Week in Politics: Parties Adjust for Final Stretch The midterm elections are now less than three weeks away, which puts the two main parties into overdrive as they try to control Congress. Robert Siegel talks with E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, and Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, who will join us from our bureau in New York.

Week in Politics: Parties Adjust for Final Stretch

Week in Politics: Parties Adjust for Final Stretch

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The midterm elections are now less than three weeks away, which puts the two main parties into overdrive as they try to control Congress. Robert Siegel talks with E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, and Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, who will join us from our bureau in New York.


Joining us now are our guest political commentators, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Welcome back, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And in New York, sitting in today for David Brooks, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. Welcome back, Rich.

Mr. RICH LOWRY (National Review): Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: And you get to start, because you win the word of the week award for your coinage to describe Republican finger-pointing over losses that are expected but they haven't happened yet. The word?

Mr. LOWRY: Right. Precriminations, which conservatives have been engaging in. Starting in the always very important debate about why an election was won or lost - after every election there is a narrative that comes out of it that everyone ends up accepting, whether it's right or wrong, and that crucially influences how a losing party behaves afterwards.

So we're seeing that debate. In this new, supercharged environment where everything happens much faster and the news cycles are speeded up so much, we're seeing that take place now on the right before the election and before the actual loss.

SIEGEL: And indeed we heard in Mara Liasson's report, one proposed narrative of what's happening, which was preoccupation with the base a la 2004.

E.J. Dionne, let's assume that the precriminators are right, there'll be a narrative after the election in which the winner, whoever it is, someone will be declared a genius for having helped the Democrats, then, to successes. Who's done such a good job? Who should get the high fives on that side of the aisle if it, in fact, eventuates?

Mr. DIONNE: Probably whoever leaked the Mark Foley emails, and I think that's going to be interesting because I think in the precriminations - it's a great word - I think the big mistake conservatives would make if they lost this election is to shove it all onto Foley.

I think George Bush will get the Man of the Year Award from liberals and Democrats, because I think when you look at race after race, Republicans who might survive under other circumstances are really being pulled down both by Iraq and by the Bush presidency. I was very struck in the NPR poll, in those competitive Congressional districts, Republicans desperately wanted terrorism and national security to be more important to voters than Iraq. They were running pretty close to each other in July. In the most recent survey this month, 25 percent of - 23 percent, I'm sorry, of voters list the war in Iraq. Only 15 percent list terrorism and national security. I think the real impact of the Foley story is he got in the way of Republican efforts to change the conversation and increased the alienation that was already there, and it just let it build up into this moment where, if my way of putting it, is conservatives are starting the autopsy before their majority is even formally declared dead.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowry, on the other hand, we've seen the record gasoline prices come down pretty significantly in recent weeks. The Dow Jones is up there around 12,000. A lot of the economic news at least isn't as bad as some people think it is. Republicans are not making much success out of running on the economy. Why not?

Mr. LOWRY: None of that matters. You know, gas prices was, for the longest time, the highest profile issue. It was up there in the polls on the list of people's concerns, and all the pundits and commentators were talking about it. Then gas prices inevitably declined, as they do after the summer driving season's over, and it just disappeared as an issue, and Republicans got no credit for it whatsoever.

I think what's going on here - I don't know if you remember that movie a couple years ago, Lost in Translation, which I didn't enjoy very much. I thought it was very boring. I complained to people, nothing happened in that movie. And people would explain, look, you know...

SIEGEL: It was a great movie, by the way.

Mr. LOWRY: It was a mood movie. It was a mood movie, and when I think about the issues that are at a national level really moving this election, there aren't many of them except for Iraq, and even that is kind of strange because the Democrats aren't offering a stark alternative. If you look at the polls, people are unhappy with the war, but they're not endorsing, necessarily, any policy alternative. What's going on here, I think, is you have a mood election, and the mood is extremely sour because of the constant bad news out of Iraq, and people don't like what they're seeing, and they're going to send a message because of it.

SIEGEL: So there are no particular issues or developments that can undo an entire national mood, you're saying?

Mr. LOWRY: Probably not. And this is where I would disagree with the Republican pollster, Tony Fabrizio, that was on Mara's segment right before we started. You know, I think the difference between a bad election night for Republicans and a total wipeout is whether the base shows up or not. And if the base shows up, that is something of a break on just how bad it can be. If the base doesn't show up, there's no such break, and you are indeed looking at something on the order of a 1994 situation.

SIEGEL: The loss of houses of Congress. E.J., do you think it's possible the Republican base won't show up on election night?

Mr. DIONNE: I think it's clear that the Republican base doesn't want to vote as much as the Democratic base. I think Democrats want to vote as many times as they possibly can in this election, legally or otherwise. I think what you're seeing in this election is the opening of a possibility of a different majority. The majority Karl Rove was hoping to build was a majority that included conservatives who outnumber liberals by about three to two in the electorate, plus a sliver of moderates. In this election, you're really seeing the reappearance of the center. Liberals in the NPR poll are going 82 percent Democratic, but moderates - this is really striking - in those competitive districts are going 59 to 34 percent for the Democrats.

SIEGEL: We should explain this is a poll that was done of - I think it's 48 competitive House districts, both by Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, and also by Bolger, the Republican pollster. They did it together.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. So no one can attack these numbers as biased. And I think that the reappearance of the center - the Republicans loss of the political center - is huge, and I think for the long haul it could have two effects. One, within the Republican Party, the right's going to say, ah, we weren't pure enough conservative. But I think these numbers suggest that they really have to look back to the center. And for the Democrats, the left and the center have to figure out a way to coexist if they're going to win. I think they may do that this November.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowry, I'd like you to cut against the grain here of general forecasts and expectations. Give hope to some conservatives and Republicans out there. What are some races where they might not be dead yet?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOWRY: Well, there are still plenty of them. And look, even though there is this national environment which is very bad for Republicans, if it doesn't become a total Democratic wave, you're going to see Republicans survive in some of these tight races, and a lot of these races are still defined by local conditions and by the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates. You know, Conrad Burns is going to lost in Montana not because, you know, the Iraq War is unpopular necessarily - although that doesn't help - but just because he's been putting his foot in his mouth in every possible manner and got caught up in the Abramoff scandal.

Jim Talent, the Republican incumbent in Missouri, who's running in a very close race, very well may survive there because he has a pretty solid record of bipartisan accomplishments in the Senate. He's a very thoughtful and articulate guy. He's the Republican senator who I think performed best in a series of debates on Meet the Press.

So a lot of these races, you know, come down to the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates. Now, if there's a wave, those strengths and weaknesses won't matter, and they'll get wiped out, which is what we saw in 1994 when Republicans literally elected a homeless man in Texas named Steve Stockman, who beat the sitting Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

SIEGEL: That's Rich Lowry, speaking to us from New York. He's editor of the National Review. And E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Thanks to both of you for talking politics with us today.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. LOWRY: Thanks so much.

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