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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stuart Rothenberg

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stuart Rothenberg

Last Build Date: Tue, 07 Apr 2009 00:42:02 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

The Most Vulnerable Senator Up for Re-Election in 2010?

Tue, 07 Apr 2009 00:42:02 -0600

Coverage of Dodd's special treatment from lender Countrywide Financial - and his designation as a "friend of Angelo" - has blanketed local media, severely damaging Dodd's standing in a state where Democrats hold better than 2-1 majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, hold all of the Congressional seats and haven't lost a U.S. Senate race since 1986. Only one Republican, Lowell Weicker, has won a Senate race in the Constitution State since Prescott Bush did so in 1956. (Bush defeated Democrat Thomas Dodd, the current Senator's father.) Chris Dodd has had no serious tests since he coasted to victory in an open-seat House race in the very Democratic year of 1974. Dodd's closest race since then was his first bid for Senate, in 1980, which he won by "only" 13 points over former New York Sen. Jim Buckley (R). Buckley had lost re-election in the Empire State in 1976 and figured that he might as well run for the Senate in neighboring Connecticut. But this cycle is shaping up very differently. A March 26-28 Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters showed Dodd with a 30 percent favorable/58 percent unfavorable rating and his job approval at 33 percent approve/58 percent disapprove. Four in 10 Democrats disapproved of his job performance. More troubling, he was 16 points behind Republican opponent Rob Simmons, a well-regarded former Member from eastern Connecticut who was overwhelmed in the Democratic wave of 2006. Dodd was losing independents by more than 2-1, and Simmons was winning more than 1 in 4 Democrats. The poll also showed Dodd trailing Waterbury state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, who recently entered the race, and former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who is considering his options. Caligiuri held a 4-point lead over Dodd even though 88 percent of those responding hadn't heard enough about the state lawmaker to have an opinion of him. Dodd's position now is an excellent example of how quickly things can change. Until the Countrywide Financial story broke last summer, Dodd's chairmanship looked like a political asset. But now it is a double-edged sword, causing more light to be shined on him and his dealings with the financial community and exposing him to criticism that creates electoral problems for him back home. Dodd, it should be noted, insists he has done nothing wrong and never knew he was receiving special treatment from Countywide (an assertion that some have disputed). But in addition to his Countrywide problems, the Senator has also been forced to return contributions from R. Allen Stanford, a financier accused of defrauding investors, and admitted that he had been involved in the process that ultimately stripped from the stimulus bill a provision that would have limited bonuses American International Group executives eventually received. The Senator said that his admission about his role in modifying the bill (at the request of Treasury Department officials) did not amount to a reversal of his initial explanation, but local and national media certainly played it as a switch. To make things worse, Dodd's wife was also on the board of directors of IPC Holdings, a Bermuda-based insurance company controlled by AIG. Finally, and not insignificantly, Dodd riled some Connecticut voters when he moved his family to Iowa during the 2008 presidential contest, even going so far as to enroll his eldest daughter in a Des Moines kindergarten. All of that adds up to political baggage that would fill one of Dodd's mortgaged homes. But Republicans ought to be realistic about their chances of ousting the Senator. Dodd is an incumbent who can raise more money than most candidates would ever need, and his Democratic label is a significant asset in the state. Moreover, while the Senator has already hired an experienced campaign manager, at some point later this year thoughts of retirement will cross his mind - if his prospects look as bad as they now do. If he were to decide against seeking re-election, Democrats would likely find a strong candidate to replace him, reducing the GOP's chances in the race.[...]

New York's 20th: It Is a Little Like Kissing Your Sister

Fri, 03 Apr 2009 00:20:00 -0600

Both parties' Congressional campaign committees and the Democratic National Committee sent out press releases moments after all the votes were counted Tuesday night. The Democratic releases were nearly identical talking points. Democrats cited the GOP registration edge, argued Murphy had stormed back from more than 20 points down and asserted that they are confident that Murphy will expand his lead. Let's look at the points one by one. Much has been made of the Republican registration - far too much, even by those of us who should know better. You don't need a doctorate in political science to know that registration is a lagging indicator and that what is important is how people usually vote. Polling in the special election conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee's independent expenditure arm asked party ID in two different ways, and the results are eye-opening. When asked how they were registered, 30 percent of district respondents said that they were registered as Democrats, 23 percent said that they were registered independents and 44 percent said that they were registered Republicans - a 14-point GOP advantage. But when those same respondents were asked how they usually vote, 28 percent said they usually or always vote Democratic, 34 percent responded that they were ticket-splitters, and 34 percent said that they usually or always vote Republican - a much smaller 6-point GOP edge. People in this district may be registered as Republicans, but many simply haven't been voting that way. The district is competitive. President Barack Obama won it (51 percent to 48 percent), now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was elected to represent the district twice (with 53 percent and 62 percent) and President George W. Bush won it with only 54 percent in 2004. Bush won a very similarly configured district (then the 22nd) with just 50 percent in 2000. Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Rodham Clinton carried this district in 2006, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) won it two years earlier. What does this mean? It means much, though not all, of this talk about the huge Republican nature of the district is baloney. Second, talk of a stunning Murphy surge from far back is ridiculous and ignores normal campaign dynamics. True, Murphy started behind Tedisco in initial ballot tests, but that was almost entirely because district voters knew Tedisco, a state legislator, but had never heard of political neophyte Murphy, who lived in Missouri until 2006. The early deficit was entirely name ID. I've seen hundreds of races like this one, where an unknown candidate spends heavily and moves up in polls. That's why, when my newsletter first rated the special election on Feb. 20, we rated it as Tossup/Tilt Republican. It looked competitive from the start. Given both parties' spending, the personal appeal and profile of Murphy, the excellent Democratic advertising and the fundamental competitiveness of the district - to say nothing of the popularity of both Obama and Gillibrand, and Gov. David Paterson's (D) delay in declaring the seat's vacancy - it isn't surprising that Murphy started behind but closed the gap in the race. Third, I can't see why Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine would be confident that Murphy will expand his lead. I don't know who will eventually win, but more Republican than Democratic absentee ballots have been received, according to GOP sources. Finally, the returns have something bigger to say about the political environment, and both parties have reason to take away something positive from the dead heat. Often, special elections are opportunities to send a message to the sitting president - a message of restraint and caution. We don't trust you completely, so we are sending someone of the opposition to Congress to keep an eye on you, is how I'd put it. No matter who ends up winning this race, that didn't happen in the 20th district. The president remains very popular in the district, [...]

For North Dakota's Kent Conrad, the Time Is Now

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But it's not just his chairmanship that makes North Dakota's senior Senator a key player. It's that Conrad begins with well-earned credibility as one of the Senate's true deficit hawks that allows him to take on a president of his own party, both now and later. Will Conrad continue to be a vocal critic of bigger deficits, even if it means fighting the president's agenda on global warming, health care and the financial industry? Or will he simply talk about the danger of exploding deficits while allowing deficits totaling $9.3 trillion from 2010 to 2019 - a figure that the Congressional Budget Office calculated from the administration's budget proposal? Since the budget resolution is only a blueprint, Conrad will have many opportunities to take on the White House over spending and the deficit if he so chooses. And some Democrats' willingness to consider using the reconciliation process (which requires only a bare majority, not 60 votes) to jam controversial health care and possibly global warming legislation through the Senate will give Conrad other opportunities to make a stand. The North Dakota Democrat begins with some unique qualities and assets as a possible adversary for Obama, who has his own great abilities. "Kent is a quiet, effective Member who becomes more important every day that he's there," former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) told me recently. But Breaux didn't stop there. "Republicans don't always agree with him. Democrats don't always agree with him. But Senators from both parties will tell you that they are happy that he is there. They know that he'll bring a sense of sanity to the [budgetary and legislative] process." Conrad is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable, hardest-working Senators on Capitol Hill, and he has, at least in part, moved into a role once played by Breaux: the legislative broker who tries to bring various interests together to produce a reasonable bill that can be enacted into law. Conrad, who is the only person in history to hold both of a state's Senate seats at the same time (however briefly), has been a deficit hawk since he was first sent to the Senate by North Dakota voters in 1986, when he knocked off incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews (R). He's been an advocate of balanced budgets (and pay-as-you-go rules) whether the White House was held by a Republican or a Democrat. One Republican Capitol Hill staffer who is very familiar with Conrad was nothing short of effusive in explaining the North Dakotan's skills. "Most Members will tell staff what they need and leave it to them to do the real work. Not Conrad. He sits through the negotiations. It's almost as if he does staff work in addition to a Member's work. He always has paper. He has information. He knows his stuff. And when the doors close, he cuts the deal," said the staffer. The question, of course, is whether everyone will like the deal. Republicans, in particular, were quick to criticize Conrad's version of the budget last week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama's budget "spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much" - the newest Republican refrain. But he also slammed Conrad when he complained that given "all the bipartisan praise that budget transparency received ... the Budget Committee voted to put most of the gimmicks and tricks back in." Conrad's disagreement with the Obama budget's bottom line doesn't necessarily mean that the North Dakotan disagrees with what Obama wants to accomplish. He has only suggested that he is unhappy with the cost of some of the pieces of President Obama's agenda. However, Conrad has indicated that he isn't ready to throw out procedural niceties, such as the filibuster, to accomplish big changes. Given the president's emphasis on bipartisan cooperation and changing the tone in Washington, D.C., as well as the likelihood that Republicans would go nuclear if Senate Democrats tried to use reconciliation to pass cap-and-trade legislation or even fundamental health care reform,[...]

Is the New York Race A Referendum on the Candidates or Politics?

Fri, 27 Mar 2009 00:20:00 -0600

But even some Republicans acknowledge that Tedisco, the State Assembly Minority Leader, is, as one put it, like "the old dog that can't learn new tricks." Democrats have used his lengthy record against him, portraying him as an insider and part of the problem. One Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-funded TV ad, for example, asserted that "politician Jim Tedisco" is "just another Albany politician," while a different spot attacked the Republican for collecting per diem allowances from the state even though he lives 17 miles from Albany. Democrat Scott Murphy, 39, has never run for office before and claims to have created jobs as a businessman. He worked for two Democratic governors in Missouri, but voters don't seem to care that he hasn't lived in the area as long as Tedisco. The Democrat presents himself as the candidate of change and new ideas, another not-so-subtle effort to create a contrast with his Republican opponent. Murphy stumbled out of the gate but has become a better candidate. And yet he has given Republicans openings, such as his recent comment that he opposes the death penalty even for terrorists. That view is simply out of touch with the district. And his decision to reiterate his support of the stimulus bill, even knowing that a measure to prevent bonuses for executives of companies like AIG had been removed, is a potentially serious blunder. Still, local observers note that the Midwestern Murphy may be a better fit for the northern and southern parts of the district than Tedisco, an urban ethnic politician who plays well in Schenectady and Albany - neither of which are in the 20th district - but not necessarily in the "white bread," old Yankee areas of the district. But while the candidates matter, so do the race's atmospherics, and that's where national figures and issues come into play. Polling shows Murphy doing well among independents and getting a chunk of GOP voters, a function no doubt of his outsider profile and embrace of change, jobs and Obama. Obama carried the district in 2008, and he remains popular. So is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who won it twice. She urges voters to support Murphy in a TV spot, and she will be active in get-out-the-vote efforts in the race's final days. The jobs issue is Murphy's ace in the hole. His campaign and the DCCC repeatedly emphasize the Democrat's support of the president's job creation agenda, trying to create a contrast with Tedisco. While the Republican nominee has talked about job losses and his commitment to bringing jobs to the area, nationally, the GOP still has problems convincing voters that it has a quick fix for job losses. The Republican Party's image is poor, and the national atmosphere isn't better for the party than it was in 2006 and 2008. Fundamentally, the Republican answer to all economic slowdowns and unemployment is tax cuts, and while party policy advocates may be correct that that is the best way to get the economy going and to keep it going, tax cuts simply aren't a compelling message to voters who have lost their jobs and want immediate help. The national Democratic approach is more effective, politically, right now, and Murphy seems to be reaping the benefits of that advantage. The big questions in this race, however, involve AIG, the insurance giant-turned-financial services company. Is Tedisco benefitting enough from the issue to help him win? The Republican continues to attack Murphy on that front, noting in a radio spot that began airing Tuesday that the Democrat "backs the law allowing AIG millionaires to collect outrageous bonuses" and that that's not surprising because Murphy has "approved bonuses for failing executives before in another company taxpayers helped." Insiders agree that the race is "within the margin of error," which is why both sides are so focused on turnout. A new Siena College poll expected to be released Friday could be an important indicator of how the race has moved in the campaign's final[...]

Polls, Press Releases And Partisanship: Let the Reader Beware

Tue, 24 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But if you only read about the NPR poll on the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Web site, you would have a seriously distorted view of the results of the survey. "Latest NPR Poll: Democrats Besting Republicans in National Debate on Key Budget Issues" proclaimed the headline on the Democratic firm's Web site. The report on the Web site continued by saying the poll "shows [President] Barack Obama with high overall approval ratings and strong marks on handling the economy, but much more important, Democrats winning the big debates surrounding Obama's first budget on taxes, energy, health care, and the deficit by significant margins." If you are looking for any bits of data that are more even-handed, you can find it in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner statement only if you have a powerful magnifying glass. For example, "On both energy and health care the Democratic message wins by 53 [percent] to 42 percent, a margin nearly twice the Democrats' 6-point partisan advantage." So Democrats have only a 6-point advantage? Or this: "President Obama's approval rating remains strong. Nearly six-in-ten voters (59 percent) approve of the job President Obama is doing while just 35 percent disapprove." Just 35 percent disapprove? That's a surprisingly high number compared to other polls and given the euphoria implicit in the Greenberg analysis. You would think that analysis of a survey examining the national political landscape might note prominently that the Democratic Party's 6-point advantage in party identification was down from a 10-point advantage in May 2008, the last NPR poll, or holding steady from November, when the national exit poll showed the electorate as 39 percent Democratic and 32 percent Republican. And, you might think that it's worth noting that the Congressional generic ballot in the new NPR survey showed the parties deadlocked at 42 percent, a surprising reversal from Election Day, when Democrats had a substantial advantage in ID, especially given the public's low opinion of the Republican Party. And while I wouldn't disagree with the characterization of Obama's poll numbers as "strong," NPR correspondent Mara Liasson's observation that the president's job approval is "down from the mid-60s" and "just about where the past 4 presidents have been at this point in their terms" put the numbers in a far more realistic context. The cheerleading of the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner release is all the more obvious and misleading because the NPR poll came just one day after the release of a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press national poll headlined "Obama's Approval Rating Slips Amid Division Over Economic Proposals." That Pew survey found Obama's job approval had slipped from 64 percent in February to 59 percent in March, while his disapproval rating rose from 17 percent to 26 percent. (That's not a seismic shift, but it's enough to get almost anyone's attention.) Pew's analysis accompanying the poll also noted that "the public expresses mixed views of his many major proposals to fix the economy." When I went over to the Public Opinion Strategies Web site, I found a brief item on the poll. The piece was headlined "New NPR Poll Released." No spin, no bias. The first substantive paragraph on the poll results was merely a reprint from the NPR analysis, noting that Obama's job ratings were "still high" and that among likely voters, "the Democratic position on issues was favored across the board." "Still, there's some reason for Republicans to hope," ended the paragraph. NPR's more matter-of-fact reporting and analysis - and Public Opinion Strategies' use of the NPR language - stands in stark (and welcome) contrast to Greenberg's very partisan presentation. But NPR can't be left off the hook entirely. NPR headline writers attached a curious headline to the release: "NPR Poll: More Voters Think U.S. Is On Right Track." Huh? More voters think the country is on the right track than think that it i[...]

Should Democrats Worry About Obama Disconnect in 2010?

Fri, 20 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Their fear is that even if Obama remains personally popular, voters will not look kindly on their party's candidates for Congress and governor if the economy remains weak and the public mood is sour and frightened. And even if the economy is showing signs of life, public concern over the deficit, taxes or cultural issues could drive turnout among voters wanting - you guessed it - change. The concern is well-founded, and you don't have to believe me to take this danger seriously. Here is what noted Democratic pollster/strategist Stanley Greenberg wrote in his article "The Revolt Against Politics" in the Nov. 21, 1994, issue of "The Polling Report," just two years into a Democratic president's first term and only weeks after a midterm election in which the GOP gained more than 50 House seats and won control of the House for the first time since the 1950s: "Voters this year voted against Democratic-dominated national politics that seemed corrupt, divisive and slow to address the needs of ordinary citizens. In that, they were voting their disappointment with the spectacle of a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress promising change, but seemingly unable to produce it. Many voted to change a government that spends too much and accomplishes too little, and to shift the public discourse away from big government solutions." Midterm elections are about anger, so if there isn't any, incumbents of both parties do just fine. But if there is some - watch out. Blaming the previous administration works for six months or a year, but after that, it's a much tougher sell. In focus groups in Macomb County, Mich., and Riverside, Calif., Greenberg wrote in his article, "one hears an electorate acutely conscious that the Democrats came to power promising change, but produced only turmoil." It's not hard to imagine some voters feeling that very same way next fall, especially if the Obama administration continues to spread itself so thin by dealing with an endless number of problems, yet solving none. As for the issue of corruption that Greenberg referred to in 1994, it, too, could be a problem for Democrats next year. Democratic operatives are still regurgitating old e-mails trying to hang Jack Abramoff around the necks of GOP candidates, but how will those same operatives deal with Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), John Murtha (Pa.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), all of whom have their own issues to deal with, to say nothing of the tax problems of Obama Cabinet nominees? Republicans aren't likely to give Democrats a free pass on ethics nationally. Later in his 1994 article, Greenberg made another crucial point that is certain to be applicable for 2010: "Democrats lost ground because of the composition of those who went to the polls." The makeup of the midterm electorate always differs from that in a presidential year, and next year's electorate will be less sympathetic to Obama and Democrats. The 2010 electorate is likely to be less black than was the electorate of 2008, and it's almost certain to be older. Given those factors, it's also likely to be at least a bit more Republican. Whites, who went for McCain by 55 percent to 43 percent last year, constituted 77 percent of the electorate in 2004 and only 74 percent in 2008, but they constituted 79 percent of the electorate in 2006. And people ages 18 to 29, Obama's strongest age group last year, constituted 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 17 percent in 2004, yet a mere 12 percent in 2006. One Democratic strategist told me recently that only Obama can effectively defend his performance and agenda next year, thereby boosting Democratic turnout, keeping Republicans on the defensive and saving some Democratic incumbents from defeat. That's a reasonable strategy, but not one wholly without risk. Given the president's personal qualities and communication skills, it's quite p[...]

National Mood Isn't Always Visible On the Ground

Tue, 17 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The special election in New York's 20th district has become a barnburner, with Republican Jim Tedisco holding only the slightest (and statistically insignificant) advantage over Democrat Scott Murphy in the fast-approaching March 31 special election. For Republicans, the special election to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) looks to be repeating a troubling pattern. Even though the district leans Republican, soft GOP voters who like Obama are not embracing Tedisco. Some have gravitated to Murphy, who is young, has money to put into the race and has no legislative record, while others are undecided. Tedisco has served in the state Assembly for years, and that makes him easily branded as a "typical politician," which is exactly what a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee TV ad calls him. One GOP insider whom I spoke with recently said the race "doesn't look good," in part because Murphy has been "rolling up the score" among independents. But strategists from both parties expect a close finish, and turnout, as is often the case in special elections, will determine the winner. A loss for Republicans would be demoralizing, but it could happen. At the same time that Democratic prospects in the New York special election are brightening, the party's prospects in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections later this year are dimming. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is now running behind former U.S. attorney Chris Christie, the GOP's likely nominee, in the Garden State, and tough economic conditions, which are not likely to improve in the short run, are forcing Corzine to make unappealing choices. In Virginia, the crowded race for the Democratic nomination is allowing former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell to run free and clear, and to define himself. Six months down the road, these two state races could look very different, but right now it appears unlikely that Democrats can retain both governorships. That would give Republicans something to crow about in November, and a sweep would certainly boost the GOP mood across the country heading into 2010. Republicans caught a break in Kansas when Obama selected Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) for his Cabinet. Her confirmation will virtually guarantee that Republicans will hold the open Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in order to run for governor. In Connecticut, local media continue to raise questions about Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd's past financial arrangements, and former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) is now widely expected to enter the Senate race against him. Any Senate contest in the Nutmeg State is difficult for the GOP, and Dodd is a formidable foe, even with his depressed poll numbers. Still, this Senate contest wasn't expected to be worth watching, so Dodd's electoral problems are a welcome windfall for Republicans. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is more likely than not to jump into the Senate race. Normally, the governor's office in almost any state is seen as a refuge from the partisanship of Capitol Hill. But the Sunshine State faces the same fiscal problems that other states do, and the next governor will have to make unpopular decisions. That might make the Senate look relatively appealing to Crist. In any case, Democratic recruiting for the state's Senate race has, at least so far, not been all that intimidating, leaving Republicans feeling better about their prospects of retaining retiring Sen. Mel Martinez's open seat. Ohio looks to be another dogfight, but the race took an unfortunate turn for Democrats when both Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner decided to seek the Democratic nomination. The primary could enhance the chances of former Rep. Rob Portman, the likely GOP Senate nominee. While recent developments have caused Democrats a few problems, the party has reason to feel increasingly confident about its chances [...]

Savvy Players Are Big Factor in Current Success of Democrats

Fri, 13 Mar 2009 00:20:00 -0600

Instead, there is one other Democratic advantage - and Republican shortcoming - that can't be ignored: People. Democrats simply have smarter, tougher, more cold-blooded voices in government at the moment. That hasn't always been the case, and it's certainly not inevitable. But right now, it's true. I'm not talking about the Democrats' official leaders on Capitol Hill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). Both are skilled insiders who know their caucuses and understand politics. Instead, I'm referring to a trio of Democrats in Washington, D.C., who epitomize the party's current advantage - Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who until recently served in the House as the third-ranking party leader. Republicans don't have anyone with the smarts and debating skills of Frank, who, during a TV segment, can go from examining his hands (apparently not even listening to the discussion) to eviscerating a Republican opponent with facts and his sharp wit. He can beat opponents over the head with facts when it suits him and simply overwhelm them rhetorically when facts are not on the Democrat's side. He has been doing it for more than three decades, going back to his appearances on PBS's "The Advocates." Nor do Republicans have equals to Schumer or Emanuel, who never stop trying to make life difficult for Republicans. Both men live and breathe politics - they were, after all, the architects of the historic 2006 Democratic sweep of the House and Senate majorities - and they are skilled in front of and behind the camera. They are constantly looking for new angles, issues to exploit and new ideas to pursue. Call them intense, ferocious or something worse, you get the picture. The list of Democrats who understand both politics and policy and can play both the inside game and the outside game doesn't end with those three, of course. Veterans of Capitol Hill cite other Democrats, as well, including Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.). Just as important, these smart legislators, advocates and strategists are benefitting from the support of capable like-minded people on Capitol Hill and allies off of it - including groups pushing their agendas at the state or national levels, and sympathetic bloggers who now play a role similar to what conservative talk show hosts have for years for Republicans. In an effort to resuscitate Democratic prospects in Texas, for example, Matt Angle formed the Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee that hammers Republicans whenever its get a chance, promoting strong local Democratic candidates and even bringing lawsuits. Angle, a former top aide to ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), has a few successes under his belt already, though Republicans still have the advantage in the state. Recently, the left-of-center Center for American Progress launched a "war room" that seeks to add its weight behind the White House's agenda. The great irony, of course, is that Democrats have become successful, in part, because they have adopted the strategies of Republicans that they once so reviled. Everything involves confrontation. Years ago, Democrats complained that the party had nobody who could match strategist Karl Rove or then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in sheer political calculation, or in their willingness to push - or even sometimes tear - the envelope. But now, the roles are reversed, with Republicans lacking anyone as aggressive and politically effective as Emanuel, Schumer or Frank. It would be foolish, of course, to say that Republicans have no talent in the nation's capital. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are no pushovers, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) can hold his [...]

One Thing Obama Didn't Change Is the Same Old Rhetoric

Tue, 10 Mar 2009 00:31:55 -0600

Indeed, more than 25 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1983, the Washington Post editorialized: "'Special interests' has become a central issue in the contest for the Democratic nomination, and President [Ronald] Reagan will surely make it an issue if he faces Mr. [Walter] Mondale in the general election." There are so many examples of attacks on special interests and lobbyists over the years that it's hard to select only a few examples. Here's one from the Washington Post, Jan. 31, 2004: "[John] Kerry, who did not begin his campaign with a heavy emphasis on fighting lobbyists, appears to have usurped the special interest message from [John] Edwards and [Howard] Dean over the past few months. Now, Kerry's standard campaign refrain includes this warning to the 'special interests' and their lobbyists: 'We're coming, you're going and don't let the door hit you on the way out.'" And another from the Boston Globe, Feb. 1, 2004: "Howard Dean, bolstered by a Marine Corps general and a newspaper article questioning Senator John F. Kerry's links to special interests, yesterday lam basted the Democratic front-runner as a 'special-interest clone.'" During a campaign, even Democrats accuse other Democrats of being too close to special interests. But the special interest charge is most often used by politicians in one party against politicians in the other party. For example, from the Hartford Courant, July 12, 2000: "Monday, [Vice President Al] Gore came to New Britain with a new national message, that he would 'fight for the people, not the powerful,' pledging to lead the fight against special interests." Let's not forget this one from the Washington Post, Sept. 2, 1992: "Sensitive to the danger that defending government programs before groups with whom they are popular might leave him open to charges that he is an old-fashioned Democrat responsive to special interest groups, [Bill] Clinton said [President George H.W.] Bush, not he, was the candidate of 'special interests.'" When it comes to special interests, the best defense apparently is a good offense. When someone attacks you as a tool of special interests, just turn the attack around -- even if you are one of the special interests. Consider this one from the New York Times, Jan. 28, 1984: "In a blunt, free-wheeling response to Mr. Reagan's criticism that Democratic candidates were trying to 'buy support' with promises to special interests, Mr. Mondale said, 'Nobody has served the wealthy and powerful special interests with more devotion for more years than Mr. Reagan.'" Or this doozy from Sept. 5, 1980, in the New York Times: "Lane Kirkland, the president of the [AFL-CIO], said in urging the endorsement of the President: 'Unlike President [Jimmy] Carter, Ronald Reagan is the captive of some of the most narrow special interests in this nation, and they are not about to let him go." Remember, this most recent dose of anti-special interest rhetoric comes from a president who is going to bring all of us together -- unless of course, you are part of one of the powerful special interests with entrenched lobbyists. Let's see, who exactly does that special interest label include? The National Education Association? The National Endowment for the Arts? The AFL-CIO? Planned Parenthood? AARP? General Motors? The president ought to know that we are a nation of special interests and that his stimulus package and budget reward certain interests and penalize others, sometimes in the same sector of the economy. Southern agricultural interests are often at odds with Midwest agricultural interests, just as physicians and hospitals are often at odds even though both are involved in health care. Wind power surely is as much a special interest as the large oil and gas companies. Obama is using the same bogeyman scare tactics that other politicians have used, dividing when it ser[...]

Have Republicans Found Their Floor in The House With 178?

Tue, 03 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Don't bet on it. National surveys continue to show that the damage to the Republican brand remains very real, and it will likely take the party more than a few months to turn things around. In the meantime, GOP candidate recruitment and fundraising may rebound a bit compared to the previous cycle's disastrous political environment, but probably not enough to match Democratic efforts in both categories this year and next. Does that mean that Democrats could increase their numbers in the House in next year's midterm balloting? It's not impossible, but it certainly seems unlikely. Republicans added House seats in four straight elections from 1914 to 1920, and Democrats gained House seats in four consecutive elections a decade after the GOP streak, in 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936. Much more recently, Democrats gained seats in three elections in a row from 1986 to 1990 and again from 1996 to 2000. But in both recent cases, their gains in each year were in the single digits, a far cry from the substantial gains that House Democrats made during the last two election cycles. The last time one party had two big Congressional elections in a row (net gains of at least 20 seats each time), it gave back considerable ground in the following election. Republicans gained 28 seats in 1950 and 22 seats in 1952, but in 1954, Democrats picked up 19 seats to win back control of the House after two years in the minority. Since Democrats gained 30 seats in 2006 and 21 in 2008, they now hold more than a few GOP-leaning districts, making them susceptible to a Republican snapback. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insists that it gained 23 seats in 2008 because it includes special election victories held between the 2006 and 2008 general elections.) That doesn't mean that the DCCC doesn't have several interesting opportunities this cycle, only that their opportunities are fewer and that sitting GOP incumbents have demonstrated some level of acumen by surviving elections where many of their colleagues went down to defeat. Still, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has some targets to shoot at, including GOP open seats and Republican incumbents who won narrowly in the previous cycle but could be vulnerable to a stiffer challenge. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R), who upset then-Rep. William Jefferson (D) in Louisiana's 2nd district, obviously looks like a juicy target. Given the large majority of Democratic and black voters in the district, Cao's seat should be an easy takeover for the DCCC. Elsewhere, Democrats are hoping that GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) give up their House seats to make statewide bids. They are also hoping that Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) will finally call it quits and retire, and that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) will either retire or run for the Senate. Open seats in any of those districts would create real Democratic opportunities. California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert's surprisingly narrow win in 2008 obviously makes him a target, though his district certainly continues to lean Republican. And Republicans such as Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Erik Paulsen (Minn.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Leonard Lance (N.J.) Henry Brown (S.C.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.), all of whom had close contests last year, have to prepare for another possible Democratic assault. Finally, DCCC automated telephone calls into districts currently held by GOP Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.), Judy Biggert (Ill.) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) reflect Democratic strategists' views that those districts are either already Democratic enough or are becoming Democratic enough to present the party with new opportunities. But while Democrats still have opportunities in 2010, Republicans, on the defensive for the past two cycles, finally should have more. The upcoming special ele[...]

If This Is Bank Nationalization, It's Not What Marx Meant

Fri, 27 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Socialism involves an economic system defined by state ownership of the means of production, not a brief government investment in a failing bank with the full intention of returning the bank to profitability and a return to private ownership. Unfortunately, too many in the media have been throwing around the term "nationalization." For some, it's an effort to frighten viewers and rally conservatives for whom the word nationalization evokes images of Latin American leftists or the Soviet Union. For others, I suspect, use of the term is merely the latest example of the national media's reliance on hype and hyperbole, whether to attract viewers or inflate the importance of the latest topic du jour. While some elected officials, including a Republican or two, have employed the term nationalization, most wisely have not. Most Democrats, including those at the White House, have run as far and as fast from "nationalization" of the banking industry as they possibly can. And those who do raise the prospect of the government increasing its role in the industry (usually by investing in a troubled bank and taking back either preferred or common stock) talk about only those banks in the worst shape, not the entire industry and not permanently. I did a search of available transcripts on LexisNexis to see how various television programs and major newspapers discussed potential additional U.S. government investment in selected banks (which could ultimately lead to government ownership and control of some of those banks), and discovered some considerable differences in coverage. The worst coverage, not surprisingly, came from non-journalists on TV: Glenn Beck on Fox and Jack Cafferty on CNN. (I found no transcripts from "O'Reilly Factor" or Hannity on Fox or the liberal shows on MSNBC, so I can thankfully ignore them for the moment.) Beck's show on Feb. 16 threw "nationalization" and "socialism" around without caution or definition, making no distinction between weak banks such as Citibank and Bank of America and stronger banks such as JPMorgan Chase. "I'm concerned about a couple of things of the nationalization of banks. ... Is anybody bothered that the United States government will be controlling all of our finances?" Beck asked, choosing to paint with a fire hose rather than a brush. Cafferty poses questions to viewers on the "Situation Room," and on Feb. 18 his question was, "Is it time for the U.S. to nationalize its banks?" No modifiers. No distinctions between banks that have value (and therefore presumably would require compensation to stockholders if they were expropriated by the federal government) and those that are insolvent. At the other extreme of the coverage were two programs on public ("nationalized"?) TV, "The Charlie Rose Show" and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Rose's show of Feb. 18 was a model of thoughtfulness and context. On that program, Columbia Business School economist Frederic Mishkin distinguished between "bad nationalization," which he argued involves government owning and running banking institutions, and "good nationalization," which involves distinguishing "institutions that have enough capital" to prosper from those that "are just not viable." Good nationalization requires selling off the assets of the bad banks before getting them "into private hands as quickly as you possibly can," he said. Most of the show transcripts I found that dealt with the banking crisis fell somewhere between the two extremes. On Feb. 20 on MSNBC's "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," host David Shuster commented about "this potential bank nationalization," but NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd ended the back-and-forth by wisely pointing out that "the entire banking system is not going to be nationalized." PBS' "Nig[...]

Are Republicans Ready To Mount a Comeback In the Northeast?

Tue, 24 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Democrats also hold nine of the region's 12 Senate seats and hope to pick up a 10th in New Hampshire next year. In the Mid-Atlantic, things aren't much better for Republicans. New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland each send two Democrats to the Senate, while Pennsylvania has one Democrat and one Republican, Arlen Specter - who is a top Democratic target in 2010. The GOP controls the Pennsylvania state Senate, but Democrats have a majority in each of the region's other legislative chambers. In the House, Republicans hold only one of Maryland's eight districts, five of New Jersey's 13 districts and just three of New York's 29 districts. The GOP holds all of Delaware's (OK, it's just one), but only seven of Pennsylvania's 19 House seats. And in the 12 states in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the GOP holds just three governorships: Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont. But 2010 could be the start of a comeback for the GOP in the Northeast, in part because the party suffered such complete devastation that a bit of a rebound seems close to inevitable. First, two of the party's three governors are eligible to seek re-election, and Jim Douglas in Vermont and Jodi Rell in Connecticut are expected to do so. Rell is wildly popular and a solid favorite for another term, while Douglas is a more narrow favorite. The GOP is likely to lose the Rhode Island governorship after holding it, somewhat surprisingly, for 16 years in a row. But Pennsylvania's open governorship offers the GOP an excellent opportunity for a takeover, and Republicans may even be competitive in the race for Maine's open governorship. In New York, Republican Jim Tedisco is favored to win appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D) open Congressional seat, adding to the GOP ranks in the state. Businessman Richard Hanna (R) came within an eyelash of upsetting Rep. Michael Arcuri (D) in November, and Republicans are certain to make another run at the two-term Democrat next year. Assemblyman Greg Ball (R) is entering the race in New York's 19th district (which stretches from Westchester almost to Poughkeepsie), giving the party a credible nominee against two-term Rep. John Hall (D) in a GOP-leaning district, and if the party can recruit a strong challenger to Rep. Eric Massa in the 29th district, the freshman Democrat could have major problems. In statewide contests, Gillibrand could face a nasty Senate primary, as could Gov. David Paterson (D), giving Republicans two opportunities. The Democratic nominees would be favored in both races, but a strong GOP bid in either contest would boost party morale, helping further recruitment down the road and down the ballot. In New Jersey, polling shows the favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie, being a formidable opponent for Gov. Jon Corzine (D) later this year, especially given the state's economic problems. In Connecticut, Sen. Chris Dodd (D) suddenly looks weaker than ever, primarily because of allegations that he benefited from special treatment given to him by mortgage lender Countrywide Financial. Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) is considering a run, and while he would be an underdog, he would at the very least be the most formidable GOP Senate candidate in Connecticut since Lowell Weicker in 1988. If the National Republican Congressional Committee can recruit state Sen. John McKinney, 44, to run against freshman Rep. Jim Himes (D) in Connecticut's 4th district, the GOP would also have a top-tier contest in the state. McKinney, the youngest child of former Rep. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), is in his fifth term in the state Senate, where he is Minority Leader. Republicans will make major efforts to win back Maryland's 1st district and Pennsylvania's 10th -[...]

Optimism About Obama Is the Only Optimism Out There

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 00:43:25 -0600

A Feb. 7-8 CNN/Opinion Research survey found Americans see the president as a strong leader who so far has done a good job handling foreign policy, policies on terrorism and the economy. Even though the public is worried about the future, they like Obama and have confidence in him. Polls also show more people are upbeat about the future. A Feb. 9-12 Research 2000 poll for the liberal Democratic Web site Daily Kos showed 35 percent of respondents saying the country is headed in the right direction -- a significant increase from the 26 percent who gave the same answer in early January. CBS News surveys also found an uptick in sentiment from December (12 percent "right direction") to early February (23 percent "right direction"). But optimism about the president and his economic agenda seems to be based solely on his communication skills, his personal appeal and the public's hope for a turnaround. When Obama promised an audience in Peoria, Ill., last week that "once Congress passes this [stimulus] plan, and I sign it into law, a new wave of innovation, activity and construction will be unleashed all across America," he was merely cheerleading. In fact, nobody knows if that is true. The stimulus package is something of a crapshoot, and whether it will work or ultimately add to the nation's woes is a mystery. Other than among Democrats who are delivering the party's "message," pessimism abounds about the economy. Even Obama, during last week's press conference, asserted that the country was in a "full-blown crisis," echoing his previous warnings since he won the presidency in November. Indeed, that assessment is the basis for his insistence on quick passage of a stimulus bill. The ABC News Consumer Comfort Index hit a 23-year low in early February. Over four weeks ending Feb. 8, 2009, only 4 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed rated the U.S. economy positively, while 96 percent rated it negatively. Unemployment continues to rise (with almost 600,000 jobs lost last month), and nobody expects that to change anytime soon. Nobody knows how high it will go, but with additional layoffs announced virtually every day, it looks certain to climb from its current 7.6 percent rate to well over the 8 percent mark soon. Many think unemployment will continue to rise at least into the fourth quarter of this year and probably into early 2010. The stock market continues to tank. Yes, it has its up moments (the Dow Jones industrial average almost made up a 246-point drop in the final 60 minutes of trading on Thursday), but the Dow continues to flirt with the 7,800 level, and it is difficult to find veteran stock pickers who are recommending many stocks at the moment. Caution remains the word. At his press conference last week, Obama had assured viewers that "my Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again," but most Wall Street observers found Geithner's presentation neither clear nor specific. Indeed, on CNBC on Thursday afternoon, veteran watchers of the economy and stock market concluded that Wall Street "has lost confidence in Timothy Geithner" just a few weeks into his tenure and just days after his widely panned financial rescue program was released. All of this means that the public's honeymoon with Obama is alive and well and likely to last for an extended period, but that not everyone in the public eye will be so lucky. The underlying weakness in the economy, and the crucial growing pessimism both in financial circles and the country at large, will certainly take a political toll on some officeholders in the near term. The public will want its scapegoat before the end of the year if no economic tu[...]

First Impressions of The '10 Candidates Making the Rounds

Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

My first meeting of the year (and the cycle) was with Kinzinger, and to be totally honest, I was dreading it. Another Iraq War veteran running for Congress? Oh, brother. Given the track records of veterans who have nothing else on their résumés, I wasn't optimistic. Then I saw Kinzinger. I thought he looked old enough to vote, but I wasn't sure. But I shouldn't have been filled with such dread. Kinzinger may not win a seat in Congress in 2010, but he certainly doesn't deserve to be kicked to the curb, either. Kinzinger, 30, is a personable Air Force pilot who was elected to the McLean County Board in 1998 and was re-elected four years later. He resigned from the board during that term when he went on active military duty. Last cycle, after GOP nominee Tim Baldermann dropped out of the Illinois Congressional race, Kinzinger indicated his interest in replacing Baldermann on the ballot. But party leaders instead chose Marty Ozinga, a multimillionaire businessman whom GOP strategists expected to write a big check to fund his bid. He didn't, and Halvorson crushed him, 58 percent to 35 percent, in November. Kinzinger is putting together a campaign team, and he says former Rep. Tom Ewing (R-Ill.) - who represented an adjoining district - is supporting him. Kinzinger is young, likable and has some political savvy. Of course, he's a long shot, and a more experienced, well-heeled GOP candidate could eclipse him. But for a first interview, he didn't do badly. Cox is a different story. I'd met him before, and I already knew that he was a likable sort who held one of his state's top elective posts. He's unquestionably a top-tier hopeful. Cox is finishing his second term as state attorney general, an office that he first won six years ago when its previous occupant, Granholm, was elected governor. A former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County (Detroit), he faces a potentially crowded multicandidate GOP primary that could include Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, among others. Cox, who more than three years ago admitted he had an extramarital affair, raised money for Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) recent presidential bid. He has already retained Public Opinion Strategies' Neil Newhouse as his pollster. The conservative Cox definitely looks like a serious contender for the GOP nomination and for the Michigan governorship, given the state's economic problems and Granholm's less-than-sterling performance. Candidate No. 3 was Andal, who drew 45 percent in losing to McNerney in Northern California. Andal hasn't decided whether to run again, though it's clear that he places the blame for his loss on his party. GOP registration in the district shrunk over the past few years, turning a Republican-leaning district into a tossup. Given President Barack Obama's strength at the top of the ticket last year, Andal got buried. Andal's message is clear: The landscape in the district needs to move back toward where it was just a couple of years ago before any Republican will be able to oust McNerney from the seat. Finally, I met Hedrick, who came within 6,047 votes (and 2 points) of upsetting Calvert. A former classroom teacher who now is president of the local teachers' association, he spent less than $200,000 to get 48.8 percent of the vote, relying entirely on volunteers and door-to-door grass-roots efforts. Hedrick is a serious, committed man who is refreshingly candid and displays a surprisingly good understanding of campaigns. He received little or no help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last time, and even potential allies ignored his race. Nobody believed he could defeat Calvert or even get close. That includes me. [...]

This Can't Be What Obama, Pelosi and Reid Expected

Mon, 09 Feb 2009 00:34:58 -0600

However, Democrats shouldn't overreact to their current problems, which range from the party's handling of the economic stimulus bill to the tax problems of some of the president's Cabinet nominees. Even with all of their party's recent stumbles, the president and Congressional Democrats will end up looking pretty good if the economy rebounds and Americans start to feel better about things. It's the results that matter, even if the process was part stumbling and part bumbling. But Democrats also shouldn't delude themselves that they merely were too low-key for too long in pushing their economic plan and that if only they were louder, they wouldn't have encountered any problems. In this fight, Democrats aren't the only ones with a potentially appealing message. They miscalculated if they believed that they could easily pass an $800 billion or $900 billion bill merely by pointing to the current state of the economy and gloomy forecasts of the future. That might well have been enough to get a bill to the president's desk if Congressional Republicans had simply rolled over, but this time the GOP didn't. Instead, Republicans -- aided by a handful of Democrats who are worried about some of the spending items -- have succeeded in redefining the bill from one that will jump-start the economy by creating jobs and helping people deal with the housing crisis to one that is an ideological Christmas tree that doesn't put people to work, help them pay their mortgages or resuscitate the economy. By focusing on computers for the Department of Agriculture, new energy-efficient cars for the government and money for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Washington, D.C., sewer system, Republicans have defined the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan as benefiting bureaucrats and other government employees, not the average American. On Thursday night, at the House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va., President Barack Obama began his counterattack, arguing that millions of more Americans will lose their jobs if his economic recovery program is not passed quickly. He may be right, but Republicans have an easy answer: Spending $198 million to compensate Filipino veterans who fought in World War II, or $2 million to train Native Americans to become plumbers and pipefitters, or $150 million for renovations to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, or even $3.26 billion for the Western Area Power Administration won't strike most voters as the kind of spending that will help rescue the economy from recession. Yes, the dollar figures for some of these items are trivial, but they provide plenty of fodder for critics of the overall package. The Democrats' fundamental problem is that while Americans like the country's new president and, so far, think that he is doing a good job, they continue to have significant doubts about Congress and are disinclined to believe that Washington always has their best interest at heart. That means that Republican complaints about Democratic priorities find a receptive audience, at least as long as GOP legislators can point to specific items in the bill that will strike voters as not addressing the nation's short-term economic problems. The fight over the economic stimulus bill raises questions about how the president will deal with House and Senate Democrats over the long haul. No matter what happens with the stimulus bill -- and some sort of bill is certain to be signed into law sooner or later -- the debate over spending has exposed divisions within the Democratic Party. Democrats would be wise to remember that they have plenty of time until the 2010 elections to achieve many of their goals and that those electi[...]