Senate War Debate and the Congressional Elections

This past week, members of the U.S. Senate did something unusual: They debated the war in Iraq and the next steps for American forces there. Host Liane Hansen talks with Republican consultant Whit Ayres and Democratic consultant Donna Brazile about how the war and other issues might influence this fall's Congressional elections.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Over the past two weeks, members of Congress did something they've rarely done since the invasion of Iraq three years ago: they held debates about the war and the next best step to be taken by American forces in Iraq. Two weeks ago, members of the House aired their views. This past week, the Senate chamber provided the forum. On the formal agenda was the Defense Authorization Bill, a measure providing funding for the war.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 2004, put forward an amendment to the bill calling for U.S. forces to be withdrawn from Iraq by July 2007.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The fact is that this amendment is not what it has been characterized as. I've heard a number of people say it is a precipitous withdrawal. I've heard, obviously, the words cut and run and other words used many, many times. Well, Mr. President, let me first point out the differences between this and the other amendment that has already been debated. First of all, this is binding.

The other amendment is a sense of the Senate. And our troops and our country deserve more than a sense of the Senate. They deserve a policy.

HANSEN: Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, was quick to repeat the soundbite Kerry referred to.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): The time to leave Iraq is when we have achieved our objectives. If we knew our objectives were unachievable, then these amendments might make sense. But our objectives are achievable and we are achieving them.

The brave men and women of our armed forces are fighting daily to win victory in Iraq. And it would dishonor them, to say nothing of their fallen comrades, to cut and run at a time as promising as now.

HANSEN: On Capitol Hill and across the country, the war in Iraq promises to remain a major political debating point as November's congressional elections near. To track the state of play between Republicans and Democrats, we're joined by two veterans of the political scene. Whit Ayres is a Republican political consultant and president of Ayres, McHenry & Associates, Inc., a national public opinion and public affairs research firm.

Welcome back to the show.

Mr. WHIT AYRES (Republican Consultant): Thanks, Liane, good to be with you.

HANSEN: And Donna Brazile is managing director of Brazile & Associates. She was campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. Welcome to the program, Donna.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Consultant): Thank you so much.

HANSEN: Donna, I want to start with you. The war in Iraq has become a daily dose of car bombings and ambushes. More than 2,500 Americans have died since the invasion. Yet in the quotation in the clip we heard, John Kerry sounds very defensive. He repeats that soundbite, cut and run, that attacks his amendment. Why are Democrats having so much trouble getting some traction on this particular issue?

Ms. BRAZILE: What the Democrats believe is that 2006 should be a year of significant transition. It's important that Democrats speak with one voice. The voice that they want the American people to hear is that we have a responsible plan, that we believe it's time for the Iraqis to take greater responsibility, and we believe that our troops should be coming home soon.

HANSEN: I want to talk about the term cut and run. In all fairness, it's a pretty simple characterization of Senator Kerry's proposal for having a date certain, withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. This is an effective tactic. I mean, it's been used by the Republicans in their rhetoric for quite some time. But reducing such a proposal to a soundbite, do you think it risks doing an injustice to the state of political debate over an issue that's vital to this country and that's before the country at this moment?

Mr. AYRES: The problem for the Democrats is that cut and run really does describe what some significant minority of the Democratic Party would like to do. Not all Democrats by any means. But there's a group of Democrats, the same kinds of folks who booed Hillary Clinton when she said we should not have a date certain, they don't care if 2,500 Americans die in vain. They don't care whether the terrorists take over Iraq. They think we need to go. And they're loud and they're noisy and they're having a significant influence on the Democratic Party. And that's the challenge that more responsible Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, face today.

HANSEN: The President has had successes in office, but he's also taken a pounding in the recent months. Just this past week, the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to agree with the President's request for National Guard troops to be used for border patrol. Aren't there other issues where perhaps the Republicans are not going to follow the president's lead?

Mr. AYRES: Oh, sure. They're not going to go in lockstep, but it's critically important that the Republicans, as the party in power, reach some agreement on a bill to combat illegal immigration. That's an issue that's reached critical mass. There's enormous pressure to do something about illegal immigration and do it soon. And the House and the Senate need to get together and produce a bill that does that.

HANSEN: Donna, the immigration legislation is stalled in Congress. Do you think that's going to help or hurt the Democrats in November?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, for now, there's no question. It may help some Republicans. In the recent election out in California, Congressman Bilbray used this issue to help energize Republicans. And for Democrats, I think we have to continue to say that we're going to be tough on border security, tough on employers who hire undocumented workers. So this is going to be an issue that I think the Republicans believe will help energize enough of the GOP base voters to counteract the intensity on the Democratic side.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the economy and some of the pocketbook issues. Will that play as big a part as it has in the past with the voters?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, there's no question. This week, Democrats tried to put forward a proposal to raise the minimum wage at a time when the Republicans were trying to give out more tax cuts and breaks to wealthy Americans. The Democrats did not succeed in getting these proposals on the floor, but still, I think that's an issue that cut across with the American people. At the same time, I think that the rising cost of healthcare in this country is going to be an issue the Democrats can talk about.

The economy, while, you know, many on Wall Street feel that things are working well, Main Street is not feeling as excited about this economy. Stagnant wages, inflation on the horizon, a weak dollar abroad. So there's some issues out there that Democrats can galvanize voters across the country.

HANSEN: Whit, talk a little bit about the Republicans and the issue of the economy and, you know, Wall Street versus Main Street.

Mr. AYRES: It's a real perceptual challenge. Donna mentioned healthcare. I think that's right. There's fear of outsourcing, there's pressure from gas prices. There are a host of factors that create that impression and that's one of the big challenges the Republicans have, is to explain how well the economy's actually doing and to give some people a sense of confidence in the economy and continued economic growth.

HANSEN: One more question about an issue that is important. Donna, do you think that the Democrats do have an opportunity, with some social issues or the environment, that could get voters to the polls in November?

Ms. BRAZIL: I think it's all about framing. You know, what fuel turnout in midterm elections is anger, voter anger. And there's no question that voters are upset about the war, they're upset about rising gas prices. They're upset about so many other kitchen table issues that come election day, I am sure we're going to have more than our fair share of issues to go out there and stir people up so that we can get them to the polls and ensure that they vote the right way.

HANSEN: What are the issues that'll be stirring the Republicans to get them to the polls this November, Whit?

Mr. AYRES: The issues that really matter now. What happens in Iraq? Is it going to be more stable and less violent by November? Will people perceive the economy to be growing well? Will seniors continue to be happy with the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit? Will we get an extension of the tax cuts, particularly on the estate tax? Will we have a good hurricane season, with competent management of emergency response to hurricanes? And will we get a good immigration bill? I think those are the things that will have the biggest effect on the attitudes and the moods of the voters come October.

HANSEN: Governance issues.

Mr. AYRES: Governance issues.

HANSEN: Whit Ayres is president of Ayres, McHenry & Associates. Donna Brazile is director of the political consulting firm, Brazile & Associates. Thank you both for coming in.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you.

Mr. AYRES: Thank you.

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