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MARGARET WARNER: Now, a partisan take on these latest developments in the presidential campaign. Linda Divall is a Republican pollster and Elaine Kamarck served in the Clinton administration and was a senior policy adviser to the 2000 Gore campaign. She’s now a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
Welcome to you both. Linda Divall, the Democrats haven’t even chosen their nominee and President Bush has gone on the attack. Why?
LINDA DIVALL: Well the president didn’t go on the attack. What he clearly did was launched his campaign last night. He reminded voters of the change that he’s brought forth in the last three years, that we’ve faced very uncertain times. He’s provided steady leadership. And that regardless of who the eventual Democratic nominee will be that there are some clear choices on taxes and our place in the world, the role of government and ownership.
MARGARET WARNER: Up until now he has tried to stay above the political fray when the Democrats’ charges were played back to him. He’d say it’s the political season there’s plenty of time. Now he’s joining it why?
LINDA DIVALL: I think for a very simple reason — that for six weeks the Democrats have had Tuesday night and this is Tuesday night three hours of prime time to talk about their issues where the president has remained outside the fray. I think clearly there was some angst with Republican partisans. Let’s talk about this campaign and our issues. The president has a great record to talk about it. What he’s done on Medicare reform, tax relief in terms of taking a stand in making sure this country isn’t threatened. He wanted to remind people and I think he did that quite successfully.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you make of the timing and the message, Elaine Kamarck?
ELAINE KAMARCK: I think the timing is very clear. I think the president is in trouble. I think his party is very nervous. Indianapolis numbers are going down. He’s had a very bad two months. His State of the Union did not help him as it usually helps a president. And then he made a decision that still is mysterious to some of us to go on Tim Russert and have to defend what is becoming increasingly indefensible, which is the way he took us into the war in Iraq. And then of course this morning as we saw in your earlier segment, he opened up a culture war as a way to try and divert America’s attention from what’s really at stake in this election.
MARGARET WARNER: Why though do you think that … do you agree with Linda Divall that part of this was driven by the fact that the Democrats have had kind of free shots at the president for the last couple of months — every week with the Democratic primary?
ELAINE KAMARCK: I think that’s part of it. But you know frankly the much bigger thing that happened during this same period of time was David Kay coming out and saying there were no weapons of mass destruction there. Reality has not been kind to the president. This is a jobless recovery if it is even a recovery. He’s lost 3 million jobs. The war in Iraq is looking more and more like a quagmire. It is very, very questionable what they knew, when they knew, why they got us into this. I think that the reality component of his presidency has been much more serious in bringing down his numbers than have the Democratic attacks.
MARGARET WARNER: Linda Divall, what do you make of the timing then of President Bush’s announcement today on the gay marriage amendment? Why the timing? Why come out for it now in political terms? In other words what’s the political impact of this?
LINDA DIVALL: I think the reality of the situation is that what you are seeing is activist judges make decisions for people in their states about the definition of marriage. And so I think what had to happen and it was perfectly summarized in the last package there is that we have a lot of uncertainty and that there does need to be some clarity. But I think the more important thing is if you wanted to let the states do it that’s one thing but the states aren’t making the decisions. Activists judges, individual mayors are making the decisions. It’s taken away from the hands of the people.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think will be the political impact? Is this a winner for the president?
LINDA DIVALL: The question here is how does this issue mobilize each party’s base? This is not unlike the abortion issue in that regard. It is a cultural issue that both sides believe they have an advantage to mobilizing their base. And the central premise in this election is which party can do the best job of energizing and mobilizing their base and appealing to swing voters. There’s a very tricky balancing act for both eventual nominees on this issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, Elaine? This is really an issue that is polarizing and is about energizing the base of both parties?
ELAINE KAMARCK: Well, I think Linda is right in general about these kinds of wedge issues. I think this one is a little bit different though. Abortion affirmative action, they had real life impacts on millions and millions of people. People were scared of the consequences of the law changing, et cetera. Gay marriage takes away nothing from anyone. There are no limits on the number of marriage licenses a state can hand out. And so I don’t see this having the same kind of impact that I think other wedge issues have had in the past on our elections.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean not with conservatives and not with sort of culturally liberal folks?
ELAINE KAMARCK: No, I think that the two sides of the parties — I think the extreme conservatives and the extreme liberals — I think this will maybe energize them. However I don’t think it’s the kind of issue that makes a difference in elections because I don’t think it really hurts anybody. There’s really … there are so few people affected by it that I don’t see it having the same kind of impact on an election that, say, other previous social issues like affirmative action have had.
MARGARET WARNER: I guess I was just struck by the fact that today neither Kerry nor Edwards volunteered publicly their views on this issue. Kerry issued a written statement. Edwards was finally caught by reporters in a question and he took the question. But they didn’t seem to be out there saying this is the most outrageous thing this president has ever done.
ELAINE KAMARCK: No, because, look, why should they? This is really an ancillary issue. In spite of all the attention it’s getting because it’s kind of interesting. The real issue is about jobs, security, health care and our safety and place in the world. Kerry and Edwards have been doing a terrific job making the case against President Bush on those issues. So I think they were absolutely right to stay away from this one.
MARGARET WARNER: Linda Divall, how do you think this plays with independents?
LINDA DIVALL: Look — the bottom like is this election is going to be decided on the central question that President Bush posed last night. Which of the two competing visions do you agree with — more tax relief or greater tax burden? Understanding our place in the world and making certain that when a threat presents itself that this country and this president takes action or waiting for a coalition to form and a consensus to build that we should act when it’s too late and the role of government?
This issue in terms of gay marriage is something that will be fought for a long period of time. But the bottom line is that jobs, taxes, our role in the world today are going to be central issues that define this candidacy. I think President Bush very affirmatively stated last night that he is up for this battle, that he understands this contrast and set the tone for the general election in terms of the themes that he’s going to pursue.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. I want to ask you each about at least one central point of attack against your candidate. I’ll start with you, Elaine Kamarch. We’ll use the one the president used last night and we’ve been hearing from Republicans which is John Kerry is now criticizing many things from the Patriot Act to the war in Iraq to No Child Left Behind to trade agreements that he in fact voted for as a senator. How vulnerable is he on that?
ELAINE KAMARCK: I don’t think he’s very vulnerable on this. I think he’s had thousands of votes in his senate career and it makes perfect sense, say, on NAFTA that if something he voted for 11 years ago he should now look at it and say I want to take a new look at this when I’m president and see what its impact has been on the united states and see if we need to renegotiate pieces of it.
On No Child Left Behind, it is very clear that the central problem here was that the Bush administration promised to fund this and they did not fund the bill. And the Democrats are all saying the same thing on this, which is it’s not the central premise of that bill but the Republicans did not put the money there and school districts are in chaos because of it. So I don’t think that this attack is going to work. I think that the reality of the Bush record, particularly the failure to generate jobs, is going to overpower any kind of arcane arguments they can make about how John Kerry voted 11, 12, 15 years ago.
MARGARET WARNER: Linda Divall, that jobs issue I mean essentially the Kerry attack is what George Bush has cared most about is tax cuts for the wealthy and millions of jobs have been lost. How vulnerable is he on that.
LINDA DIVALL: First to Elaine’s point on education there’s never been a time in our history where we’ve spent more money on education federally. There’s no question that on Sept. 11 the nature of our economy changed fundamentally. The president has done everything in his power in terms of tax relief for all Americans in terms of putting things together like Medicare reform that allows consumer to make choices.
The bottom line is everybody knows that jobs are fundamentally important. You cannot say that this president has sat by and tried not to do anything about it. He’s been very aggressive on that front. The economy is turning around. Look at the last quarter of 2003, more jobs created than we’ve seen in the last 18 months. Very impressive record.
MARGARET WARNER: Very quick brief final question to you. What impact does the president singling Kerry out last night have on the Democratic race still going on between Kerry and Edwards?
ELAINE KAMARCK: Well I know that Senator Edwards objected to that today and I don’t blame him. There still is a race going on. On the other hand, Senator Kerry is far ahead in delegates. It looks like he’s going to have a pretty good day next Tuesday. I think that what we’re seeing maybe a slightly early but I think we’re seeing the general election being joined I think President Bush kind of opened the general election last night. That’s where we are. That’s where the delegate totals take us. That’s what the polls seem to be telling us.
MARGARET WARNER: Elaine Kamarck, Linda Divall, thank you both.