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2006 Mid-Term Elections: The GOP on the Ropes?

Opening Billboard: Funding for this program is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. The 2006 mid-term elections are rapidly approaching, campaigns are swinging into high gear, and the gloves are coming off. This election season promises to be as heated as any with a closely divided Congress and a host of contentious issues. Several of the Presidentís 2nd term legislative initiatives such as immigration reform and private retirement accounts have stalled or failed. The war in Iraq continues to frustrate many Americans. Will voter dissatisfaction express itself in the congressional races? Can Democrats win back either house of Congress? Does anybody know what will happen?

To find out Think Tank is joined by Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author with Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track.
The Topic Before the House: The GOP on the Ropes? This week on Think Tank

Wattenberg: Norman Ornstein, old friend, AEI Colleague, former tennis partner, welcome back again to Think Tank.
Ornstein: Always a pleasure Ben.
Wattenberg: Weíve read for a while and maybe still you were the most quoted political authority in America and some newspapers actually put laws on ďNo more OrnsteinĒ
Ornstein: I had bans for periods of time yes. Embargos
Wattenberg: Embargos Ok. The 2006 mid term congressional elections are much discussed to put it mildly. In a nutshell whatís your verdict. I know we disagree on a few things.
Ornstein: One thing we know for sure thereís a stiff wind at the back of Democrats. Democrats are going to have a good election year. Iím still not sure whether the wind will be strong enough in October to blow them into a majority in either house but at this point I think thereís a very substantial chance of a majority for democrats in the house and a chance at least maybe even 30% of a majority in the senate. You know to put it in stark terms is the wind going to be a category 3 or a category 5 hurricane. If itís a category 3 they may pick up 12 of the 15 seats they need to make a majority leaving them just short if itís a category 5 they might pick up 20 seats. And give themselves
Wattenberg: You mean the way congress did in í94 that kind of thing
Ornstein: you know weíre all looking now to see what parallels we have with 1994 and there are several of them one thing is very clear there is a national tide. And against a national tide candidates in the majority work like crazy to try and set up levees that are local levees and sometimes no matter how tall they build those levees itís not enough.
Wattenberg: Let me object to a couple of things. One is say when you say for sure Iíve been sort of writing a book sort of my account on my desk public exploit and there isnít much thatís for sure. I mean you really donít know. I mean for example a present incumbent has this DUI record expunged the Thursday before the Tuesday of election. *Unintelligle* perhaps exaggerating said that it cost him about 4 million votes particularly amongst the evangelicals and fundamental Christians who donít like the idea of it. So you donít know and Iíll give you a hypothetical what happens if 4 days before the election we get Osama Bin Laden?
Ornstein: Thatís one of the reasons why I am much more uncertain about what will happen than many of my colleagues. Most of whom now are ready to say flatly the democrats will win the house. Is precisely that. Wind might be blowing very strongly in mid-October and it might have abated by late October for a reason of that sort but I have to tell you Ben the capture of Osama bin Laden may or may not be a good thing for the President. If itís 4 days before the election itís a boost and probably a boost for Republicans although how much that motivates turn out in a mid-term remains to be scene but keep in mind the capture of Osama bin Laden is going to remind people that for 6 years of the Bush administration, 5 years after 9/11, almost 5 years after Afghanistan heís been at large.
Wattenberg: Now Iraq allegedly has become the central issue. My own view, drawn largely from our colleague Karl Zinsmeister my first research assistant who has been there 4 times and then almost got killed and now is the Domestic Policy czar at the White House, is that we are doing very well. *Unintelligble* Our military is all volunteer (Unintelligble). Fewer people have been killed then were killed in the World Trade Center tragedy. They have a constitution the president has constituted a flag etc. And I think we will prevail and I grant you this the doubters (unintelligible) My experience such as it is I donít know.
Ornstein: We donít know what ultimately will happen with Iraq. I wish I could be as optimistic as you are I must say watchingÖ
Wattenberg: Iím not optimistic Iím agnostic
Ornstein: Watching generals Abizade and Pace say that we could easily veer into civil war was sobering for me. Iraq is a huge issue out there now. And right now thereís no question it cuts against republicans. But Iím not sure that itís the only or even itself the central issue in this campaign. Voters are angry. Theyíre not happy. They see the wheels coming off at home and abroad. Thereís a widespread unease about the economy which may not fit objective reality in terms of the indicators that we normally use but people donít feel good right now and itís the combination of all of those things. A sense that government hasnít done what itís supposed to do isnít focusing on things that it should be focusing on and itís not working and 1 partyís in charge thatís led to this wind we just donít know how strong itís going to be come late October.
Mr. Wattenberg: You know, the -- I mean, the economic data are a little hard to follow, but two things; one is with all this turmoil, the marketís kind of moving sideways. There are fossil fuel experts who say that the price for a barrel of oil is going to go down to single digits. People are finally coming around, so they say, to nuclear power and again, weíre being fed so much stuff, thanks to Al Goreís 500-channel universe and the internet and all that kind of stuff that I just remain agnostic.
Mr. Ornstein: It may very well be that oil prices will decline even before the election.
Mr. Wattenberg: Theyíve already started.
Mr. Ornstein: Theyíve already started. I would be hard pressed to make the case that that will be an asset for republicans. People who have been paying $3.50 a gallon are not going to go to the polls saying, ďGee, itís come down to $2.80. Thank you!Ē to the party in power. Thatís just not the way politics work.
Mr. Wattenberg: Let me ask -- thereís another one that I think has people muddled which is immigration. I mean, Pat Buchanan, who I have had some very contentious arguments with -- I do not believe heís an anti-Semite -- has written a series of books -- (unintelligible) sounds like Oswald Spengler -- The Decline of the West...the Mexicans are coming and yet they are Roman Catholics, traditional values, family values, most hard workers. Our -- in every immigrant group in America, our forbearers -- the Jews, the Irish, the Hungarians, even the English, has faced this sort of mindless hatred.
Mr. Wattenberg: So why canít we get it right on immigration?
Mr. Ornstein: You know, this is an issue that actually astonishingly to me raises emotional levels in parts of the country where there isnít a whole lot of immigration out there, like Connecticut. To astonishing amounts. I canít quite figure it out, although youíve hit on a part of it. Itís a historical tension that we have faced. Iím with you on the immigration issue. I -- I believe that itís whatís made this country great and I think as we look to the future where weíre going to have an aging population and weíre going to need young workers who can expand the pie to pay for us old people, that immigration is going to be a key for us.
The republican party has a real difficult moment now because theyíre between a rock and a hard place. They have made this the signature priority as the president has -- domestic affairs. If they donít act on it after months and months of deliberation, and itís all amongst themselves, then it really is a do-nothing Congress. It might not be exactly the same thing as the Clinton healthcare plan failing, underscoring that, you know, hereís a party in charge and they canít get their act together, but it would be very bad.
If they do act, theyíre going to alienate in significant ways, a substantial portion of the republican base.
Mr. Wattenberg: You said a couple of magic words. One was Connecticut. Iím an old friend of Joe Liebermanís; youíre an old friend of Joe Liebermanís. I knew Joe Lieberman when I lived in Stamford, a hundred years ago when he was a teenager doing political (unintelligible) speaching and I remember at the back of a crowd (unintelligible) speech some of the old Jews would say, ďThat boyís going to be president one dayĒ. Heís a brilliant guy.
Mr. Ornstein: Came close.
Mr. Wattenberg: He did. He came very close to being vice president. And he was in a primary -- a democratic primary with this guy, Ned Lamont whoís only worth 300 million dollars and is from Greenwich where they have that -- had wasp only priorities and five-acre zoning. I mean, you know, not...
Mr. Ornstein: Heís not too shabby, as they say.
Mr. Wattenberg: Was not too shabby. He was 14 points down. He closed to 4 and apparently the Lamont people -- we donít know, the FBIís investigating -- sabotaged Joeís website. My own thought is that he has an excellent chance of winning as an independent, and in my dream world, he and either Rudy Giuliani or John McCain would team up a fusion ticket. And you know, Ross Perot was ahead until he went ballistic. Abe Lincoln was a third or fourth party candidate. George Wallace once states in the north he carried Cambridge, Mass in 1972 and it breaks up the iron triangle, you know -- Congress, K Street, the presidency. Is that plausible?
Mr. Ornstein: You know, Iíve actually joked that Joe coming back as an independent who would caucus with the democrats will be joined by another independent who will get elected to the Senate and caucus for the democrats --Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Mr. Wattenberg: The only socialist.
Mr. Ornstein: And Iíve said, ďMaybe they should just form a new party and call it Kadeema (ph.)Ē. But, I think this is an interesting test case right now in many things. We have a sharply polarized country, tribal partisan politics and a lot of people growing uneasy about what that does to the fabric of the society and the ability to grapple with problems. And a lot of evidence out there that people are looking for something different, and thatís Joeís campaign. Joe Lieberman is running as somebody who will transcend those differences.
Coming back to the Senate, he would be in a very strong position. And frankly, strong in part because democrats may or may not win a majority there, but theyíll get within striking distance and thereíll be a handful of votes thatíll be the key votes.
Mr. Wattenberg: Well, you know, when Dick Scammon and I coauthored that book, The Real Majority, and we had something about the man in the middle, you know, it takes -- and people say, ďwell, the middle has collapsedĒ, but thereís always a middle by definition, and they go this way instead of that way and ďTeddy Ballgame.Ē There you have it. So he could be, it seems to me...
Mr. Ornstein: Could be a significant player. A national campaign again, Iíd be a little skeptical. But I do think that if Lieberman wins it will give a boost to the kinds of candidates for president whose theme will be ďI will genuinely govern as a uniter, not a divider.Ē And McCain has the strongest credentials on that front. Mitt Romney is another who could do something like that. And Mark Warner and Evan Bayh on the democratic side would get a boost.
Mr. Wattenberg: Let me ask you a question. This is something weíve chatted about and we disagree on. When Ned Lamont won in Connecticut, the photo op was framed that the two people next to him were going to be Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Now, Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Jesse Jackson in my judgment -- and Iíve sort of sparred with him over the years, but he has some redeeming features. Al Sharpton is an indicted thug. Those may be the most two unpopular figures you can have. Connecticut, Iíve lived there, like Minnesota which is allegedly, you know, so liberal. Thereís racist feeling there. I mean, you know that. That was -- and I said if I were the Joe Lieberman campaign manager and itís gonna happen with Ďem or without Ďem, Iíd just run that without any comment. Put it up there.
Mr. Ornstein: I think that acceptance speech by Lamont showed that his campaign was not ready for primetime. That was not the message you want to send, especially if youíre trying to say to everybody ďIím not this far left candidate; Iím a centrist, too in some waysĒ. But he didnít demonstrate that at all, and itís another hole that he dug himself in I think as we head towards the final stretch of this fall campaign, and it was a big mistake on his part.
Mr. Wattenberg: Which wing of the democratic party is now driving the bus? Is it Ned Lamont and now John Murtha, of all people? The get out of Iraq thing? Is it Hillary Clinton, who I actually think itís shown that she has her eye on the main chance and is a very capable woman? I have some problems with her. Is there such a thing as a party strategy? I mean, Dick Scammon always used to say that, ďLook, people in off-term elections, off-year elections particularly -- they often vote to get their brother-in-law elected so he can move out of the house.Ē I mean, itís a -- is there any real coordination?
Mr. Ornstein: Look, a party thatís out of power rarely has coordination. 1994 was an exception because of the extraordinary personal strength of Newt Gingrich.
Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, and for all his flaws heís a brilliant political strategist.
Mr. Ornstein: And recruited candidates, gave them the themes, created the central focus.
Mr. Wattenberg: Contract with America.
Mr. Ornstein: Well, the contract with America remember, didnít come Ďtil the end of September, but part of what Newt did before that was to drive a discipline in the minority party to run against a party in power that wasnít getting it done. Most often you donít have that kind of central focus and the democrats donít have it this time.
You ask whoís driving the bus? It is at this point far more the left wing of the democratic party than anybody else, and thatís a danger for them and itís one of the reasons why the republicans are stressing these security issues. But having said that, I think theyíre still in a position where they have not messed up enough as a party that theyíre there to pick up the pieces in what is almost always a referendum on the party in power. And thatís where republicans have trouble and thatís where democrats are looking to win.
Now, whether they have anything to say after they win and if they win a majority, thatís another issue. Whether the democratic party can develop a coherent national security and homeland security strategy, including Iraq, that doesnít look like they canít be trusted in fending off evil people trying to kill us, that theyíre too weak and too clueless, thatís a critical element for the democrats heading towards 2008 and itís actually where Hillary Clinton ironically may be among the best position to reassure Americans that if youíve got this person at the helm theyíll be tough on those terrorists.
Mr. Wattenberg: Here you have Ned Lamont and now John Murtha who was a real Scoop Jackson democrat when I knew him, saying letís, quotes, ďcut and runĒ. I donít think for all their distaste with Iraq, that Americans want to see that happen.
Mr. Ornstein: I donít think Americans want to see us pull abruptly out of Iraq, or in any form that people would see us cut and run. I think what the sort of ďcoreĒ democrats are trying to come to is some sort of -- theyíre not going to get a consensus -- theyíre democrats -- but some sort of common judgment surrounding a kind of phased withdrawal. Thatís very tricky business, letís face it. You know and I know that any timetables that you set are not going to work very well. But the fact is, an awful lot of republicans a few months ago were also talking along those particular lines, and weíre likely to see some phase down of American troops regardless, sometime in the next -- in the next few months. Whether that can happen without democrats losing any credibility by being seen as too weak or naÔve about how politics works in the real world is an interesting question.
Mr. Wattenberg: Alright. Give it to us in the short form. Whatís going to happen?
Mr. Ornstein: Democrats are going to have a good election and I think the odds are now significantly better than even that they will capture a narrow majority in the House and come within an eyelash in the Senate. But let me give you a bottom line here that unfortunately reinforces all the unhappy conclusions that I have with Tom Mann in our book, The Broken Branch.
Mr. Wattenberg: You and Tom do wonderful work, I must say.
Mr. Ornstein: Thank you. Keep that part in.
Mr. Wattenberg: I will.
Mr. Ornstein: But the basic problem weíve got here is thereís a 90% chance that weíre going to end up with a House and a Senate with majorities, whichever party, in the low single digits. That is not a formula for governance. And the challenge weíve got in whatís going to be two lame duck years for George W. Bush facing a very tightly contested, bickering, rancorous Congress with enormous challenges facing the country. He wants to do something about entitlements. We need to, but you canít do that without broad bipartisan cooperation. Weíve got to develop some kind of consensus or at least end up without the poisonous reaction to Americaís role in the world.
And weíre going to have a campaign which is going to be run more on national security lines with a lot of republicans in Congress talking about the defeat-o-crats that is going to make it even harder afterwards to submerge differences and make things work.
I donít think itís any exaggeration, Ben to say that the countyís at a crossroads. Weíve got a budget disaster looming ahead in a few years unless we can grab control of entitlement spending and figure out how to get the revenues we need for the government that everybody agrees we want.
Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, but Norman, compared to any other nation in the world, our budgetís shortfall because of the aging -- the baby boom is peanuts. I mean, we have immigrants coming in paying in Social Security; we have a higher fertility rate than anyone else...
Mr. Ornstein: Well, let me put it in numbers, Ben.
Mr. Wattenberg: The European countries are indeed due to China, India there and theyíre investing their money in the United States because its got the only stable transparent markets.
Mr. Ornstein: The fact that other countries are doing worse gives me scant comfort. But, let me put it in -- in basic terms. Our federal revenues are right now just under 17% of our gross domestic product, and theyíre heading probably toward 16 in a few years.
Mr. Wattenberg: Sixteen.
Mr. Ornstein: Yes. Our expenditures right now are just under 20% of our gross domestic product, and unless we reign in the growth of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, what the congressional budget office tells us, using very modest assumptions of health inflation, is that those three programs alone are going to be 22% or more of GDP by 2040.
Mr. Wattenberg: But Norman...
Mr. Ornstein: That leaves not a dime for defense or homeland security or transportation or diplomacy or the environment, you cannot sustain...now we can; weíve got deficits of 3%. You can sustain that for a long time. Seven, eight nine percent, you canít.
Mr. Wattenberg: Norman, let me tell you something. Let me see if I can put it in pungent language. The idea that theyíre going to let Social Security have a -- go bust, is preposterous; not because of the numbers, but because these members of Congress are whores and they are not going to take a third of the electorate who vote disproportionately highly and say, ďOh, by the way; weíre cutting your Social Security.Ē Not going to happen.
Mr. Ornstein: I donít disagree with that at all. Ultimately we deal with these issues. the question is whether you deal with these issues by having a crash landing, or by having a nice glide path. And I donít want a crash landing. And thatís what we have facing us ten years down the road unless we start to build in a glide path now.
Mr. Wattenberg: Okay, Norm, on that note, we will have to end it. Thank you again for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our program better. And now we have a blog which is a fun and frustrating vice for which to communicate with our viewers so participate if you can. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.
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