Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, July 1, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: There was discussion of the state of the Republican Party – and the word is that it’s not good. Senator Richard Lugar withdrew his support for the president’s policy in Iraq and was joined quickly by Senator John Warner. On “The Chris Matthews Show,” Joe Klein said ‘We’re seeing the collapse of the center of the Republican Party.’ He’s echoed by Andrea Mitchell with ‘The center will not hold.’ Add to the mix the failure of the immigration bill to pass and essentially Bush’s domestic policy agenda is dead in the water. Of course, there’s the Supreme Court, the one seemingly positive note for Bush. How would you characterize what’s going on in the Republican Party?
Newman: Bush was barely elected, with the right-wing playing a major role, eight years ago. He adopted a foreign policy which has failed. He’s accomplished some things that the Right feels good about, largely having to do with the Court. He’s continued and expanded Clintonian policies which are pro-big business. And so the party is divided. There seems to me nothing particularly unlawful here, and nothing that’s terribly interesting. What is interesting is how the American people have responded to the overall situation in the country, where they seem to be leaning in a more pro-progressive direction. The American people don’t like partisan politics – that’s clear from all the polls. But, it’s not yet clear whether they’ll vote for or support nonpartisan politics. That’s the interesting question. I don’t think all that much has happened with respect to the Republican Party.
Salit: That’s an interesting observation, but you’d get a lot of push back on that. When Tim Russert opened up his “Meet the Press” panel by raising the impact of the immigration vote on Bush – only 12 Republican Senators voted with him – Tavis Smiley said ‘Forget about Bush. It’s not about Bush. The issue is not Bush. The issue is the Republican Party and what you have here is a Republican Party that is in a state of dissolution.’ His argument is that the Republicans are less and less cohesive and less in a position to offer an alternative to the Democratic Party in 2008. In your response to my first question, you said that this aspect of the story doesn’t particularly interest you. What you find interesting is where the American people are moving; that they’re making clear statements about opposition to partisanship but it’s not clear whether they’re going to support nonpartisan politics. So, let me break this down into two parts: Do you think the Republican Party is losing its competitive edge and, if so, how does that impact on the American people’s general move in the direction of nonpartisanship?
Newman: I don’t think the Republican Party is losing its competitive edge.
Newman: Relative to a party framework, the country has been divided roughly 50/50, depending on the state, depending on local particulars, and so forth. Has that changed dramatically? I don’t think so.
Salit: Well, to go to your point, even in the 2006 midterm shift, the congressional seats that changed hands shifted by slim majorities in almost all cases.
Newman: Relative to party politics, that’s the best way of understanding what’s going on. Relative to what’s happening historically, I think there’s strong evidence that Americans are very unhappy with the way Washington operates and with the way the parties operate. The question remains – and we don’t know the answer to this – what are the people going to do about that? It’s not easy to do anything about it, given that the political structure is set up as a party system, as we well know, one that is party-controlled and party-regulated. Can the American people find a way to move beyond that or despite that? I don’t know. That’s the question on the agenda. The pundits, by and large, don’t want to talk about that.
Salit: The way they do talk about it is the way they did in the final segment on “The McLaughlin Group” – by discussing a Bloomberg candidacy and how that might affect the major parties.
Newman: Yes, exactly right. Their question is how might Bloomberg, who is now seen as not associated with a party, impact on party politics. They’re not looking at the question of whether Bloomberg could give sufficient expression to the disenchantment with party politics to truly attract the American people and to help them create a force which could deal with party-dominated politics. I don’t know if Bloomberg is going to run. I don’t know if he wants to run. And, if he does run, I don’t know that he’s going to direct his attention to that ongoing movement, that social force which creates him. There’s a tendency for that not to happen. There’s a tendency for a wealthy guy like Michael Bloomberg to pick up on what’s happening, but to discard the relationships that connect him to what’s happening, even though that is what makes him a viable candidate.
Salit: One of the few political reporters interested in the connection between Bloomberg and the independent movement is the New York Observer’s Azi Paybarah. I’ll give him credit for that, even if he did call me your “sidekick.” All these years, I thought you were my sidekick. I found it kind of charming, though. The panel on Russert’s show got into a discussion about some of the dynamics inside the Democratic primary. In particular, they discussed the black vote and the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Smiley moderated a PBS forum last week where all the Democratic candidates appeared, which focused on “black issues.” He ran a focus group after the forum, and of the 30 people who participated in the focus group, which was multi-racial, the majority had gone into the evening with a predisposition towards Obama, but came out of the evening feeling that Hillary had won the debate, that Hillary was a more persuasive representative of their views and their sensibilities. Nationally, Hillary is polling ahead among black voters, though in some key states, like South Carolina, Obama is ahead.
Newman: And in money raising, Obama is ahead.
Salit: Yes, in money raising Obama is ahead and it looks like he’s going to come in with over $30 million for his 2nd quarter total. One of the “Meet the Press” panelists said that Clinton is running her campaign at 70 miles an hour and Obama is running his campaign at 50 miles an hour. He observed, at some point, the Obama people are going to have to speed up. Let me ask you to put yourself inside the head of the Obama camp. How does the Obama camp read their own situation?
Newman: They read it one of two ways, it seems to me. Option #1: they’re saying that Obama is a young man and they’re not going to do anything to take away from Obama’s long-term capacity for winning the presidency as a Democrat. So they’re playing it conservatively for that reason. They think that the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she might be, is going to be elected.
Salit: So run this race without creating enemies inside the Democratic Party. Meaning, don’t get the Clintons mad at you.
Newman: Yes. Or, Option #2: they’re thinking (and they’re probably thinking some of both) that if someone’s going 70 mph in front of you and you’re going 50 mph, it doesn’t take a huge amount of additional pressure on the gas pedal to catch up. Maybe they’re looking for the right time to apply that pressure. The primary season hasn’t begun yet so it’s all polls and speculation. Nobody’s cast any votes. Maybe they’re waiting to see how the voting looks early on in order to make the decision between those two courses of action.
Salit: How’s the Hillary camp thinking about this picture?
Newman: They’re thinking what they’ve always been thinking. It’s her race to lose. Their greatest concern remains what it’s always been. Namely, there appears to be a ceiling on her popularity.
Salit: You still have 52% saying they would not vote for Hillary under any circumstances.
Newman: They’re concerned with that. I don’t think they’re unduly concerned with Bloomberg unless and until he makes a move. They’re looking to maintain their position at the top of the poll rankings in the Democratic primary. And they’re biding their time. They’re hoping she can hang in there. She doesn’t have to do anything except maintain her position, both quantitatively and qualitatively. She’s doing that. She’s not raising as much money as Obama, but she doesn’t need to raise as much money as Obama.
Salit: If Obama raises more money than she does and gets bigger applause when he enters rooms like at Tavis Smiley’s PBS forum, but she stays ahead in the polls and she doesn’t make mistakes and she performs strongly in the debates, that’s a good pictures for her.
Newman: The Clinton set-up is that Obama and/or another contender – Bloomberg as an independent or whomever – has to make a move. If they don’t, I think she’s going to comfortably sail home at 70 mph, with Obama not having gotten into high gear. But 50 is not that far from 70. You have to realize that. One move changes the dynamics of who’s in front.
Salit: When you say that it only takes one move to go from 50 to 70, what does making that move look like?
Newman: It looks like taking on Clintonism. It’s taking on, from a historical perspective, the Clinton/Bush years and how voting to go back to Clinton is not moving forward. It’s taking that on directly in the Democratic primary. Will Obama do that? He has to be analyzing and considering the relative weight of that. Even if Hillary wins the primary, and then wins the election, and serves eight years, he’s only in his 50’s when she’s done. And then it’s his turn.
Salit: One factor is whether Obama gets sufficient heat from other black leaders to make a move on the Clintons. Al Sharpton, New York State Senator Bill Perkins and Lenora Fulani discussed this issue on Sharpton’s “Hour of Power” radio show on Sunday night and they each said Obama needed to do that. But, back to the Sunday morning shows. The discussion about the fallout from the defeat of the immigration bill included the impact on Hispanic voters in America. Russert put up statistics from a survey on Hispanic political self-identification. The survey showed 58% self-identifying as Democrats, 22% self-identifying as independents and 20% self-identifying as Republicans. Something to observe about that, obviously, is that independents are second behind the Democrats, so independent alignment is gaining ground. The Republican Party has been competing for support in the Hispanic community and there were some Republicans, including Bush, who were strong proponents of building that coalition. Somebody remarked on the show today that the Bush brand of Republicanism is popular with Hispanics, but Republicanism in general is not, and that the failure to pass immigration reform basically takes the Republican Party out of the competition.
Newman: Following on what you are saying, I think the question becomes can the independent voice on these questions – immigration and other issues that impact the Hispanic community – become louder? Can that voice become more significant so as to cut more and more into that 50-odd percent that support the Democrats? That’s the positive question. Can that be done in the context of a two-party arrangement which makes it more and more difficult for independents to have a voice? I think the poll numbers indicate that’s not going to happen overnight. This is a long-term situation. I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact on ’08, unless there’s an outspoken independent voice with a connection to the Latino community who does give expression to that. Independents have to distinguish themselves not only from Republicans – that’s relatively easy – but from the elements of the Democratic Party that are holding onto this issue as their own. Is that going to happen? Unlikely, unless there’s a strong independent voice who speaks directly to the Latino community.
Salit: Finally, let’s talk about the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation and the Court’s overall record this year. This is the Bush Court. This is the conservative Court. This is the Court that the conservative movement wanted. There were a lot of very, very strong and emotional denunciations from the civil rights community relative to the decision on school desegregation.
Newman: It’s all “I told you so” talk.
Newman: It all happened before this ruling came out. There was no shock in that decision.
Salit: Should progressives be panicked by this? That seems to be the message that is coming from the liberal side.
Newman: No. The country remains split in the ways I described before. The Court had been identified as essentially a liberal Court for more than a generation but is no longer identifiable as such. It’s now a center/right Court and so that cycle is going to play out. But, I think what’s required to change that is an ongoing fight.
Salit: Yes, and not just to change the nature of the Court, but the political environment in which the court is operating.
Newman: Yes. The nature of that fight depends, in large measure, on how well organized the voice of the independents becomes. That’s where the fight’s going to be taking place.
Salit: Thanks, Fred.
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