Analysis: Week In Politics

Morning Edition: October 14, 2002

Week in Politics


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders are campaigning this week, trying to shape the message of the next three weeks until Election Day. Having given the president what he wants on the use of force against Iraq, Democrats are looking for ways to separate themselves from the Bush administration. NPR's Cokie Roberts joins me now.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Bob.

EDWARDS: Democrats keep looking at the economic numbers and believing those numbers should work for them. Are they?

ROBERTS: Well, not so far it doesn't look that way now. It is hard when the headlines of the papers are bombs in Bali with hundreds of people being killed and a sniper loose in the District of Columbia area, but the Democrats are trying. They've got an ad out this weekend--a Democratic operative does--in key states where there are Senate campaigns. And it's got no narration. It's just economic bad news: the number of jobs lost, the household income down, poverty up, the government surplus gone, retirement funds down. And it ends with the message, quote, "This November, Republicans are asking for total control of the House, the Senate, total control over economic policy. Can we afford that?"

EDWARDS: Well, it's a complicated message. Will that work?

ROBERTS: Well, you can get lots of argument about this question of whether encouraging people to divide their votes works. Clearly there is a Republican White House, and the House of Representatives, it looks like its harder and harder for the Democrats to take it, although some Democrats are still hopeful about that.

I personally think that this message of divided government does work. The latest poll that I saw on it, the question of, `Do you want Republicans in Congress to support the president's agenda vs. Democrats in Congress to check it?' Democrats won that poll with 52 percent of the vote. Now that's not huge, but it's something. I think that it worked in 1996 when it was clear that Bill Clinton was going to be re-elected president, and the Republicans went out and did a campaign on divided government then: Don't let Bill Clinton have it all, basically. But it's a risky campaign to run because you're saying, `We've given up, at least on some front.'

Now as I say, with Republicans in the White House, it's pretty easy to give up on that front, but it sounds like you're also giving up in the House of Representatives and Democrats are saying, `We're not going to win big, so let's win small and hold on to this Senate with our bear teeth.'

EDWARDS: But given the state of the economy, why are the Democrats having so much trouble?

ROBERTS: Well, the Republicans have a memo out this weekend with its analysis of this answer, which, of course, you have to take with a certain grain of salt because it is the Republican analysis. But it says the president approval ratings continue to be extremely high, that there's no national Democratic leader who has achieved great popularity. And this is interesting, they say that people are not ready to blame politicians for the economy, and that might be true. Republicans tied the Democrats on the questions of who do you trust more to handle the economy and education, and they basically kill the Democrats on terrorism and security. And the memo ends with the observation, `It's amazing that with an economy growing less than we'd like, the Democrats have no inherent advantage on this issue or in any of the voters' top concerns.'

EDWARDS: So with three weeks and a day until Election Day, how's it look?

ROBERTS: Well, state by state, the Democrats still have a lot to be pleased about. They've had some very odd things happen. New Jersey, a switch of candidates that's worked for them. Montana, the Republican candidate has dropped out after some very peculiar advertisements that were run. And they are looking at certain seats where their gubernatorial candidates are running very strong and they hope that it will help with their Senate and House candidates.

And you do see state-by-state issues that are making the difference. For instance, in Maryland, with the sniper afoot, the Democratic candidate for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has turned to gun control as an issue, and that could affect turnout of Democratic voters. So that's where they're basing their hopes at the moment.

EDWARDS: NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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