GOP Won't Let Democrats Dominance Deter Them

This week's swearing in of one more Democratic senator has given Democrats influence over 60 votes in the Senate. Democratic dominance will be short lived if they can't deliver on issues like the economy and health care. Two political strategists — Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Mike Murphy — talk with Steve Inskeep about the how the parties will do as each side tries to take control of the issues.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week's swearing in of one more Democratic senator, Al Franken, has given the Democrats 60 Senate seats, and in theory at least they have more power. The leader of the shrinking Republican minority, Mitch McConnell, seemed almost eager to step aside.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky, Minority Leader): Our Democratic friends now have their long-sought 60 votes. The American people will fully understand that they own the government - the executive branch, the House and the Senate - and they're waiting to see the results of their programs.

INSKEEP: McConnell is suggesting the Democrats could be short-lived in power if they can't deliver on issues like the economy and health care. The situation offers challenges for both parties, so we called in two political strategists: Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Mike Murphy, who's been thinking about the future of his party.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Strategist): I think the errors the Democrats are making by going to the hard left on policy instead of the center gives us a short-term opportunity. In the long term, I think we have some real challenges, unless we, as I like to say, modernize conservatives.

INSKEEP: What does that mean?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, I think, if you look at the voters that we have the biggest trouble with, younger voters are much more socially libertarian than they at least perceive the Republican Party as being. Issue of gay rights in particular. I also think the Latino vote, which has gone from two percent in our halcion days of President Reagan to nine percent in the last election - a vote that we very rarely get more than a third of the vote of - we have to rethink the tone and some of the content of what we say, especially congressionally, on immigration reform. I think those are two issues where we really need to modernize conservatism and get more in the business of opportunity than in the business of fence building and the politics of rejection and opposition.

INSKEEP: You feeling lonely saying that in the Republican…

Mr. MURPHY: No. You know, the truth is I've been surprised and heartened by the number of people who have responded to some of the things I've been saying, saying absolutely right. There's going to be a big, fascinating and important battle in the Republican Party over the next five years about how do we modernize conservatism.

There are going to be some who oppose, want to go backwards; there are others who are going to want to fight and go forward. And at the end of it we're either going to be in big trouble or be a much stronger party, and I know which side of the debate I want to be on.

INSKEEP: Mike Murphy seems to be concerned about the possibility of a Republican Party that drives itself to extinction. I'd like to know, Mr. Mellman, if you see long-term dangers for the Democratic Party in this situation right now?

Mr. MARK MELLMAN (Democratic Strategist): Well, my friend Mike was the star of that lonely guy movie. He is the lonely guy in the Republican Party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLMAN: And the truth is, Democrats, you know, on our side, the reality is we're going to be judged - and I think Mitch McConnell's right up to a point -Democrats are going to be judged by outcomes here. If the economy doesn't get better in the next 18 months as we get to 2010, if people don't have a sense of turnaround, we're going to be in some difficulty.

INSKEEP: Although wait a minute, because I'm reading Mike Murphy's articles about modernizing the Republican Party and thinking about things the Democrats have done in the last four or five years. Democrats have said, you know, people broadly agree with lots of our policies but we're driving them away with things like gun control. So we're going to talk a lot less about gun control. That's what Democrats have done.

Mike Murphy seems to be saying let's talk a little more about gay rights or a little less about denouncing minority groups of various kinds and maybe Republican policies would be more attractive. Isn't there some danger to Democrats in a new approach, if one comes?

Mr. MELLMAN: Well, the likelihood of Mike's approach being adopted by mainstream Republicans, unfortunately for Mike, is near zero. The reality is the Republicans are a far right group at this point, precisely because that's what they believe and they're not going to shift those beliefs just to win elections. And you've got to admire them for that, but it is a recipe for losing.

INSKEEP: Mike Murphy.

Mr. MURPHY: My dear old friend Mark Mellman knows that Speaker Pelosi, one of his clients, I believe, must listen to NPR, 'cause…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: …he is spinning like a whirling dervish here. I'll tell you, it is the nature of political parties to reflect the country they represent. The Republican Party will modernize and change. The question for the party is, do we get ahead of that curve or behind it, because that's the difference between winning or losing majority power in the country again.

The problem the Democrats have is when you have one big strong party in charge of everything, it becomes totally controlled by its interest groups. And that's a problem President Obama's going to be up against trying to keep the promises of his campaign. So you know, there's going to be a test to the Democrats.

McConnell is right: the country's going to hold them responsible now. I think there should be a new tax on blaming things on President Bush after one year.

Mr. MELLMAN: Always a big taxer, my friend Mike. Look, the reality is, the Democrats are going to be judged by how well things go in the country. If things are going well in this country as we get to 2010, as we get to 2012, people are going to say, you know what, Republicans had eight years in office, they screwed up the country; Democrats have had two years, four years, and things are at least starting to get better, the Democrats are going to be rewarded.

By contrast, if things are still going poorly, you know, it won't matter that much whether the Republicans are pro-gay rights or pro-immigration. If it looks like the country's heading in the wrong direction, it's going to be very hard for Democrats.

INSKEEP: Mark Mellman, Mike Murphy, always good to talk with you both.

Mr. MURPHY: It was fun, thank you.

Mr. MELLMAN: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Mr. Mellman is a political strategist who works with congressional Democrats. Mike Murphy has advised Republican presidential candidates.

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