BRIAN NAYLOR, host:
This week Congress returns to Washington after a one-week break. This is not the best of times for the Republicans, who control Congress, nor for the Republican in the White House, George W. Bush. There are investigations galore: Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House, has been indicted; Senator Bill Frist, the GOP leader in the Senate, is under an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission; in the White House, Karl Rove and the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, have testified before the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name. Meanwhile, Harriet Miers, the president's Supreme Court nominee, is under attack from members of his own party. There is an increasingly unpopular war and plummeting poll numbers. It's all enough to give Republicans heartburn and Democrats some hope for the midterm elections still a little more than a year away. Joining us to parse all this are two veteran Washington partisans. Jim Jordan is a Democratic political consultant.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. JIM JORDAN (Democratic Consultant): Thank you very much.
NAYLOR: And Whit Ayres is a Republican pollster. Welcome back.
Mr. WHIT AYRES (Republican Pollster): Thanks, Brian.
NAYLOR: Whit, let's begin with you.
Mr. AYRES: Yes.
NAYLOR: As a pollster, you've undoubtedly seen the numbers that came out last week. The Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll gives the president an approval rating of 39 percent, the lowest ever in the survey. Just 28 percent of the country believe the country is headed in the right direction. That's the lowest figure in some 10 years. And we mentioned all of the problems facing Republicans in Washington. Do these numbers reflect that?
Mr. AYRES: Brian, it's always darkest just before the dawn--I hope. It helps to put these numbers in some historical perspective. Every president since Lyndon Johnson has at some point during their presidency had a job approval rating in the mid-30s or lower. So from a historical perspective, this President Bush's nadir is higher than anybody else's nadir in the last half century. Now that said, you don't like the numbers where they are, and our one hope is that in the time before the November elections next year, there's plenty of time for this to turn around.
NAYLOR: Jim Jordan, by 48 percent to 39 percent, the same Wall Street Journal-NBC poll says American prefer Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress, but does that number really mean anything? It's more than a year away from the November elections. Can--are Democrats peaking too soon, maybe, or can they take advantage of this?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, obviously, 13 months is forever in politics, and this has less to do with Democrats peaking than Republicans collapsing. That's important to remember as well. But, sure, this is--with those two very important caveats in mind, this is shaping up to be an extraordinary election cycle for us. These type of numbers have undoubtedly affected Republican recruiting for the Senate, for the House and for governorships; conversely, made Democratic recruiting quite good. It affects our fund raising and the administration is bogged down. They're not likely, really, to be able to accomplish much that's gonna fundamentally change the political terrain.
NAYLOR: Whit, how does it look? Are Republicans worried? Do they have the recruiting problems that Jim mentioned?
Mr. AYRES: So far the Republicans have done a very good job avoiding retirements, and that's the first order of business when it comes to re-election. Senator Frist has term limited himself, but that's it on the Republican side. The respected Cook Political Report shows only three Republican Senate seats as toss-ups, one Democrat seat and the Independent seat in Vermont. So there are only five seats that are considered toss-ups right now, three on the Republican side and basically two on the Democratic side, so it doesn't look like there's a whole lot in play at this point.
On the House side, there are very few seats that are actually in play because of redistricting, so the institutional structure of both the House and the layout of the Senate this next year favors the status quo more than any significant change.
NAYLOR: We mentioned the many investigations involving Republican congressional leaders and administration officials. Democrats have been saying this is evidence of a culture of corruption among the Republicans who lead in Washington. Does that charge, do you think, stick to Republicans--Whit, let me ask you--do DeLay's problems and Frist's potential problems translate down ballot to candidates running in Iowa or California or wherever?
Mr. AYRES: Voters tend to vote on issues that affect their lives directly, much more than they vote on the kinds of issues that consume so much energy in Washington. The last time a second-term president was embroiled in a scandal was Bill Clinton in 1998, and guess what happened? His party picked up five seats in the House that year. That goes to show that voters are not as consumed about these sorts of scandal stories as the folks in Washington are.
NAYLOR: Jim Jordan, what's your take on that? Is this something the Democrats can run on?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, of course it is. I mean, it's not enough to beat Republicans by itself, but it's an important piece of a very unflattering portrait that Republicans are drawing about themselves. It explains a lot to voters about why things seem so screwed up to them. And most dangerously for them, the polls are showing that large majorities of Americans see Republicans as simply disconnected from their priorities, indifferent to their lives.
NAYLOR: Democrats, though, have been criticized for opposing Republican proposals, most notably the president's proposed changes in Social Security, without offering any alternatives. Do Democrats need to offer a sense of what they would do if elected at some point?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, of course we do, and as we get closer to the election, as voters really start paying more attention, you know, we will offer a positive, proactive agenda. But voters expect us to obstruct, to oppose bad policies, and on Social Security particularly the public was on our side and always was by huge margins. That's why that's been such a catastrophe for the administration. We simply were on the right side of public opinion and they were on the wrong side.
NAYLOR: Do you...
Mr. AYRES: But that's one of the reasons why the Democrats are rated almost as negatively as the Republicans today. They have offered no consistent alternative plan on anything. The last time there was a major change in our national politics was 1994, and Newt Gingrich had a Contract With America where, for any voters who were interested in finding out, laid out exactly what the Republican agenda would be if they took over. The Democrats not only haven't laid out anything comparable, they've laid out nothing positive at this point, and I'm skeptical that they can get their side agreed on a consistent alternative plan.
Mr. JORDAN: Well, yes, but at this point in the same election cycle in 1993, voters had the same impression of Republicans in Congress as they do of Democrats in Congress now. There's plenty of time for Democrats to lay out that positive agenda when voters are actually paying attention, and we will do exactly that. But even more fundamentally, by huge margins, by now a 30-point margin in polls, the public sees the nation as headed in the wrong direction. We've careened seriously off track, and voters know who's in charge. Republicans are running this town, they run this country, and they're the ones who are gonna be held accountable by voters.
NAYLOR: Let me ask finally about Harriet Miers, the president's nomination to the Supreme Court. A great deal of disappointment being voiced by members of the president's own party. Is there a danger that the Republican conservative base might sit this next election out?
Mr. AYRES: There's no question that there's angst among the Republican conservative base. They had high hopes for a major constitutional scholar for this Supreme Court seat. But ultimately I think Harriet Miers, should she decide to stick this process out, is likely to be confirmed, and she could end up being a heroine of the right depending upon how she votes and writes once she gets on the Supreme Court. I think that ultimately conservatives are going to stick with this president and stick with this party when it comes to pulling the lever in the ballot booth.
NAYLOR: And, Jim, how should Democrats take advantage of this angst right now in the conservative base of the Republican Party?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, right now we should just make some popcorn and enjoy the show. I mean, all of these wounds are self-inflicted by the Bush administration. Not only have they alienated their conservative base, their religious base, they've alienated Hispanics with this pick and he's put his allies on the Hill in a very, very uncomfortable position with this pick. He runs the risk of losing a lot of loyalty on the Hill. That's been one of his core strengths since he's been president.
NAYLOR: Democratic consultant Jim Jordan was a campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and Republican pollster Whit Ayres is president of the Washington consulting firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates.
Thanks to you both.
Mr. JORDAN: Thank you.
Mr. AYRES: Thank you, Brian.
NAYLOR: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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