These questions and more were addressed by two of America's top political strategists and operatives last Thursday at a event at Rider University sponsored by CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine and the Institute for New Jersey Politics. Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and Terry McAuliffe, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee and current chair of Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, entertained and educated an audience of nearly300 with their wit, candor and insight about the current political scene and policy issues.
Not surprisingly, McAuliffe predicted that 2008 would be a good year for the Democrats who have an opportunity to build on their successes of last November. National polls show thatthese days more Americans identify themselves as Democrats orDemocraticleaners. According to McAuliffe, the party hasits best ever field of presidential contenders, while the GOP's front-runners, Senator John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, haveproblems that will haunt them in the general election. In addition, President Bush's unpopular and unsuccessfulpolicy toward Iraq and thenew scandals in the Administration- think Alberto Gonzales andWalter Reed Hospital – willmotivate morepeople tolook at the alternatives tothe GOP's candidates for President, Senate and House.
Nonetheless, McAuliffe did admit that the Democrats did not actually win control of Congress in 2006, theRepublicans lost it. Ongoing problems in Iraq, the Administration's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, and corruption in Congress created a huge opportunity for Democratic candidates. Ed Gillespie agreed that Republicans blew the 2006 election. And yes, the causes were corruption, poor communication ofthe President's Iraqi policy if not the policy itself, andMr. Bush's resulting low approval ratings.
However, the Republican losses in the House and Senate in 2006 were consistent with what typically occurs in the a midterm electionin aPresident's second term.And, President Bush will not be on the ballot in 2008. So, can the GOP turn aroundits fortunes? According to Gillespie, the President's economic policies are producing record-setting low unemployment rates and millions of new jobs. The Democrats in Congress will undermine this economic success and their own prospects in the 2008 election if they do not make Bush's tax cuts permanent.
Gillespie did not ignore citizens' concerns about the situation in Iraq and stated that debate about the nation's policytoward the Middle Eastis certainly appropriate. However, he claimed that funding for troops should not be cut off while they are in harms way and noted that the Democrats want to cut such funding so they can pay for pork barrel projects in their districts and states. The Democrats' positions on taxes, funding for the troops, and pork barrel spending can help Republican candidates in 2008. But the former RNC chair recognized that winning back the House and the Senate will be difficult. The presidential race, however, should be close.
In the meantime, the competition for the GOP's presidential nomination is, well, confusing. Mitt Romney is a top fundraiser. John McCain has the best field organizations in the early caucus and primary states. Rudy Giuliani has the highest poll numbers. And, other possible candidates like Fred Thompson and Chuck Hagel are attractive to several rank and file Republicanswho aren'thappy with their party's current front-runners. To McAuliffe, the Democratic side is more settled with his favorite, Senator Clinton, enjoying big leads in national and state polls.
Both Gillespie and McAuliffe agree that their party's presidential nominee will be decided on February 5, 2008. Neither likes the fact that so many states will have early primaries. The collapsed calendar means added pressure to raise lots of money early and limits the candidates' ability to spend quality time in many states. This includes New Jersey, which may also not receivemuch attention because of itshighly expensive media market and the fact that Giuliani andClinton are so far ahead here. While wrapping up a presidential nomination early may seem like agood thing, itwill create anine month, super expensive, time consuming and tiring general election campaign that candidates, operatives, party leaders and activists do not relish.
At least the eventual presidential candidates will have lots to talk about for those nine months. McAuliffe believes that they will be pressuredto address immigration reform, universal health care, gun control in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, and how to use the revenue gained by not extending President Bush's tax cut.Gillespie noted that some triangulation, i.e., bipartisan compromise, may be in order on certain issues, andthat the Democrats do not have a mandate on most issues.
He criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her misguided and unsuccessfulvisit to Syria, asserting that presidential elections, not congressional ones, should determine who formulates the nation's foreign policy. Gillespie defended the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold a lower court's ruling that bans partial birth abortion. McAuliffe retorted that this why people should vote in a presidential election, a reference to the fact that chief executives nominate justices and federal judges.
However, both men did agree that their parties need to reach out to young voters, African-Americans and other minorities, to work to pull together fractious groups within their ranks, and to decreasenegative campaigning and the bitternessin the halls of government. In their joint appearance at Rider University, Gillespie and McAulifffe demonstratedhow two bright, serious and highly partisan people can disagree strongly on several policy issues, engage a diverse audience, andtreat audience members and each other civilly. Let's hope their parties' candidates will emulate them.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). Healso writes a regular column, "On Politics," for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.