“Face to Face” between Steve Clemons and Norm Ornstein on 2006 Race in <em>Washington Examiner</em>


What follows below (this is pdf) ran in today’s local Washington Examiner, which has a surprisingly strong roster of diverse op-ed writers producing good content.
For some bizarre reason, however, the Examiner is completely failing to link any of this great content to its webpage. Thus, I reprint the full exchange between Norm Ornstein and myself (with permission).
Actually, both of us answered these questions blind without hearing or knowing what the other said.

Washington Examiner — 22 March 2006
(article pdf with graphics)
Steven Clemons is senior fellow & director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
1.) Many think that the political landscape is ripe for Democratic gains in the 2006 midterm elections. Is this excitement too optimistic?

Clemons: If you just look at approval ratings for the President and the Republican Party in general, chances are high that Democrats will surge in both chambers of Congress if not take the helm of at least the House in the next election.
Many conservatives and centrist independents feel that the country is caught in a nasty quagmire in Iraq and that the mystique of American power has been punctured — that America has shown its financial and military limits in a wrong-headed venture abroad. Showing limits is something conservatives never want to do; they don’t want to be out on a limb in risky conditions. They see potential enemies like Iran pushing their agendas and allies not counting on us as much. They see a vacuum in American leadership on the economy with no convincing plan regarding renewed investment in education, in technology, or in some galvanizing grand national purpose. Americans increasingly worry that America’s $300 billion price tag on Iraq has undermined our ability to spend on what we need at home. They see a presidency that cares about tax cuts during a time of enormous challenge to the nation, and this just doest not compute for many folks.
Ornstein: The odds are very, very strong that Democrats will gain seats in 2006. One part is the historical pattern; the president’s party almost always loses seats in the second midterm of a two-term presidency. That is not random; six years into a presidency, fatigue sets in, along with disillusionment by the party base, a scandal (think Sherman Adams, Watergate, Iran/Contra, Monica, and now Abramoff/Plame,) and often serious divisions between a president and his party’s Congressional team. Add to all of that an unpopular and difficult war, and the problems flowing from Katrina, the rollout of the Medicare prescription drug plan, wiretapping and the ports, and it would be stunning if the Democrats did not pick up a bunch of seats.
Of course, they are Democrats…To be sure, contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats do not need a full-blown alternative program. When people are furious with the party that holds the reins of power, the most important thing for the minority or opposition party is to be there standing when voters decide to throw the bums out (and when unhappy partisans on the other side decide to sit on their hands come election time. The second most important thing is to join together to force the majority to make its policies with its own representatives — at a time when that is a very difficult thing for them to do. The third thing is to come up with some kind of plan to show that if you do get back in power, you know what to do to help Americans and America.

2.) What obstacles stand in the way of a Democratic takeover of the House? The Senate?

Clemons: The biggest obstacle that may get in the way of political change is an inability of Democratic leadership to coalesce around a set of messages that are coherent, compelling, and attractive to voters. They are trying to hug the rank and file military in the Pentagon as well as frustrated CIA officers — whom Democrats suggest are just victims of their Republican-appointed overseers — and be tougher than President Bush on security concerns as we just saw in their reaction to the Dubai Ports deal.
But Democrats are not talking about contingencies in the future and how we should reorganize military resources to meet these challenges. Domestically, the Democrats don’t have a plan not only embarrasses the current leadership for mistakes but puts better ideas about public policy on the table.
Ornstein: First, there are structural problems. There are simply not very many truly competitive House seats, perhaps 35 (about a third the number that existed in 1994). More are in Republican hands than with Democrats, but the reality is that to win the 15 seats necessary to get to 218, Democrats have to hold nearly all their own vulnerable seats and win three-fourths of the GOP’s. Given the small numbers, each party can pour tons of money into the competitive campaigns, making a sweep of the table even more difficult. In the Senate, the key issue is which third of the seats are up in a given election. This time, the mix favors Republicans, with only 14 seats to defend compared to 19 for the Democrats. Democrats need a net gain of six to make a majority there — meaning they have to hold all 19 of their own and win nearly half the GOP seats. Everything would have to break their way to make that happen.

3.) What political and campaign strategies do you expect to emerge from Republicans in order to blunt electoral defeat in the fall?

Clemons: The Republicans will keep up a high-fear drumbeat. They will argue that America did not ask to be attacked, that these are times of crisis that called for the type of bold action that is a rare commodity in Democratic circles. They will highlight the inchoateness of the Democratic message. They will argue that the Democratic leadership is out of touch with their base. But when all else fails, Republicans will try to distract voters. If national security is not working, then launch a debate on abortion rights. If abortion is flagging as a topic, then pull out gay marriage. If that grows stale, then gin up the China challenge and the importance of national security investments. And if that doesn’t work, accuse the Democrats of not doing more to keep America safe.
Ornstein: I expect Republicans again to play the national security card, but it has gone from an ace in the hole to perhaps a six or seven of clubs. At the same time, I expect Republicans to do whatever they can to excite their base and underscore the differences between the parties– that means playing their other major hole card, the social issues. So we will likely hear a lot about flag burning, gay marriage, abortion and prayer in the schools.

— Steve Clemons