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Political Strategists Gauge Iraq, Foley Fallout on Elections

October 4, 2006 at 6:25 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: But first, the Mark Foley affair and new revelations about Iraq have rocked the political world. Could it also shift the balance of power in Congress? A new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found 41 percent of those surveyed said recent events have given them a less favorable view of Republican control; 18 percent said they have a more favorable view; while 35 percent said recent events have had no effect.

Democrats have seized on what they see as new vulnerability. One House candidate, Patty Wetterling in Minnesota, has already gone on the air with this ad.

POLITICAL AD NARRATOR: It shocks the conscience: Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children. For over a year, they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power.

GWEN IFILL: So is this story resonating? And does it hurt all incumbents or just Republicans? For that, we turn to Democratic political strategist Stanley Greenberg and Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey.

Mr. Carey, I’d like to start with you, because you are coping with — I guess is one way to put it — an open seat race for the governor of Minnesota, U.S. Senate, I believe it’s eight House seats, and the entire legislature all on the ballot. Is there any trickledown in this sort of Washington scandal?

RON CAREY, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman: Well, you know, we take this seriously. Obviously, Mark Foley was wrong. It’s disgusting what Mark Foley did, and I think Republicans are united in saying that this was inappropriate behavior and cannot be tolerated.

I certainly agree with our own Minnesota congressman, Jim Ramstad’s, call for a thorough investigation. I hope Congress does follow through. And Mr. Foley needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

You know, people here in Minnesota are more concerned, I think, about the Twins at this point in time. I mean, while this is serious, life goes on. And this election still comes down to a choice, a choice between, you know, the failed liberal policies of the Democrats in a state versus the opportunity society and the commonsense values the Republicans are presenting.

Choices

Ron Carey
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman
Mr. Woodward's book really, to me, is more an inside political junkie's endeavor at this point. And you don't hear talk on the street -- I was at the Twins game this afternoon. I didn't hear one thing about Bob Woodward.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Stan Greenberg about it. You've done some research on that very issue. Is there a wider effect on issues like this?

STANLEY GREENBERG, Democratic Political Strategist: I think there is. I think there is. I mean, this is -- you have Terri Schiavo as kind of the bookend on one side of this Congress, and you have Mark Foley at this end. They kind of both represent -- the country's sense is that this extreme partnership, pursuing agendas that have nothing to do with the issues that ordinary Americans worry about.

And I think that's exactly -- actually, I agree with our Republican chair in some sense. You know, people are concerned about, you know, their lives, but what they think is happening, as these parties are polarized in conflict, Republicans in conflict with themselves. And Republicans are perceived to be in control of all this. And so they own this partisanship, lack of progress on issues that impact people.

And our polling shows that, indeed, the image of the Republican Congress has fallen very sharply in the last week. And part is a result of this, but also Iraq, and the combination is also leading to a disengagement of Republicans. And it's a fairly volatile combination.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about that, Mr. Carey, not only this scandal we're talking about, but also Iraq, and also reports that we just heard about Bob Woodward's new book and the National Intelligence Estimate. Are people talking about that?

RON CAREY: Really, in Minnesota, we're not hearing much about that. Again, the Twins are the number-one story. You see that all over the papers at this point in time. Mr. Woodward's book really, to me, is more an inside political junkie's endeavor at this point. And you don't hear talk on the street -- I was at the Twins game this afternoon. I didn't hear one thing about Bob Woodward.

And so it's -- I'm sure it seems one of those situations the Democrats are trying to make this into an issue for October here, 34 days before the election.

GWEN IFILL: Is that...

RON CAREY: But this election still comes down to choices, and that's where people are looking at, "Do I feel more comfortable with Republican leadership or Democrat leadership when it comes to issues?" And that's why we're positioned to have a surprisingly good election.

Democratic reaction

Stanley Greenberg
Democratic political strategist
I mean, but Iraq is a war that's ongoing. It's a period right now, very high casualties on the part of Americans. Bob Woodward's book is, you know, has come out at a time where there's a growing sense that we're losing ground in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about this ad we just saw that Patty Wetterling, the Democratic candidate, is running. Is that something that no one is paying attention to? Is that something you think just won't work?

RON CAREY: Well, obviously, you know, I mean, you turn on the TV, you see that ad running. You know, I think it comes down to leadership. If the Republicans try to punt on this issue of Mark Foley, then I think it could really stick.

But the thing is the Republicans -- at least the Republicans I'm talking to -- are very aggressively saying, "This is disturbing. This is wrong. Let's lead the attack in making sure Mr. Foley is prosecuted." And I think, you know, it's how you deal with the challenges that shows whether you're a good leader or not. And Republicans hopefully are going to rise to the challenge.

Like I say, unlike the Democrats, because Gerry Studds 20-some years ago, he was involved in a similar scandal, and the Democrats -- how they rewarded him was gave him a chairmanship. He wasn't removed from Congress. Mel Reynolds, former congressman from Illinois, was convicted of having sex with an underage girl, and President Clinton pardoned him for that act.

GWEN IFILL: So you're saying that Democrats do it, too, so it doesn't matter?

RON CAREY: No, I think that it's a matter of how deal with those situations. The Democrats have handled their own crises much differently than the Republicans. And I think the way the Republicans are handling it, by taking Mr. Foley on and saying, "Let's prosecute him aggressively," that's a different way of looking at situations like this versus how the Democrats have handled similar problems within their own party.

And I think people need to realize that, that, you know, leadership means -- I mean, you look at how parties handle these problems. It will happen to both parties. And I think we're in line with America.

GWEN IFILL: Stan Greenberg, your response?

STANLEY GREENBERG: Well, I don't think voters are going to look back historically; they're going to look at, you know, what's happening now and what's happening -- this isn't about spin. This is about reality. This is about how they handled this issue.

I mean, but Iraq is a war that's ongoing. It's a period right now, very high casualties on the part of Americans. Bob Woodward's book is, you know, has come out at a time where there's a growing sense that we're losing ground in Iraq.

We asked in our own survey, overwhelmingly people believe things are getting worse in Iraq, less secure, and that's changed during the course of the last couple weeks. We asked them, you know, what news story, the National Intelligence Estimate, President Bush talking about cut-and-run Democrats, but the Woodward book was the number-one recall of reasons for why they were thinking things were going worse on the war in terrorism and Iraq.

We also asked people just open-endedly, and what they're focused on is the casualties. I mean, that's the reality, that the casualties are very much in people's minds.

The question of the war

Ron Carey
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman
I think, when we bring our troops home, if we bring them home prematurely, we're going to be bringing the terrorists home right with them.

GWEN IFILL: But, Mr. Greenberg, Mr. Carey says this is one of these issues which everybody's more worried about baseball. This is inside baseball, this Woodward book. This is something most people are not going to actually vote on.

STANLEY GREENBERG: The Woodward book is not Woodward book. The Woodward book is the Iraq war. People think the war is making us less secure. They think people are dying in that war. They think we're not making progress.

You know, Americans have to believe, when they're involved in this kind of a conflict, we're making progress. They now think we're losing ground; that's a terrible place to be waging an election.

RON CAREY: Let me...

GWEN IFILL: Do you have any concern -- well, go ahead, Mr. Carey.

RON CAREY: Well, I want to say, you know, to Mr. Greenberg, you know, it's tragic we've lost so many lives in Iraq. I mean, it is tragic. However, let's not forget we lost more lives in one morning in 9/11 than we have lost in the entire war in Iraq.

And so we are at war, unlike what Ms. Pelosi wants to think. We are at war. And the question is: Are we going to fight the war on foreign soil or on American soil? And I think, when people understand that we are at war and terrorists want to kill Americans -- we don't negotiate with people who want to kill us. We have to take them on and fight them. That's the only thing that's going to win the war.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Carey, may I just interrupt you for a second? Because every poll I read, and not just polls like Mr. Greenberg, who's a Democrat, but the media polls, which are fairly nonpartisan, seem to indicate that people are not of a mind with you on this, that they're very concerned about the war in Iraq, and it is cutting through their concerns about the war on terror.

RON CAREY: Well, I think they are concerned about that, but I guess we have to look at the alternative, what the Democrats are offering, by cutting and running. I think, when we bring our troops home, if we bring them home prematurely, we're going to be bringing the terrorists home right with them.

And I think -- the latest episode we had in London, where we had the potential bombing of planes, with the problem we had in the Middle East with Hezbollah and Israel, I think that's helping people refocus on the fact that we are at war and that we can't just come home and stick our head in the sand, pretend we don't have a problem. We have a war on terror.

Republican position

Stanely Greenberg
Democratic political strategist
This is a time for Democrats to be clear on their beliefs we set on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Democrats should critique Republicans for making the country less safe.

GWEN IFILL: So when Republican candidates come to you in Minnesota and say, "What should I do? There is all this distraction coming from Washington," do you tell them, "Just talk about the war on terror; just talk about the victory and ignore what's happening in Washington"?

RON CAREY: Well, I think what we have to do is focus on issues that Minnesotans care about, and the war is certainly an issue that Minnesotans do care about. But I think there's an awful -- a growing number of people in Minnesota who want to see us successful, because cutting and running is not an alternative.

I mean, that's a short-term strategy. It might be popular in some polls, but what it doesn't do is preserve our security, as an American people, in the long term. And that is something I think, when people look at the broader picture, they're going to realize that the position we're taking right now, of taking the war to -- fighting the war in Iraq instead of in Boston, or New York, or Minneapolis, that is a -- we'd rather fight the war on foreign soil.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Greenberg?

STANLEY GREENBERG: Well, it goes down to really elemental things, which has to do with whether people feel safe. That's what President Bush ran on; that was actually his mandate. His last ads were about what would happen if the Democrats came in, the country would be less safe, the wolves would be, you know, circling us if the Democrats came in.

Right now, people think we are less safe, less secure because of the war in Iraq. That essential problem means the Democrats are talking about safety and security, and that's a fundamental change, but it's rooted in what's happening in the war on the ground in Iraq. And I think the spotlight of the Woodward book has put on it -- at this moment in time -- has made that elemental feeling central to the election.

GWEN IFILL: You advise Democratic candidates. When they come to you in the wake of all of this, and they say, "What do we do?" Do you tell them, "Just sit back and let the Republicans shoot each other"? Or do you say, "Go and cut an ad" like we just saw, Patty Wetterling's ad, and try to exploit it?

STANLEY GREENBERG: No, I think this is not to exploit it. This is a time for Democrats to be clear on their beliefs we set on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Democrats should critique Republicans for making the country less safe.

And on this question, there is no doubt that this was handled in such a partisan way, such an elemental problem, which is, you know, what we face, the threat to the underage pages, it was treated in such a political, partisan way, holding onto power, is such a symbol of what's wrong with arrogance of power in a polarized Washington.

And so, sure, they should address it as part of the larger set of problems that make you want to have change so you can address real issues.

GWEN IFILL: Final question for you both: Do you think Democrats will stay home, Mr. Greenberg, because of this, and just say, "A pox on all their houses"?

STANLEY GREENBERG: No, all the evidence of art is the Democrats are more engaged and Republicans are quite demoralized.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Carey, what about you? Do you think Republicans might just be disillusioned and stay home?

RON CAREY: I don't think so. I mean, maybe six months ago there was some malaise in the Republican ranks, but I've seen a resurgence here, especially in the last 60 days, where people are realizing the world belongs to those who show up and they realize that, if they may not be happy with everything that's gone on in the last couple of years, but if they stay home, you know, the far left of the Democrat Party is going to be in charge, and that is a choice that they don't want to make.

So I think you will find Republicans surprisingly show up in numbers unlike what Mr. Greenberg and his friends in the Democrat circles want.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we'll be watching you on election night. Ron Carey, Stan Greenberg, thank you both very much.

STANLEY GREENBERG: Thank you.

RON CAREY: Thank you very much.