way. The problem with testing the public option is people don't really know what it is. It's a theoretical idea right now.
I think what the country would really like to see is the squabbling ending, the ideological dogma be turned down a few notches, and Republicans and Democrats work together to fix the economy and to do something to make health insurance more affordable and more accessible for more people. And the historic test now, after these setbacks, for the president: Will he grab the leadership to try to force that? I think he could get a lot of credit in the country. We'll see what happens.
INSKEEP: Mike Murphy, Republican strategist. Thanks very much.
Mr. MURPHY: Thank you. Great to be here.
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