Week In Politics: Jobs, Pelosi, Election Results

Robert Siegel speaks with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the shift in the balance of power in the House.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now to talk politics are our Friday regulars: columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see both of you once again.

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

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

SIEGEL: We've just been hearing about jobs. Let's hear about one job - that of House minority leader, E.J., Speaker Nancy Pelosi is running for that job, that is, to remain her party's leader in the House. Why?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, because I think her view is that, number one, she helped build this majority over the last two elections and I think she wants one more shot to preserve this majority she built. She's actually very proud of what they did. I spoke to her yesterday. And while she didn't tell me what she was going to do, everything she was saying suggested she wasn't ready to give up. She talked about the courage people had on health care, on the stimulus, on the Wall Street reform.

I think she's got one really interesting opportunity here. When you think back to the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton, who was another woman in politics who got heard at the moment when she was the frontrunner, and this is Nancy Pelosi being demonized when she has power, she's now going to be the underdog. She can make the case for average people just the way Hillary Clinton did in those late primaries. Clinton did well in those late primaries. I think she sees a road back for herself.

SIEGEL: David, is this a case of what Mitch McConnell spoke of this week as doubling down on a vision of government that the American people have roundly rejected?

Mr. DIONNE: That was a softball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: I don't know what to make - she built the majority, she also built the minority. And I think if she stays in power she'll build an even smaller minority. I mean, to speak for the little person, I mean, maybe the little people on Knob Hill in San Francisco. I just - I'm stunned.

The tradition is when you lose the speakership or when you lose a gigantic election like this, especially when your approval ratings are hovering near negative zero, you step down and you give the job to somebody else. Republicans are lethal, of course, over this. She'll be an anchor as long as she's the spokesman for the House Democrats.

Mr. DIONNE: Could I correct David on history? Between 1945 and 1955, Democrat Sam Rayburn and Republican Joe Martin swapped the speakership four times.

Mr. BROOKS: That's true. That is the one episode in history.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Okay. Well, let's move on to somebody else's job. There are distinctly different takes on what happened on Tuesday. The Republicans say it was the public rebelling against liberal policies. President Obama and the Democrats tend to focus on unemployment and as we'll hear in this clip from an interview that's coming up on Sunday's "60 Minutes," the president concedes that it was also about his failure to communicate.

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

President BARACK OBAMA: Leadership isn't just legislation, that it's a matter of persuading people and giving them confidence and bringing them together and setting a tone, and making an argument that people can understand.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what do you make of that?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. Well, maybe the Titanic had a communications problem with the iceberg. You know, I just think it's a wrong diagnosis. You know, the president - you know, 60 or 70 percent of this election was the economy, no question about that. But when you take a look at your four major initiatives: cap and trade, health care, bailouts, stimulus bill and they're all unpopular, well, usually when parties promote unpopular things, they suffer in the next election.

And if I were the president, the one thing I'd be much more concerned about than I think President Obama is, is 2012. He's convinced he'll win reelection. But if you take a look at the numbers in Ohio, where he loses to everybody -every Republican in Ohio, his numbers are way down in Ohio. They're way down across the working class and the industrial Midwest. And I don't see how you win reelection unless you get those people back. And that requires some sort of change.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I think he clearly failed to cast the argument in ways that would have his side and the Democrats winning. It's not just about packaging, it's about making a running argument the way Bill Clinton could, the way Ronald Reagan could, the way FDR could. So I think he's right to recognize that failure.

Ideology played a role in this election in mobilizing a very conservative electorate. Unemployment played a role in both demobilizing the Democratic electorate and making a lot of working class people very angry. And it's not surprising they're angry. If you look at the states David and I have talked about, Pennsylvania and Ohio in particular, working class people are in bad shape. A quarter of the people in this electorate who disapproved of the Republican Party voted Republican anyway. That's not an ideological vote, that's an angry vote.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about some problems the Republicans are having with their successes. For example, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a very conservative representative from Minnesota, favorite of the Tea Party, wants a position in the House leadership. She's running for it, looks like she's being turned aside, David.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, that'll be an easy call for most people. Even very conservative people not real big fans of Michele Bachmann, strictly on personality and competence grounds. The problem is that the Republicans can't figure out how to cooperate, whether to cooperate, when to cooperate. They don't quite have the...

SIEGEL: Amongst themselves or with the White House?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, let's stay with Ohio. Let's stay with those people in Ohio. What are they looking for? They're looking for somebody to help solve their problems. If Mitch McConnell comes out and says, we just want to defeat the president, that doesn't really help the people in Ohio. And so I think there's - the Republicans are a little too much inside Washington right now, playing that game, not so much how are we going to show people we did something.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I think that's exactly right. I think that the White House folks are cheering Mitch McConnell every time he gets up there and says we're not going to do anything with the president. We want him to lose. And I think the opening for the president is to put some proposals on the table that deal with exactly the problems David talked about and then see if the Republicans obstruct or not.

Because they have more responsibility, making the argument that they are obstructionist, I think, we'll have a lot more purchase than when they were in the minority, because Democrats always had to answer for the fact that, well, they did hold both houses. They don't anymore.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it depends what gets proposed. If the Obama administration continues with big government policies, Mitch McConnell has sort of vindicated in opposing that. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think there will be opportunities. We're going to have huge primal fights about health care. But there will be opportunities for compromise on little things.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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