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Divided Nation

November 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: So what are the implications of this more polarized and divided electorate for the 2004 campaign? We take that up now with two veteran political players and watchers: Mickey Edwards, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He was a Republican congressman from Oklahoma for eight terms, and was chairman of the Republican Policy Conference.

And Andrew Hernandez, executive director of the 21st Century Leadership Center at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He was president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project for six years, and then ran the Democratic National Committee’s outreach project for key voting blocs. Welcome to you both. Mickey Edwards, why do you think the electorate is now just as divided as they were pre-9/11 and more polarized?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, I think the reason they are more polarized is that you have a war in Iraq that has been very confusing for people – uncertainty about why we went in, what we knew about Saddam Hussein’s weapons, a sense that the war was quick, that it was over without a lot of casualties and now it seems to be continuing. We’re taking more casualties. So, I think that’s the kind of an issue. It’s kind of like World War I as opposed to World War II where the war itself is causing a lot of digging in and hard feelings and people on the right and the left have very different attitudes toward the war.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way Andy Hernandez that the war is driving the polarization?

ANDREW HERNANDEZ: I don’t think it’s just the war. If you look at what has happened over the last 20 years in American politics the political debate and dialogue has become more partisan and more polarized between the two parties. A lot of moderates in both parties simply haven’t been elected because of redistricting and other factors, and the Republican primary on the part of conservative candidates knocking out moderate Republicans and redistricting that knocked out a lot of moderate conservative southern Democrats as we just witnessed in Texas recently.

So I think part of the partisan shrillness that is starting to be evidenced in this data has been going on for the last 20 years. Politics has become less about competition – partisan politics about competition of ideas and values and visions for the country – and more about political conflict. The idea is to see your opponent not just as a political opponent but as a political enemy. And I think that is partly what is being reflected in these partisan data on the part of the public.

MARGARET WARNER: Mickey Edwards, your brief comment on that. In other words, do you think part of it is that the political leadership that average Americans see on TV has become so shrill and partisan that it helps drive this?

MICKEY EDWARDS: No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think that explanation certainly covers why it is so partisan and bitter in the Congress among the party activities of both parties. But this poll shows a great deal of division among just registered voters, who are not partisans, not activists and so I think it’s a very real difference, but he’s certainly right that it’s not just about the war.

There’s a difference on the role of government. There’s a difference on a lot of social and cultural issues — there’s a difference on a lot of economic issues and the tax cut. I think there really is a very great polarization.

However, I would say in the terms of poll itself, one of the things the poll showed that even though Republicans and Democrats are relatively close in party identification, in the last three years since September 11, 2001 – or two years – there has been a significant gain in party identification by the Republicans. And that’s especially true in states like Michigan, Florida, the swing states. And the poll shows that.

MARGARET WARNER: How significant do you think that is, Andy Hernandez, for the 2004 election?

ANDREW HERNANDEZ: Well, I think it makes the Democrats job more difficult. I think there’s a lot of structural barriers and hurdles that they’re going to have to overcome in this upcoming 2004 election: one being the large gap in fiscal resources that will be available to both parties. The Republicans will probably outspend the Democrats if you add all of it together by close to $150 million when all is said and done.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry to interrupt you, but what about the party ID, the thing that was in Andy Kohut’s poll. It was only a few points — is that really significant?

ANDREW HERNANDEZ: That’s the point I was going to make. It’s significant in that Democrats have lost some ground. Now, whether or not this is a long term trend or this is just a fluctuation of party affiliation because of September 11, because of some of the high marks the president has been given over the last few years, we don’t know yet. We don’t know if it’s a realignment of the electorate yet. Those things take a decade to figure out and to sort out. I think it does make the Democrats’ prospects more difficult in 2004. You always want a larger lead in party affiliation going into an election.

MARGARET WARNER: So Mickey Edwards, if you were a top strategist on this campaign on the republican side what would these numbers tell you in terms of how to shape the president’s campaign?

MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, I think the president obviously has to take some advantage of the fact that the electorate consistently puts a lot more trust in Republicans than in Democrats on national security issues. But his father was done in by a concern that voters had about domestic issues.

One of the things the president has to do is to assume that the people who feel very strongly in support of his position on the war are going to be with him. And what he has to do is reassure those people who may be concerned about the economy. The economy is turning around. The numbers are pretty good but the Democrats are going to continue to go after him as long as there isn’t an increase in jobs for example.

I would advise the president to talk about the economy and show he is aware of the problems outside of the war. He can’t get in the trap that his father got into where he was the hero of Gulf War and that’s not the issue the voters were voting on.

MARGARET WARNER: Andy Hernandez, When the candidates are also talking a lot about the war they think they see an opening. If you were the strategist for the Democrats, whoever that person might be, would you be putting a lot of emphasis on the war?

ANDREW HERNANDEZ: No. I really believe that Iraq is dangerous ground for Democrats to make a fight on. I don’t think that’s where their strength lies.

People have a lot more confidence in the Democratic Party when it comes to their economic security, educational opportunities for their children. The polls show that also. And so I think by trying to make the war the issue it distracts from the larger questions where Democrats do well, which is the economy, which are the kinds of things, positive things, that government does in the lives of people — everything from good education prospects for their children to educational prospects for their children that are going to college.

So, I think that is where the fight has to be. I think people are asking the question, the public is asking the question: are the costs, both fiscal costs and human costs, associated with our present policy in Iraq and with our present foreign policy, worth the gains we’re making in keeping this country safe and secure, and what are the costs — those costs we are incurring — how are they distracting or weakening our other strengths as a country such as our infrastructure, jobs, economic security?

So I think we have to make the argument around economic security as much as we have to make the argument against whether or not our policies in Iraq are proper.

MARGARET WARNER: Andy Hernandez, Mickey Edwards, thank you both.

MICKEY EDWARDS: Thank you.