It was must-see TV (if you count a live webcast — soon to be available as an archived video — as TV) Monday night when David Plouffe and Karl Rove squared off in front of a live audience on the campus of California State University, Monterey Bay.
Within the first 10 minutes, Plouffe and Rove, top political advisers to President Obama and President Bush, respectively, were at each other’s throats.
Throughout the 90-minute session, Rove threw haymakers, and Plouffe slashed back with wry, sarcastic one-liners, though the two men did settle down somewhat after the intitial fireworks.
One of the more interesting themes of the debate was that Plouffe talked numerous times about the dangers of Democrats growing overconfident after capturing the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“We have to be very careful as a party,” Plouffe said. “That doesn’t mean your approach can be my way or the highway.”
“It’s very very important that we not get arrogant,” he said.
Moments later, he stated, “I think there are some people in my party who are a little over confident now.”
Rove criticized the president early on in the session for not practicing the bipartisanship he preaches. Obama, he said, “has governed in a rhetorically bipartisan way but has governed in a practical way that is not bipartisan.”
Plouffe responded, “Now I just fundamentally disagree with that.”
“There is a role for a strong opposition party. It’s a necessary part of democracy and I think people value that. But 70 percent of the people in the country right now think the Republicans in Congress are opposing the president not on policy grounds but on political grounds. So that’s basically all the Democrats and Independents in the country believe that Republicans are not offering a positive policy alternative. They’re playing politics,” Plouffe said.
“This is exactly the kind of of divisiveness I’m talking about,” Rove said, prompting loud laughter and applause from the crowd.
“You know, Republicans in the House laid out an alternative view of stimulus. They ran that program through the … model developed by the [Council of Economic Advisers]. They found that that program of stimulus, using the administration’s own … model, would cost half as much and generate 50 percent more jobs. Now, that’s a reasonable opinion. That’s a reasonable proposal. What did the president do? He went and held a nationally televised news conference in which he said, ‘The people who don’t agree with my proposal don’t want to do anything.’ Now if you want to bring the country together, you start by treating the proposals offered by your opposition with a certain amount of respect. You don’t dismiss the motivations of those who labored hard to come up with a constructive alternative as people who don’t want to do anything,” Rove said.
“So you think he dismissed those people out of hand?” said moderator Frank Sesno, a reporter for CNN.
“Oh absolutely, in fact they went in a meeting with him and presented it to him and his response was to tell them, ‘I won,’” Rove said. “Now contrast this with George W. Bush.”
At that last statement, there were loud laughs from some in the audience. But Rove pressed on, talking about compromises early on in the Bush administration with Democrats on the size and scope of tax cuts, and on the No Child Left Behind legislation.
“Do we see a similar effort on healthcare, the signature domestic initiative of President Obama, where he’s saying, ‘Let us bring together Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate to sit down and devise a proposal? Not yet, but hope we do,” Rove said.
Plouffe zinged Rove.
“Well, this is like getting interview lessons from Sarah Palin, a lecture on bipartisanship,” he said, prompting a few boos and a few cackles.
“Wow,” was all Sesno could muster to say.
Plouffe said the opinions of regular Americans were more important than those of Rove’s and his own.
“The vast majority of the American people believe that the president is trying to reach out to the other side, trying to involve them in their government, and trying to reach out honestly,” he said.
But Sesno pressed him on this point.
“Yes, what the American people feel and believe and what we see in polls is fine. But the discussion on whether the president and Democrats are going to reach across the aisle, they’re in power now … matters. What Karl Rove is saying, however you view it is, however you view it, is in fact the president said, ‘We won.’ It’s our way. He did say that. And the degree to which he is inviting Republicans in and also the degree to which Republicans are taking him up on that, in their own constructive way, is in the end the way the American people will decide whether bipartisanship, some change in the way Washington is doing business, is actually taking place. So, why then that kind of rhetoric? Why then, that kind of, sort of in your face, ‘We won,’ my way or the –“
Plouffe cut him off, obviously irritated by the second mention of Obama’s now famous line.
“He said it once, ok?”
Plouffe then launched into a defense of Obama’s governance so far.
“I think first of all, when we pledged to change Washington, it was about trying to bring people together and bridge partisan divides, but it was much deeper than that. It’s about lessening the role of lobbyists in Washington, and he has done more in the short time he’s been in office to solve that problem than any president. More transparency: the fact that the recovery package is going to be online, and is online, for people to track the spending and jobs. Listen, there is a real crisis out there. People feel disconnected from their government. There was a lack of trust, and I think he’s rebuilding that. So he ran for president, as I said, he wants to involve Republicans in the Senate and the House in solving these problems, but let’s be clear, the people voted overwhelmingly on November 4 of last year for change in the direction of this country, a fundamental change. And that meant both dealing with our short term economic problems, bu for the first time, making sure that on energy, healthcare and education we do the things that will make this country strong for generations to come. And that is first and foremost the objective. I think as he tries to succeed in that regard, he wants to do it in a very collaborative way, listen a lot, and hopefully get cooperation, as he did on the recovery package. We did get three Republican senators to vote for that.”
The full 90-minute video should be up on the website of the Panetta Institute, which hosted the event, soon.
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times