The Biggest Political Moments Of The Decade What are the most notable political moments of the last decade? The NPR Politics team sits down to discuss four of their picks: the rise of the Tea Party, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the elimination of the filibuster for judicial appointees, and the Access Hollywood tape.

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This episode: Congressional correspondent Susan Davis, National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson, and Senior Editor and Correspondent Ron Elving.

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The Biggest Political Moments Of The Decade

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The Biggest Political Moments Of The Decade

The Biggest Political Moments Of The Decade

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And as we sit here, we're about to close out the decade. And what a decade it's been in politics, y'all.

ELVING: Yeah. It's probably time for it to go.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: Yes, and we won't miss it.

DAVIS: Well, we want to take a look back on some of the defining moments from the past 10 years. This is a topic that was a huge debate on the NPR POLITICS team itself. So we've narrowed in on four moments - four moments that we think explain politics as we understand it today. And we know you might disagree with us. That's totally OK. And we'd love to hear what you think the top political moments of the last decade were. But we're going to start in chronological order, and that starts with the Tea Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

SARAH PALIN: Just so inspiring to see real people - not politicos, not inside-the-Beltway professionals - come out and stand up and speak out for commonsense conservative principles.

(CHEERING)

TED CRUZ: Free enterprise, fiscal responsibility, individual liberty and to the Constitution.

RAND PAUL: Tonight, there's a Tea Party tidal wave, and we're sending a message to them.

(CHEERING)

HARRY REID: We've known for years that the Tea Party has full control of the House, but now we understand they have full control of the Republican caucus here in the Senate.

DAVIS: Ron, take us back in the Wayback Machine to this time in the beginning of the decade. What drove the rise of the Tea Party movement?

ELVING: It was a reaction to the first couple of years of Barack Obama's presidency and perhaps even to the rise of Barack Obama in the first place. There was an entire movement of conservatives just waiting to happen, to reemerge. And after a couple of years of Barack Obama, they thought they had just the issues they wanted to do that on with respect to the health care plan that became the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and also with respect to some of the fiscal decisions that were made in those two years.

DAVIS: The Tea Party, Mara, shows you how quick things can change in politics because in 2008, the country elects the first black president and Democrats in Congress. And then the Tea Party comes in and stops it all in its tracks.

LIASSON: Yep, stops it all in its tracks. And at first, they were all about small government, fiscal responsibility. But it turns out that all those people in tricornered hats, colonial garb, don't tread on me - later, they were fine with deficits, or at least they didn't talk about them at all once Republicans came back to power and ran up the deficit way bigger than Obama had ever done.

DAVIS: Can you draw a throughline from the Tea Party movement to the presidency and election of Donald Trump?

LIASSON: Absolutely. I believe that because I think that immigration was a big part of their program and the energy behind them. They didn't like a lot of things that were happening in America. They didn't like the bailouts. They didn't like the individual mandate. But they also didn't like illegal immigration, and that's one of the things that drove them. And that was the perfect segue to Trump because that was his main issue.

ELVING: There was also a demographic element to a lot of this. Right from the very beginning, the Tea Party movement seemed to be saying, wait a minute; we're not sure we're on board for all of this diversity. We're not sure we're on board for all this social change. And it got tied up with all kinds of social issues, such as abortion, gun rights - we'll talk about that - and also all the rights associated with the LGBTQ movement. This, all at the same time, was symbolized by Barack Obama.

Now, Barack Obama may not have been anywhere near the doctrinaire liberal that some people thought he was going to be on the left or that some people feared he would be on the right. But he was a perfect symbol for the changes in America that many of these folks - and many of them were from less-well-populated states or from less-well-populated parts of the big states - a lot of these folks just felt that their America was slipping away. And somehow, Donald Trump came along and personified that spirit.

DAVIS: It also is because there was an element of the Tea Party movement - not all of it - but an element of it that did fuel birtherism, the...

LIASSON: Absolutely.

DAVIS: ...Conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. And Donald Trump embraced that conspiracy theory when he was just a New York businessman.

LIASSON: Right.

DAVIS: And that helped give him a lane in Republican politics.

LIASSON: Right. And you know, there was a moment when people said, gee, would the Tea Party become a third party? Well, of course not. They morphed seamlessly into the Republican Party. As a matter of fact, you could argue that they were and continue to be the activist base of the Republican Party. They kind of personified what - where the Republican Party was going. And once Trump emerged, he was the guy to take it there.

ELVING: In a way, Donald Trump was both the beneficiary of the rise of the Tea Party and, in the end, he is kind of a natural end to it, as well, because he is not taking on all of their issues. He is, in some respects, making it impossible for them to achieve some of their issue ends. And because he wants to have a big spending government that helps him get reelected and because he wants to be, you know, saying yes to everybody and juicing the economy so that this already record-setting economy keeps getting stronger through his reelection year, he is showing his independence from their whole philosophy.

LIASSON: Well, I - that's only if you accept that their philosophy is - their - the bedrock part of their philosophy is fiscal conservatism. And I don't accept that. I think they were anti-immigration in their core. And I think that he is absolutely picking up the Tea Party banner, and that's why you don't hear any Tea Party remnants arguing against him...

DAVIS: Well...

LIASSON: ...Because he's doing a lot of the things that they want.

DAVIS: And Senator Rand Paul, a Republican of Kentucky who very much, you know, is in the Senate because of the Tea Party movement - he's the one that declared it dead in the summer of 2019 in response to Trump's fiscal policy decision-making.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL: Can you hear it? It's a dirge, a funeral march. It's the death of a movement, a once-proud movement with hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall. It's the death. It's the last gasp of a movement in America that was concerned with our national debt. Today is the final nail in the coffin. The Tea Party is no more.

DAVIS: OK, and so the second moment as we move through the decade that we want to talk about is about guns. We've had a decade of mass shootings in this country, but the shooting that really defined a decade of sort of intractable gun debates in Washington was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December of 2012, where there was 20-some mass casualties. Twenty of them were 6- or 7-year-old elementary school students.

ELVING: Yes. This is the one, perhaps, that personifies the shock and the challenge to a national conscience that we have felt after many shootings - say, most recently, El Paso and some of the others. But in this case, you're talking about a school. The victims are children. They are massacred in their classroom.

LIASSON: To see Obama in the briefing room with a tear trickling down his face - I mean, he was totally shaken to the core about this and frustrated and angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know there's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them - birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

DAVIS: And President Barack Obama at the time is facing a divided Congress. Democrats control the Senate, Republicans have the House, and there is this sense that maybe they could find some bipartisan cooperation in what had already become a pretty divided Washington. And the Senate takes up a gun debate in the spring of 2013, and there's already a bipartisan bill. It's by Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, two guys who come from gun-friendly states who have - who are gun rights backers historically. And they think they're going to come up with the deal, the thing that can break the logjam. And, Mara...

LIASSON: Nope. It didn't happen. And what was the deal? It was to require background checks on commercial gun sales. It was not to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which this country had for 10 years starting in 1994. That couldn't pass.

DAVIS: Part of the reason why I made the case for this being one of these moments is, one, I covered it. But I've also covered all the responses to these mass shootings, and this one was different in that people really believed something could get done. And when nothing could get done, when it became clear the Senate could not act, there was just this sense of, like, defeat on Capitol Hill. It was, like, this era of the new Senate, this idea that powerful senators across the aisle, usually, when they put their mind together, can come up with a compromise. It became so clear that wasn't going to happen.

There was dramatic outbursts in the Senate gallery that day. Victims of gun violence were yelling, shame on you, shame on you, at the senators. Harry Reid, Barack Obama are out there, just saying what a travesty of Washington this is. And so I think it speaks to both sort of the intractability of certain issues, specifically the gun issue, and it explains why, in every mass shooting since...

LIASSON: Right.

DAVIS: There has been this same outcome.

LIASSON: The outcome always is - there is a moment of bipartisan agreement, but the moment is fleeting, and it goes away. And it's a pattern that's been repeated over and over again. You know, you saw it after the Parkland High School shootings...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Where President Trump met with some victims. And he talked about - yes, I have - maybe I'll be willing to take on the NRA, he even said at one moment, which is laughable in retrospect. But, you know, the gun debate goes on, and it has fueled a lot of Democratic activism. You know, scroll forward 10 years, and the playing field has been leveled by Mike Bloomberg, among other people with the NRA, in terms of money. And background checks are more popular than ever. So the gun politics is still evolving, but there's no doubt that that moment was kind of a low point not just on the gun debate but the fact that Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin couldn't even make a modest proposal get through the Senate.

DAVIS: Ron, it also, I think, speaks to the rise of sort of executive power and executive orders because the inability for Congress to do something on guns provoked President Obama at the time to put out an executive order on guns, saying, if Congress can't act, I will. And it was one of the more dramatic and emotional moments of his presidency, where he cried at the White House talking about those Newtown kids.

ELVING: The other thing to bear in mind here is the bearing that this had on how people felt about the filibuster in the Senate because you had a 54-46 majority for this, which looks like a majority. It's bigger than the majority the Republicans have in the Senate today. And yet, that wasn't enough to get the bill out.

DAVIS: When we continue to have these mass shooting events, there's - almost always, part of the response is, what is Congress going to do about it? And we know now Congress can't, by its...

LIASSON: Correct.

DAVIS: ...Grand design, do...

LIASSON: They can't.

DAVIS: ...Anything about it. And if people want to understand why that is, the response to Newtown explains it.

LIASSON: That's right, and that's why we chose this as a moment.

DAVIS: And we need to take a quick break, but the filibuster continues to be a part of what we're going to talk about next with two more defining political moments of the decade.

And we're back. And the third moment that defined the decade also took place in the Senate at the tail end of 2013, when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid goes nuclear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: It's time to change. It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.

ELVING: So Harry Reid, in this case, was frustrated with the holding up of presidential appointments not necessarily to the Supreme Court, but on all the other courts and on other presidential appointments, which were being held up wholesale - sometimes more than 70 at once - by even one senator on the Republican side. That drove Harry Reid around the bend, and he invoked the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster on presidential appointments. Now, a nuclear option sounds a lot cooler than it is, right?

DAVIS: Yeah (laughter).

ELVING: It...

DAVIS: It's Washington speak that makes it sound - Senate procedure sound a lot cooler than it is.

ELVING: But it is very dry procedure, and it has to do with when the rules for a session of the Senate are being approved.

DAVIS: So the nuclear option essentially is the Senate majority leader pushing through a rules change that would lower the threshold from 60 votes down to 51 to confirm every executive-level nominee except the Supreme Court...

LIASSON: Right.

DAVIS: ...Justices.

LIASSON: Which means that the minority in the Senate had its rights diminished. But that was a little bit of constitutional hardball. I would argue that if you're looking for the moment, I would put the moment a tiny bit further down the timeline, when Antonin Scalia dies...

DAVIS: In February of 2016.

LIASSON: ...In February 2016, and Mitch McConnell decides that he is not going to bring up Obama's nominee for a vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Mr. President, the next justice could fundamentally alter the direction of the Supreme Court and have a profound impact on our country. So of course - of course - the American people should have a say in the court's direction. It is a president's constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, and it is the Senate's constitutional right to act as a check on a president and withhold its consent.

LIASSON: McConnell called this - keeping Antonin Scalia's seat open until the 2016 election. He made a big gamble. He was hoping the Republicans would win. They did. He called it the most consequential thing he's ever done. I think he's absolutely right about that. McConnell plays the long game, and he understands how important the court is. And especially, it's kind of existentially important - for a party that is on the wrong side of demographic trends in America, the courts are even more important.

ELVING: Strictly speaking, the big move that McConnell made was not even considering Merrick Garland.

LIASSON: I mean, constitutional hardball, played over and over again in an escalating manner, leads you to, I would argue, a diminished democracy with minority rights. What I think Mitch McConnell did was guarantee that we will never have an opposition party Senate confirm the nominee of a president from the other party ever again.

DAVIS: Certainly not within, like, shooting distance of an election.

LIASSON: I think ever. As a matter of fact, during the 2016 election, Republican senators said that - that we will never vote on President Hillary Clinton's nominees to the Supreme Court ever.

ELVING: Yes. They were just going to just hardball it...

LIASSON: Yep. Yep. Yep.

ELVING: ...And stonewall it and say, we don't have to approve anybody we don't want to...

LIASSON: Yep.

ELVING: ...Approve of. And that would be that. And we would be in that constitutional crisis in 2017 instead of the one we're in today.

DAVIS: And McConnell returned the favor. He went nuclear in 2017, finally eliminating the threshold, also for Supreme Court justices. And that's what paved the way for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

LIASSON: Which undermines the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in some way because the thing we've learned is that if you don't have big, bipartisan buy-in for either big pieces of social legislation, like Obamacare, or Supreme Court nominees, they're not as legitimate.

DAVIS: But these judicial wars, to me, also speak to this rise and election of Donald Trump because if not for McConnell's Merrick Garland decision and this promise of a Supreme Court justice on the other end of this election, that was hugely motivating...

LIASSON: Yes.

DAVIS: ...To Republican voters who might otherwise have not shown up to cast a ballot for Donald Trump.

LIASSON: Yep.

ELVING: Yeah, specifically white evangelical voters who were, at the time, sort of - in some people's minds, at least - still up for grabs because, after all, Donald Trump had his reputation and did not seem like a particularly religious man, even though he did once quote Two Corinthians.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

ELVING: He was seen as somebody who was, well, going to be kind of uncomfortable for really religious church people. But then the issue became something else. The issue became filling the Antonin Scalia seat and keeping alive the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade.

DAVIS: All right. The last moment that we want to talk about that defined the decade - and this one was also a matter of some debate on the NPR POLITICS team - but we landed on the fourth moment being the October surprise, the "Access Hollywood" tapes, which I feel like needs no introduction to our listeners. But Ron, if anyone has just woken up and this is the first NPR POLITICS PODCAST episode they're ever listening to, what were the "Access Hollywood" tapes?

ELVING: The Washington Post broke a story about candidate Trump having been recorded on a videotape, but we're hearing the audio of him talking - we're not really seeing him talking - making exceedingly lewd comments about women. This was something that had happened 11 years earlier when Donald Trump was still very much in his reality show star persona. And he's talking to another show business personality, Billy Bush. And he is, well, bragging about his various successes with women and what he's allowed to do by women. And the way he describes women is exceedingly lewd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I got to use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful - I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. I just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.

TRUMP: Grab them by the [expletive].

BUSH: (Laughter).

TRUMP: I can do anything.

DAVIS: Part of the reason why I wanted to make this one of the moments is, when I look back on this decade, this moment falls into the category of - like, you remember where you were on this day because when the story broke that this tape existed, it just sent a shockwave not only through - I mean, through the country, through these campaigns, through the political parties. And everybody in this moment thinks, oh, everything's about to change.

ELVING: That's right. We thought for a moment, for maybe the weekend, that there might actually be a change in the Republican Party's heart towards Donald Trump, that they might actually try to make a change in their ticket.

DAVIS: And some tried.

ELVING: And there was talk...

LIASSON: There was reporting that Mike Pence was contemplating whether he could continue to be on the ticket.

DAVIS: House Speaker...

ELVING: That's right.

DAVIS: ...Paul Ryan refused to campaign...

LIASSON: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...With him in Wisconsin...

LIASSON: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...In the closing days.

LIASSON: This was the kind of thing that - you know, one of the themes of the 2016 race was, OMG, how can any candidate survive this? This must be the end of Trump. I mean, we probably said it five or 10 times. This was the No. 1 example of it. And, of course, he survived and won.

ELVING: That's because we couldn't imagine that the Republican Party as we knew it could accept this. But on the other hand, what it turned out to be was not the end of Trump but the end of that concept of what the Republican Party was and what it could stand.

DAVIS: There was the Republican Party before the "Access Hollywood" tape and the Republican Party after...

LIASSON: That's right.

DAVIS: ...The "Access Hollywood" tape. And everything that has happened since has been the Republican Party after that tape.

LIASSON: That's right. And when Donald Trump said during the campaign famously that he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes, he knew what he was talking about.

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: Now, the Republican Party has definitely pushed back against him on things that voters don't care a tremendous amount about, like NATO, Russian sanctions, trade. There've been some issues like that - Syria. But on his behavior, you're right. This was the end of the Republican Party being willing to speak openly about their concerns or dismay about his behavior.

DAVIS: And it blew up all the conventional wisdoms from in the media and the political parties about what a presidential candidate could be. I mean, when that happened, nobody thought Donald Trump could win, and he blew up that expectation. He goes on four weeks later to a history-making victory despite what everyone - all the, quote, unquote, "smart people" in the establishment thought was the death knell of his campaign.

ELVING: Trump did release a video apologizing for the "Access Hollywood" tape, but on Sunday night, just 48 hours after that video had first been released by The Washington Post, there was a debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in which many people anticipated Trump was going to be, in some sense or another, humiliated by all of this. And it didn't come out that way at all. He showed up with a number of women who had been associated with complaints against Bill Clinton and sat them there where they could be seen. They tried at first to sit them in the very front row in front of Hillary Clinton, and some of them had blamed her for being Bill Clinton's enabler.

So it was an extraordinarily aggressive performance on the part of Steve Bannon, the campaign director at that point, and on the part of Donald Trump. And they managed to somehow come out of that whole mess of an evening with some sort of a sense of having triumphed and survived.

DAVIS: And it is that norm-busting, that institution-testing, that we talk about so much - Mara, we've talked about so much - that has, in some ways, fueled Donald Trump and helped him and delivered him many victories. But yet also, as we sit here, he's also a president on the verge of facing a Senate impeachment trial.

LIASSON: Yeah. Yeah, and this is what I would argue. I mean, the president has a behavior deficit. The president has a great economy. He has all the ingredients that would have somebody cruising to reelection, and he's not. I'm not saying that he won't win, but he has a behavior deficit. People who approve of his policies have doubts about the way he conducts himself.

DAVIS: There's a conventional wisdom that being impeached is bad. Now, we don't have a lot of precedence for it, right? He's only the fourth president to face this.

LIASSON: Well, Bill Clinton didn't suffer for it.

DAVIS: But as we talk about the politics of impeachment, Ron, I - this is the question I keep asking myself as we go forward - is, will it matter for Donald Trump in the same ways an impeachment might have mattered for other presidents? I mean, he's the only one to face reelection under impeachment, but...

LIASSON: We have no dataset.

DAVIS: We don't know. Yeah.

LIASSON: He's the only one...

ELVING: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...To face reelection, so we have no one to compare him to. We know that Bill Clinton's numbers went up by 10 points during impeachment, but there's no one to compare this to.

ELVING: In the end, it will probably not be the deciding factor in whether or not he's reelected, assuming that he is not removed from office. So what it's going to be is one more example of how Donald Trump can take almost any kind of event, almost any kind of disqualifying - appearing to disqualify event and still be Donald Trump and have the strengths that he has had and have that toxicity that keeps him from being as popular as one would expect him to be with this economy.

DAVIS: All right, those are our four moments that we think defined the political decade that was. But we know you may disagree with us, and that's OK. We would love to hear what you think this decade will be remembered for. I, for one, am ready to say goodbye to this decade because I've never known what to call it. I think we'll just call it the teens. I don't know. But you can go to our Facebook page at n.pr/politicsgroup.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, ever more a senior editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And we wish you a happy new year, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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