October 27, 2000
After a background report, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report discuss the congressional races.
WARNER: For perspective on these latest developments and on the battle
for control of Congress, we turn to two longtime Congress watchers:
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Stuart
Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.Welcome
to you both.
Tom, are we seeing a confrontation this soon before the election?
THOMAS MANN: We certainly are. What's surprising is that this has been such a quiescent budget negotiating season. Republicans have basically given the president everything he wanted, in terms of money, in terms of specific provisions. But the president has decided, at the very end of the session, which is going on record length, to draw the line in the sand, to pick a fight, and to see if that can't, in some way, jumpstart the Democratic campaign for the presidency, and for the Congress.
MARGARET WARNER: So, do you agree that it's the president generating this confrontation?
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think there's no doubt about it, Margaret. This is a political hand grenade thrown at the 2000 elections. It shakes up the whole mix, the whole issue agenda could be different, the way the parties are defined, what candidates and individual districts talk about. I think this is a major change, and I would agree with Tom. I think the Republicans were really surprised. I don't think they expected this. They feel blindsided.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet, they went ahead this afternoon and passed -- the Senate did -- this spending measure that the president said he'd veto, rather than negotiating. How do you explain that?
THOMAS MANN: They think they can win the argument. There are two issues in dispute really. One is whether a hate crimes bill provision is added to the bill, and the other is whether there is a large amnesty program for illegal immigrants that have been in this country for 10 years but weren't included in some of the other provisions. There's some conservative Republicans who believe strongly that longtime legal aliens resent the illegal aliens, and they can make headway. But all of the Hispanic, Latino groups have come out in support of the president's position, and I think there's a risk here that once again Bill Clinton will figure out a way to frame an issue that works to the advantage of his party.
MARGARET WARNER: What a lot of budget analysts have also been saying is that if you just take the spending bills they have all agreed to, that it busts a lot of the surplus -- anywhere from 25 to 40 percent -- that Bush and Gore are out there promising how they're going to spend it, is that true?
|Not happy with this Congress|
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, and there are some conservatives out there, grassroots conservatives, who are not happy with this Congress who feel as though the Congress hasn't been conservative enough. On the other hand, the focus has been so much on these -- on the presidential election -- the choice between Bush and Gore -- that conservatives seem to be willing to accept breaking some of these caps, busting some of these caps, if it means electing George W. Bush and keeping the House.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, none of this is really permeating the congressional campaigns, it sounds like, what's happening here in Washington.
THOMAS MANN: Well, it hasn't yet. What's been fascinating is that the Republicans have decided to disappear, that is, now that Newt Gingrich is gone and Denny Hastert is the speaker, to basically get out of the public's attention and let George W. Bush lead the campaign. They've done this by trying to stay out of budgetary trouble, that is, making concessions to the president, giving in, and they thought they had accomplished that, but all of a sudden, right at the end, the president says, no so fast, we have a set of disputes and I say this more in sorrow than in anger.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yeah. You know, I think the Republicans see this as an opportunity to score points with their base by saying, look, the president vetoed a tax cut, and the president vetoed a hike in the minimum wage. The way the Democrats are going to view this is we are going to get into a fundamental argument with the Republicans over priorities and spending issues, and, not only that, but our advocate is Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton has won and won and won. He's the New York Yankees of these legislative logjams. So I think it's a question of who's right, what is this argument going to be over at the congressional level in terms of campaigns.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Give us an idea of the landscape of, we certainly don't have time to go into a lot of individual races, but the landscape of these congressional campaigns; the Democrats need to get about half a dozen seats to gain control of the House. Do they -- what do the prospects look like?
THOMAS MANN: It's tilting right on the edge, Margaret. It could go either way. The scope of conflict is very narrow. It's probably 20 seats. There may be as many as 40 seats that are potentially moveable from one party column to the other. But we're coming down to the last hand-to-hand combat, and so what -- what the Democrats are looking for is some way of putting some national dimension into this, of underscoring differences. Republicans have been very clever this election year. They've embraced the rhetoric of the Democratic Party. They like public education. They like prescription drugs; they like HMO reform, but they are also different from this administration and will bring change through the presidential election. Now, Bill Clinton is trying to say, just one minute, there are big differences between the parties, in hopes of boosting Al Gore's candidacy and then indirectly the congressional campaign.
|What happened to impeachment?|
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But, Stuart, and maybe Tom in a way has answered this, but why -- what happened to impeachment as an issue? Just a year ago we were hearing the Republicans in the House are going to be incredibly vulnerable because of impeachment.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think something happened to the Republicans. They got smart. On one hand, the American public didn't want to hear about impeachment during impeachment. That's why they turned against the Republicans. And I think the Republicans gambled, correctly so, that the public doesn't want to hear about impeachment now, a year later, and the Democrats agree with that. I think Tom is exactly right as to what has happened here. The Republicans for the first time in recent memory have out-foxed the Democrats. The Democrats thought they could get into an argument with Republicans in congressional districts around the country -- one side was for education, the other side was against education; one side was for health care reform, patient's bill of rights, prescription drugs -- the Republicans would be against. But the Republicans said, no, we're not buying that; we're for all those things. They have different proposals. We have Republican or conservative proposals, but we're for that same stuff. They took it off the table and made it about very local issues, candidate quality, who's got the base vote in a particular district, and they're a big draw.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, if you're out there listening to say radio ads, you might hear both the Republican and the Democrat in a given race both talking about prescription drugs, or both talking about patient's bill of rights.
THOMAS MANN: Absolutely right. And given the relative lack of attention by swing voters, they don't have a lot of time to invest in learning about each party or candidate's plan, they hear, oh, yeah, Governor Bush and the Republican candidate for the House have an HMO plan, have a prescription drug plan, want to improve public education, and it makes it very difficult for Democrats and Al Gore, in particular, to get traction on the big differences. E. J. Dionne, my colleague, in a column today called the Republican effort a stealth revolution. It's a conservative program with a very moderate, compassionate-sounding rhetoric, and thus far it's been working pretty well.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And before people jump to the conclusion that we're being critical of the Republicans, let's remember this is a tried and true recipe. The Democrats did it in 1992; the Democrats preempting Republican issues on crime and --
MARGARET WARNER: Welfare reform
STUART ROTHENBERG: -- fiscal responsibility -- right.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, are we seeing the same kind of a pattern in the Senate races?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, absolutely. The Republicans are coming out for the same sorts of things that Tom talked about prescription drugs, patient's bill of rights, and the Democrats are looking for looking for wedges. Spence Abraham, for example, neutralized...
MARGARET WARNER: In Michigan.
STUART ROTHENBERG: in Michigan -- neutralized a lot of these health care issues. No, the Republicans have moderated their rhetoric, while at the same time, they haven't lost the base, because the base understands this is an important election year.
MARGARET WARNER: So what are the prospects for the Democrats taking control of the Senate?
THOMAS MANN: I'd say less, substantially less than in the House, but not impossible. Republicans have a 54-46 majority. If the Democrats win the White House, they need four seats, but, alas, they would lose Joe Lieberman's seat; he would be vice president; a Republican governor would appoint a Republican to succeed him, so they're really after five seats or more. It's possible to pull that off if everything went well, but the difficulty is that they have two very vulnerable seats of their own -- an open seat in Nevada, and the Virginia seat.
MARGARET WARNER: Chuck Robb.
THOMAS MANN: Senator Chuck Robb.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think the problem for the Democrats is that some of the seats that a year ago looked very inviting to them, Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, the Rhode Island seat -- John Chafee, now Lincoln Chafee -- are off the table. Spence Abraham looks better; the race is still very much of a contest, but the number of opportunities are shrinking for the Democrats. I think they can certainly pick up two or three seats, four is tough, five seems to me to be really outside the range.
MARGARET WARNER: Are the -- either the Democrats or Republicans running at all in sync with their candidate -- their presidential candidate -- or are they off on their own?
|Not supporting congressional candidates|
THOMAS MANN: No. And it's utterly fascinating, because both presidential candidates have come to realize there's no advantage in arguing for support for their congressional candidates. George Bush is afraid if he calls attention to the value of voting Republican at the congressional level that he will scare people away at the prospect of a unified Republican government -- the first once since 1952, and Vice President Gore also has an interest in being there to checkmate a Republican Congress -- as Bill Clinton has done so effectively -- so there's almost no effort to run unified tickets, although both parties' delegations in Congress realize the best way to help them take the majority is for their presidential candidate to win and win strongly.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yeah, I'd agree. I have one or two slightly different takes, but I think Tom's right. In one case though on issues, they are all running on the same kinds of issues -- Democrats and Al Gore are running on the same kind of issues -- prescription drugs and the like. Republicans echo George Bush on issues, except the tax cut. The Republican congressional candidates are not calling for large, across-the-board tax cuts; they think that's a political loser; they're much more targeted.
MARGARET WARNER: And brief last word -- is Nader having any impact on the congressional races?
THOMAS MANN: He could have an impact if he brings new voters to the polls; they're likely to be Democratic congressional votes.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much. We'll leave it there.