Mellman And McKinnon On The Midterms

Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep talk with Mark Mellman and Mark McKinnon, our favorite Democratic and Republican strategists, about the results of the midterm elections.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's get some analysis of what President Obama called the shellacking he received in the election this week. Mark McKinnon is a strategist who advised George W. Bush in his presidential campaign.

Mark, welcome back to the program.

Mr. MARK MCKINNON: Hey, thanks for having me on.

MONTAGNE: And Mark Mellman is a Democratic pollster and political adviser.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MARK MELLMAN (Political adviser): Pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Let's stay with you, Mark Mellman. Republicans have said this vote is a repudiation of the president and government spending. How did Democrats read this vote?

Mr. MELLMAN: Well, I think that the content of this vote's very clear. Democrats are in charge of the country and things are not going well in the country. And when things are bad and you're in charge, you get punished by voters. That's exactly what's happened.

The economy technically is on the upswing, but people certainly don't feel that. And as a result, they punish the people in charge, and that's Democrats.

INSKEEP: Although, of course, people then try to take that and boil it down to issues. You hear President Obama suggesting - not quite saying, but suggesting - this isn't really about my agenda. It's about the bad economy and the unemployment rate.

And you hear Republicans saying, actually, it's about specific issues like deficit spending. How accurately are the parties reading the results here, Mark McKinnon?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, listen. I think you have to roll it all up and recognize that this is one of the worst setbacks in history for a political party. In fact, the worst setback in about 60 years. But voters are really saying it's all of that. It's a repudiation of the president. It's a repudiation of the policies. And the car that's in the ditch that the president keeps talking about, well, the voters just said the registration says Obama and the license plates say Democrat.

INSKEEP: Oh, that was a metaphor that he used during the campaign about how he said Republicans had driven the car in the ditch and he was trying to get it out.

Ms. MCKINNON: Yeah. They're saying he's got the keys now and it's his responsibility.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to some Shapiro. The subject here, is working together, now that Republicans will voices we're hearing this morning in a report from our White House correspondent Ari control the House.

First in this tape we'll hear President Obama. Next, we'll hear the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've been willing to compromise in the past, and I'm going to be willing to compromise, going forward.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Our friends on the other side, can change now, and work with us to address the issues that are important to the American people that we all understood. Or, further change, obviously, can happen in 2012.

MONTAGNE: And so when the two of you listen to those statements, how serious do you think the two sides are about working together, really?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, the irony is that I think that's exactly what voters said. But I think that the political system is probably going to act in a completely contrary way. When you look and see that almost all the moderate Democrats got wiped out by this election it's pushing the Democratic Congress further left.

And with the Tea Party influence on the Republicans pushing the Republican caucus further right, I think that actually what we're going to see is, you know, a less likely chance that there's going to compromise.

Mr. MELLMAN: Here I agree with Mark, but I take it one step further, honestly.

At the beginning of this term the Republicans - the last Congress, the Republicans made a clear strategic political decision to just say no to Democrats, just say no to everything President Obama was for. And that's exactly what they did.

And the truth is they found out that might be a successful strategy. The voters rewarded that strategy. And I think they're not going to change it at this point.

We had Mitch McConnell say the other day, that his number objective for this Congress was to prevent President Obama from being reelected. Well, if your number one objective for the country is a political objective, then they're just going to continue to say no, continue not to cooperate, continue not to compromise with this president.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask about that statement, though, Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster - because Mitch McConnell made that statement in an interview with the National Journal.

He said his top political priority was ensuring a good environment for the Republican nominee in 2012. But he also said in that whole interview, that he was saying Republicans - he didn't think Republicans were very popular, that they shouldn't overreach.

It almost sounds, when you read the whole interview, that he was basically saying don't be overoptimistic, don't go too far, don't be extreme and don't end up just electing Obama again. Isn't it a little different message?

Mr. MELLMAN: Well, actually, I (unintelligible) read the interview. It says, I did in its entirety, he says very clearly that his number one objective is to make President Obama a one-term president. That is their objective. Their objective this time was to win control of the Senate. They failed in that objective. They did succeed in winning control of the House, obviously.

But what they're telling us is they're really about the next election, not about the country. And that's a serious problem, I think. And it's a failing that voters are going to see, I think, on vivid display over the course of the next two years.

INSKEEP: Mark McKinnon, is there a danger of Republicans overreaching in this environment?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, sure there is. And I respectfully disagree with Mark on that point, because I think that - I was encouraged to see the body language and the speeches from Republican leadership in making very clear that they have very significant plans, not just saying no.

Eric Cantor laid out a 22 point, very substantive plan yesterday that I think that if the president looks at and comes to the table - and it's in his best politically to move to the center, especially on fiscal issues. And there are some very good plans that people like Eric Cantor and the Boehner plan, and the new budget director, Paul Ryan, who Obama said very nice things about.

So I think if they can get together and work on some of these very thoughtful plans, that there can be some progress.

MONTAGNE: Mark McKinnon, Republican strategist, let's stick with you for just a moment. Are there parallels, as were suggested even during the campaign, between this Republican takeover and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president? And are there either lessons or things to watch for?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, I think that there's a lot of parallels with 1994, that the issue environment is very similar. And I think that the interesting thing for President Obama is that it's an opportunity for him and for the Democrats, because now that they share responsibility for government, they can say listen, whats your plan.

And thats precisely why Im pleased to see Eric Cantor and others stepping forward with very specific plans about what they're going to do. Because it's not just say no. We're saying, you know, here's 22 pages of plans and proactive thoughts about what we think we can do to get things going. Get things moving on the economy and meet us halfway, and let's see what we can do.

INSKEEP: Mark Mellman, very briefly, is there an opportunity here for President Obama?

Mr. MELLMAN: Well, there is. I mean the reality is that President Obama has been anxious to bring parties together. He said that during the campaign. He's tried to do that during his first two years in office. And if Republicans are willing to cooperate now that they have some control, I think there is a lot of opportunity for progress.

We'll see whether Republicans are really serious about that cooperation or not.

MONTAGNE: Mark Mellman is a Democratic pollster. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. MELLMAN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And Mark McKinnon is a strategist who worked with Republicans, including President George W. Bush. Thank you.

Mr. MCKINNON: Carry on regardless.

INSKEEP: Okay.

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