The Courts and Politics Following a week of hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, Liane Hansen talks with veteran Washington political insiders Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, and Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant, about the influence judicial issues have on voters in this Congressional election year.
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The Courts and Politics

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The Courts and Politics

The Courts and Politics

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Judge Samuel Alito's moment in the glow of the Senate Judiciary Committee flickered with little incident this past week. In hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court, Alito diligently answered windy questions with discourses on procedure and judicial practices. By the end of the week, Capitol Hill consensus held that Democratic senators talked the momentum out of any effort to derail Alito's nomination. It's expected to come to the Senate floor in the coming week, although that may prove elusive, putting Alito in line to win approval to replace Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the nation's highest court.

Practical politics is never far from the surface in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill. After the hearings ended, we spoke with two seasoned political insiders. Republican pollster Whit Ayres joins us in the studio, and Democratic consultant Jim Jordan was on the phone from Vermont. I asked Jim Jordan whether he thought judicial issues and court appointments would be a consequential political issue this year.

Mr. JIM JORDAN (Democratic Consultant): Well, guys like Whit and me will do our best to try to inject this type of thing into elections, but in truth, most of the voters who really decide elections aren't focused on anything like this. It's a dim roar if anything. Voters are focused on things that affect their lives much, much more directly than some obscure judge who may or may not be headed to the Supreme Court. There's not much there. I will say there's one member of the Senate who's a little on the spot here. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a very moderate Republican, has a tough primary from a much more conservative Republican. A yes vote on Alito hurts him in the generals; he makes it a no vote on Alito, it hurts him in the primaries. He's feeling the squeeze. Other than that, there aren't going to be huge ramifications for anyone.

HANSEN: Whit, do you--do you agree with that, no political resonance?

Mr. WHIT AYRES (Republican Pollster): I agree with him that most voters are going to make their decisions based upon issues that are closer to their hearts. Where it does matter, though, is with the Republican base voters. They are very pleased with Alito, and from their perspective, the Roberts and Alito nominations will be two of the signal accomplishments of the Bush administration.

HANSEN: Let's move to some other issues, though, that are around Washington. First, Jack Abramoff, Washington lobbyist. He's talking with prosecutors about his financial relationships with members of Congress, and both Democrats and Republicans are being talked about. And then, of course, there's Republican Tom DeLay's existing legal problems, his connections with Abramoff. What about that? How deeply can these two things cut into GOP security?

Mr. AYRES: Well, they can cut into attitudes about Congress across the board. There are a lot of Democrats and Republicans that are really nervous right now. The ratings of Democrats in Congress are every bit as low as the ratings for Republicans in Congress, and this could only drive them lower. I do think they need to do some aggressive lobbying reform. There are bills moving in both sides now of Congress, and I think that needs to happen fairly quickly. But we won't really be able to judge the ramifications of this whole scandal until we find out what Mr. Abramoff has told the prosecutors, and nobody knows that yet except him and the prosecutors.

HANSEN: Jim, is it even-Steven here with the Democrats, do you think?

Mr. JORDAN: Of course it's not. That's ridiculous. This is a Republican scandal. Jack Abramoff is a prominent Republican. He's never made a contribution to a Democrat. The Democratic names who have surfaced in this have never met Jack Abramoff, they've never been lobbied by him. And most importantly the atmosphere in Washington, in Congress, that's allowed a scandal like this to happen was created by Republicans, was created by people like Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum and the K Street Project. This has fallen squarely in the laps of the Republican Congress.

HANSEN: So, Jim, in general terms, do you actually expect these scandals in Washington to actually influence the electorate and the campaigns this year?

Mr. JORDAN: Sure. It's an important explainer for voters. Poll after poll shows a big majority of voters think that the country is seriously off-track, and this is an explanation for it. Voters understand that Congress is not really doing its job, paying attention to the issues that matter. They're more interested in golf junkets with lobbyists and fund-raising.

HANSEN: Whit, what do you think? What's your impression? Will the scandals influence the political year?

Mr. AYRES: They're a piece of the whole environment that we can't really evaluate until we know how it's going to turn out. I do think that both Democrats and Republicans have something to fear from this, and we'll just have to see how it plays out over the next few months.

HANSEN: Other factors in the environment, the political environment as we look forward to these elections are the economy and the war. Is one going to be more important than the other? Is one going to be the most important issue for voters this year?

Mr. AYRES: I do think Iraq is probably the number-one issue followed very closely by the economy, and then there are a number of other issues such as immigration, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a number of other things that Congress can do to help improve the mood before November, but it's going to come down to Iraq and the economy.

HANSEN: Jim, you agree with that?

Mr. JORDAN: I agree absolutely, and that's a good thing for Democrats.

HANSEN: Well, what do you think about that, Jim? Elaborate on that. On which issue can the Democrats run better, the economy or the war?

Mr. JORDAN: Well, I think both equally. This is George Bush's war and this is a Republican war. It's been another bloody week in Iraq, another bloody month in Iraq. The Bush administration keeps telling us there's light at the end of the tunnel, but frankly most people don't see it, and certainly voters don't see it. Voters just don't feel like the economy is improving. They feel squeezed. They don't feel better off. They see that the economy has benefited--and the Bush tax cuts have benefited a very narrow band of wealthy Americans, but most, most Americans don't feel like the Bush economy has done much for them.

Mr. AYRES: But the reality is the economy is doing well. We had 4.3 percent growth in the last quarter. There's nothing to suggest that the economy is doing anything other than chugging along at a nice, steady growth rate, and that's going to help the Republicans in the long run.

HANSEN: Whit, will then the Republicans be vulnerable on the war?

Mr. AYRES: It depends upon what the status is of the war come October, and I don't think any of us knows that. There's lots of good news with the successful elections. They're working to form a government now. If they form a government successfully and if Iraq is less violent and more stable come October, then I think the Republicans benefit. If not, then the Democrats benefit.

HANSEN: Jim, when you and Whit were last on the show, Brian Naylor was hosting the program back in the fall and, Jim, you actually talked then about the need for the Democrats to get it together on an agenda beyond just saying, `Don't blame us. We're not in the majority.' Have you seen any progress in that direction?

Mr. JORDAN: Well, yes, of course I have. The Democrats are preparing around the State of the Union to roll out very ambitious agenda of their own, an agenda focused on reform, reform of government, of bringing honesty back to government, and one that connects substantively with the real needs and wishes and aspirations and worries of Americans. Frankly, this is going to be an election that is more a referendum on Republicans in public government than anything else, but it is important the Democrats have something positive to offer. It hasn't been important over the past year or so, but come election time, voters need to understand the Democrats have a positive alternative, and we're preparing to roll that out shortly.

HANSEN: Whit, the Republicans are noted for adhering to their message, staying on point, party unity. Is the glue going to hold as the election year unfolds?

Mr. AYRES: Well, we'll see, but when the alternative is a Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi-led alternative party, I think that's a wonderful glue for Republicans.

HANSEN: Republican pollster Whit Ayres is president of the Washington consulting firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates. Democratic consultant Jim Jordan was a campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Whit, thank you.

Mr. AYRES: Thank you very much.

HANSEN: And, Jim, thank you very much.

Mr. JORDAN: Pleasure to be with both of you.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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