Obama Win, GOP Losses Examined

David Brooks of The New York Times says there is little evidence voters have bought the liberal agenda, but notes the GOP could take up to 15 years to recover. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post calls Barack Obama both practical and progressive.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. And so, the lame duck period begins. Republicans will limp back to Washington, although their losses in Congress were not so bad as some had predicted.

BLOCK: And the Democrats will begin defining what their new mandate means with the White House and both houses of Congress in their control for the first time since 1994.

SIEGEL: And we are turning to our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hello to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Reporter, The Washington Post): Hello.

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

SIEGEL: A moment ago, Nancy Pelosi said that we should expect something like expanded children's health care, something less than comprehensive healthcare reform, right away in 2009. And perhaps also a rescue package for the auto industry. E.J., sound sensible to you?

Mr. DIONNE: It does, and I think there's a lot of crazy talk about fear of Democrats in Congress overreaching, as if they want to nationalize heavy industry and create a 90-percent tax rate. There's no appetite for that. I think it is smart to start with children's health care. It passed under Bush. You could insure a lot of people fairly quickly for a modest sum, and you set the stage for the second part of it.

The other thing that I think is important is, people are acting as if Barack Obama was vague and had no agenda or somehow ran as a conservative, which is odd from the same people who said he was a socialist during the campaign. He was actually quite specific about eventually having a universal healthcare plan, universal access, redistributing the tax burden upward to cut tax on other people, strong regulation of financial industry, green energy investments, and ending the Iraq war. That's a pretty specific agenda. And I think that he's going to try to fulfill it.

BLOCK: Let's turn to David Brooks here. And David, last week on the program here, you said that the question on your mind in Tuesday's vote would be this, is this a transforming election where the country significantly moves to the left? So, what's your answer on that?

Mr. BROOKS: It sort of ambled and nudged over there. Frankly, I was expecting a nine-point Obama win and a much bigger Democratic majority, so, I have to say, if you look at all the election results, most states, almost every state moved to the left or moved to the Democratic Party by five percent or three percent. So - and this was rural voters. This was well-educated voters. This was less educated voters, the young, particularly the old, all groups. Everybody just moved.

Now, does this mean - this does mean they want Democratic rule. Does it mean they want liberal activist rule? Well, if you look at the polls, there's really very little evidence of that. People are still very cynical about government, distrustful of the government. They don't want the government to shrink. They don't want the conservative agenda, but they haven't yet bought on to the liberal agenda. And so, I think the lesson for Obama is be pragmatic, be like the Gates Foundation, sort of data-driven and just move step-by-step.

Mr. DIONNE: See, I think that Barack Obama is both pragmatic and progressive. And I don't think you can understand him unless you understand both things. And, that on the one hand, he really does have to work at increasing people's confidence in the government and that government can work. That declined under Bush.

And it's actually bad for progressives and liberals, but I think that there are dumb progressive things to do and smart progressive things to do. And I think that, if he moves on the agenda he talked about in his election, he can move forward. The country doesn't care about the ideological labels. They care about results. They elected on Reagan when they were unhappy with what Democrats had done and were willing to give him a chance. I think that's exactly where liberals or progressives are now.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you both this question. You both covered politics for quite a while. We've just seen a terrifically well-run presidential campaign in the Obama campaign. And now, it has to pivot and become a transition team and then govern. What, if anything, is the relationship between being able to run a great, successful national campaign and being able to govern?

Mr. BROOKS: First, I think it's a very tenuous relationship. I thought Obama ran a great campaign. I thought the best single campaign I've ever covered was the George Bush 2000 campaign, and a lot of people may not think he turned out to be a great administrator. And the difference is, when you're running a campaign, you're basically doing an iteration of the same thing month after month. When you're president, you're doing eight million things at once.

And so, for Barack Obama, he had a very centrally controlled campaign. They had a theory at the beginning. They just walked through the theory for months after months. You can't do that as president. I think he's going to have to totally revolutionize his management style, not top down the way the campaign was, but bottom up, the way his rhetoric is.

And I would recommend him to just totally rewrite the way the White House is structured. No strong central authority. Just have it decentralized the way, you know, social launch entrepreneurs are now.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

Mr. DIONNE: I actually think that a campaign can be telling. In Obama's case, there are at least a few things that are clear. He's good at picking good people, giving them good direction, and then giving them authority.

He did more, I think, than George Bush did. I agree with David that Bush ran a good campaign in 2000, but this was a much vaster enterprise. It was more entrepreneurial, if you will. New uses of technology, a vast army of people out there, it really was like getting a big startup going.

And so, and in terms of reorganizing the White House, I just - I guess I disagree on decentralization, that you need some sort of direction at the center, and then you can decentralize a lot of other things. But you need to give people clear direction. Obama's pretty good at that.

BLOCK: David Brooks, I'd be curious to hear what you think about where this result leaves the Republican Party and what they need to do to regroup?

Mr. BROOKS: Just in a world of hurt. I mean, I covered the Margaret Thatcher decline and then John Major in Britain, and it took them 15 years. I think we could be in for that because, believe me, the immediate lesson a lot of conservatives are going to draw is, we weren't conservative enough. If only we had been for smaller government, more lived-up for our values, and not nominated that sellout John McCain or that big spending squish George Bush. That's going to be the first reaction. I guarantee you.

BLOCK: And is that wrong?

Mr. BROOKS: And it'll take a defeat... That's absolutely wrong. You start with the Goldwater base, but then you have to have what I think of as the Teddy Roosevelt progressive conservative tradition that says, we don't want big government, but we want government to help people in practical ways. That's been jettisoned from the Republican Party. It'll take a couple elections, I believe, to get that right.

BLOCK: And E.J., do you see a way to meld those two grips together in a harmonious way?

Mr. DIONNE: I think the Republicans should be required to sit in a room and read two years of David Brooks' columns. I totally agree with David that I think that the Republicans really need to look to what the British conservatives did and realize that you can't sort of say, we're going to run the government, and by the way, we're going to run against it all the time. You can't say, we're going to sort of run a really lean operation and then spend all this money. There is going to be a sizable government. How do you run it according to a moderate set of conservative principles?

SIEGEL: Let the record show, by the way, that today on Wall Street, the Dow lost almost 500 points, erasing what had been for some reason an up day on election day. I challenge you to make any intelligent...

Mr. BROOKS: It's Obama ruining our economy already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: Hey, the good thing for Obama is...

SIEGEL: Just reading your red meter is all you have. E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: This whole mess happened while Bush was president, and that actually is a lucky thing for Obama. This - if we'd had this meltdown in February after he got elected, he'd be in a world of trouble. This way, I think he'll get a little more patience from the public for a while.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, David Brooks of the New York Times, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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