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Panel 1. The New Electoral Map: From the Gingrich Revolution to 2008
Panelists: Kathleen A. Frankovic, Director of Surveys and Producer, CBS News; Carl Leubsdorf, Washington Bureau Chief, The Dallas Morning News; Theodore J. Lowi, John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, Cornell University; Waler R. Mebane, Jr., professor of government, Cornell University;
Moderator: Stuart M. Blumin, Professor of American History, Cornell University.
Every two-term president in modern times has suffered big party losses in Congress in his sixth year except for Bill Clinton, who lost big after just his second year in office (1994), observed Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau Chief, Carl Leubsdorf. The Democrats need to pick up just 15 seats in the House of Representatives to regain control of that body, but that will still be difficult because there are so few seats in play in the 2006 midterm elections-—only about 32, of which 21 are now in Republican hands. There is less competition for seats than ever because in state after state, the legislatures have gotten together to protect incumbents of both parties. Moreover, incumbents are already well protected given the benefits of office they can bestow on their constituents. In the Senate, only 15 of the 33 seats up for election are held by Republicans, and Democrats need to pick up six seats to retake control of that body. Leubsdort predicted, "If Democrats do succeed in winning back the Congress, you can bet they will conduct a lot more oversight of the Executive Branch, though the White House might call it something else." But it is difficult to predict six months out just how the elections might go.
Kathleen Frankovic, the chief election pollster for CBS News, noted that the American people have become much more sophisticated in how they talk about politics when responding to polls. This dates back to 1994 and the emergence of talk radio. About 21 percent of the people listen to talk radio, and two-thirds of them tend to vote Republican. The political savy not only applies to how people look at and talk about their votes, but also on how they look at issues. We're seeing a lot more clearly-drawn partisan lines than before because of this sophistication: people know how their side views and frames issues and their responses to polling questions reflects that. Very rarely today do we see people on the right and left coming down on the same side of an issue. The Dubai ports deal is a rare exception where nearly everyone came down against allowing a foreign government-owned company take over the management of critical port facilities.
Walter Mebane, a Cornell political scientist, reinforced the view that people are more polarized and intense about issues than ever before. Mebane used the rearch of one of his graduate students to refute the thesis of political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, found in his book, Culture War?, that it's the political elites who are polarized, and not average Americans. Looking at survey data over time and singling out the least contested red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states, he showed how on issues like abortion and gay rights the gap has widened between red and blue voters, though at the same time there is a higher level of tolerance on both sides than 20 years ago.
Theodore Lowi explained how his book, The End of the Republican Era, was correct, even though it was published in 1995, the same year Republicans took over Congress. "The Republican Party is dead," he said, "but of course institutions don't really die; they change into something else. And the Republicans have morphed from a liberal party, that is, a party of libertarian and capitalist beliefs, into a conservative party based on moral authority." For a while we had two liberal parties competing against each other, Lowi observed, but the Democratic liberalism came to an end in the late 1960s, and Republican libertarianism ended sometime after Reagan left office. Lowi entertained the audience with a hand-out titled, "Bill Clinton: The Last Republican President of the 20th Century-—A Selection of His Selections from the Republican Agenda." Asked what might put Democrats back on track and in power, Lowi suggested a major wedge issue like impeachment might do it.
Panel 2. Congress in the Balance: Politics, Policies, and the Midterm Elections
Panelists: Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL); Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA); Joel Silbey, professor of history, emeritus, Cornell University; Jeanne Cummings, political correspondent, the Wall Street Journal.
Moderator: Don Wolfensberger, director, The Congerss Project, Woodrow Wilson Center
The prospect that Congress could flip control to the Democrats in 2006 was reaffirmed by the second panel. "Absolutely," said moderate Republican Congressman Mark Kirk who represents a North Shore Chicago suburban district. "Not many people saw the wave coming in 1994, but it happened, putting an end to the plans of many Democrats who thought they had a permanent lock on Congress." Kirk said Congress "is ripe for reform," given current scandals and legislative stalemates. But it needs not just institutional reform, but a reform of many of our approaches to policy problems in such areas as health care, education, conservation and the economy. Kirk said he was working closely with the leadership in developing a suburban policy agenda to bring new hope to those who do not have the same job, educational and standard of living prospects as their parents had.
Congressman Bob Filner a self-proclaimed far-left liberal from San Diego, California, said Republicans are bankrupting the country with all the money being poured into the war and security while education, veterans, healthcare, and environmental conditions are deteriorating. Filner said what is needed is an old fashioned populist uprising where the Democrats outside Washington rise up against big business interests, especially big oil, and unite the rural south and urban north. Filner said it's time for Democrats to "Newter" their party, just as Newt Gingrich built his party from outside Washington through the recruitment, training, and funding of top tier candidates.
Joel Silbey a retired Cornell history professor, echoed other panelists in observing, "It's clear we are a deeply divided country politically," but added "it's unclear at this point just where it's all going and where we'll come out," both in the 2006 midterm and 2008 presidential elections. It is too soon to know, for instance, whether the midterm elections in 2006 will be a national election around some major issue like the war, or whether it will simply be a lot of local elections. "The elections will be close, but not necessarily decisive." The last five elections, Silbey pointed out, averaged a party swing of just three seats in the House and two in the Senate-—hardly a clear or decisive trend since both parties have won some and lost some over that period. "We've had a lot of lessons in the last five years about how bad government is, not necessarily because of bad people, but because we have a Constitution that is designed to prevent action. And that's especially true when you have divided party government." Moreover, noted Silbey, there are institutional rules and restraints beyond the Constitution that make any meaningful government action difficult, such as the filibuster in the Senate. Silbey concluded that one has to take a long view to remain optimistic. "Whatever happens is going to happen over time, and it could be completely different than what we now have or expect." Congress is a representative institution, and so much depends on where the people will ultimately want us to go.
Jeanne Cummings, political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has covered both Congress and the White House. Looking at next November's midterm elections, Cummings said voter turnout will determine everything, and no one can predict at this point who will turn out and who will sit it out. Issues are going to be important this year, she predicted. Republicans are well disciplined and have a great machine, but they have a fractured base. Democrats on the other hand are energized but don't have the machine. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is trying a different approach and that is re-building grassroots party organizations in all states to mobilize voters, but it's not clear at this point how successful that will be. Seniors will again be a key factor since they have the highest voter participation rate. They are angry and confused about the new prescription drug plan, which could hurt Republicans. They are also very concerned about immigration problems, and that could cut the other way. But the immigration issue could also hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters which had been voting more Republican in recent years. While Republicans hope the immigration and national security issues will help them with voters, those issues could just as easily backfire on them. Cummings echoed Filner in looking to the Gingrich model for winning the House. "Newt ran somebody against everybody," she noted, "so when the wave came they were poised to win it all. The Contract With America gave Republicans a vision to run on and also enabled them to talk knowledgably about national issues that gave voters the impression they were ready for national office."
The panel was not optimistic that Congress would be able to work better across party lines to address important national problems, since as long as the margin of party control remains small there will be no incentive to help make the other party look good. Kirk lamented that members spent so little time together anymore because they are flying back to their districts every weekend to meet with constituents. "It's difficult to build coalitions across party lines when you don't have personal relationships and trust to build on in the first place."
Red and Blue America: The Political Map of the New Century
Video of this event is available in the See Also box to the right of this screen.