Roundtable: The GOP Victory — and Obama's Next Steps

Matt Taibbi, David Gergen and Peter D. Hart debate the Republican comeback

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President Obama walks to a press conference at the White House the day after midterm elections, November 3, 2010. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

The following is an article from the November 25, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available on newsstands Friday, as well online in Rolling Stone's digital archive. Click here to subscribe.

The morning after Americans went to the polls, we sat down at the Rolling Stone offices in New York with the two political experts we have consulted after every national election since 2004. David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard, has served in the White House as a senior adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Peter D. Hart, known for his nonpartisan poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, has conducted public-opinion research for 30 governors and 40 U.S. senators, from Hubert Humphrey to Ted Kennedy. Also joining us this year was Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone and author of Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con That Is Breaking America.

Obama in Command: The Rolling Stone Interview

How big a defeat is this for Democrats?

Peter Hart: I've been doing Election Night for 46 years, and next to 1980, this is the hardest to stomach. It was just an old-fashioned beating. First and foremost, it was about turnout. Republicans and the elderly showed up, but Democrats and the young didn't. Only about one in 10 voters was under the age of 30 this year, compared to one in five in 2008. Blacks and Latinos also turned out in smaller numbers: They represented only 18 percent of voters this year, compared to 22 percent in '08. The Democrats won on both the coasts and almost nowhere in between. Was it a big defeat? You'd better believe it.

Photos: Obama Through the Years

David Gergen: What we are seeing now is the high-water mark for the Obama presidency, at least domestically. No matter what else happens, even if he gets re-elected, he will never be as powerful as he was during his first two years. After Obama's election in 2008, I was one of those who believed that we were at a turning point — that the Reagan tide was receding, and we would see a cycle of progressive politics for 15 or 20 years. To have that reversed so quickly is stunning. This is the first time since the Truman-Eisenhower years that we've had three elections in a row in which more than 20 House seats have changed hands. We may be moving away from political cycles and into a period of extreme volatility in our politics, just as we have extreme volatility in our markets.

The Case for Obama

Matt Taibbi: My take is that it's not as bad as it seems. The first thing I thought when I saw the results come in last night wasn't all the gains the Republicans made, but the places where they should have won and didn't — mainly because they had Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell who had won primary battles and then proved unable to beat Democrats in the general election. What we saw last night was the Tea Party taking over the Republican Party. That more radicalized, extreme wing of the party is going to play a kingmaking role in the presidential election in 2012 — and that's going to make it impossible for the Republicans to retake the White House.

Matt Taibbi blogs on the Taibblog

How big a force was the Tea Party in this election?

Hart: We asked Republicans who are part of the Tea Party — slightly more than 20 percent of registered voters — if they consider themselves first and foremost to be a Tea Party person or a Republican. Half of them said, "I'm Tea Party through and through." That underscores exactly what Matt is saying.

Gergen: If it were not for the extra boost of enthusiasm the Tea Party provided, I imagine the Republicans would have won only 40 to 50 seats, instead of the 60-plus they gained. But the Tea Party also makes it harder in the future for Republicans to maintain a coherent party. Matt is right that they will have a large voice in the nomination process in 2012. But one cannot discount that someone could arise, as Reagan did in the past, who can bridge the differences within the party and keep people united.

Taibbi: To me, the main thing about the Tea Party is that they're just crazy. If somebody is able to bridge the gap with those voters, it seems to me they will have to be a little bit crazy too. That's part of the Tea Party's litmus test: "How far will you go?"

Gergen: I flatly reject the idea that Tea Partiers are crazy. They had some eccentric candidates, there's no question about that. But I think they represent a broad swath of the American electorate that elites dismiss to their peril.

Hart: I agree with David. When two out of five people who voted last night say they consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, we make a huge mistake to suggest that they are some sort of small fringe group and do not represent anybody else.

Taibbi: I'm not saying that they're small or a fringe group.

Gergen: You just think they're all crazy.

Taibbi: I do.

Gergen: So you're arguing, Matt, that 40 percent of those who voted last night are crazy?

Taibbi: I interview these people. They're not basing their positions on the facts — they're completely uninterested in the facts. They're voting completely on what they see and hear on Fox News and afternoon talk radio, and that's enough for them.

Gergen: The great unwashed are uneducated, so therefore their views are really beneath serious conversation?

Taibbi: I'm not saying they're beneath serious conversation. I'm saying that these people vote without acting on the evidence.

Gergen: I find it stunning that the conversation has taken this turn. I disagree with the Tea Party on a number of issues, but it misreads who they are to dismiss them as some kind of uneducated know-nothings who have somehow seized power in the American electorate. It is elitist to its core. We would all be better off if we spent more time listening to each other rather than simply writing them off.

Hart: I agree. The point here is that the Obama administration would be at their own peril to somehow misread this as a fringe, unacceptable group of people. This is a huge portion of the electorate, and they represent a core within the Republican Party.

We can talk about the Tea Party as a factor, but some of this clearly has to be laid at Obama's doorstep. What missteps did he make that contributed to the Republican victory in this election?

Hart: To begin with, he failed to live up to his covenant, and that was change we could believe in. The public was looking for a change agent for the average person. They didn't like that all the special interests and the banks were bailed out, the auto industry was bailed out, and at the same time unemployment and the economy got worse. At the end of the day, the president lost the middle of the electorate, he lost the suburbs and he lost blue-collar America. He lost seven of the eight Midwest states, from Pennsylvania to Iowa, that he carried in 2008. The Democrats lost all six Senate races there, and at least five governorships.

Taibbi: I agree with Peter. There was a moment right after Obama got elected where he had an opportunity to really distinguish himself from the policies of the Republican Party. Instead, he essentially continued the Bush policies, and even retained some of the same people who were the architects of the Bush bailouts, most notably Timothy Geithner. Democrats could have stood up and explained how financial interests had taken advantage of people — why everyone was losing their jobs, why there was this credit crash and mortgage crash — but they didn't do that. What they did instead was invest all their political capital in rescuing the financial sector, hoping it would trickle down to ordinary people. Blue-collar people were craving an explanation for why their economic situation was so bad, and the Democrats just didn't give them that explanation.

Gergen: Had the president's fundamental approach for the past two years been about jobs, he would have been a lot better off coming into the election. People would have felt that he was on their side. He helped to stabilize the major banks, which prevented us from going over a cliff, and he deserves credit for averting another Great Depression. But he clearly made a strategic miscalculation in assuming that the stimulus would keep unemployment under eight percent. In retrospect, it was a blunder to spend so much time on health care instead of jobs. If Franklin Roosevelt's most important accomplishment of his first two years had been a health care bill, we'd have all said that was nuts.

Matt Taibbi on the Tea Party

People were also upset that he compromised on every single thing that came up, cutting backroom deals rather than standing up for his core principles. It was easy for voters to say, "Throw the bums out — and he's just another one of the bums."
Gergen: We're all mystified by the fact that this was a fellow who was able to make both the liberal base of the party and the moderates believe that he was their great hope, yet he wound up making both of those groups disappointed. It's very surprising.

The Vanishing Obama Voters

When we met to assess the election two years ago, it seemed that the Karl Rove tactic of playing to the extremes might be a thing of the past. How did riling up the base make such a comeback so quickly?
Taibbi: A lot of it has to do with the vacuum of power in the Republican Party. After the 2008 election, the party had no leadership, no coherent message and no ideas that had any kind of traction. Bush's presidency was completely discredited, and they suffered this terrible defeat with a conventional mainstream Republican, John McCain. That created an opportunity for all these more radical ideas to step to the forefront, and it turned out that they were perfectly suited to the moment.

Gergen: I think it's more complicated than saying that the Republicans went to their base. The media has spent way too much time on the Tea Party and Christine O'Donnell and far too little time on the emergence of moderate-right Republicans like Rob Portman and John Kasich in Ohio. There are as many traditional conservatives coming into office on the Republican side as there are Tea Partiers. You have to remember, this was not a vote for the Republican Party — it was a negative election about what was going on in Washington. That's why the Republicans are smart to be humble about this election. I think both parties are now on probation. The voters are basically saying, "We'll put you guys in there, and if you don't solve this, we'll throw you out."

 What do the Democrats and Obama have to do now, given the Republican majority they face in the House?
Hart: First, get the economy working. Job one is the only job, and that's getting people back to work. Second, find a way to connect with average voters. In the past few months, Obama started going into people's backyards during the campaign. He was closer to them physically, but he never connected with them emotionally. Third, look beyond his current group of insiders in the White House and find new people who can help him survive, the way Bill Clinton sought out Leon Panetta after Republicans retook the House in 1994.

Gergen: If Obama is going to govern as well as prosper politically, he has to pivot back toward the center. He must embrace some sort of Social Security reform, just as Clinton did with NAFTA, even though his base will scream about it. He must also enlarge his inner circle by bringing in people who have the trust of the business community. One of the surprises for me has been that even though Obama rescued the banks, the alienation of the business community has reached a point that is threatening the recovery. Business people are sitting on a lot of money and not investing it because there is so much uncertainty about taxes, health care, financial regulations and energy. Obama's got to be more of a partner with the business community.

Taibbi: I have to disagree. The notion that the business community is disappointed with Obama because of what he's done in the past two years, I just don't see that. They're sitting on a lot of money, but they're sitting on it because he gave it to them.

Gergen: You don't think they're disappointed?

Taibbi: I'm sure they would have preferred the Republican agenda, where they would get 100 percent of what they want. Under Obama, they only got 90 percent. He bailed out the banks and didn't put anybody in jail. He gave $13 billion to Goldman Sachs under the AIG bailout alone and then did nothing when Goldman turned around and gave themselves $16 billion in bonuses. He passed a financial-reform bill that contains no significant reforms and doesn't really address the issue of "too big to fail." FDR, in the same position, passed radical reforms that really put Wall Street and the business community under his heel.

Gergen: If you talk to many CEOs, you'll find that they're very hostile toward Obama.

Taibbi: Who cares what these CEOs think? I don't care — they're 1/1,000th of a percent of the electorate. They're the problem. Obama needs to get other people's votes, not their votes.

Gergen: It's not their votes he needs to get — it's their investments and jobs.

In 2008, Obama managed to win over both the financial sector and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Now he seems to have pissed off both ends of that coalition.
Hart: There's a fascinating point from the exit polls that supports part of what Matt is saying. When you ask voters who is most to blame for the current economic crisis, 35 percent say it's Wall Street bankers, 29 percent say it's George W. Bush and 23 percent say it's Barack Obama. However, among those who say it's Wall Street bankers, 56 percent voted for the Republicans in this election. So go figure.

That said, I worry that if the president and the Democrats were to follow Matt's advice, they would be appealing to the smallest segment of the electorate. Right now Obama has the support of 85 percent of Democrats. If you want to get America back to work, you don't want to put the people who have the ability to invest on the other side of their fence.

Taibbi: So if we put people in jail for committing fraud during the mortgage bubble, we're endangering our ability to win over the CEOs? Obama should have made sure that there are consequences for people who committed crimes. Instead, he pursued a policy of nonaction, and that left him vulnerable with ordinary people who wanted an explanation for why the economy went off the cliff.

Gergen: I don't think his problem is he hasn't put enough people in jail. I agree that when people commit fraud, they ought to spend some time in the slammer. But there's a tendency in today's Democratic Party to turn away from someone like Bob Rubin because of his time at Citigroup. I served with him during the Clinton administration, when the country added 22 million new jobs, and Bob Rubin was right at the center of that. He was an invaluable adviser to the president, and he is now arguing that one of the reasons this economy is not coming back is that the business community is sitting on money because of the hostility they feel coming from Washington.

Taibbi: I'm sorry, but Bob Rubin is exactly what I'm talking about. Under Clinton, he pushed this enormous remaking of the rules for Wall Street specifically so the Citigroup merger could go through, then he went to work for Citigroup and made $120 million over the next 10 years. He helped push through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated the derivatives market and created the mortgage bubble. Then Obama brings him back into the government during the transition and surrounds himself with people who are close to Bob Rubin. That's exactly the wrong message to be sending to ordinary voters: that we're bringing back this same crew of Wall Street-friendly guys who screwed up and got us in this mess in the first place.

Gergen: That sentiment is exactly what the business community objects to.

Taibbi: Fuck the business community!

Gergen: Fuck the business community? That's what you said? That's the very attitude the business community feels is coming from many Democrats in Washington, including some in the White House. There's a good reason why they feel many Democrats are hostile — because they are.

Taibbi: It's hard to see how this administration is hostile to business when the guy it turns to for economic advice is the same guy who pushed through a merger and then went right off and made $120 million from a decision that helped wreck the entire economy.

We've talked about the Democrats. What do Republicans have to do now to build on their victory?
Gergen: The danger for the Republicans is that they will overplay their hand. We've had a pattern of newly elected people who feel they have a mandate of some sort, and then go beyond what the public really wants. Clinton got his hand slapped early on because voters thought he had overreached to the left. Then Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush got slapped for overreaching to the right. Now Obama has gotten his hand slapped for pursuing too much government. There's going to be a tendency on the part of some Republicans to sense blood in the water — Obama's wounded, let's spend the next two years taking him out. But the public is clearly looking for action on the economy, not for more politics in the sandbox.

Are there any areas where Democrats and Republicans can reach consensus in the next two years? Or are we looking at total war right up until November 2012?
Hart: There are potentially some areas of agreement in regulatory reform and energy. Social Security could also be an interesting bridge, but it's probably a bridge too far. I think the wars are going to be fought over the budget and health care.

Gergen: On foreign policy, they have the potential to reach an agreement on the endgame in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and to present a forceful case to the world on Iran. On the domestic front, one of the trickiest questions we're going to face is a showdown between the Republicans and the president over a potential shutdown of the government. We all remember that Clinton used that masterfully to gain an upper hand against Newt Gingrich. That moment seems to be in the offing again, and I don't know how either side is going to play it.

House Republican Leader John Boehner. (Photo: Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty)

The Republicans could also try to repeal health care reform.
Gergen: We're in a situation in which each side has a veto. Jim Schlesinger, who served as secretary of both defense and energy, once said that everybody in Washington has the capacity to say no, but nobody has the capacity to say yes. That makes for gridlock, and paralyzes government. That's a very real possibility we face — one that will hurt both sides heading into 2012. If joblessness is still high, you've got a wounded Obama, you've got an angry Tea Party, where are we then? We're a country in decline — and that, to me, is the biggest fear.

Hart: Despite all the seats Republicans picked up, there are still three gaping holes in their image. First, their image remains as negative as it was after the election in 2008 — 41 percent of registered voters have negative feelings toward the Republicans. Second, half of those who identify with the Republicans care more about the Tea Party than the GOP, and they're going to hold the leadership's feet to the fire; John Boehner is about to get some electroshock treatment. Third, as the victories of Jerry Brown in California and Harry Reid in Nevada underscore, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate is the Hispanic vote. Democrats had a 22-point advantage among Hispanics in 2004; today that has grown to a 38-point advantage. Anti-immigration rhetoric may have driven Republican voters to the polls this year, but they will pay a price for it in 2012.

Taibbi: You would certainly think that if the Republicans spend the next two years screeching about immigration and Medicare and Social Security, they would lose votes with Hispanics, the elderly and, well, people in general. But you never know how American voters will react when you take their benefits away. I can envision a scenario where the Republicans push for steep cuts in social services in the name of balancing the budget, then just keep the social cuts and leave out the balancing-the-budget part, which is what they did in the Bush years. And then the dingbats in the Tea Party will throw a parade for them in 2012.

Speaking of 2012, which of the Republican presidential hopefuls benefited the most from this election?
Gergen: There's no question that Sarah Palin has gained more from this as a Republican kingmaker. But I imagine there's going to be a search for someone else to serve as the bridge-builder I mentioned earlier. To me, the leading possibility, if he can overcome the brand-name problem, is Jeb Bush. Two years ago, you would have said, "Impossible." Today, quite possible. He's a much more viable candidate today than he was two years ago, and he's one of the few people I know who could bridge the various factions within the party and hold people together. So I'm putting my money on Jeb Bush as a potential star who might emerge and unite the party.

Taibbi: Whew. I was already depressed this morning, but thinking about another Bush as the better-case scenario in an either/or political future makes me want to douse myself with kerosene and jump into a blast furnace.

So where do we stand? By splitting control of the House and Senate, have voters doomed us to two more years of partisan gridlock?
Gergen: The looming, transcendent question is whether we can govern ourselves as a people, or whether we're going to just drift into a serious decline. My hope is that Obama will head to the center and the Republicans will be a constructive opposition. It would be good if they could actually get things done as we did in the latter Clinton years, like balancing the budget and welfare reform. If the Republicans play an obstruction game for the next two years, it is possible that they could succeed in 2012, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory. It would be taking over a country that is almost ungovernable by that point, a nation that is going to be ever closer to the edge.

Hart: David draws an eloquent picture, as he always does, of how we would like the world to be. But during the Clinton period in the late Nineties, there wasn't Fox News. Fox not only demonizes everything the president says and does — it has become the major vetting group for Republicans, and it will not allow any kind of compromise to exist. It's like the ending of The Sun Also Rises, when Lady Brett Ashley nestles in the arms of Hemingway's hero and imagines what their life together might have been like. She says, "Wouldn't it be nice?" It would be nice, but I don't think we're going to get there.

The following is an article from the November 25, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available on newsstands Friday, as well online in Rolling Stone's digital archive. Click here to subscribe.

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