Week In Politics: Clinton And Meek, Va. House Race

Melissa Block and Michele Norris speak with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the week in politics. They talk about a report that former President Clinton urged the Democratic nominee for Florida Senate to drop out of the race and President Obama stumping for freshman Rep. Tom Perrillo of Virginia.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

President Obama is in Virginia tonight for a rally to help one Democratic congressman freshman, Tom Perrillo - he's been trailing in the polls. As he campaigns, Perrillo has been trying to create some distance from the White House. He points out that he disagrees with the president on some key issues.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To talk about the Democrat's complicated balancing act and more, we are joined by our regular political commentators: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Good to see you.

BLOCK: And both Michele and I are going to put some questions to you - lots to talk about in these days before the elections. And E.J., let's start with this race in Virginia's 5th District: I was in that district this week, caught up with both Congressman Perrillo and his opponent, State Senator Robert Hurt, and lots of questions about whether this freshman can hang onto this seat, which he won by such a tiny margin two years ago.

What do you make of this visit by the president? Will it help him in Virginia? Does it hurt?

Mr. DIONNE: You know, I was in that district. I enjoyed your piece very much. I was in that district almost a month ago and Tom Perrillo was not getting a lot of party support back then. They had almost written him off. And I think one of the things that's happened is a lot of Democrats and progressives, including the president have started feeling guilty about not helping one of the most principle freshman in the House. He won in a conservative district that Obama himself lost, cast one hard vote after another and then unapologetically defended them. And if Perrillo pulls this out, I think that race will be studied for a long time.

What he's tried to do is defend the votes where he was with Obama, as on health care, as on the stimulus, but in way run to his populist left. He doesn't say left. It doesn't come across as left, but he's been - he was critical of Larry Summers. He was critical of the banks. It's an old Southern populist strategy that Perrillo has used to keep himself in the race and it'll be remarkable if he pulls it out.

BLOCK: And, David, it is a kind of complicated dance that some Democrats are engaging with in the president as we head towards Tuesday.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. One of the crucial issues that I'll be looking for Tuesday is the health care vote. If you look at the polls of the Democrats who are allowed to vote against the health care bill, the ones who voted against are doing pretty well, about two-thirds of them are ahead in the polls. The ones who voted for the bill are just getting destroyed. And so that's not going to be the major issue of the election. But it seems to be a significant issue.

Some are sort of backing away from that. There's a guy named Earl Pomeroy who's a member from North Dakota who's run an ad which has been seen around the country where he says, I'm not Nancy Pelosi, I'm not Barack Obama. I made some bad votes, I'm sorry about that. But give me another chance. And so they're sort of walking away. I'm not sure that'll really end up helping.

NORRIS: I'd like to take the discussion to Florida and look at the case of another Democrat who finds himself in a tough spot today: Florida Senate candidate Kendrick Meek.

He's denying reports that former President Bill Clinton had asked him to drop out of the race. Meek is not doing very well in the polls. The fear is that among Democrats is that he and the independent candidate Charlie Crist will somehow split the Democratic vote.

And this morning, Meek spoke about his conversations with the former president. Here he is on CBS.

(Soundbite of CBS broadcast):

Mr. KENDRICK MEEK (Senate Candidate, Florida): We talked about it. I told him that I wasn't interested. He didn't push me to do it. He said, listen, whatever decision you make is a decision that you feel that's a right decision. And I made that decision. It was that I'm staying in the race.

NORRIS: That was Senate candidate Kendrick Meek. And we should note that President Clinton released a statement, former President Clinton, saying that they did indeed talk, but that he did not ask Kendrick Meek to drop out.

David, I want to begin with you. The White House has been making this full-court press to turn out black voters in large numbers, what's the impact of this beyond Florida?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it is kind of demoralizing when you're in basically your final weekend of the campaign and the debate is over whether you're going to surrender before the vote. That's just a mess. I'm not sure it'll have huge spillover effects. I mean the evidence suggests they've done - in the last couple weeks, if you look at what's happened in the polls, there has been some greater energy on the Democratic side. And if you look at the polls, I think what it's done is it's neutralized the Republican advantage.

So we've basically seen the polls stall for the last two weeks, but not totally turn around. I'm not sure this event - it certainly won't help - I'm not sure it'll hurt tremendously.

NORRIS: And what does it say, E.J., about the complicated relationship between the current president, his party and the former president?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, there is that. But I think a lot of Democrats would love to have Kendrick Meek drop out because Charlie Crist has closed the gap by taking votes away from Meek. He had been running way behind Marco Rubio. Now he seems to be within seven points and Democrats would love Crist to beat Rubio. However, Kendrick Meek's been a very loyal Democrat. State Democrats may want him to stay on the ballot because they want African-American votes to help elect Alex Sink, their candidate for governor, who's in a very, very tight race.

So it's a - there were almost contradictory interests involved in this race. But I think that secretly a lot of Democrats would like to publicly support Meek and pray that Charlie Crist wins.

BLOCK: One last hurrah before Tuesday, so we can talk about the broad contours of this campaign season, and E.J., what are your thoughts as you think about the narrative that's been established? Big lessons learned in 2010?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, I've been - I've never felt so confused about a mood in a midterm election. And, you know, in '98, in '02, '06, I had a really clear sense of where those races were going. This is very odd. First of all, I think there's been a lot of complicated and bad polling. And there is also this great contradiction in a lot of the polls between registered voters who seem to tilt Democratic and then there are likely voter models that tilt Republican.

BLOCK: For who will show up.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah. And then some of that comes from real Republican enthusiasm. But then you have all these predictions of a big Republican night, yet the country itself clearly has not been persuaded to like the Republican Party. I think in the end there's not going to be an ideological verdict, except in a small number of conservative districts where Republicans kind of went off the reservation because they didn't like President Bush and are now coming back. And so some Democrats will get voted out in those districts on ideological grounds.

But I think for a lot of moderate Independent voters, there is just this sense the country wasn't moving the way they wanted to when Bush was president, it's still not moving in the right direction. And so it's a road of frustration rather than ideology.

BLOCK: David, E.J. admitting he's confused, I don't know if you're confused. You're (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: I've never been more clear about an election in my life.

BLOCK: You're predicting a pummeling defeat for the president on Tuesday. You're already thinking about what happens after Tuesday, the post election roundup.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I put this one in the bank. No, I thought this was a reasonably clear election. I mean, if you go back to what happened between April and May in 2009, yeah, those health care town halls. That fired up the Tea Party. You also had this vast movement of the Independents. And now the Democrats are losing - the Independent voters by 20 percentage points. When you do that you lose elections.

And so to me it's a reasonably ideological election if the Republicans pick up 50 seats, well, that's kind of ideological. Now, that does not mean that they're loved. They are not. We're going to have an election where the party that wins is tremendously unpopular. And then there's a deeper current, which I've sensed in visit after visit, which is not only people concerned about unemployment, they're concerned about decline. They're concerned about values. That we're losing the essential values of working together, of working hard, of work leads to reward. And that's a pervasive fear of decline which transcends the two parties and which undercuts everything.

Mr. DIONNE: And I very much agree about that sense of national decline. Indeed I think one of the reasons Barack Obama won in 2008 is because this whole sense of hope and mission would create in the country a sense we could get out of the decline. But that's why I don't think this is an ideological election because when you look at moderate Independent suburban voters, this morning I was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, they're much more worried about getting the country in the right direction than they are about big government or small government or the issue that the Tea Partiers raised.

NORRIS: Good to talk to both of you.

Mr. BROOKS: Good to be here.

Mr. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: Thanks to you. That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

BLOCK: Happy Halloween.

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