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Diplomacy in Action

The New 112th Congress

Charlie Cook, publisher of The Cook Political Report and political analyst for NBC News
Washington, DC
January 31, 2011

Date: 01/31/2011 Description: Charlie Cook, publisher of The Cook Political Report and political analyst for NBC News briefs on the new 112th Congress - its priorities, major players and likely relationship with the Obama administration at the Washington Foreign Press Center.  - State Dept ImageVideo

 3:00 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Today, we have with us Charlie Cook, who is the publisher of the Cook Report. He is also a political analyst with the National Journal Group and NBC News. He’s going to talk this afternoon about the new Congress and how it is going to work with the new Obama Administration. Thank you.

MR. COOK: Thank you very much. I think we were talking backstage – I think I’ve been doing things here at the Foreign Press Center for almost 20 years. And I’ve been very impressed the last four or five years, six years; just sort of the caliber of the coverage of Washington is so much more sophisticated than it was, say, 15 or 20 years ago. And I look around the room and I don’t see anybody that was here 20 years ago, so good.

But anyway, it’s – you guys do a terrific job and I don’t envy you trying to (a) understand and (b) trying to explain American politics in Washington to audiences around the world, because those of us who have lived here for almost 40 years, in my case, I’m still not entirely sure I understand it. But thank you very much for having me back.

What I’m going to do is talk a little bit about where we are right now politically and what’s going on and how we got here, a little bit looking back. Just – I don’t want to talk too much about the 2010 election, but I think it is important to talk about for a second, that looking back at that election on the U.S. House of Representatives level, and when you look at state legislatures around the world, this was about as closest thing to a parliamentary election as you see in this country. I mean, people were either voting red for Republicans or blue for Democrats, and a lot more red than blue. And you saw candidates winning – people who might not normally win were able to win – in some cases some fairly flawed people or people with very unimpressive campaigns and little money winning in places where you wouldn’t expect it.

So that this was really a party vote on the U.S. House and the state legislative level. But then when you look at the higher-profile, more visible races like U.S. Senate and governor, Republicans picked up, Democrats lost, only six seats. It was a big win for Republicans, but not extraordinary in any way. After all, the Democrats picked up six U.S. Senate seats in 2006; they picked up eight seats in 2008. So the Republican gain of six seats in the U.S. Senate this time wasn’t particularly extraordinary, and a long way, very difficult – different from the House, where this was the biggest gain for either party in 62 years, the biggest midterm election gain for a party in 72 years. And so the House level, lower-level, lower-visibility offices, were extraordinary; the Senate not so much.

And when you look at where this election occurred, I would look at it, think of it, in terms of, like, risk factors that a doctor or health researcher might look at. You might think of where was this election, where were the Democratic defeats the worst, and I would say small town and rural districts and states, southern, Midwest – southern border, South, Midwestern, heartland; much less in the Northeast, much less along the two coasts in general. This was very – and primarily the Democratic losses were among white voters over 50 years of age and white voters with less than a college education. That’s where this thing was sort of radioactive. So this was a very big election, but it was kind of a – what I would call a bifurcated or a split election, with different results on the lower-profile races than the upper.

I think sort of stepping back and looking at U.S. politics, think of it just through the lens of the U.S. House of Representatives and forget presidential, Senate, governor and all this. And if you think about it, for 40 consecutive years, from 1955 – 1955, when I was two years old – through 1994, Democrats had a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Forty straight years, 20 consecutive elections, Democrats had a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Then in 1994, President Bill Clinton’s first term –midterm election, you had that New Gingrich-led Republican tidal wave election that washed out the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate as well. And so for 12 years, you had a Republican majority in the House. And then in 2006, we had another one of these waves. This time, a Democratic wave washed out the Republican majorities. And now, four years later, in 2010, you have a Republican wave washes out the Democratic majority in the House.

So think about it. Forty years, 12 years, now just four years. And it’s like the circle is getting smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter. Things are moving faster and faster. And that what I think it means is that voters don’t have a lot of patience, they don’t have a lot of tolerance that they did when they left one party in power for 40 years or another party in power for 12 years. It’s very different. And think of the person sitting at home in front of the TV set with a remote control. And if they don’t like what’s on the TV, click, they change it. And if they don’t like that, click, they change it. And I think we’re in kind of a clicker type environment where voters are just a lot more temperamental, a lot more volatile, than they used to be.

And I think the thing that’s driving that and the thing that you should keep in mind as you watch what the President’s doing, what the new Republican majority in the House is doing, what Democrats who are clinging on to a narrow majority in the Senate are doing, is watch among independent voters. Because these independent voters, they are the people that swing wildly one way or the other. I mean, the thing is, if you look in this election, people who called themselves Democrats voted 92 percent for Democrats, 7 percent for Republicans. Four years ago when Democrats won their majority, 93 percent of Democrats voted for Democrats and only 7 percent voted for Republicans. And by the same token, of the people who called themselves Republicans in this election, the 2010 election, they voted 95 to 4 in favor of Republicans, just as they voted 91 to 8 in favor of Republicans in 2006. It’s these independent voters, the middle, people who don’t call themselves Democrats or Republicans, they’re the ones that swing.

And in 2006 when Democrats won their majority in the House, those independent voters voted 57 to 39, an 18-point margin, in favor of Democrats for Congress. They voted by an 8-point margin in favor of Senator Obama over Senator McCain and by an 8-point margin in favor of Democrats over Republicans in 2008, while in this election, the one we just had, these independent voters voted by an 18-point margin in favor of Republicans for Democrats, 56 to 38.

So it’s these independent voters that are swinging in the middle, they’re the ones that drive these wild elections. And that we’ve had three consecutive, what I would call wave elections in a row, and it’s these Independents are the key. And they’re the folks that I think President Obama is looking very carefully at, that John Boehner, the new Speaker, that Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders, are looking at. They’re the people that are going to decide who’s going to be in the majority, who’s not, and whether President Obama gets reelected or not.

And those voters, they’re not – those independent voters, they’re not liberal voters, they’re not conservative voters, they’re not particularly ideological at all. They’re people who – a lot of them, not all of them but a lot of them don’t even pay particular interest in politics, but late in the election campaign they sort of gradually get engaged in the campaign, gradually get involved. And these people, they don’t have passion like liberals do. They don’t have passions like conservative do. They have lives and they’re just living their normal lives, and then when an election comes along, they have to get engaged and vote. And they care about whether things are working and they’re very – they’re pragmatic in the sense of they just want stuff to work. They don’t live and breathe this stuff and they’re not terribly passionate about it, but they know when things aren’t working. And just as they were willing to punish Republicans back in 2006 and throw them out of power, they punished Democrats and threw them out of power in the House in this election. So that’s sort of the group that I would watch.

As – I think we’re seeing – we need to keep in mind that these wild wave elections like we had in 2006, to a certain extent 2008, 2010, these are the exception, not the rule. The normal fluctuation in the House of Representatives is usually, on average, about 5 seats, and yet they’ve been averaging about 36 or 38 seats in the last three elections. And these are what we call nationalized elections as opposed to localized – sort of all politics is local.

My hunch, my guess, is that we’re going to go back and that 2012 is a lot more likely to be a normal election and not like 2006, 2008, 2010, where you had these wild swings. And I think that the behavior we’re seeing from the President in the approach of the White House over here and that Republicans on Capitol Hill are trying to do, they’re both seemingly trying to be very pragmatic and modulating their voices to a large extent. And I think the tragedy in Tucson sort of underscored the importance of that.

So that when you look at the steps the President has taken since the election, a week or two after the election you had the President come out for a freeze in cost of living increases for federal employees. Now, that’s very unusual for a Democratic president to do. In fact, it’s rare for a Democratic president to do that. When you saw the President dealing directly with Republicans and sort of cutting out the Democratic congressional leadership and dealing directly with Republicans in that lame duck session and getting compromises forged, that was very, very different from the first year and a half he was in office.

When you, seeing sort of a pragmatic moderate and certainly not an Obama person, Bill Daley, taking over as chief of staff for the President; having Bruce Reed, who was the – had been the head of the very centrist Democratic Leadership Council, taking on – taking over as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, we’re seeing sort of lots and lots of very pragmatic steps and steps that would seem very much out of sync with much of what’s happened for the last two years. And what we have seen is the President’s numbers have gone up.

And the number that I kind of watched more closely than any of the others – although my favorite of all the polls is the NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll, but it doesn’t come out very often. But when you see the NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll come out, be sure you go on their website, the MSNBC website, and download and print out the full questionnaire, because there’s got a lot of depth there and things that’s never on NBC News, that’s never in the Wall Street Journal. It’s like a lot of really creative questions and stuff – very, very, very good stuff.

But on a day-to-day basis, the poll I watch is the Gallup Poll. And actually, while we’re talking, I was tied up – I was tied up at 1 o’clock, when they come out. I’m not compulsive about this at all. But it comes out about 1:05 every day, every afternoon. And as of day before yesterday, the President’s job approval was 50 percent, and I will tell you in a second what it is as of 1 o’clock today, which would be through last night. But it’s probably about 50 percent, give or take. But the thing is that – and they aggregate their numbers weekly and all that – but the thing is if you take it from mid-June all the way through the election, when you look at the weekly Gallup approval numbers, the President’s numbers never went above 46 percent – never. And they’ve basically been 48, 49, 50 every single week from the lame duck session on.

And the interesting thing to me is the President’s numbers among Democrats have gone up. The President’s numbers among Independents have gone up. The President’s numbers – must be we’re in the middle of the building – anyway, I can’t get my – I can’t get it – but anyway, have gone up. But the President’s numbers among Independents and even liberals have gone up over the last five, six weeks. And I think that working with the – it’s not a matter of just being moderate, being less liberal, as much as people want to see things happen. They want to see progress. And they’ve seen a progress and a working across lines, and they like that.

And at the same time, looking over at the Republican side, John Boehner – first of all, I’ve known him a little bit for a long time. I would say he is one of the most pragmatic, well-adjusted people I’ve ever seen reach very high levels of congressional leadership. This is not an egomaniac. He’s not a megalomaniac, craving power, that sort of thing. And he’s not somebody that likes to crush the other side under his feet for sport, but a very sort of pragmatic, reasoned guy. And I think he is trying to take Republicans – and some of these Republicans have just been elected – they’re what I euphemistically call exotic species. I mean, some of these are people who are pretty far out there ideologically. And Boehner is trying to kind of direct them towards not saying things that are outrageous, not overstepping, not making some of the same mistakes that some of the Republicans back in 1995 and ’96, when they took over, made.

And by doing that, I think what we saw in a Gallup Poll the other day – that the Republican Party’s favorable ratings are the highest they’ve been in a long time. And that election we just had, it wasn’t about Republicans; it was trying to punish Democrats. But Republicans are benefiting from taking things in sort of a very measured approach. And so what I think you’re seeing right now – try it one more time on this – what I think you’re seeing right now is a – is both sides taking very measured approaches, very methodical approaches, and that I don’t see either party engaging in terribly self-destructive behavior.

And as a result, we’re going to be heading towards not a lot of change in the House of Representatives in the next election. Now granted, we got a year and a half to go, over a year and a half to go. I think Democrats are very exposed in the U.S. Senate, where they’ve got 23 seats up, Republicans only have 10 seats at risk, so that the Democratic majority in the Senate is in very real danger. But that’s not for political, environmental reasons. It’s just a matter of they just won a whole bunch of seats back six years ago that they’d have a hard time hold onto.

And in terms of the presidential race, if I had to predict today – well, first of all, let’s talk about the history for a second. If you look back over the last 100 years, only one – and these are important caveats – only one elected president of the United States who took over from the other party has lost reelection. Now those are the two caveats. They were elected; they didn’t become president because they were appointed or somebody died or resigned or something. And number two, when they took office, they took over from the other party. Only one in a hundred years has lost reelection, and that was Jimmy Carter in 1980 losing to President Reagan – I mean to Governor Ronald Reagan. That’s the only one.

And the pattern – this doesn’t mean that President Obama is definitely going to get reelected. But the historic pattern, for whatever it’s worth, is that someone gets elected president of the United States, taking over from the other party, they get reelected four years later. The one exception is Carter, beat by Reagan. But then after eight years, the norm is for their party to be thrown out. And the only modern exception to that rule was after eight years of President Reagan when his vice president, George H.W. Bush, won, effectively giving Republicans a third straight term. So that’s the historic pattern that presidents – elected presidents taking over for the other party usually get reelected; then their party gets thrown out after eight years.

Now, if I had to make a prediction today whether President Obama was going to get reelected or not, if I had a choice of knowing one of two things – if I had a choice of knowing either (a) who the Republican nominee is going to be, or (b) what’s the economy like in 2012, and specifically, what’s the unemployment rate in 2012, to be honest, I would much rather know what the unemployment rate is going to be in 2012 than who the Republican nominee is, because the fact is – hang on a second – the fact is that if the economy is turning around, we’re getting real job creation, unemployment goes down in the range of eight percent, around eight percent, I think a very, very, very formidable strong Republican would have a very hard time beating President Obama.

But on the other hand, if unemployment were up near nine percent, not much better than the 9.4, which is where it is right now, I think almost any Republican – major Republican presidential nominee whose last name isn’t Palin – (laughter) – would have a good chance of winning. And if it’s in the middle and sort of the mid-eights, then that’s kind of a gray area where that one can go either way. And where the President’s numbers are right now are sort of right about at the line or just a touch above the line of where a president needs to be to get reelected.

And I would recommend to you one of the more interesting websites for following American politics – other than ours, – but there is one that I have no affiliation with, that’s So it’s the word “five,” f-i-v-e, and the word “thirty” and the word “eight,” dot com. Well, I got him Nate Silver. And this website, it’s affiliated with The New York Times. But he wrote an interesting piece three or four days ago about presidential job approvals, and where sort of the tipping point where if you’re above this point, you get reelected; if you’re below – certain elected – what time you have to get there. And it’s a very, very, very interesting piece that I – that people really interested in that, I would suggest you look at.

And it kind of echoed the work that – I had an intern who was a West Point cadet at the time, 10 years ago, who did some research. And what he found was that presidential job approval ratings were basically job irrelevant until about a year before the election. And then those numbers started being real relevant. And in that 11 months, 10 months, nine months, eight months, as you get closer to the election, it becomes increasingly more relevant. But it really matters in that last year.

And so right now we kind of watch these things for sport, but they don’t become meaningful until later on. But still, attitudes harden. And what President Obama has to hope for – and then we’ll go to questions – is that the model, sort of the patron saint of presidents who have ugly recessions two years before they’re up for reelection and then coming back is Ronald Reagan. Is the – in 1982, that midterm election for Reagan, unemployment was at 10.8 percent, so it was higher than it was at this – in November and December of 1982, it was at 10.8. At this point in 1983, it was at 10.4.

But what you saw then was we had strong economic growth, a GDP growth of four-and-a-half percent in 1983, and it was at 7.2 percent in 1984. Unemployment came dropping really precipitously, or actually strongly – job creation during 1984. So by the time we got to the election, unemployment was down to 7.4 percent. And Reagan, bouncing back from a horrible recession and Republican losses, won a 49-state landslide, winning every state in the union except his opponent, Walter Mondale’s, home state of Minnesota.

And so that shows if a president with an ugly economy has strong growth, they can rebound. And his job approval ratings were lower than President Obama’s has got – have gotten. They can come back. But the thing is that’s with a level of growth that is far, far, far greater than that anticipated by any economist right now. And so the question is, if it’s growth, is it somewhat less or a lot less? And if job creation is less – much less robust than Reagan enjoyed – can, will President Obama get reelected? We’ll see, but I think the economy is a lot more important.

The thing is the luck – President Obama would be the luckiest person in the world if he drew Sarah Palin as an opponent. (Laughter.) I mean, it would be very hard for him to lose that race. Conversely, it’s really unlikely that we are going to see a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, just one of the strongest, most formidable Republican candidates in the last century. That’s pretty unlikely, too. And the Republicans are, I think, likely to end up with a competent, sort of workmanlike, Republican nominee and that isn’t going to automatically win or automatically lose, and that the biggest driver is going to be the economy.

Now obviously, what’s happening in Afghanistan, how things progress in Iraq and what’s going on in Egypt, what’s going on in other – Pakistan, what’s going on in some of these other places, obviously becomes very, very, very important. It – and we have to watch those things as well, but those things are even less noble than the economy. And – but we’ve seen – what I guess President Obama has to fear is being Carter, President Carter, where inter-world events just spiral out of control and he seemed just completely helpless. And what he has to aspire to is a Reagan, who had some setbacks along the way, certainly, but had enjoyed a very strong economy and rebound and was able to run on “morning in America.”

Now all these historic parallels, they all have their limitations and their – well, except this or that, and obviously true.

Why don’t we stop and open it up, and you had the first question. Or is that okay if I –


MR. COOK: Yeah, he –

MODERATOR: Make sure, though, that you state your name and media organizatio.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. COOK: Let me see if I can get that job approval rating –

MODERATOR: -- give your name and your organization, please.

QUESTION: Thank you Raghubir Goyal, India Globe & Asia Today. Great. My question is: Earlier, you already mentioned that a political wave is going on around the globe, including of course in Egypt and the Middle East and Afghanistan and so forth, and also here in the U.S. My question is that how much President Obama will face in the new Congress, which is controlled by the Republicans, as far as dealing with the three issues: immigration and also this – as far as Pakistan, Afghanistan and, of course, this wave of political process or political freedom around the globe, and including in Egypt?

MR. COOK: No, that’s a great question. And the thing is we’re – there are sort of very clear battle lines between where Republicans are and where Democrats are on so many of these domestic issues, and none more than immigration, for example. But what’s interesting to me is that those distinctions, those differences, they’re not quite as obvious when you get into the – lots of many of the foreign policy issues. If anything, take Afghanistan, and we don’t know how a lot of these brand new Republicans that – a lot of them have never had to deal, most of them have never had to deal with foreign policy issues in their lives.

But so we don’t know where exactly they’re going to come down. But I would say they’re probably more Democratic or as many Democratic members of Congress that have concerns about the President’s policies in Afghanistan than there are Republican. I mean, I’d say it – and we’re on – U.S. policy towards Pakistan. Pakistan – I don’t have a clear sense of what is the Democratic position, what’s the Republican. I mean, I think there’s a lot of – so that there’s a lot blurring of these lines on a lot of those issues that aren’t as straightforward Democratic/Republican or even liberal/conservative. I mean, you have people with strong opinions, but it’s not always clean.

Now, on immigration, that’s totally different. And I think the thing to remember about the immigration issue and think about the vote that the Senate had recently on that DREAM Act, the thing that I think goes unstated here is that if that were a secret vote – in other words, if all 100 senators were to vote on that and nobody would know how they voted, I would bet you that would have passed because I think there were a lot of Republican – I know this for a fact – there were a lot of Republican senators that would like to have supported that, that they may not be pro – they may not have very liberal views on immigration reform, but that was one aspect of it that they could have gone with.

But they are so captivated with fear of having a primary – Republican primary opponent running an add against them that said they voted for the DREAM Act; they voted for amnesty for illegal aliens. Well, it was a very narrow niche of if this, this this, this, then – but the thing is, there’s no – in politics, there’s an old saying: if you’re explaining, you’re losing. And explaining how voting for the DREAM Act is not blanket amnesty for all illegal aliens – that’s a distinction that just you can’t make in the course of, sadly, an American campaign. And so I’m not here to defend Republicans at all. But I think that’s one where had – if we had a different system and a secret vote, I think the outcome would have been, very, very, very different.

And I find it fascinating actually that if somebody had asked me last year under these circumstances, one of these two things will pass, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, gays in the military, or this specific immigration legislation, to be honest, I would have thought that immigration would have passed and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell wouldn’t have. And – but it just shows, I think, the potency of that immigration issue.

Did you want to go to New York, or did you want to –

MODERATOR: Yes. New York, please ask a question.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. My name is Neeme Raud with Estonian television. What’s the impact of Tea Party to Washington and to Republican Party in coming here? We saw two responses to the President’s speech last week, we had all those new senators and congressmen coming in, in November. So what’s their impact and how they can influence the president elections and the Republican Party’s future? Thank you.

MR. COOK: No, it’s a great question. What – I think it’s – correct me if I’m wrong, but the outlets for the President’s speech and the official Republican response – ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, FOX, CNN, Public Television, CSPAN. Now, I don’t know what CSPAN did, but to my knowledge, the only one that ran, I believe, that ran Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party response – I know CNN did. My guess is that CSPAN might have also. They – I would think they might. But the thing is, notice that it sort of – it was marginalized. It was not given, except on Saturday Night Live, nearly the prominence, remotely the prominence, that the official Republican response had.

And then if you go back to Election Day, and there were people saying that the Tea Party caucus in the Senate – it could have five, six, seven, maybe even eight members. And instead, you had three people join and one other member attended but didn’t join, which is certainly not five, six, seven, eight. And I think what we’re seeing is that, yes, there is sort of a hardcore Tea Party group within the Senate, within the House. And then you have a lot of other Republicans that either got elected or had already been elected who in varying degrees may be a little, somewhat, moderately, maybe a good deal, sympathetic with the Tea Party movement, but not enough to join, or they’re certainly not sort of blindly lockstep, walking, marching with Jim DeMint and Michele Bachmann.

And I think some of these are pragmatic people who – yes, they campaigned their hearts out, and they did their best to curry favor with the Tea Party movement, and they agree with the Tea Party movement a lot, but they weren’t going to alienate Senator McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate. Or they don’t want to alienate John Boehner in the House. They want to be sort of free agents and vote with the Tea Party when they agree with them, and not necessarily go with the Tea Party in other circumstances.

And so I think you’ll see that the Tea Party – no question about it. It is a force in American politics. But they do not own – they do not run the Republican Party. They don’t. I don’t think they’re ever going to. But they are going to be, for a time, a major – a coalition group within the Republican Party. And we’ve seen, under Nixon there was the Silent Majority, and then we had Reagan Democrats in another era. And you have these sort of groups that get a lot of attention and become quite prominent and have a big role, and then they gradually fade away, and we call them new things.

And with the Tea Party movement, I think it’s important to make a distinction that over – it’s one group, are people that have been involved in politics for a long time. They are conservative Republicans. They’ve been interested, engaged, working in Republican and conservative politics for a long time. They now are called Tea Party members, but these are not new people. They’re not new to the process. They’re not newly engaged. It’s just sort of old wine poured in a new bottled with a new label put on, but they’ve been around for a while. And then you have the new folks, the people that necessarily weren’t engaged in politics and weren’t following politics, and became engaged and involved and energized during 2009, 2010. And the first group, they’re going to be around for the duration. I mean, no matter what, whether you call them Tea Party movement, whether you call them bananas – I mean call them whatever you want. These people are engaged and they’re going to be involved. Some of these other people, some will probably get disillusioned and fade away, and some of them will remain engaged. But the Tea Party movement – it’s important, but it’s not – I don’t think they’re going to be the driving force in this Congress or even in the Republican majorities in this Congress.

Why don’t you pick people out, so I don’t have to --

MODERATOR: Right here.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)


QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. Christoph Marschall from the German Der Tagesspiegel. I found it very refreshing and also impressive that you warned against overestimating the influence of the Tea Party. On the other hand, it seemed to me that the, as the, I say, swing in the mood that Obama is up, of course. There was (inaudible) and other reasons. But it happened very quickly, and some are people in the (inaudible) that is a little bit the psychology of ’94, what came after, always new majorities tend to over-interpret the mandate, they are going too far out, and that is what you see what is happening. There is too much Tea Party or Republican right in the public dialogue, and that is why already, two months or two and a half months after the elections, people are, again, fed up with those guys whom they gave the mandate but not the mandate which they think they got.

MR. COOK: I haven’t seen any evidence of what you’re saying happened. I mean, it may happen. But I haven’t seen it. Yeah, I mean, I see the Republican Party’s favorable ratings are the highest they’ve been in a very, very long time. Boehner’s numbers have gone up. I mean, I don’t – I mean, Republicans may overplay their hands. They may totally screw up. But they haven’t yet, and there’s no evidence that they have yet. There’s no evidence that Republican numbers are any worse today than they were a month ago or two months ago or three months ago. There’s – it – there isn’t any evidence of that.

I mean, I think the idea of – I mean, I think I agree with you a hundred percent that it’s very typical in American politics for presidential candidates to run towards the center in a general election, win, running as centrists or with very vague ideological views. They win the general election and then they pivot. And if they’re a Democrat, they turn hard left, and if they’re a Republican, they turn hard right. And I think that’s precisely what you saw with Obama.

They – he ran on “I’m going to change the way Washington works.” He did not run flat out as a liberal. He wanted to change the way Washington works. Now, what does that mean? That’s kind of process-y, it’s kind of reform, it’s style, but it’s not terribly ideological. But then the agenda was pretty liberal. And then they got their ears boxed and now they’re kind of coming back, moving back towards the middle. It would not be unusual or unprecedented for Republicans to overplay their hand. Absolutely. In fact, maybe you could make a good argument that they will do it. But I don’t see any signs they’ve done it yet.

And the thing about it is this – take the repeal of healthcare, for example. First of all, you look at the polling data and, at best, the American people are evenly divided on healthcare reform and this healthcare reform proposal – at best. And you could word it a hundred different ways and get a hundred different results, but there is not a strong consensus to keep it. There’s not a strong consensus to throw it out. People don’t particularly like it but I’m not sure they necessarily want to go back. I mean, there’s a lot of sort of muddled cross-pressured voters that aren’t really sure which way they want to go on it. They don’t like it but I’m not sure they like the alternative. But the thing about it is Republicans – they ran on repealing healthcare. They won. If Republicans were not to attempt to repeal it, they would be defying their base, they would be defying the people that elected them a majority, they really would be betraying their supporters.

Now, what I think – now what I think is happening, very simply, is Republicans had an obligation, a moral and political obligation, to pass a repeal in the House. And they did. And I think they owe their supporters a good-faith effort to try to repeal it in the Senate. Now, Mitch McConnell is not stupid. Republicans are not stupid. And anybody that’s got a third grade arithmetic education can do the math and see it isn’t going to pass in the Senate. But Republicans have an obligation to try. And if they were asking me for advice, which they don’t, what I would tell them is: Give it a shot. You are going to fail. And then move on. But if you don’t do it, the people that put you – that got you a six-seat net gain in the Senate, that got you a majority in the House, will have good reason to feel betrayed. And then look at, okay, what are some of the most – more onerous things, aspects of it, and see what you could do about specific provisions of it, and move on to other issues.

But I think they had an obligation to do this. But I think that – I think the rhetoric you’re hearing from the President is very much moderated and modulated. And I think what we’re hearing, for the most part, from Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is as well. And so I see somewhat right-of-center, somewhat left-of-center, but not the stark contrast that you saw last year when each side was taking much more – stronger ideological positions. I think everything has kind of come back in some.

MODERATOR: We’ll go all the way in the back and then we’ll come to this side.

QUESTION: Peter Voegeli, Swiss Public Radio. You talked about the South and the Tea Party. And since America celebrates this year the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I always assumed that the Tea Party should be much stronger in the South because we have the slogans states’ rights and small government. And they are white, older, and not with the highest education, so I always – I’m always surprised that the Tea Party is not that strong in the South.

MR. COOK: Well, I’m from the South. It’s pretty strong there. It’s pretty strong in the Mountain West, where there is a very strong sort of libertarian, anti-government streak out in the Rocky Mountains. But the thing is that we’re in a different media age. And where – first of all, besides the fact of people moving around more and – that having – and this isn’t a diatribe against Fox, but Fox is beaming into households in all 50 states. And for whites, particularly white males over 50, at least those who watch Fox – and that’s a not inconsiderable number – they get pretty ramped up, and I don’t care where you are.

And we saw Scott Brown get elected in Massachusetts. Wow, that’s the most un-Tea Party – well, actually, it’s the place of the original Tea Party, but – (laughter) – it’s sort of not where – and his election was, what, basically a year ago. I remember I was in Berlin that night. And it was not something that someone would’ve thought two, three months earlier, that sort of thing. And so it’s South, border South, Midwest, heartland, most; rural, small town, older, maybe a touch downscale. All of these are groups where it’s most pronounced. But it’s sort of a national movement that was stronger among – in certain areas, in certain demographic groups than others.

But I’ll – I mean, in the South, it was not inconsequential. First of all, Democrats had already lost so many offices in the South that in some places they didn’t have any they could lose. But I’m originally from Louisiana, and I’ll tell you, the – let’s see – the bumper sticker on a truck next to a car where I parked a car at the airport was something like, “I’ll keep my guns, my religion, and my property and you could keep the change.” (Laughter.) It’s alive and well in the South. Trust me on that one.


QUESTION: Hi. Andrei Sitov from Tass, the Russian news agency. Thank you for doing this and thanks to our friends at the FPC for arranging this, as always. You referred to your expectation that in 2012, what will be deciding the election will be the state of the economy, most of all. And secondly, but importantly, how strong a candidate the Republicans can field? Who are the strongest candidates? What are the chances that the Republicans may end up with Sarah Palin? Who do you know?

We – some of us came over here from the White House briefing. They were talking about the ambassador to China quitting his position and joining the race. What do you think about him? What do you think of Boehner? You just referred to him as a good, solid person. Anyway, so you know this better than I do, so this is the question.

MR. COOK: Yeah. I – well, Boehner’s not going to run for president. But no, I’m just saying that he’s sort of somebody with – whose ego is a little more in check than a lot of people that often-times have that kind of job.

But anyway, the way I would look at it is if – and, obviously, this is awkward, sitting at a U.S. Government platform, and these are my views and my views only. And these other people – I mean, you get – (laughter) – okay, all the normal disclaimer. And also, the accuracy rate of political prognosticating on presidential elections, say, 21, 22 months before the election, the accuracy rate is pretty darn close to zero. So let’s just say there’s a disclaimer across here that says this is for entertainment purposes only, and if I’m right, it’s purely accidental. Okay, just sort of put that out there.

I think that you’re – and I said this already, that if – I don’t think Republicans are going to nominate Sarah Palin. I mean, I really, really, really don’t. And, number one, I don’t think she’s going to run. And number two, if she runs, I don’t think she’s going to win.

Now let me sort of walk through that, and then I’ll get to some of these other folks. Number one, Sarah Palin is making more money right now than everybody in this room put together. And there are probably – at least half of the people in this room are working a hell of a lot harder and maybe everybody. And she’s making enormous amounts of money. Every time she utters anything, it’s national if not international news. Nobody’s attacking her family. As my kids would say, life’s pretty sweet for Sarah Palin right now. Now, does she want to trade all that in to get into the middle of that horror show and have people questioning whose baby was who?

I mean, does she really want to – I mean, she can – if she goes up to the deadline and say, “I’m not running because of my family and other things,” and then gets her contract renewed at Fox, which it would, and write a couple more books – I mean, here is somebody who never has to put a hard day’s work in from right now until the day she dies at 100-and-whatever years of age, and make tons of money. I – wow, I think I can figure out that one, the odds are.

But secondly, let’s just assume I’m wrong, and let’s assume she runs – then two arguments. One is I think overwhelmingly among Republicans and among conservatives – now, she has about a 70 percent, 75 percent favorable rating among Republicans. I mean, Republicans, for the most part, they like her. They love listening to her. She’s like catnip. They can’t get enough of listening to her. But the thing about it is for conservatives, for Republicans, much more than anything else, there are very few conservatives, there are very few Republicans I know who one of the top political priorities in their lives right now is beating President Obama.

Now electability usually isn’t the number one reason, thing in somebody’s minds, when they decide who to support for their party’s nomination for anything. Electability is usually not number one. But I’ll tell you what. Un-electability is usually pretty high. And while Sarah Palin’s numbers, favorable numbers, may be in the 70s among Republicans, it’s in the 30s among Independents. She’s like a no-fly zone with Independents. And that’s pretty hard. And I don’t think it’s ever going to change. And the thing about it is the economy – we’d have to be in a total depression, I think, for her to win a general election. And there are a lot of Republicans that could win with a better economy than she could, in fact, all of them. And so I think Republicans are going to be pragmatic enough on that.

And then there’s a second thing. And there was a good piece to this – that sort of went into this a little bit in the Sunday New York Times magazine a month or two ago by Robert Draper, cover piece on Sarah Palin. But the thing is you could probably count on one hand the number of people that are not in her family that she really trusts.

Now think for a second. Barack Obama spent three quarters of a billion dollars, about $750 million, running for president in 2008. Now to raise that kind of money – or let’s knock a third of it off – let’s say to raise a half billion dollars, that requires a very large team of very, very, very talented people, and trusting them to do their jobs. Now if you’re somebody that trusts only a handful of people and you don’t even trust anybody to schedule you, where you do it on your own Blackberry, are you really going to be able to attract, to trust, to delegate authority to people to raise and spend effectively a half billion dollars? I don’t think so.

I mean – and look at – whether you think that President Obama has governed very well or not, wow, those people ran a heck of a campaign. Ask the Secretary of State. (Laughter.) I mean, she – they know how to do that. And so I just don’t think – no. On the other – so now there are other – could – is it going to be Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels or New Gingrich or John Thune or Mitt Romney? I mean, I can make arguments for and against each one of these. And they’re all good arguments, but I think we need to get a little further down the way. Mike Huckabee, I didn’t mention him. And there are arguments supporting why Republicans might nominate each one and there are ones against.

And I think we just kind of need to get a little further down the road to see whether Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan when – that he pushed through as governor of Massachusetts – is – will his opponents call him father of Obamacare? Yes. Now, is it true? Is it fair or not? I don’t know. I’m not qualified to say that. But they’re going to say that and we’ll see how he defends that.

Can Mike Huckabee branch out beyond sort of the social, religious, cultural, evangelical Republican vote and sort of diversify his strength with other Republicans, what I would call secular Republicans? Has the Fox TV show, the regular show – has he been able to broaden his appeal? Because he won the Iowa caucus, which is what you’re supposed to do, and was never able to monetize it, raise money off of that, a lot of money off of that, never was able to expand his support. Don’t know.

Can – is Haley Barbour two southern? Will having been a lobbyist hurt him? We’ll see. Does Mitch Daniels, can he project his personality stronger and move beyond Indiana? Because he’s a really bright guy. I mean, every one of these people – we just have to kind of watch and wait and see, but it’s going to be a fascinating race.

And I would strongly, strongly suggest that – I know lots of people have limited travel budgets. I would strongly recommend that if you do not leave Washington for work for anything else this year, I would strongly, strongly recommend you go to Iowa in mid-August for the straw poll. And it’s during the Iowa State Fair, great Americana; you’ll love it. But you will be able – in three or four days, you will be able to see every single one of the Republican presidential candidates, at least the ones that haven’t bypassed Iowa, in groups of not much bigger than this. And in some cases smaller groups than this, you’ll be able see them up close, personal, watch them, just spend the day driving around because – and seeing one here, one here, one here, one here. And I promise you it will make your coverage of the rest of the campaign richer and fuller and you’ll sort of get it more. If you don’t go anywhere else the rest of the year, that week before, leading into the Saturday straw poll in Ames, that’s the place to go.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: I think we’re going to do the tour, yeah. One last question. Betty.

QUESTION: Thank you. Betty Lin of the World Journal. Thank you for the great talk. This may be also for entertainment purposes, but could you give us your prediction on the 2012 Senate races and analysis? And would Obamacare be repealed if Republican control votes is in the House? And how would Citizens United Decision affect future politics and elections?

MR. COOK: Wow, that’s a lot. Okay.

MODERATOR: In one minute.

MR. COOK: In one minute. Thank you. First, in the U.S. Senate, it is way, way, way too early to say, but I think Democrats are going to have – I think they’re going to have a really hard time holding onto their majority. Now, they basically – Republicans need – if they win the White House, they need a 53/47. So a three seat net gain for Republicans, if they win the White House and have a Republican Vice President to break the tie, four seats if President Obama is reelected – I’d say there’s a 60 percent chance of Republicans getting a majority – 60, 70 percent. I think that’s fairly conservative. It’s not a done deal, and things change. It depends on retirements and recruiting and all kinds of things. But it’s a lot more likely than not.

In the House of Representatives, my guess is that you won’t see more than a 10 or 12 seat net gain either direction, and Democrats would need a 25 seat net gain to get a majority there.

The Citizens United Decision, I think it’s probably much greater than I thought. And the question – and I think Republicans were able to capitalize on it a great deal, and I’m kind of anxious to see to what extent can Democrats effectively respond and create their own parallel organizations and kind of wait and see. But it’s obviously – see, I was a little surprised because I didn’t think a lot of publicly traded Fortune 500 kind of companies would put a lot of money after having laid off so many workers and done so much downsizing and emphasis on productivity – and that was generally true.

But there’s a lot of money in this country floating around that’s not from Fortune 500, not from publicly traded companies, and so there’s not a CEO that’s having to stand up in a front a room full of shareholders defending – spending money on politics. So there’s plenty of other money floating around, and it clearly made a huge difference. I mean, I’m not sure it – I think Republicans probably would have taken the majority of the House anyway, but they might not have gotten 63 seats in the House, for example, in the absence of that Citizens United Decision.

And what was the other part? Or have is that – have I –

MODERATOR: Quickly. We’re running out of time.

QUESTION: Obamacare –

MR. COOK: Oh, well, the thing about it is let’s say Democrats lose five, six – let’s say Democrats lose six U.S. Senate seats in this next election. So they’re down to 47 seats. The thing about it is they would still be able to filibuster a – in the Senate, a repeal. If the Senate is 53 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and keeping in mind the sum of the seats they lost may have been among Democrats that would have voted to repeal so that I don’t see any time soon Republicans having 60 seats – 60 votes in the U.S. Senate to repeal Obamacare even assuming Obama lose reelection, even assuming – I mean, I – 60, that’s a really – to do something – that’s a really big number. And, no, I just think that you’re going to see the law – it’s going to be modified – look, even if Democrats had stayed in control, there would have changes. You don’t do something that huge, that complicated, that many moving parts and not have to go back and fiddle and fine-tune it and fix problems with it.

So that would have happened anyway. It’s certainly going to happen now. But repeal? No. That’s not going to – and the thing is – and Republicans – privately, almost all of them would tell you it’s not going to happen. But they’ve got to make an effort. They’ve got to try. They owe it to their supporters.

Anyway, thank you very much for having me back –

MODERATOR: Thank you for coming.

MR. COOK: And if you come to Iowa in August, I would make every effort to do this out there.

MODERATOR: I think the Foreign Press Center is going to do a tour.

MR. COOK: But that’s – I highly recommend it.

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