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Politics, 2006

#1334 Politics, 2006.
FEED DATE: December 15, 2005
Chuck Todd

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WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. In 2004 Republicans held on to the White House and gained in both houses of Congress, but now public opinion of Republicans has plummeted. The 2006 elections are approaching. With several state governorships and a some key congressional races at stake, will the Democrats be able make headway against the GOP, perhaps even capturing the Congress? Or is it just too early to read the tea leaves?
To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Chuck Todd, editor of Hotline, a daily online news briefing about American politics. The topic before the house: Politics in 2006, this week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Chuck Todd, editor of the The Hotline, published by the National Journal, welcome to Think Tank.

TODD: Thank you, Ben.

WATTENBERG: During an election year I find that -– and I know all the journalists find that it is absolutely indispensable. They travel with their laptops, they download Hotline and they know what’s going on.

TODD: Right. It’s, you know, it –- the goal is for it to be what the Wall Street Journal is to business is what I like to think we are to campaign politics. Sometimes we don’t even care about issues. What we care about is who’s up and who’s down. We look at it from a –- I say we’re a bipartisan publication.

WATTENBERG: And let me just say it is an extremely influential publication in the trade. Now, let’s get into some substance. Number one, how is President Bush doing in the polls and how would you explain his performance?

TODD: Well, this is his low. Or he better hope it’s the low. This is definitely the lowest point of his Presidency. If anything, we’ve actually noticed a slight tick up post as sort of the holiday season’s coming up, but that’s normal for all Presidents. They -– usually the holiday season, people tune out Washington and the more they tune Washington out, usually the better for Washington. And then when they tune back in that’s usually -– usually trouble.
But Bush seems to -– this started before -– a lot of people think it started with Katrina. This started before Katrina. The war really started to take a toll on President Bush’s job approval rating in the summer. That’s when saw it. And then Katrina was like the slap in the face to the public, like, “Boy, we really thought –-“ It was as if the public were saying, “We knew we weren’t really doing very well overseas” but they kind of thought everything on the home front was okay.

WATTENBERG: But the economy is doing gangbusters.

TODD: I do think, though, the White House painted themselves into a corner a little bit on the economy. And during the first half of 2005 they started talking about, you know, your retirement security is not secure. All of a sudden you can’t stop talking about that, and then say, “Oh, by the way; things are great.”
I’ve heard complaints from – from the White House and from Republicans going, “Why isn’t this President getting more credit for what is a growing economy?” I mean, statistically. Part of that blame’s on the President who spent six months telling folks their retirement is not secure.

WATTENBERG: Isn’t that also called leadership to say the hard facts to people?

TODD: No question. I mean, that -– that’s...

WATTENBERG: It’s true.

TODD: It’s true.

WATTENBERG: We got a problem...

TODD: We know that -– that, I mean, look, you see pensions, you know, big companies are struggling with pension. There’s no question; there is a retirement nervousness out there.

WATTENBERG: ---for forty years...

TODD: And –- and I was just going to say, there are other people who believe “You know what? Maybe we’re overreacting. We always seem to grow out of it. We’ve been getting older for fifty years.” You know, every year you hear the generation says, “Geez, this retirement generation’s going to be so much bigger than the last.” And yet we seem to grow out of it and it may be, though that talking about that one subject is what’s hurt him and why he doesn’t get credit for the economy, which of course then hurts the job rating. And gas prices, by the way. We can’t –-

WATTENBERG: Except just for the record -- I swore to myself I’m not going to sound like a partisan. Ha ha. But gasoline prices, in real dollars, constant dollars as opposed to inflated dollars are below what they used to be in the good old days.

TODD: Right. Below...that’s right. But, you know, the problem is they’ve been too good for too long.

WATTENBERG: Let’s get to some facts. Give us the current breakdown in the Senate. We’ll show some charts; they may not be exactly the same but give us the idea.

TODD: Basically it’s a five -– the republicans have a ten-seat advantage, 55/45 as far as voting. I mean, there is an independent who votes with the democrats, so the democrats have to win six seats, net gain six seats to get control because, of course in a 50/50 Senate you would have the Vice President break the tie and that’s a republican obviously of Vice President Cheney.
So democrats have to net gain six seats in order to get control of the Senate.

WATTENBERG: But there are more democrats up for office than republicans which works in the republican’s favor.

TODD: Correct. This is the reelection. These senators that are up in ’06, if you recall in 2000, even though we had the most –- the tightest race for President that we’ve ever had between Bush and Gore, Gore had all the win for the Senate and democrats picked up four Senate seats so this is this freshman democratic senate class of the –- that was so successful in 2000 is up for reelection. So that’s why even though democrats are in the minority, they have the majority of seats of for grabs in 2006.

WATTENBERG: Alright. Now the House.

TODD: We’ve got -– the republicans basically have a thirty-seat advantage. Two hundred thirty-three seats that they control; 202 that the democrats control. As far as control of Congress is concerned, that’s a -– fifteen seats. Democrats have to win a net gain of fifteen seats to get control which...


TODD: ... can seem like a lot, and at the same time isn’t a lot. It depends on...


TODD: ... on how you look at it.

WATTENBERG: There are people who are saying the democrats may take control of the Congress. One of the problems with that and perhaps you can explain it to our viewers, is redistricting.

TODD: We’ve heard that, you know, redistricting makes it, you know, makes it so that there are just not enough, quote, “seats in play”. We had a special election in Ohio in –- earlier this year that was a 65% republican performance district; one of these districts that were redistricted to be a republican district, and the republican only won by two votes.
When there is a national wind -– I’m not going to call it a wave just yet, but there is wind and it is blowing in the democrat –- blowing in favor of the democrats right now, you can make up four, five and six points in a district. And so once you start looking at the field that way, suddenly you can put fifty or sixty congressional districts in play which the democrats aren’t there yet. I’ll be honest. They –- on the House side. They’ve put enough seats in play in the Senate to put the Senate in play.

WATTENBERG: The most disenfranchised people in America are people who live -– who don’t live in tossup states or who don’t live in swing states.

TODD: That’s right.

WATTENBERG: I mean, if you lived in New York or Texas, New York solidly democratic; Texas solidly republican, your vote really doesn’t count, does it?

TODD: Not a Presidential race, you know. I mean, you know...

WATTENBERG: Even in a Congressional. I mean...

TODD: There are not many that it can count in.


TODD: Right. There’s a few in New York that can be up for grabs; there’s a few in Texas. The other thing I thought you were going to get at is the irony of what’s gone on with redistricting, is that the Senate was always designed to be the sort of the elite place; the place where they were the least in touch with the –- with the common voter. And the House was supposed to be the people’s House; they were supposed to be the ones that were always –- could be thrown out on a moments notice. Redistricting has reversed this. Senate races are much more competitive in every state.

WATTENBERG: What are the polls showing about the Democratic Party generally?

TODD: It’s only doing slighter better than the Republican Party. It’s not –- you would normally -- when one party is down and the republicans are down, okay, the Congressional republican ratings are down, everything is down. Normally it usually works like a seesaw. When one’s down the other’s up. The democrats haven’t popped up yet. That doesn’t mean they might not, but they haven’t popped up yet. They’re -– right now the mood is anti-politician; it’s antigovernment and it’s antiestablishment. It’s not yet anti-republican and I think that’s something that we should...

WATTENBERG: Okay. What do the polls show about republicans?

TODD: They’ve lost confidence. They’re losing on the Congress -- on trustworthy issues; they’re losing on all these –- I mean, we’ve seen some issue questions: which party do you trust more to handle? Even on terrorism, it’s now 50/50. That’s normally been a double digit republican advantage.
On taxes -- democrats are winning on taxes and it’s really because look, the President’s job approval rating’s been in the high thirties; the congressional job approval rating’s been in the low thirties to high twenties and you know, the Congressional approval rating is a lagging indicator, but as –- if Bush’s numbers goes up that Congressional job...

WATTENBERG: Isn’t it correct that the country generally, when you poll, is more democratic than republican and it’s even more so this year.
At the same time, in terms of ideology moderates are first, conservatives are second and liberals, which sort of characterize the democratic party is...

TODD: Correct.

WATTENBERG: ... deep third?

TODD: Very. Deep third. But it’s partially because the word liberal’s become a four-letter word. It’s a bad word. People who are liberal democrats don’t want to say they’re liberal democrat; they want to say they’re a moderate.

WATTENBERG: Why do you think?

TODD: I think the Republican Party’s done a very good job at demonizing the word “liberal”. They’ve defined the word “liberal” in a negative term. It’s sort of the reverse of what happened to -- the word “conservative” used to be a negative. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, to be a conservative republican was you were nuts, you were crazy. And then it flipped and they –- and they redefined the terms conservative versus liberal.

WATTENBERG: There was a time, and we’ll just pick up, we’re going antique times where liberal democrats said law and order is a code word for racism, and they sort of dismissed –- so the perception was -– they dismissed criminality. That was the perception. And a lot of the –- of those sorts of issues and they’ve stuck like glue to the image of the Democratic Party. Does that resonate with you...

TODD: I do think it was crime that sort of was able –- the republicans became a law and order party and with the -- you know we had, you know, you had the riots in the -- I grew up in Miami during a very tumultuous time in the late ‘70s early ‘80s where we had riots every three or four years. It’s why it was a big deal when Bill Clinton in 1992 was pro death penalty and took time out from the campaign trail to make sure he pulled the lever, put somebody to death.

WATTENBERG: On a mentally disabled...

TODD: On a mentally disabled person. But he needed to send the message that democrats were no longer soft on crime.

WATTENBERG: Now, the American public over the years has disapproved of politicians generally, and the Congress in particular. Is that fair to say?

TODD: Congress has a negative image, no question. They –- the last time it had a positive image...

WATTENBERG: Both parties.

TODD: That’s right. Was right after 911 when there was a honeymoon for all politicians.

WATTENBERG: Right. Now, the polling on the Iraq War, I guess there’s a Gallup poll, say 54% now say it was a mistake to send troops. Is that right?

TODD: It’s about –- it’s been majorities believe it was a mistake to send troops.

WATTENBERG: Not originally.

TODD: That’s right.


TODD: But what’s interesting on that, you get a majority that say it’s a mistake, but a majority -– it’s a small majority -- doesn’t just want to immediately withdraw, either. It’s, I mean, the public is sending mixed signals to these politicians.

WATTENBERG: And there was a Pugh poll, a very good operation, out recently that broke down the views on the Iraq War and it showed that diplomats are against it and leadership is against it and everybody’s against it except, quotes, “the general public” which was marginally in favor. And always, as you say, against a precipitous pullout.

TODD: Right.

WATTENBERG: Is that right?

TODD: Yes. No, it’s a...

WATTENBERG: Does that sound right?

TODD: Look, the public is always, you know, it goes back to why do opt -– why does optimism always matter in a political campaign? Because the country wants to believe what they supported was the right thing to do. You know, it’s why this idea –- that’s why democrats are in this trap of you know, they want to sit here and say “You misled us and you did this” and while the public, it doesn’t like the fact that they don’t –- that there were no weapons of mass destruction, they haven’t found the stuff. At the same time, they don’t want to be told they were stupid. You know, so you have this –- so they’re generally always going to be supportive of the country to succeed in what it’s trying to do. They don’t want to fail.

WATTENBERG: How does the perennial issue, and I mean perennial, of corruption playing out now?

TODD: I think it’s certainly giving democrats the opportunity to raise some money. It’s giving them some talking points. To see a Congressman actually, even though it had nothing to do with sort of the bigger investigation that’s consuming Washington that has to do with this lobbyist named Jack Abramoff, but when Congressman, now former Congressman Duke Cunningham...

WATTENBERG: It’s an amazing story.

TODD: Unbelievable amounts of money that he was taking.

WATTENBERG: Not since Spiro Agnew have we had cash...

TODD: Just cash.

WATTENBERG: ...cash transactions.

TODD: Right. These are bags of cash. I mean it was just –- you didn’t think that it happened anymore.

WATTENBERG: And this is a republican Vietnam hero and a six-term congressman and he took a couple of million dollars.

TODD: Millions. That’s right. He came in in ninety –- and he was here in ‘90/’92 when he was watching the democrats who were then taking House Post Office money and doing all these little also under the table things you would think that he would have seen that’s how the democrats lost power.

WATTENBERG: Chuck, let’s talk for a moment about Tom DeLay. His –- he’s under indictment now in Texas.

TODD: Correct.

WATTENBERG: What was his position?

TODD: House Minority Leader.


TODD: Number two...

WATTENBERG: Number two.

TODD: But basically the guy that was running the show, the day-to-day.

WATTENBERG: Right. And it’s now said that the republicans, without DeLay, don’t have a rudder or a direction. Do you agree with that?

TODD: I do. It’s interesting. If you did a private poll of members of the House Republican Caucus they desperately want Tom DeLay to run the caucus. None of them want Tom DeLay’s political baggage.

WATTENBERG: Could you explain why it is so important to have that extra vote or two to make a majority in Congress?

TODD: Well, I’ll tell you right now, as far as the House is concerned, control of Congress means control of subpoena power.


TODD: What I call subpoena power.


TODD: I mean, why -– why was President Clinton impeached? Because republicans controlled the subpoenas. If the democrats controlled the House, there would never have been –- there might have been an ethics investigation; there might have been some special committee to investigate a committee of a special Blue Ribbon panel. But there never would have been a subpoena.
So that subpoena power is a big deal. I mean, what? Democrats had the subpoena power for Nixon; democrats had the subpoena power for Reagan and right now democrats don’t have the subpoena power for Bush which is why you don’t have Congressional -- So that is how scandals can sort of explode on the national...

WATTENBERG: And also the majority party, even if it’s by a single vote, I mean, it’s the same -– they assume the chairmanships of the various committees...

TODD: Of course.

WATTENBERG: ... and that sets the agenda of what you’re going...

TODD: It sets the agenda of what you’re going to talk about, what you vote on. I mean, if you’re in the minority, particularly in the House –- in the Senate, even those in the minority can sometimes get bills onto the floor. In the House; forget it.


TODD: If you’re in the minority you may as well just be a speechmaker on C-Span.

WATTENBERG: The President has a coattail affect and if you are a Congressman in a relatively close district and people say, “Oh well, I’m for President Jones”...

TODD: Right.

WATTENBERG: ... you –- a lot of people vote straight ticket and bring in a lot of marginal Congressman who, when the President isn’t then on the ticket, have to survive on their own and it’s pretty hard, particularly for a congressman who serves only two years.

TODD: Well, there’s also...

WATTENBERG: Is that how it works?

TODD: A little bit. I think also you have to realize the peop- -- the supporters of the party out of power are hungry to just win. You know, they just -– they’ve lost two Presidential elections and they’re just sort of fed up and so they’re more engaged and they’re more likely to show up at the poll.
The people that are supporters of the winning party for the last two Presidential elections are sort of -– they get fat and happy.

WATTENBERG: Another antiquarian question but with some reality behind it. A lot of people have been talking for forty years and it never stops, quotes, “It’s the end of an era” and where’s the realignment? I mean, this is... And if you look at the governorships, the state legislatures, the state legislators, the Congress, in the last forty years the country has said “move to the right”. Forgetting what’s going to happen in 2006...

TODD: Sure.

WATTENBERG: ... is that essentially correct?

TODD: I think what it is is it’s become more bipartisan. It was much more of a partisan, you know, one –- you could always say, You know what? Vermont is republic- –- you know, there was a day where only republicans could get elected in Vermont and there was a day that only democrats could get elected in the state of Florida and in the south. So what’s happened is the parties became competitive everywhere and then got majorities -- right now the republicans probably have a governing majority of this country, you know. They have the most governorships; they obviously control all of Congress; they control the Presidency and now they control...

WATTENBERG: Until 1994 with the Newt Gingrich revolution, the republicans hadn’t controlled the House but once in fifty years. Is that right?

TODD: Well, it used to be the republicans thought of themselves as the Presidential party. You know, that they were executives. They didn’t worry about -– they didn’t worry about these legislative... and Newt, and you know, Newt –- it wasn’t just about Congress; Newt through his -- also worried about state legislature. He was -- really helped get the Republican Party realizing “you need to care about whether you control the state legislature in Tennessee because without control of that you’re not going to control redistricting; you’re not going to get members of Congress to let you”.
So he created the modern day sort of governing republican party that decided that it wanted to be a full service political party; not just a Presidential party.

WATTENBERG: And they kept saying Gingrich’s victory in ’94 was a fluke, but it’s been five straight Congresses.

TODD: Absolutely, which is stunning.

WATTENBERG: That have been republican.

TODD: And the more stunning thing...

WATTENBERG: I mean, it’s pretty amazing.

TODD: The more amazing thing, if republicans went, I mean, to get the Presidency re– -- and the Senate and the House reelected in the same year, where one party controls all three, we haven’t had one party control all three over an extended period of time in over a hundred years. It just, you know, everybody talks about, “Oh, when the democrats control Congress for forty years...” Well, the Senate actually used to fluctuate.

WATTENBERG: Alright. Now, it seems to me that the old line that the center still dominates despite all this talk of polarization is true.

TODD: I 100% agree. I mean, I think there was a center in the 2004 election. That center, I think, was married women, married white women. These are the so-called “security moms”. These were the soccer moms who voted for Clinton. These were Gore voters who ended up becoming Bush voters in 2004.
These –- that is, I think, the middle; these are the suburban moms and I think we saw that middle show up in this Virginia governor’s race where Bush voters ended up voting democrat. You know, there is a middle...

WATTENBERG: They keep saying, like the republican middle has disappeared, but it’s always –- in either party those votes that take you to a majority...

TODD: That’s right. And when you’re this close, any sector of the electorate can claim it’s the swing vote, but the reality is there is a middle and -– and it’s, you know, I think right now it’s –- it’s women, it’s still women, which is what makes the Hillary candidacy so fascinating.

WATTENBERG: I cannot resist going back to one comment about the Iraq War. People who are against the Iraq War are simultaneously saying it’s too bad we don’t have leadership in this country. Now, whether you like or hate, and a lot of people in this country for reasons that I don’t fully understand really hate George Bush, he is evidencing leadership. Would you buy that?

TODD: I think if he were being –- if he were selling this harder, and not just selling it to the American people, but selling it to the world harder, that maybe he could get more leadership points. I think he made that case very well to the electorate in 2004 because you had a –- it’s remarkable on a couple things...

WATTENBERG: He said, “I’m a leader. I’m a leader.”

TODD: President Bush’s reelection was remarkable on a number of fronts, I mean, he was not where the people were on domestic issues. They favored Kerry’s positions. Kerry won every debate because people agreed with what Kerry was saying, but they trusted Bush’s instinct to finish this war. And that’s where they -– that’s how he got reelected.

WATTENBERG: I got to give you one example again -- old time, but of what they call “selective perception”. I worked on President Lyndon Johnson’s staff during the Vietnam War, and Johnson used to talk about it everyday. And I’d go to parties and sort of explain his position, and they’d say, “How come the President doesn’t speak about that?”

TODD: (Laughing) Right.

WATTENBERG: Bush is out there talking about it everyday.

TODD: Everyday. Yes.

WATTENBERG: You’re getting one story that the journalists are saying Iraq is lost; and you’re getting another story the journalists are saying Iraq is won, they’ve had four elections. I’ve never seen such a split among journalists.

TODD: It is. I think the other perception is they do wish, and maybe it’s only the media that wishes this, that the President will say, “You know what? Yes, we got it wrong. But that doesn’t mean we have to leave.”

WATTENBERG: Are you a neutral yourself, politically –- personally?

TODD: I feel like I’m a neutral. I call myself a synocrat. Ideologically I’m probably like the medium center left.

WATTENBERG: Last question. What’s going to happen?

TODD: I think the democrats are going to have a better shot at winning the Senate than the House. That the democrats are going to make gains. Even republicans admit this. The question is how many, you know. I don’t know how Bush pulls out in time...

WATTENBERG: What’s –- you got to give me -– I’m forcing you to give me an answer. We understand that it could change...

TODD: Alright.

WATTENBERG: But what’s your educated guess?

TODD: I think there’s about a -– I think we’re getting close to a 40% chance the democrats take control of Congress, and that’s a huge lead from six months ago when it felt like – only like a 10% chance.

WATTENBERG: On that note, Chuck Todd, we will have to end our discussion of politics, 2006. Thank you very much for joining us. And thank you. Please, remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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Funding for Think Tank is provided by...

(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer, life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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