MS. IFILL: Money, momentum, and the midterm elections. We look at the situation in the House and the Senate and examine the latest rulings on gays in the military, tonight on “Washington Week.
Pulling out all the stops.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Philadelphia, I think the pundits are wrong. I think the pundits are wrong. I think we’re going to win, but you’ve got to prove them wrong.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’ve traveled all of this country. I’ve been into 97 races so far. And let me tell you something. I’m angry.
MS. IFILL: Democrats hit the hustings, but it’s the Republicans who are raking in the dough. Fourteen million dollars for Nevada’s Sharron Angle, $120 million for California’s Meg Whitman out of her own pocket, $31 million for the Republican governors in just three months.
SARAH PALIN: November 2nd is right around the corner. I can see it from my house.
MS. IFILL: What will tip the balance? Plus, another judge rules against the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
Covering the week: Jeanne Cummings of “Politico,” John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News, Major Garrett of “National Journal,” and Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Eighteen days to go, a recession that won’t go away, and we are drowning in money. No, it’s not in your pocket. It’s on the air and in your mailbox and on the streets, as candidates, political parties, and partisan outside groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars on midterm election campaigns. And that’s just in California. No, I’m serious. That’s just in California.
But everywhere big money has turned this into a kind of a virtual campaign where most of what we know about candidates can be boiled down into expensive attack ads like these, the first paid for by the national Democrats, the second by a Republican affiliated outside group known as American Crossroads.
NARRATOR: Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, they’re Bush cronies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce: they’re shills for big business and they’re stealing our democracy, spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress.
NARRATOR: They have failed Missouri and Robin Carnahan is one of them. Carnahan stands with Obama’s health care law that cuts Medicare and could raise insurance premiums.
MS. IFILL: The goal in both overly dramatic cases is to blame the other party for Washington’s problems. But how expensive is all of this getting, Jeanne?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, it’s really hard to keep up with it all, Gwen. I used to be able to come here with one sheet of paper. Look at this ridiculous stack that I have. It is costing – so far the outside groups, including the parties, have spent more than $200 million. It’s a dramatic increase over the midterms in 2006. The spending by the outside groups alone is triple what it was just four years ago. It’s an entirely new landscape caused, of course, by the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that opened the door for corporations to donate money. And where they have gone are into these groups like American Crossroads that created themselves in a way that they can keep their donors private. And that’s where a lot of the money is going.
MS. IFILL: Who’s out-raising whom or outspending whom?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, it’s difficult to track, but the Democrats as a party and as candidates, if you look at the Democratic Party; they out-raised the Republican Party and candidates by a good amount, about $200 million. But these outside groups and the Republican Governors Association, when you add them in, the Democratic advantage is gone. And so I would – I talked to some folks on the Republican side and the Democratic side earlier this week, and they think financially, they’re pretty close to parity. And if anything, the Republicans have an advantage because these outside groups can raise so much money so fast. People are cutting million-dollar checks, multi-million-dollar checks. And so in a matter of overnight, you can see a big load of ads go up and change the conversation in a campaign.
MR. DICKERSON: It’s a good thing we passed all those campaign finance laws a few years ago. What happened to all of that, the McCain-Feingold – is campaign finance just dead, is it –
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I have to tell you that if you talk to the reform advocates, as we have, they feel like they’re at one of their bleakest moments. They feel that in some respects, the situation has gotten worst than pre-Watergate, which is when the first campaign finance laws were passed, in part because of the anonymous nature of this money. The big Watergate reforms were intended to limit the amount of donations and get big business out of politics. Well, they’re back in a big way and we don’t know their names.
MR. GARRETT: Then there was a circumvention with soft money. Then soft money was outlawed through McCain-Feingold. And now you have this other mechanism by which big business likes to be anonymous. Why does it like to be anonymous so much? What’s the benefit of anonymity?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, the benefit of anonymity, especially if you’re a publicly traded company, is that you don’t upset your customers and you don’t upset your investors. And so what I have found in looking at the corporations that were willing to step up and give to groups that had to disclose with the Federal Election Commission, if you look at those corporations, one common thread is that they’re dominated by a single personality, or they are privately held. And so these are names familiar to us. Harold Simmons of TRT Holdings and he’s been around for a long time. He gave to the swift boaters back in 2004. So these people have already put themselves out and they – no harm will come to them for staying out there. People are accustomed to them.
MS. YOUSSEF: Jeanne, it seems to me that our individual voters end being drowned out in this. Are they sought after less by candidates in light of these big business donations?
MS. CUMMINGS: You mean individual donors? The individual donors, ironically, have kind of held their own. They are being stumped by the big boys. But if you look at Act Blue, on the Democratic side, which is a big funnel for small donors, they’re up and running at a pretty good clip. And if you look at some of the Tea Party candidates, in particular, they have found and enlivened a small donor base on the Republican side.
MR. GARRETT: It was one of their original sources of energy and resource before the establishment became aware of the threat they posed.
MS. IFILL: I was talking to Marco Rubio in Florida, this week, and one of the first things he said is, “yes, I have a lot of money, but most of it came from people who’re giving me under $100 apiece.” So that counts for something. So let’s take all of this apart.
John’s been following Senate races. Major has been tracking the House. Interestingly enough, John found an excuse to get to Las Vegas, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is fighting off a stiff challenge from Republican Sharron Angle. Here’s a taste of their debate last night. At issue, as always it seems to be, the future of Social Security.
SHARRON ANGLE: Man up, Harry Reid. You need to understand that we have a problem with Social Security. That problem was created because of government taking that money out of the Social Security trust fund.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): Don’t frighten people about Social Security. The deal that was made by President Reagan and Tip O’Neil is holding strong. The money is there and taking care of our folks and will for the next 35 years, as I’ve just indicated.
MS. IFILL: Not the first or the last time we’re going to hear that Social Security argument in the campaign. What’s familiar and what’s different about tight races like this?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, Gwen, you suggested that I went to Las Vegas on a lark, but it seems to me that –
MS. IFILL: No, no, no.
MR. DICKERSON: – it seems to me that the city fathers of Nevada did a good thing. They created the most competitive, interesting race here, so that all the reporters would go and boost the economy a little bit.
What’s – it’s a familiar old argument. You have – the size of government is the big argument and government spending. Harry Reid was making the case that in these tough economic times; Nevada has the worst unemployment rate in the country. It has more foreclosures than any other state, really hard hit. And he said, I brought home jobs to the state. And the stimulus package helped the state and health care helps people hurt in the state.
And Sharron Angle said, that’s just not what government does. Government needs to be shrunk. It needs to create a business environment, but not create jobs. And they went back and forth on the role of government. And that is the same debate you hear in Connecticut, in the Senate Race in Connecticut, almost verbatim the same argument about how you create jobs, and also in the California governors’ race.
MS. IFILL: The same arguments I heard in Kentucky and Florida and the same arguments you hear in every single state, and not just in Senate races, but –
MR. DICKERSON: Exactly right. And so in some sense, this is such an interesting race, of course, because Harry Reid is the number one target for the Republicans, the majority leader in the Senate. And Sharron Angle is the Tea Party favorite, perhaps the most famous Tea Party candidate, although they do seem to be competing for fame in their various times. So this race has a lot of interesting parts to it.
MS. YOUSSEF: So John, this was the first debate – excuse me – the only debate that these guys will have, so who was hurt by it and who was helped by it?
MR. DICKERSON: It was the only debate they’ll have and I think they both couldn’t be happier because they both have a career of gaffes and troubles. And they did not upend their reputations for not being very good public speakers. Both of them are quite bad. At times, it seemed like there were sentences missing in their responses. But Sharron Angle did better because Harry Reid has spent months and months basically saying she’s crazy. And she came on to the stage and she had forceful answers for things. They weren’t – she didn’t answer the question often. She sometimes contradicted herself. But in her presence, she came there and she stood toe-to-toe with Harry Reid, who gave a very lackluster performance. He, too, ducked many questions. Sometimes as talking points sort of kind of dribbled out. And so in that regard, she did well. The question is how many people had their minds changed. This race has been out there and in the public. And there probably weren’t a lot of Nevadans who had their minds changed.
MR. GARRETT: Embattled incumbents at a time like this typically need a game changing performance. Did we see it?
MR. DICKERSON: No. We did not see a game changing performance from Harry Reid. He seemed at sea. And if the argument is that he’s been in Washington too long – and Sharron Angle took the fight to him. She said he lived in a Ritz-Carlton. He tried to begin with his very humble upbringings, since he was (elected ?) in Nevada. And she went right back at him. You live in the Ritz-Carlton. She suggests that he profited from being a senator. He didn’t really fight back. He was every inch the senator talking about jargon, the Congressional Budget Office, naming pieces of legislation that had passed or had to do with the various issues. At one point, he kept calling her, “my friend,” which is a very Senate – it’s like she was already in the next cloakroom.
MS. CUMMINGS: John, take us – take us East, too, because we had another debate this week in Connecticut, where there is another –
MS. IFILL: There were a couple of debates.
MS. CUMMINGS: – yes, where there’s another female Tea Party candidate, who is obviously roiling the waters, Christine O’Donnell. What do you think of that race and that one seems to have gone the other way, where the Democrats have managed to get their arms around that one.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, in – right, in Delaware, we have Christine O’Donnell
MS. CUMMINGS: Oh, excuse me.
MR. DICKERSON: – the momentary Tea Party favorite. But she now – the polls have her down almost as much as 20 points, so not so much at stake. She did – she sort of held her own – again, another candidate who’s been sort of lampooned by everyone, the press and Democrats, who she held her own, but she’s got a much longer distance.
In Connecticut, you have another insurgent candidate, Linda McMahon, who looked like she was moving up, but now it looks like that race might be one the Democrats can hold.
MS. IFILL: And in West Virginia, you have an unexpectedly tight race with Joe Manchin, the Democrat, who people thought was going to just prance right into Rob Byrd’s seat.
MR. DICKERSON: They thought that and he’s had a much tougher race. And so he has had to distance himself from the president. John Raese, the Republican, is saying he’s just going to be rubber stamped. So Manchin is running so far right now. He’s almost running for senator of Maryland. But he’s pushing himself away from the president and we’ll see if that works for him.
MS. IFILL: Okay. So now we go over to the fight for the House. We’ve been talking about a Republican takeover there for weeks now. And nearly every generic poll backs that up. But Major writes in this week’s “National Journal” that the Democrats haven’t given up yet. Is that really true?
MR. GARRETT: Of course they haven’t given up. They’re not going to hand over a majority they spent many, many years trying to win and they won in 2006 and 2008. And Democrats are spending a lot of money. They’re well-organized. This is not like the 1994 cycle at all, where Democrats did not see a tidal wave coming. They predicted one would wash on the shore as long as 18 months ago and they’ve been preparing for it. It still may wash on shore as long as 18 months ago.. It still may wash some out of power, but not without a significant fight.
MS. IFILL: So where are they looking?
MR. GARRETT: Well, first of all, Democrats want to retain their incumbents, but they’re also trying to target – and this could be the pivotal deciding factor come election night – can they pick up enough Republican seats to make their losses less pronounced? Let’s say Republicans pick up 44 gross seats, but Democrats win eight or nine Republican seats. Well, the net is less than a 39 Republicans need to take control of the House. It’s all going to be a net-net game come election night for Democrats. So they’ve identified in their most optimistic scenarios 12 Republican seats. There’re probably seven they have a credible chance of winning. Two are already in the bag: Delaware, an at large seat, once held by Mike Castle. Republicans even tell me that one’s over. Democrats will pick that up. Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, special election oddity, Republican beats William Jefferson, a scandal tainted incumbent of many terms. That’s going to go back to the Democrats. So there’re already up two.
Then you look at Illinois 10th Congressional District, Mark Kirk, running for the Senate, Democrat leading there. California’s 3rd District, Dan Lungren, problematic political skills, never really delivered as much as Republicans hoped he would. That’s a seat Democrats could win. So they have found a few places around the country. Allentown, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania’s 15th District Charlie Dent could be in jeopardy. So if Democrats can stitch together enough of these victories, they might be able to hand – hold off the Republican tide.
MS. CUMMINGS: Major, could they stitch together those victories and still lose?
MR. GARRETT: Yes because so many other seats are coming on the board. John Dingell, in two weeks, has gone from absolutely safe Michigan institution to possibly jeopardize long-time incumbent. Other Democratic races, in the last two weeks, that were once thought to be safe, are now toss-up races. The Cook Political Report, which we’re affiliated with, has 78 tossup races. Seventy two are currently held by Democrats. The numbers just work so much against Democrats. And at this stage of the campaign, when your areas of vulnerability keep expanding and your targets of opportunity keep narrowing, it’s hard to adjust.
MR. DICKERSON: Tell us about Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House –
MS. IFILL: And the start of every Republican attack –
MR. GARRETT: And the star of many Republican ads.
MR. DICKERSON: – she’s all over the television.
MR. GARRETT: And Nancy Pelosi is part of the reason that Harry Reid is having such trouble in Nevada because Nancy Pelosi is not going to lose and everyone knows that. And every institutional Republican knows that. So the biggest target, the next biggest target, the other co-star in all these ads, right alongside Nancy Pelosi, is Harry Reid. So that’s why the money and the force is going into Nevada.
But Nancy Pelosi has become a figure of rallying intensity for Republicans. Institutional sort of establishment Republicans weren’t really prepared to attack her as much as the Tea Party aggressive Republican energized voters were. And the establishment sort of figured out that was the way to communicate. We get it. And so that is becoming a huge part of this overall dynamic. Washington’s out of control. Washington spends too much. Washington doesn’t listen to you. And whether or not Nancy Pelosi actually represents any of those things has become less important than the symbolism of what her speakership along with Harry Reid’s majority leadership has come to represent.
MS. YOUSSEF: Major, with 18 days left in the campaign, what at this point is the Tea Party effect on the House side?
MR. GARRETT: The Tea Party effect on the House side is much more positive writ large than it is in the Senate. You have very few instances where the Tea Party has nominated a clunker in a House race. There’ll be a couple here and there, but in the main, they’re energized, focused Republican candidates. And because House races receive less local coverage in television and newspapers, the flaws of any particular House candidate aren’t as visible as they are in the Senate races. The Tea Party has had a negative effect in Delaware. It could have a negative effect in Connecticut. It could, in the end, have a negative effect in Nevada.
MS. IFILL: And if you’re John Boehner or Mitch McConnell on the Senate side and these Tea Party folks, whose job was to get elected by saying, “a pox in everyone’s houses, we’re going to go and turn Washington upside down.” Does that make the job of speaker, say, less appealing?
MS. IFILL: No, not for John Boehner. John Boehner wants to be speaker. He wants to have as many Republicans underneath his wings as he can possibly have. But he understands and the leadership is preparing for the possibility of winning the majority that these are going to be some wildcats coming into Washington and they’re not going to be easy to herd. That’s always true in Washington, but especially some of these wildcats coming here; they’re going to be vociferous and ferocious about spending. And that’s going upset a lot of tables.
MS. IFILL: I am so looking forward to wild cats in Washington. There’s nothing wrong with that.
MR. GARRETT: Nothing at all.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Another dilemma for President Obama. This week, a federal judge ruled that the military cannot expel soldiers who are openly gay or lesbian. And that was one of the first things the president was asked about at a young voters’ forum sponsored yesterday by MTV, BET, and CMT. This is his reply.
PRES. OBAMA: It has to be done in a way that is orderly because we are involved in a war right now, but this is not a question of whether the policy will end. This policy will end. And it will end on my watch.
MS. IFILL: But not right away apparently. The Obama administration has already asked the court to stay its order. Then the Pentagon said it would not enforce the policy. Why isn’t that a contradictory action, Nancy?
MS. YOUSSEF: Because what the Obama administration is trying to do is say how Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed. And they want it done through Congress. There is a real risk from the Pentagon and the administration’s perspective of doing this through the courts. There is the possibility of appeal. It becomes fuzzy. We’ve already seen that this week. And of course, the military needs orders and it needs clarity on issues like this. And so the administration’s feeling on it is if you do it through Congress, it allows the administration and the Department of Defense to manage sort of when it happens. They can tie it in with the review that they’re doing on the implications of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on the military. They can sort of set the timetable and give it finality and not let it drag on for years and years in the courts and go back and forth, depending on which judge it appears before.
MS. IFILL: So the president is leaning towards orderliness and clarity and yet at the end of this week, this whole issue was anything but.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right. And it was quite extraordinary, at the Pentagon, they seem to be caught flat footed by this, yet Judge Virginia Phillips, who issued this injunction, she had said a month ago that she was going to issue this – this worldwide banning on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And so they really sort of stumbled this week. They sent out an email that said, “we don’t know yet.” And then today, a letter came out that said, “you can – you probably shouldn’t say if you’re a gay/lesbian soldier, not yet because we don’t know.”
MS. IFILL: It actually says, “we note for service members that alerting their personal – altering their personal conduct in this legally uncertain environment may have adverse consequences –”
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: “– for themselves or others should the court’s decision be reversed.”
MS. CUMMINGS: Nancy, what I’m curious about is given the volunteer nature of the Army, all of this, the slug of the two wars, and how tired we hear family – military families are, and then you have now this – the lack of clarity and with a warning label attached to, right, what is this going to do for recruitment?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, in the immediate, if someone comes into a recruiting office and says, “I want to join the United States Military,” they’re still not allowed to ask what someone’s sexual orientation is. I think the real problem comes forward – let’s say, this week, someone comes in and says, “I’m a gay or a lesbian and I want to enlist in the Army.” And then they’re brought in. And there’s – the government wins the appeal or there’s a stay, what will the Pentagon’s response be? Will they proceed on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Will they not? And what does that mean going forward for service members, both enlisting and who are already in the service? And so this week is a case of legal limbo, not only for those coming into a recruiting office, but those whose cases were pending under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
MR. DICKERSON: What about people who are serving at the moment? One of the arguments is that it has to be done slowly to figure out the impact on good order and discipline. Well, if it’s quickly installed, how – what’s the effect – the practical day-to-day effect with people already serving?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, the Pentagon’s argument is we have to look at things like housing, health benefits, how we will go about doing it. So that’s their argument. Now, some people would say that the truth is soldiers are serving with gay and lesbians every single day. They know it. They’re allowed to say to someone, “I know you’re gay or lesbian,” yet that service member is not allowed to say it themselves. And that it really hurts unit cohesion. So it depends on who you ask.
The brass, if you will, the upper ranks at the Pentagon say this needs to be done slowly. You ask younger officers, though, they’re sort of past it and they seem to say that they’re ready for the repeal to happen right now and that it wouldn’t have much impact, at least the way the services have said it would.
MR. GARRETT: Isn’t it also true that though the president may want clarity, it’s not going to happen anytime soon in Congress, either with the Congress that’s about to go out, or the new Congress that’s going to be coming in that’s going to be much more Republican and much more hostile to any change of this nature?
MS. YOUSSEF: What you’re really getting at is whether the courts were legislating from the bench or whether they were doing the right thing in the absence of Congress addressing this issue. I think the most relevant case to compare this to is Roe v. Wade. That was the case that was legislated in the courts and yet it remains a political divisive issue.
If this goes through the courts, number one, it could take a long time, and two, it could keep it a politically divisive issue, which would be dangerous for the military.
MS. IFILL: Which means we’ll be talking about it a lot around this table, all over again. Well thank you, everybody. We’re done here, but the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast. We’ll be keeping track of all these political and policy developments every night on the PBS “NewsHour,” and then, we’ll be back around the table, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.