A Review Of The Midterm Elections

NPR's Michele Norris talks to our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the results of the midterm elections.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And we continue with politics with our two regular political observers, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post): Good to see you.

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

NORRIS: In big moments like this there are some core questions about leadership, is this the right person for the right time. At a point when Americans are very angry at both parties, frustrated about the direction of the country and the economy, is John Boehner the right man for this moment? I'm going to begin with you, David.

Mr. BROOKS: I actually think he is. He is very different from Newt Gingrich. He is a professional legislator. He is more of a professional than an ideologue. The key thing about him - there are two key things. One, the decision to decentralize power away from the Speaker to empower the committee chairs which reverses the trend of the last several speakers, that's a good and practical and professional move.

The second thing is an attempt - I think a sense of humility which he does have. He doesn't have the ideological fervor of a Gingrich, or an Army, but I sense we're going to do some small things. We can't control all that much. We're really suffering from over expectations. We can't overreach, let's try to do some small things.

So it won't all be pleasure and light for Republicans and Democrats, but he is a more legislative craftsman than an ideological force.

NORRIS: And so, not a lost a chess pawning today E.J., but is he actually talking about doing small things? I mean, several people were elected with a much larger agenda, for instance, the full repeal of healthcare legislation.

Mr. DIONNE: I think John Boehner's problem is that he is a dealmaker at heart, which is what Audie Cornish's piece suggested. He did work with George Miller on education issues rather pleasantly and productively. And George Miller is a really strong liberal.

But he's got a lot of people, possibly some in his own leadership, with bayonets to his back saying, you better not deal. And I was very struck at the news conference today where John Boehner's comments were relatively conciliatory, but Mitch McConnell was fighting the election. Basically, the Democrats got rejected, they don't understand it. If they don't understand that we're still going to oppose them, because he's not in the majority yet.

And then the other thing is the House Republicans actually don't have to be responsible if they don't want to, because they can pass some stuff, and the Senate will block it, or President Obama will veto it. And they can just wait for the next election and see how the Senate and the presidency play out. So it's going to be very interesting.

I don't think Boehner at heart is the kind of politician who always wants to play it that way, but I think he may end up having to play it that way.

NORRIS: Can he hold his caucus together, particularly with the people who rode the Tea Party express to Washington?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, he's got such a big majority that he could lose some votes and still control his - get a majority on the floor. But I think he really has to watch his back both against potential rivals and against some - I mean, when you get an intake this big, you can get some interesting characters. You can also get some pretty extreme people.

NORRIS: Let's move to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for a minute, and before we go on, I want to play a little bit of what the President had to say at his press conference this afternoon.

(Soundbite of President Obama Press Conference)

President BARACK OBAMA: My core responsibility is making sure that we've got an economy that's growing, a middle class that feels secure, that jobs are being created. And so I think I've got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.

NORRIS: President Obama at the White House today. He also said at some point, just before the election, that he had to take responsibility for the fact that there were policies that perhaps the White House could have taken credit for if only America knew about them.

Since this was seen as a referendum on the White House, in the end was this election about a sales job, or just lousy policy in the eyes of the public. David?

Mr. BROOKS: I think it was policy, and that's the big difference. When I heard him speak today, you know, he spoke in a calm, measured way, probably a little too calm. But it was failure of communication, failure of process. I think the overwhelming evidence is, sure, the economy was a major factor in this election, but you don't have the biggest swing in seven years if it's just the economy.

When you look at this huge swing to the Republicans not only in the House but also in the Senate, in the governorships, in the state legislatures, and then you look at the exit polls, where you've got 22 percent of independents saying he's too liberal, these are people who voted for him, or you get a dramatic shift in people saying government is doing too much, two-thirds of people saying the stimulus package either did nothing or did harm, there's ideological content there.

And I think he hasn't yet reckoned with the sense that a lot of independents who voted for him now think there was too much spending, too much liberalism, too much centralization.

NORRIS: E.J., everything about your body language suggests that you have something to say about that.

Mr. DIONNE: I really just disagree with David's analysis of the election. Here's what I think happened. If you look at all of the exit polling, this was a very old and very conservative electorate compared with 2008. It was as if we almost had two different countries that voted yesterday and in 2008.

Example: In 2008, voters under 30 outnumbered, as a percentage of the electorate, voters over 65, 18 percent to 16 percent. Yesterday, only 10 or 11 percent of the electorate was under 30; 25 percent was over 65.

Self-identification, ideologically, was conservative. The Democratic constituency was asleep, or some were sort of maybe turned off, but they weren't there.

And so I think this creates a real challenge for Obama because on the one hand, he needs to re-engage his younger supporters, African-Americans. At the same time, he really has to reassure angry, legitimately angry, blue-collar whites in the Midwest. Democrats took it on the chin in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That's a huge deal.

NORRIS: We don't have a lot of time left. What does the president do now? Does he tack to the right by necessity, or does he stand and fight and try to use the GOP as a foil, moving into 2012?

Mr. DIONNE: I think he has no choice but to use it as his foil because I don't think, in the end, there are very many things the Republicans want to do business with him on.

I think there may be some room on education. There may be some room on energy, and I think you're going to have a big argument about the budget. He's going to challenge them to put up or shut up. They talk about deficits: Well, what are you going to do about it?

NORRIS: David?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I agree with that. He takes the fiscal commission, which is going to report in a couple weeks, and he just embraces it and runs with it and says: I'm serious. What about you?

NORRIS: Since we've got agreement from both of you, I think we're going to leave it there.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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

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