Election ’94: What’s at stake? — with Norman Ornstein (1994) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. The November elections are just around the
corner, and it seems the Republicans have the Democrats on the ropes and that challengers
have incumbents in a corner. How come? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Norman Ornstein, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute and coeditor
of the just released “Congress, the Press, and the Public”; Catherine Rudder, executive
director of the American Political Science Association; Larry Sabato, professor of political
science at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book “Corrupt
Campaigning”; and Eddie Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic
Studies. The topic before this house: election 1994. What’s at stake? This week on “Think Tank.” Just two years ago, Bill Clinton and the Democratic
Congress were riding high; today, they are very worried. Congress is extremely unpopular and so is
the president. Why? Republicans point to broken presidential campaign
promises and vacillation, as well as to a series of mini-scandals in the Clinton administration. Democrats blame intense partisanship by obstructionist
Republicans for the sour public mood. Whatever the explanation, incumbent politicians
of all stripes are running scared, especially congressional Democrats. Today, there are 178 Republicans and 256 Democrats
in the House of Representatives. If the Democrats should lose 40 seats, something
analysts is say is unlikely but possible, then Republicans would be in the majority
for the first time since 1952 — more than 40 years ago. In the Senate Republicans need to win seven
seats in order to gain a majority, and even if the Democrats lose fewer than 40 seats,
the ideological center of the House will almost surely shift somewhat to the right. An incumbent president’s party usually does
badly in midterm elections, especially when the president is unpopular, and President
Clinton is unpopular. Since the beginning of this year, Clinton’s
approval rating has dropped from 54 percent to 39 percent as of mid-September 1994. It is unclear how much of a boost in popularity,
if any, he’ll get for averting an invasion of Haiti or for how long it may last. But what the Republicans are really counting
on is the widespread dissatisfaction with incumbents. Look at this: In a recent poll, only 25 percent
of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job, while 63 percent disapprove. At the same time, when voters were asked,
“Have most members of Congress done a good enough job to deserve reelection, or is it
time to give new people a chance?” 78 percent of Americans said that it’s time
to replace Congress with new people. Our first question today, Norm Ornstein. Is the mood of this country now to throw the
rascals out? Norman Ornstein: The mood is to throw the
rascals out generally. The public anger is real. The trick is to figure out whether on November
8 that anger will be boiling over, which will mean bodies of incumbents littered all over
the political battlefield, or just simmering, which will mean elections like 1990 and ’92,
where you get a lot of change but not the dramatic change. One thing is certain, though, Ben, and that
is that we’re going to have a lot of the political equivalent of drive-by shootings
this time, as happened to Mike Synar of Oklahoma, a very respected and tough fellow who lost
in a primary runoff earlier this week. We’re going to see more of those. We’re going to see surprises. People are going to lash out. Ben Wattenberg: Eddie Williams, Norman Ornstein
says drive-by shootings. Is that what you see? Is there going to be a big swing here? Are people angry? Eddie Williams: The people are angry, and
they’re very upset. And I suggest that many of the candidates,
however, are likely to adjust to the public mood. Therefore, I think the Democrats will lose
some seats, but they will not lose control of the House or the Senate. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Larry Sabato? Larry Sabato: Well, Ben, on average in a first
midterm election of a new presidency you have 13 or 14 seats lost by the president’s party
in the House; you have one or two Senate seats lost. I think this year the Republicans will do
substantially better than that, perhaps doubling the norm, and that’s partly because this
year, like some previous midterm years, it’s becoming a referendum on the incumbent president
and incumbent president is unpopular. Ben Wattenberg: Catherine Rudder? Catherine Rudder: Well, I think the public
is certainly angry. But I don’t think it necessarily plays out
in the election. If you take a look at the number of incumbents
who’ve lost in primaries, while there’s been a big surprise as Norm mentioned specifically
in the case of Mike Synar, there are only four — four of the incumbents have lost
in primaries. So for an angry electorate it seems to me
it doesn’t necessarily — it has not so far played out in the way one might have expected. Ben Wattenberg: Larry Sabato, you seemed to
indicate that there was a possibility that this election could be nationalized — I
mean, that the Republicans could make one central issue or several central issues. Is that — I mean, you know, Tip O’Neill’s
famous statement is “all politics are local.” How do you square that? Larry Sabato: I think they’re both local
and national, and we’ve seen other cases of this. The Democrats did it in 1982 — Reagan’s
first midterm election — when we were in a very serious recession. They were able to make the performance of
the national administration on the economy the central issue and pick up 26 seats. So this is hardly unprecedented. But clearly Clinton is the issue in a lot
of districts, in a lot of states. That doesn’t mean that the incumbents won’t
be able to get around it. Many of them will. They’re very agile politicians. They wouldn’t be in Congress if they weren’t. Norman Ornstein: You know, Ben, the biggest
— the single biggest national effect that you get in a midterm election is people who
are angry tend to turn out; people who are not happy, but basically conflicted Democrats
may well sit this one out and stay home. But there are a couple of things to remember
that mitigate against a kind of dramatic partisan switch in the House. In 1982, as Larry mentioned, the pendulum
swung back after a big swing in the previous election. In 1980, Republicans picked up 33 seats in
the House with the Reagan landslide. They lost back 26 of those the next time. The pendulum didn’t swing in 1992. Democrats actually lost 10 seats when Bill
Clinton got elected, so that’ll probably limit some of the losses. And then money matters. There are so many seats that are really contested
now, ironically, that the ability for any challenger to raise enough money to run an
effective contest in the House is limited. Eddie Williams: And I don’t think you should
— we should underestimate the capacity of incumbents to change their political spots,
and I think we’ll see a lot of shifting and to-ing and fro-ing, further confusing
the electorate in terms of what people stand for. I think that is part of the reason for some
of the cynicism that many of the voters see in politicians, that they constantly shift
all over the place to play to special circumstances. Two of the four incumbents who lost were members
of the Congressional Black Caucus, and I think in each of those cases there were some special
considerations involved in their jurisdictions. Incidentally, since I went on the limb with
a prediction before, I’ll predict that there’ll be a very modest increase in the size of the
Congressional Black Caucus this fall. Larry Sabato: Ben, both Norm and Cathy mentioned
a very important case, though, and that’s Mike Synar — a very able, very senior congressman
who clearly was more liberal than his district but still had strong support in a district
that’s pretty heavily Democratic. To have a congressman, an incumbent like Synar,
defeated by a 71-year-old retired person with no history of public office suggests to me
that we may have more upsets on November 8 than we’re currently calculating. Eddie Williams: On the point of a national
issue, it seems to me that the outcome of what is happening in Haiti may very well play
— loom very large in terms of the November elections. Ben Wattenberg: What — Eddie Williams: And we don’t see fully the
outcome at this point. Ben Wattenberg: Maybe you can tell you me
what is happening in Haiti. [Laughter.] I have — we are broadcasting — Norman Ornstein: What time is it? [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: I mean, is Haiti going to
be a plus for the president? Eddie Williams: If things go well for him. Right now they are going well. It seems to me he’s gotten a slight bump
up on that particular issue. And if matters continue and there’s a limited
amount of bloodshed or no bloodshed at all, I think that is a plus. If he gets Cedras out of there, either out
of the office by October 15, perhaps even out of the country, I think that is a plus. With Aristide going back and taking over,
I think that is a plus. It will indicate — be an indication of his
ability to use diplomatic means. Larry Sabato: I would have take another view. I would have to disagree with my distinguished
colleague, because I think at best he can get a wash out of this. And that is if everything goes beautifully
and American troops aren’t killed and the plan unfolds as the agreement suggested that
it would and so on. The problem here is really twofold. First, the American public by and large thinks
that this Haiti intervention is somewhere between stupid and insane, and over time,
as things happen as they inevitably do — whether it’s troops being killed or whether it’s
the plan not working as projected — I think it’s going to hurt. I really think it’s going to hurt Clinton. So we’ll have to see what happens, but Democrats
dodged a bullet in not having an invasion with lots of casualties. But this could still turn very, very sour
for the incumbent party. Norman Ornstein: You know, this shows why
it’s so tricky to try and make projections of how many seats will be gained and lost. Events between now and November the 8 — what
Congress does in the next few weeks in terms of dealing with an agenda that includes GATT
and health care reform and telecommunications reform and a whole series of things is going
to matter. If they flop and look terrible, it’ll fuel
public anger. It’ll be like throwing gasoline on the flames. If Haiti has some disaster, it’ll make a
real difference, and the timing of it makes a difference, too. Ben Wattenberg: Would you advise Democratic
congressional candidates to put some distance between themselves and their own president,
which is what the president’s own pollster, Stan Greenberg, said is perfectly all right? Is that a wise strategy, Catherine? Catherine Rudder: Certainly in the South it
is. It’s clear that Clinton is not popular in
the South, and if you take a look at where the Republicans have the best chance of picking
up seats in the House in particular, it’s the South. In fact, half the strategy has to be there,
at least I believe. And there’s nothing wrong with — for these
members to distance themselves from President Clinton. Many of them have not supported President
Clinton down the line, especially in the South, so it’s a wise strategy. It’s just what they should do, and it’s
not dishonest. Larry Sabato: I don’t want to be a total
contrarian, because I basically — Catherine Rudder: Go right ahead. Larry Sabato: — agree with Cathy said. But, you know, there’s another argument
to be made that goes back to a point Norm made about turnout. If you embrace your president and you embrace
your party’s principles and you go full speed ahead in terms of what your party stands
for, you might energize your base, and that really is what the Democrats’ basic problem
is this year, other than Clinton’s unpopularity — energizing that base. Catherine Rudder: But, Larry, I don’t believe
in nonminority districts in the South you can energize — Larry Sabato: In the South. Catherine Rudder: — a base for President
Clinton. Larry Sabato: I agree with that in the South. But outside — Catherine Rudder: It’s simply a fact. The South has undergone a transformation anyway,
a partisan transformation, and I believe it’s just continuing — to the degree parties
matter at all anyway. Eddie Williams: One of the things that works
against in some Southern states, of course, is the very large bloc of black voters that
you have that tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Catherine Rudder: I did say nonminority. Ben Wattenberg: Eddie, are we looking at a
further polarization of American politics and American life, that whites are going to
vote one way and blacks are going to vote another way? Is that what we’re going to continue to
see in America, more splitting apart? Eddie Williams: I don’t consider it polarization
any more than it has been in the past. People vote their interests, and in good conscience,
blacks tend not to see Republican candidates who represent their interests until — I
put the onus on the candidate and on the Republican Party — until they put up candidates that
blacks in good conscience can support. Yes. Norman Ornstein: Clearly, you’ve got a lot
of differences in the South, and the redistricting exacerbates those racial differences. And there are going to be very substantial
changes in the South. One of the things that that’s going to do,
though, is it’s going to change the character of the Democratic Party in the next — the
104th Congress, because basically the Democrats at risk and the Democratic seats at risk are
in the South, as Cathy said, and in the West. They also tend to be the more conservative
Democrats who are the ones at risk. And what that means is that the old conservative
coalition which relied in the Reagan years on 40 or 45 so-called mainstream Democrats
isn’t going to have that many around; there may be 15 or 20. And so the net shift in conservative terms
is not going be as great as people expect if Republicans pick up 20, 25 seats. Ben Wattenberg: Norman — Catherine Rudder: Absolutely right. Ben Wattenberg: — you were talking about
turnout before, and we are reading lots of stories about the power of the Christian right,
the Christian Coalition, in bringing their members out, certainly in primaries. Is there — is that going to change the dynamic
if the Democrats, disheartened, are not going to turn out — Norman Ornstein: That’s — Ben Wattenberg: — and the Christian right
is going to turn out? Norman Ornstein: There’s no question it
makes a big difference. When we look at the almost inexorable patterns
in American politics, that the president’s party loses seats in the House in the midterm
elections, I think one of the key dynamics is that almost invariably supporters of a
president coming in have expectations that are very high and they’re never met. They’re always somewhat disheartened. And people on the other side get very upset
by what’s going on and have a much greater zeal and ability to mobilize and get their
voters out. And the question of whether you can get your
voters out in an election — remember, where turnout drops about 15 points from a presidential
election — becomes critical. And you could look at Larry’s state of Virginia
in the Senate race, where, you know, we — take the conventional wisdom that Oliver North
has a ceiling of about 35 percent of the voting population in terms of support. But if the — he gets his voters out, and
that means Christian Coalition people who are organizing and pushing in voter registration
drives, and the rest of the voters are disheartened and don’t turn out as much, that may be
enough to win. Ben Wattenberg: Larry, there was a poll this
morning that I saw after Doug Wilder dropped out, that instead of that, we assume, mostly
black vote going to Chuck Robb, that it apparently split. And some of it went to Oliver North, and he
is now ahead. I mean, you have a wild race there. What do you make of that, and — Larry Sabato: Well, there’s two factors
at work. One, Norm has just mentioned. The fact is that the Christian Coalition and
voters on the right and the Republican Party generally are energized, and they are apparently
going to turn out in disproportionate numbers. The Democratic coalition is somewhat disorganized
because of the split in the party, and that’s hurting. But it’s also true that it’s too early
to say for sure. Wilder just dropped out. Robb hasn’t had an opportunity yet to consolidate
those Wilder voters. Ben Wattenberg: Who do you think is going
to win? Who do you think is going to win? Larry Sabato: If the election were held today,
it would be North, but it’s not by an enormous margin right now. It’s relatively close. And I think Robb still has an opportunity
to close that gap. Catherine Rudder: I’d like to bring out
two things, one that reiterates something Norm said, and that is you pointed out that,
in fact, in the 1992 election that was not a great pull for the Democrats or for Clinton. And we might reiterate that Clinton only got
42 percent of the popular vote. That’s going to affect what happens in 1994. There’ll be less of the surge-and-decline
effect that you were talking about. Ben Wattenberg: So you think some of these
predictions of Democratic apocalypse are overstated? Catherine Rudder: I’d say they’re overstated. That’s all. Just — that’s not to say the Democrats
won’t lose a substantial number of seats. I believe they will, and I think they’re
going to lose a lot in the House — I mean in the South. Ben Wattenberg: How substantial? Give me a range. Catherine Rudder: I’d say 25 is not unreasonable
in the House. Ben Wattenberg: And how many in the Senate? Catherine Rudder: I’d say five are not unreasonable
in the Senate. But, wait, I want to point one other thing
out before we go on with regard to these elections and the Christian Coalition specifically. They do best in primaries. Any group that’s somewhat fringe does best
in primaries. They energize their folks. They get them out. And they can change elections. Ben Wattenberg: But isn’t — Catherine Rudder: In a general election, these
candidates must go toward the center, or they’re simply not going to win in most cases, even
with great organization by the Christian Coalition. Ben Wattenberg: But suppose — Catherine Rudder: It’s suicide to stay to
the right or to the left. Ben Wattenberg: But suppose the public is
being galvanized not by the Christian Coalition, but what you might call a values coalition. The Christian Coalition may be the cutting
edge of it, but isn’t there a feeling that there’s something wrong with our value system
in government, out of government? You see that in poll — I know that Times-Mirror
poll shows that just again and again and again. Catherine Rudder: Sure, but — Ben Wattenberg: You see it in the black community. Catherine Rudder: Yeah, but, Ben, it doesn’t
mean then that people are going to turn around and vote for strong right candidates. It simply doesn’t. I mean, there’s the Achilles’ heel of
abortion, if nothing else, for most women and a lot of other moderates. That alone. So you can be — one can be quite worried
about values, and I think — we discussed this before the show began. Liberals and conservatives both are concerned
about values and where the country’s going. But that does not then translate into a vote
for a right-wing candidate. Norman Ornstein: You know, one point about
the black community, at least you see in the Times-Mirror surveys, and I think Eddie sees
it in his surveys, too: the whole notion of an evangelical movement. There’s a very substantial evangelical component
in the black community. Catherine Rudder: Yes. Norman Ornstein: On many of the social issues,
including abortion even, the black community is mixed, and there’s concern about the
moral fabric of the society in both places. But what we see in the Times-Mirror survey
is that it’s not of particular benefit really to either party. Catherine Rudder: Right. Norman Ornstein: In fact, the Republican Party
has a huge and growing split between those we call enterprisers — whose main concern
is the kind of traditional economic one and business-oriented one — and those we call
moralists, who’ve almost doubled in number and who are anti-business and whose major
concern is moral deterioration. There’s a real give and take there. What’s happened is both parties have lost
support, and the concern about morals and values has extended to a concern about institutions,
which is hurting the Congress as a whole. This time Republicans will reap the benefits. Catherine Rudder: Right. Norman Ornstein: But, believe me, they may
reap the whirlwind if they’re not careful. Catherine Rudder: Well stated. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Listen, Catherine was brave enough to give
a fairly specific prediction. I would like to just go around the room to
the rest of you and ask for your predictions, and then I want to go on to one other major
topic. She said about 25-seat loss in the House and
five in the — Catherine Rudder: With most in the South. Ben Wattenberg: With most of them in the South. Catherine Rudder: Eighteen or so in the South. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s just — real quick,
just numbers. Norman Ornstein: We knew you’d do this. [Laughter.] It’s a moving target. I’d say — Ben Wattenberg: Norman? Norman Ornstein: — maybe around 20 in the
House and four or five in the Senate. Eddie Williams: I’ll buy that. Larry Sabato: Somewhere in the twenties in
the House, three to five in the Senate. But he who lives by the crystal ball ends
up eating ground glass [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: All right. Now — Norman Ornstein: Ben’s eaten a lot of ground
glass. [Laughter.] Larry Sabato: Oh, yeah? Ben Wattenberg: Not as much as some people. Not as much as some people. Let us assume that this range of predictions
is correct, and this means a substantial loss for the Democrats. What would the effect on the Clinton agenda
be if such a change happens? Larry Sabato: Well — Catherine Rudder: Go ahead. Larry Sabato: I was going to see one thing’s
for sure. If the Republicans gained enough seats to
actually take control of one house, it would be a godsend for Bill Clinton. In politics today, unfortunately, you need
a devil figure to run against, and just as Harry Truman ran against a do-nothing Republican
Congress, Bill Clinton would get the opportunity to run against a gridlocking Republican Senate
or whatever the case may be. So you can win by losing and lose by winning. And Republicans, I think, had better hope
they don’t gain control of either house of Congress. Eddie Williams: I think there’s that prospect,
but also there’s the prospect of the reemergence of the “New Democrat” Bill Clinton, who
would indeed try to reach out to establish some greater rapport with moderate Republicans,
which is what he’s been accused of not doing in the crime bill fight. Catherine Rudder: I don’t think that the
Republican leadership has gotten proper credit for what they’ve done in the last couple
of years. The movement from sort of the Bob Michel approach
of cooperation — still partisanship, but cooperation and gentlemanliness — to the
Newt Gingrich approach of fierce opposition has had quite an impact, I think, on the Democratic
Party and on Clinton’s success and his lack of success specifically. And I think, if the Republicans continue — the
Republican leadership, Dole and Gingrich specifically — continue this very fierce partisanship,
which is matched I would say in equal part on the Democratic side — but if they continue
that, it seems to me that we will see a very difficult next two years and more public disaffection
with Congress in general. Ben Wattenberg: Eddie, is it possible that
people like myself who say he has been running the government too far to the left may be
pleased because he will, instead of building this coalition Democrats only, that he will
be forced to go to a centrist coalition? Eddie Williams: Well, you may be pleased if
you’re a victim of the Clinton charm and of his ability to articulate his points of
view. [Laughter.] Otherwise, I doubt if you’re going to be
pleased at all. [Laughter.] But I do think that he has ability to shape
issues of welfare reform. Blacks are not totally happy with how he has
articulated his support for welfare reform. They’re not totally happy with where he’s
come out in terms of some of the health issues. He has got to learn to play to his strength,
which is bridging issues and reaching constituencies. Larry Sabato: Isn’t there a fly in the ointment
here, though? And Norm alluded to it earlier. If you have many of these conservative or
moderate-conservative Democrats in the South and border states going down this year, that
means the Democratic Caucus will be more liberal in the next Congress. And won’t they be pushing Clinton in another
direction? Norman Ornstein: What Clinton has to hope
for, first of all, is that the Democratic Caucus, which will be more liberal, instead
of pushing him in that direction, is chastened enough by a loss of seats to recognize that
they’ve got to move to the middle. And the powerbrokers, I will predict, in the
next Congress are not going to be the old boll weevils, who, of course, Reagan quoted
all the time. It’s going to be the so-called gypsy moths. It’s going to be the 30 or 35 Republicans
in the House who are willing to talk, a model being the crime bill in the end. If he can get the Mike Castles of Delaware
and the David Dreiers of California and the Nancy Johnsons of Connecticut and the Ralph
Regulas of Ohio and the Fred Uptons of Michigan — 30 to 35 of them — and get them in the
room with him, then Newt Gingrich’s incredibility to keep his own coalition together may not
be there. But that requires Clinton to start in the
center, as you said, and to withstand the pressure at both extremes. If he can do that, I think he could have a
very productive two years, and the public would look more favorably upon him. If he’s pulled in one direction or he tries
to have it every which way, then he’s going to be in deep, deep trouble. Catherine Rudder: It seems to me what Norm
suggests, which is I think the politically correct strategy, is almost like threading
the eye of a needle. To get those 30 people in the room and get
them to vote. Ben Wattenberg: All right. We are out of time. I just would like to do one thing very quickly. Give me a pick in the upcoming Senate races
that will be a surprise to voters on election night. Norman Ornstein: Tennessee. Two seats up. One incumbent, Jim Sasser, running against
a newcomer, Bill Frist. A real race to watch. Eddie Williams: Missouri. Alan Wheat winning a Senate seat to become
the second black Democrat in the United States Senate. Larry Sabato: In Montana, Democrat Jack Mudd
has a real chance to upset incumbent Republican Conrad Burns, and that could make it difficult
for Republicans to take over the Senate. Catherine Rudder: In Virginia, Chuck Robb
holds on to his Senate seat. Democrat. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Norman Ornstein, Catherine Rudder,
Eddie Williams, and Larry Sabato. And thank you. As you know, we have enjoyed hearing from
you very much. Please write with any questions or comments
to the address on the screen. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc. in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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  1. One thing to take away, "Those who live by the crystal ball end up eating ground glass." It was refreshing to see people from opposite sides speak respectfully to one another.

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