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Analysts Discuss Midterm Elections, Foley Scandal

October 6, 2006 at 6:04 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And, Mark, in the latest polls that I’ve seen, Harold Ford’s ahead, within the margin of error. It’s very, very close, but he’s ahead.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: That Harold Ford is competitive is a tribute to the campaign he has run, which has been a masterful campaign, and the candidate he’s become. He has been far more aggressive in this campaign, not only in asserting his own positions, in confronting issues that many Democrats are accused of kind of ducking elsewhere, the national security, Iraq, and in defining his opponent, Mayor Corker, on his private business dealings, on immigration and matters like that, where the INS has nailed him for having four workers who were illegal and were deported from his company.

So, I mean, the fact that Harold Ford is in this race, if he does win it, this will be a textbook campaign study for generations. The Democrats have not won this state in a Senate race since 1990. Their native son, Al Gore, running, was a candidate of peace and prosperity party in 2000, couldn’t carry it for the presidency.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this all on Harold Ford’s credit side of the ledger, David, or is there also some sign that Tennessee is changing? They elected a Democratic governor last time.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: They’ve often done that. They have Governor Bredesen there, though you get a lot of southern states who elect Democratic moderate governors, like Bredesen is, and will still — it’s been trending Republican. So I do think, a, the national climate — there are a few things going on in the world which help Democrats — and, b, Harold Ford.

And Ford, along with — I think you see a couple of Senate candidates, in Virginia, here in Tennessee, in Missouri, who are pretty conservative, sort of hawkish on the war to some extent, mention the Dubai ports deal quite a lot, sort of suspicious of trade, surprisingly nationalist on immigration, and very much against gay marriage. So you see sort of a series of Democrats sort of in the upper south running this sort of campaign. And so far, it seems to be working.

And one other thing about this race is — we’ve been hearing rumors that Barack Obama has been more seriously considering running for president. He told Jonathan Alter of Newsweek that it was almost 50-50. And I think one of the factors in his decision is this race. Can Harold Ford, can a black candidate win in the upper south?

Toss up Senate races

David Brooks
New York Times
As I look race by race, I haven't seen actually Foley-related movement. ... If you look at the key Senate races and the key House races, it's been pretty stable, which means toss-up in a lot of these states.

RAY SUAREZ: Why is that? Explain that a little bit more.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, as you know, there's a lot -- Barack Obama is the dream candidate. He's the only guy in the country among Democrats who really generates genuine enthusiasm.

But there are a whole series of questions -- I think, probably in his own mind, but certainly in a lot of people's minds -- about his viability. One is the age issue. But second is, can a black candidate win and carry enough of these swing states that he would need to?

And the thinking is, if Harold Ford can carry Tennessee, then Barack Obama could probably carry a state like Tennessee. And that really does open up all sorts of possibilities for the party.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, with Tennessee in play, with Claire McCaskill in Missouri ahead within the margin of error, suddenly the conventional wisdom that the House was a cinch but the Senate no way doesn't look like such wisdom anymore.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, the Senate way. It's possible. I wouldn't say it's certain. I actually haven't seen a lot of movement in the Senate. You've seen some movement in New Jersey, which the Republicans looked like they were going to take it. Now, it seems a little safer. You've seen a lot of movement in Connecticut, where Joe Lieberman looks a lot stronger than he did a couple of weeks ago.

But, you know, all this Foley stuff has happened in the past week. And as I look race by race, I haven't seen actually Foley-related movement. I think a lot of people, including myself, feel somehow there will be an effect of the Foley thing. But if you look at the key Senate races and the key House races, it's been pretty stable, which means toss-up in a lot of these states.

Foley's cost to Republican chances

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It's an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark, the Foley story broke, and indeed the congressman's resignation was just a few hours old the last time we spoke, so I think it was still too new for us to really know much to say last week. But now that it's had a week to steep, to ripen, what does it look like to you?

MARK SHIELDS: It's an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party. And the reason for that is, unlike sex scandals in the past involving pages -- Gary Studds, the Democrat in Massachusetts in 1983, and Dan Crane, a Republican at the same time, both of whom were censured by the House -- in neither of those cases was the leadership of the party even remotely aware -- Bob Michel on the Republican side or Tip O'Neill on the Democratic side -- of what was going on and what these activities were.

What we have here is the leadership involved. It's a party problem; it isn't just a single, individual problem. And I think -- I've been out this week. And what struck me, Ray, is people are responding to this at a gut, personal level.

You have Denny Hastert, the speaker of the House; you have John Shimkus, the Republican congressman from Illinois who's chairman of the Page Committee; Rodney Alexander, who sponsored the first page, who knew him, who worked in his office; and Tom Reynolds, the Republican campaign chairman from New York.

And among them they're four fathers. Among them, they have 11 children. And not one of them ever responded to this report of a 52-year-old man making overtures, direct sexual overtures to pages, to teenage pages, under the care and protection of the House of Representatives the way a parent would.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me stop you right there.


RAY SUAREZ: Because I guess the real question is, for all those people who find it off-putting, reprehensible, does it change anybody's vote? Are there voters who were going to vote one way and, because they feel badly about this, they're going to vote another? Or does it just make already convinced people on either side even more convinced...

MARK SHIELDS: I think it does two things. I think it reaches a tipping point for certain people who had skepticism or doubts about the war, the president, the stewardship of the Republican Party, Tom DeLay, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Bob Ney, the other scandals. I think this just kind of says, "Well, wait a minute. It is so rotten to the core."

I think, at the same time, the most intense, and energetic, and enthusiastic supporters of the Republican Party have been the religious conservatives. They're the ones, the foot soldiers. They've done the hard work. This is a body blow to them; this is demoralizing and dispiriting to them. It's going to be tough for them, "Gee, we're really -- you know, we're the good guys in this."

Damage control

David Brooks
New York Times
When you look at it and you just go around and talk to people, you do find this intense alarm. This country is filled with people whose kids are on IM all hours of the night. You have no idea what's going on, what they're saying.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the efforts at getting a handle on this, the efforts at beginning the assessment, the damage control, how are the Republican leadership doing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, like I say, so far, I'm sort of with Mark on the seriousness of it. So far, there's no evidence of it, if you look at the key races. As I say, there's no movement.

Nonetheless, I do think, when you look at it and you just go around and talk to people, you do find this intense alarm. This country is filled with people -- including myself -- whose kids are on IM all hours of the night. You have no idea what's going on, what they're saying.

I often say to candidates, "You know, if you go out in the country and you say, 'I will outlaw IMing after 10 p.m., you will win. I don't care what else you stand for; you will get parents supporting you." Because people, they've built this shell for themselves, their home and their family, but things are coming in outside the shell -- IM, cable TV, all this other stuff -- that they're really worried about.

And so the party, in the long run, that can speak to this concern -- as Bill Clinton did quite well -- the party that can do that will have a long-term effect. So I'm not sure, you know, what Hastert did or didn't do. That's not the key issue. The key issue is Foley and the act, and what it says about the party.

Is it a party that's lost its moral bearings? Is this a party that's at the end of its reign? You know, I covered British politics at the end of the Conservative Party's reign after more than a decade. At the end, they had scandals coming out of everywhere. And it was a sense they've just run their course.

So to me, like with Mark, this really feels like something that's going to shift opinion, but so far it hasn't shown up.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just say I agree with David. I disagree with him on one central point, and that is how Hastert and the other handled it is crucial. It's crucial because it resonates with institutions in our society, beginning with the Catholic bishops, including the United Way, including Hewlett-Packard and other companies.

When there's an allegation of serious wrongdoing, the initial impulse is to protect and preserve the power of the institution, not to remedy the injustice or the disservice, in this case, to children. I mean, they were more interested in preserving their own power, it appears, than they were in protecting children under their own charge. I mean, that's a very serious charge.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, one thing just relating to kids, Mark mentioned the two cases, Crane and Studds in 1983. Studds in Massachusetts got re-elected in a district that Ronald Reagan carried.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: Dan Crane ran again and barely lost, 52-48, in a southern -- in a downstate Illinois district. This country, since 1983, has gotten much more alarmed about this subject. And to me, one of the most interesting things is how the whole culture has shifted on this subject, in part because of the Internet.

The Woodward book takes a back seat

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The basic premise that the Bush administration has made, that Iraq is central to the war against terrorism, is dismissed and rejected by voters in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll.

RAY SUAREZ: One interesting thing is that it chased the Woodward book and the various ancillary discussions of what was in that book out of the front pages for a while. It was taking up a lot of the breathable oxygen in national political debates.

Does that come back now? Does Foley recede in the coming weeks? Do some of these serious charges in that book, serious implications in that book, return?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't think they've ever gone away. I watched a lot of local debates on C-Span, because that's the kind of life I lead, and one of the things you notice is the Foley thing comes up, but Iraq is already in those debates. Immigration is always in those debates.

So those things have not exactly gone away. And it could be historians will look back at this week and see the North Korean busting out of their deal as the big event of the week, and we're all focused on Foley. And historians will say, "What were they thinking about?"

But nonetheless, I don't want to minimize the Foley thing, because the way kids are raised, that's a crucial voting issue.

MARK SHIELDS: It's tough to write off anybody who's just sold 750,000 books and in its second printing already. So that will have an enormous ripple effect.

But I think the reality in Iraq trumps it. We lost 13 Americans in three days, more than we've lost in any three days of the war. It's obvious, by a two-to-one margin, Americans believe it is a civil war.

And the basic premise that the Bush administration has made, that Iraq is central to the war against terrorism, is dismissed and rejected by voters in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. They do not see it; they do not see winning in Iraq as being crucial to it. In fact, they see the war in Iraq as hurting America's effort in the war against terrorism.

So I think, in that sense, though Bob Woodward's book is widely read, and analyzed, and praised by as many as it is, I think it's just adding to what people see with their own eyes.

RAY SUAREZ: David, what do you make of -- I think it's a little too strong to call a defection -- but at least the misgivings now spoken of by none other than John Warner, one of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq project?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, I don't think anybody who supported the war now thinks that things are going well. I mean, most people think things are going horribly.

And the question becomes: What do we do about it? What do we do from here? And you see a whole series of schools opening up. There's John Warner and Christopher Shays from Connecticut saying, "We've got to get the Iraqis off -- just get off their duffs, because over the past year the Iraqi government has done very little."

There's Joe Biden and others saying we really have to think fundamentally about separating the country, separating the regions, to minimize the civil war. There are other people who are thinking one big more military push. A lot of the former generals think that.

So this is a question about, how do we move on from here? But as for the downward slide, I don't know anybody who disputes that. And I think one of the things we learned from the Woodward is that a lot of people had the idea there was no deliberation in the Bush White House, people were just drinking the Kool-Aid. But we've learned from the Woodward book, whether it was Condi Rice, or the NSC adviser, Steve Hadley, they knew. They had a realistic sense of what was happening, and the remedies never came because they either ran into Don Rumsfeld or they ran into President Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Thank you, gentlemen. Have a great weekend.