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Political Landscape Changes as Presidential Hopefuls Take Stage

December 28, 2006 at 6:35 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: With the 2006 elections behind us and the ’08 presidential campaign already gearing up, what does the political terrain look like for the two major parties, their elected officials, and their candidates-to-be?

To explore that, we turn to five political analysts, thinkers and authors on this issue.

Michael Fauntroy, a professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy, wrote the just-released book, “Republicans and the Black Vote.”

David Frum, a contributing editor at the National Review magazine, has just finished a book on conservatism, “The Next Republican President.” It’s scheduled for release early next year.

Andrew Sullivan is a conservative commentator and author. His new book is “The Conservative Soul: How we Lost It, How to Get it Back.”

Peter Beinart is editor-at-large of the New Republic magazine and author of “The Good Fight: Why Liberals and Only Liberals Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.”

And Tom Edsall is a former senior political reporter for the Washington Post and now a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. His new book is “Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power.”

Well, you’ve all been very busy, but let’s talk about the political terrain. Peter Beinart, beginning with you, as 2007 is dawning, what does the political landscape look like to you of this country? And has it changed in the last year or two?

End of 'conservative dominance'

PETER BEINART, The New Republic: I think it has. I think we may look back at 2006 as the end of an era of conservative dominance that began with the midterm election of 1978 that heralded the election of Ronald Reagan.

National security was the glue that held the Reagan coalition together, and it has been the glue that has held the Republican coalition together since 9/11 for George W. Bush. That, more than anything else, is what has allowed Republicans to win the down-scale voters they have to win to win presidential elections.

That is gone now, and I don't think it's going to come back for a very long time. So I think we're in an era like the early 1990s, when a conservative coalition has fractured, and there are all of these new pieces on the table.

And the question will be: Will a different kind of Republican pick them up? Or will the Democrats take the opportunity?

MARGARET WARNER: All right. David Frum, take my question and that question.

DAVID FRUM, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute: It's an ominous terrain for Republicans, but not at all a hopeless one. And there's a lot of reason to believe that the Republican Party is going to reemerge in the coming year.

I don't think Peter quite meant to say that the national security issue had vanished. It remains more pressing than ever.

And one of the things that we learned from his very important book -- Peter has all kinds of amazing surveys about the pacifism of the Democratic base -- that's going to make it almost impossible for the Democratic Party to choose hawkish leaders going into 2008. And the threat of terrorism remains.

The Republicans have problems. The health care issue is coming very much to the fore again. Health care costs have just about doubled for the average family in the past six years, and they're going to want an answer. And the immigration issue is emerging as a truly important issue.

But I think this is a landscape in which Republicans have better opportunities than Democrats. It's impossible for Democrats to come up with an answer on immigration, for example.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Tom Edsall, how does the landscape look to you, taking the '06 elections into account?

THOMAS EDSALL, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: I'm not sure at all that the Democratic Party so far, the leaders, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, have demonstrated the kind of skills and the kind of agenda that's likely to pull the party together and give it a leg up at a time when they do have a real chance.

The Republican Party's real strength has been that it has come back time and time again from the depths of severe depression, in effect, Watergate, Iran-Contra, shutting down the government, Newt Gingrich's problems, and it comes back fighting, and often tougher than before.

The Democrat have better be prepared for that if they want to hold onto this.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see this, Michael?

MICHAEL FAUNTROY, George Mason University: I see it a little muddled at some level. The Republicans have to decide what kind of party they want to be going forward.

Do they want to be the party in Congress that they accused the Democrats of being, obstructionists, not willing to work together to get things done? Or do they want to cast an eye toward the center of the American populous ideologically and do some things that can be seen as showing leadership from a minority position?

I think, if they can do that, then they can position themselves well for 2008.

2006 elections

MARGARET WARNER: Andrew Sullivan, let me go back -- I mean, take all that into account -- but what the election was saying about where the country is. Do you think this represented a philosophical shift? Was it just the Iraq war?

ANDREW SULLIVAN, Blogger-Author: I think the war cannot be underestimated in all of this, and I think that the war should not be underestimated in the future. What happens in Iraq, whether this catastrophic failure becomes even worse over the next two years, will have a huge effect on what happens in politics.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that really the '06 election didn't represent any kind of shift going on, other than, if you took the Iraq war out of it, that the...

ANDREW SULLIVAN: No, I think there was one other small shift going on, which is the Republicans lost their national security advantage because they were losing the war. They've already thrown away their fiscal responsibility advantage with the center, because they've been so reckless in their spending and borrowing.

So then all they had were their social issues. And they've suddenly realized that, by being entirely about God and about social issues and about the South, that the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain West.

And all of the centrist Republicans said, "Uh-uh, we're out of here. We're not part of the Dixie Party. We've never been part of the Dixie Party. If that's all you are, we're prepared to look at the Democrats again," and that's what happened.

So both came together. It was much bigger shift this year than the numbers, I think, in Congress revealed. Underneath, a huge shift, especially in the younger generation, away from the Republican Party.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Beinart, that's true, isn't it, that if you look at the, quote, "exit polls," that say younger voters who went decisively for Democrats. I also noticed that really the only group the Republicans won were white men, and they lost by huge margins among every ethnic group or among women as a whole. What does that tell you?

PETER BEINART: I think it tells you that the Republicans do have a long-term problem. Hispanic Americans, it seems to me now, are being assimilated into their Americanness to some degree through the labor movement, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party, a la the way that Italians and Jews and other ethnic groups were in the period of Franklin Roosevelt.

One successful Democratic president who seems to benefit the Latino community in the United States I think can fortify that allegiance to the Democratic Party in a way that will have massive implication. The Republican Party can simply not compete in the long term in American politics if they can't get higher than a third of the Hispanic vote, and I think there are big questions about whether they're going to able to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, you were trying to get in.

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: Yes, the assimilation of Hispanics in the Democratic Party has been accelerated by Republicans actually pushing Hispanic voters out, through immigration and so on and so forth. And the Republicans have dropped tremendously in terms of their Hispanic support.

And that, coupled with African American levels of support that are just nearly at the floor, to me means that the Republican Party is in serious jeopardy. I don't think that we've talked enough about how bad the Republican Party stands with these various aspects of the American electorate.

And if it's not fixed soon, the Republicans, even more so than we were talking about with the Democrats not long ago, could end up going the way of the Whigs, because there will be no one to support them.

Hispanic vote

MARGARET WARNER: And, David Frum, do you agree that these big gaps in these growing demographic groups is a potential problem for Republicans?

DAVID FRUM: Yes, I do. I also think that, especially when you look at the Hispanic vote, that that's not just a problem for Republicans, it's a problem for America.

The Hispanic vote has been trending away from the Republican Party. That's true. But it's really no surprise.

And one of the great question marks over George Bush has been: Why is it that, given that this is bad policy and bad politics for his party, he seems so determined to make this problem so much bigger?

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Edsall?

TOM EDSALL: Looking at the Hispanic vote, it really has not been trending Democratic. In one election -- the last election it went much more Democratic. In the prior two elections, it had been trending Republican.

If the Republicans nominate a John McCain, who has been very pro-immigration and pro-Hispanic, in effect, they are likely to ameliorate a lot of these problems that were the result of a very vicious congressional debate and public debate.

MARGARET WARNER: Over the fence, the whole issue?

TOM EDSALL: The whole issue of the fence, and how they violate our culture, and all kinds of allegations that were very harmful to the GOP.

The other thing is that the single fastest-growing group among Hispanics are evangelical, not Catholic, but evangelical Hispanics. They are growing very rapidly, and they are the most politicized group. They vote more; they are more attentive to politics.

MARGARET WARNER: And very Republican?

TOM EDSALL: Well, they are the one group where the Republicans made virtually all of their gains in 2004. They lost them in 2006 because of this immigration debate, but they are there ready to be taken back by the Republicans in a more traditional election.

ANDREW SULLIVAN: The fact is, the base of the Republican Party is so motivated against immigration -- I mean, this is one of the central issues which really fires up the base. No pro-immigrant Republican is going to win that nomination, but only a pro-immigrant Republican is going to be able to help the Republican Party win in the long run. That's their problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter, you were trying to get in here.

DAVID FRUM: There's a big difference between being...

PETER BEINART: Just to underscore Andrew's point, I think that's exactly right, and that's why I think this moment resembles, it seems to me, the early 1990s.

What happened in the early 1990s was down-scale Republicans, who had been with Ronald Reagan partly on culture but mostly on national security, defected after the Cold War and were open, and their politics was an anti-globalization politics. They were the losers in globalization; that was the basis of Ross Perot's campaign.

It seems to me you have what I would call Lou Dobbs Republicans, a lot of people who with were George W. Bush on the war on terror, but, as Andrew said, I think correctly, are now animated less by the war on terror and more by hostility to immigration.

I don't think those people are going to vote for John McCain, and I think a Democrat could win in 2008 with less than 50 percent of the vote, as Bill Clinton did, because these Republican voters, it seems to me, are not going to vote for an eventually pro-globalization Republican presidential candidate.

Prescriptions for both parties

MARGARET WARNER: So, David Frum, what do the Republicans -- both the ones in Congress and the ones positioning to run for president, fairly succinctly if you can -- need to do to best use these next two years to position for '08?

DAVID FRUM: Republicans need a health care answer, and that is going to be in 2008 what education was in the 1990s: the master key.

And they need an immigration answer that is not anti-immigrant, that recognizes the importance of immigration, but that says laws have to be enforced, and that when you have an immigration policy that opens the doors to the least-skilled that you put enormous pressure on the wages of Americans and create tremendous social problems.

There is a big difference between saying, "The answer is zero immigration," and, "Eight million immigrants in six years, half of them illegal."

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Michael, what do you think Democrats have to do to position themselves to use these two years?

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: I think the watchword has to be competence. You know, one of the reasons, I believe, why the Republicans did so poorly in the November elections was congressional Republicans were seen as aiding and abetting the president's incompetence, in terms of management of the federal government, the federal bureaucracy.

If the Democrats can demonstrate some level of interest in trying to make sure the government runs more efficiently, I think they will be better positioned for 2008.

Now, conservatives and liberals get into this argument about the size of government, but one thing I think everyone can agree with is that, whatever the size of the government is, it ought to at least run effectively and efficiently.

MARGARET WARNER: Andrew, the Republicans, briefly.

ANDREW SULLIVAN: I think they have to take on corruption. I think they have to take on earmarks and pork. I think they have to take on entitlements, out-of-control spending. They have to restore their fiscal standing, remind Americans they are for balanced budgets, they're not these crazy spenders.

And I think they have to actually be very diligent about the war on terror and to recognize that it is still our fundamental, most important threat, but that simply bombing places and forcing people to be free, and running it incompetently at the same time, is not a recipe for success. We have to be subtler in this war.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Peter Beinart, the Democrats?

PETER BEINART: I think the Democrats need answer the fundamental economic anxieties that you saw reflected in these 2006 elections, which are coming out through the issue of trade, in particular.

I think Democrats also have to start moving more ambitiously on issues like health care and on pensions, on child care, on the general erosion of the American welfare state, which has led most Americans to be living more economically insecure lives than their parents.

And beyond that, they have to lay out a foreign policy vision, not one that's going to make conservatives happy, but one that talks about how America can remain the strongest country in the world and exercise leadership around the world by being strong at home -- we can't be strong around the world if we're weak at home -- and by revitalizing the international institutions that traditionally have been the foundation of American leadership in the world but have decayed under George W. Bush.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom Edsall, as our nonpartisan person here, take a swing at both parties.

TOM EDSALL: I think Democrats have to do, as Peter said, position themselves to deal with the Lou Dobbs Republicans. Those are the people who switched in the last election. They're generally middle- and working-class voters from the middle-west who are having real problems with jobs, pensions.

It's a very tough issue to deal with, because Democrats are not in a position to raise taxes. They are in a position to use these two years to really focus attention on those issues, as the congressional party against the presidential Republican Party.

The Republicans have a real long haul. And I think that they have done something in Iraq that is going to take a long time to repair, much longer than just getting out of there.

They've basically punched a hornet's nest and made things perhaps much, much worse and much more dangerous for Americans, and somehow resolving that is going to be very difficult. And the current steps of the administration seem to be pretty modest in that light.