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Former Congressional Leaders Debate Midterm Elections

November 6, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, how this election looks to two men who’ve been there before and then some: former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who served as his party’s leader in the U.S. Senate; and former Congressman Dick Armey of Texas, who was the Republican leader of the House.

First, for the record, gentlemen, how would you predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, House and Senate, Senator?

TOM DASCHLE (D), Former Senator of South Dakota: Well, Jim, I think we’re probably going to pick up 25 to 30 seats in the House. And if I had to guess tonight, I’d say six in the Senate. So I think we take back both the House and the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Armey?

DICK ARMEY (R), Former House Republican Leader: Well, I’m just about there where the senator — I don’t think you will take back the Senate. And that really just boils down to individual races.

The House, I think any realistic person has to acknowledge the highest probability is the Democrats take the House back. I think there’s a question then only about how large their majority will be, and I frankly don’t think it’s going to be all that large.

JIM LEHRER: What is it going to mean for the country, for the Democrats to take control of the House again?

DICK ARMEY: Well, you know, there’s so much out there to — I think some issues, a Democrat-controlled House, working with the president on immigration, might make a chance to have us make progress on it, because…

JIM LEHRER: Because the president and the Democrats are closer on that and then are some of the conservative Republicans in the House?

DICK ARMEY: It’s a critically important issue. I think there’s going to be a lot of standoff. I don’t think there will be a whole lot happen, for example, on taxes. I think there are going to be questions suspending.

I think Nancy Pelosi is going to have the same problem we all have today in office, resisting the — what should I say — the forceful demands of your base to do something that, frankly, is ill-advised. And I think, in this case, I think her base is already grumbling that she’s suggesting they won’t try to impeach the president.

I mean, I’m sitting here saying, “Go ahead. I hope you do, because I’ve been down that road.” We did this with President Clinton, as sort of a duty that we saw sort of thrust upon us, and we got ourselves in a lot of hot water.

JIM LEHRER: You think that was a mistake?

DICK ARMEY: Well, politically it was a mistake. And the fact of the matter is, if you have a special counsel appointed by the president’s own attorney general, he brings you a report, you’ve got to act on it.

If the Democrats win the House...

Tom Daschle
Former Senate Minority Leader
If the president continues to believe that he's got somehow to placate his base, and if the Democrats believe they've got to placate theirs, there's nobody to be found in the middle, and you're not going to get much done.

JIM LEHRER: So what do you think is going to happen? Let's take the thing you both agree on, that definitely the Democrats are probably going to win at least the House, maybe the Senate. What's going to happen? What does this mean for the country?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, Jim, I think it's too early. I think, first of all, what it means is I think it will be interpreted as the American people saying, "We want a change. We want to change course. We want to change course, maybe in foreign policy, especially with regard to Iraq, and our overall moral authority around the world. I think they're also saying to a certain extent we want to change course here at home." So that will be the statement.

Now, whether that happens depends on two things. First...

JIM LEHRER: Well, but you think the course has to be changed, if this happens, in response to what the voters are going to say tomorrow?

TOM DASCHLE: I think so. I think that there is a level of fatigue right now and anxiety that the American people are expressing by their votes and by their actions that will make a statement. Whether or not it is followed through is really -- I agree a lot with what Dick said -- it will be dependent, in part, on how much either party feels they need to go to their base.

If the president continues to believe that he's got somehow to placate his base, and if the Democrats believe they've got to placate theirs, there's nobody to be found in the middle, and you're not going to get much done. Otherwise, I think, if both feel that they've got to show they can govern, as they step up to 2008, and demonstrate some need to show signs of good governance on issues like immigration or Iraq, I think then there's a possibility that some things could get done.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that that could be the message of tomorrow, Congressman Armey...

DICK ARMEY: Oh, yes, I think there's a lot of...

JIM LEHRER: ... get your acts together, Democrats or Republicans?

DICK ARMEY: Yes, there's a lot of confusion. I like to put it this way: The Republicans have got to, if they're ever going to get back on their feet, they're going to have to prove to America that they really are the Republicans that the Democrats are pretending to be.

JIM LEHRER: Say that again now? Explain that to me.

DICK ARMEY: The Republicans are going to have to prove to America that they really are the Republicans that the Democrats are pretending to be, that they're for fiscal austerity, that they're for tightening up on the spending, holding down taxes, and they're for reform, they're for restraint in adventurism in foreign policy, and they're for small government.

I listen to the Democrats on the campaign trail today, and I laugh. And I say, as often as not, they sound more like me than I do.

JIM LEHRER: Is he right about that?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, we're not pretending to be anything. I think there is a new reality though, and I think Democrats have seized this reality, over the last couple of years in particular.

We are worried about fiscal responsibility. We have the largest debt we've ever had in our country's history. We are worried about sort of a lack of any real direction in foreign policy today. And I think the Democrats are prepared to start pressing to make change there. I think there's a whole domestic agenda that has to be addressed.

People want good governance. As I travel the country, Jim, it's amazing how much people really want to see the day when Republicans and Democrats can find a way to work together to start solving these issues and not just make political statements.

Issues behind voter dissatisfaction

Richard Armey
Former House Majority Leader
I think the war, it's the big problem, the big albatross that [the president] has to deal with. We're all stuck there.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Armey, why is President Bush so unpopular with the public?

DICK ARMEY: Well, it's hard to tell. It could be a lot of things.

JIM LEHRER: What's your own feeling about it?

DICK ARMEY: I think the war, it's the big problem, the big albatross that he has to deal with. We're all stuck there. Nobody really knows what to do next, how do you do it, anything, and there's sort of a polarization on it. And I think all message on Iraq is driven by the two bases. So you have a kind of confusing irreconcilable language of what is a cut-and-run Democrats and stay-the-course Republicans. And we've got most of the nation saying...

JIM LEHRER: Right in the middle, 80 percent...

DICK ARMEY: ... "Let's try to find a way out of this thing," and nobody is really giving anybody any chance. I mean, I see there -- I want to find a way to just get our guys out of there, leave the region in some kind of a stable circumstance, and get our folks home. But it's hard to do.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading, first of all, the question about why the -- do you think the president's so unpopular in the polls solely because of Iraq or mostly because of Iraq?

TOM DASCHLE: I think that's a big part of it. I think that it goes deeper than that, though. There's an arrogance, combined with an incompetence, that has lead people to be very doubtful about whether this president can lead. And I think Iraq is probably Exhibit A, but Katrina was Exhibit A-plus.

I mean, there are just a number of metaphors for the competence and arrogance combined of this administration that has led the people to be very frustrated right now.

But I think Dick's right: There's a tremendous consensus that we've got to change course in Iraq. And Republicans and Democrats together are beginning to express that.

JIM LEHRER: But let's say that you're both right here and that there is this consensus -- the majority of the American people want something done about Iraq. But if both parties are driven by the extremes, which is what you're saying, how do you get it done? How does a Democratic House and a Republican president -- forget the Senate for a moment, we'll leave that one out of the equation just for discussion purposes -- how does anything change?

DICK ARMEY: Well, let me -- Tom will remember one of my few moments with President Clinton, when we were working on trade together. And I remember getting up from the table in the White House and saying to the president, "Mr. President, if we can avoid having our two separate parties driven by their separate bases, we can get this done."

And to a large extent, those people that are in office and in the positions of responsibility and leadership need to sometimes turn to their bases and say, "Now, settle down. We've got to work something out here. There's a job to get done. And we really just cannot take a perspective that's so hard and rigidly defined as you want us to do that."

JIM LEHRER: But how does a Republican member of Congress say that to the president?

DICK ARMEY: Well, I think the president's got to do that. And I think we've seen -- we saw Clinton, President Clinton, do it on one occasion.

But, again, the Republican -- one of the things I've argued before Congress -- and we argued it's easy to argue -- it will be easier for Nancy Pelosi to argue it next year than it is, for example, for Dennis Hastert to argue it this year -- that the Congress is a separate and equal branch of government. We will set a course based on what we think is the correct way to go.

Iraq policy: working toward change

Tom Daschle
Former Senate Minority Leader
I think, if in 2008 nothing's changed, both parties are in huge trouble.

JIM LEHRER: So do you think that, if somebody votes Democratic tomorrow, no matter what state they're in, no matter what district or what Senate seat they're voting for, they're voting for a change of Iraq policy, and the Democrats can deliver on that?

TOM DASCHLE: I believe they're certainly voting for an Iraq policy different than what we have right now. I think, if in 2008 nothing's changed, both parties are in huge trouble.

I don't think that's going to happen. My guess is that there's going to be so much incentive for us to find ways with which to change course and provide some new direction, that that is the one area where you're probably going to see some consensus.

I think Dick is right: There's going to be a point where both bases are probably not going to be happy, that we're not leaving as fast as some would like, we're not staying and even adding troops, as some have called for. There's going to be something in the middle. It's going to be changing course over a period of time, and both parties are going to take credit for that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now both of you are not directly involved now. You're talking from the outside. But both of you know who is in the inside now and who is leading your respective parties in the Congress. Do you think this is going to happen with the leadership of the Democratic Party?

TOM DASCHLE: Absolutely, absolutely. I have great confidence, Jim, in both Nancy and Harry. They're...

JIM LEHRER: Nancy Pelosi, if she becomes speaker, or Senator Reid, he may become -- he's going to be the Democratic leader. Whether he's the majority leader or the minority leader is the only thing to be resolved.

TOM DASCHLE: But it's really the team. I mean, it's the whole team of people, both in the House and the Senate. And, you know, they know what they have to do. They're going to have a lot of fresh blood out there with a lot of enthusiasm and energy to try to do it.

But, again, it's going to take -- it's going to take working together. They're not going to be able to do anything alone. No one party is going to have the capacity or the votes to be able to do this without the help and the cooperation of the other party.

Eyeing the 2008 elections

Richard Armey
Former House Majority Leader
I think there's going to be a rediscovery of what I call the Reagan legacy within the Republican Party, and I think they're going to be a far more attractive option two years from now.

JIM LEHRER: Do you detect a desire on the part of the Republican leadership in the Congress of the United States to get something done on Iraq?

DICK ARMEY: Well, there's no doubt about it. I think the Republican leadership...

JIM LEHRER: ... something new and different?

DICK ARMEY: Well, they understand that this has been very difficult for them to work their way through. They're looking forward to retaking the majority two years from now, and they're obviously going to want to reframe a lot of issues and re-examine themselves, in light of our proud history.

I think there's going to be a rediscovery of what I call the Reagan legacy within the Republican Party, and I think they're going to be a far more attractive option two years from now. But they're still going to have to be seen as part of the process by which we resolve this critical issue. It's frightening.

You know, I always said this young guy might be six-foot-four and 250 pounds of solid muscle, but he's some mama's baby, and that baby's out on that street, could be blown up any day. American people are scared to death for their sons and daughters in a dangerous place, that had been there longer than they think should have been necessary, and they want a resolution to it. And it's come to a point where it's very, very personal. It's, "That's my baby out there, I don't care how big and strong he is."

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree it's gotten personal?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, it's gotten personal for a lot of reasons. People are affected by this. There isn't a state where people don't now know somebody who knows somebody who was adversely affected, who lost a life or whose son or daughter was wounded.

But I think it's just, also, it's a deep concern about losing this whole war and moving in the wrong direction and losing our standing and credibility around the world, on top of it all.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Yes or no question for each of you. I'm reading up about each of you. Are you seriously considering running for president in 2008?

TOM DASCHLE: I'm going to make a decision sometime next year.

JIM LEHRER: Are you thinking about it?

DICK ARMEY: I've never wanted to die in Iowa.

JIM LEHRER: That's a no?

DICK ARMEY: That's a no.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.

TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Jim.