The American Democracy Conference Redux

Wrapping up 2005 and Peeking into 2006


For most, December conjures up memories of spending time with family, the occasional vision of dancing sugar plums and, of course, anxiety over the frenetic rush to buy the holiday season’s hot new toy. But on the morning of December 1, while many were running mad through their local malls scrambling for those last few X-Box 360s, we here at the Crystal Ball were bolting through the doors of the Hotel Washington and glued to C-SPAN 2, eagerly anticipating the start of December’s premier political event – the Eighth Annual American Democracy Conference.

Hosted by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and National Journal’s the Hotline and sponsored by Altria, this year’s event featured some of the Beltway’s top movers, shakers, and campaign makers in three lively panel discussions. The day featured lots of insightful discourse on the state of American politics and bold predictions about what lies ahead in 2006. With so many Washington insiders offering up so much expert analysis, it’s safe to say that our post-election political junkie fix was satisfied. And for those that missed out, each panel discussion is available via the University of Virginia Podcast.

Panel Discussion I – The Declining Bush Mandate

Professor Larry J. Sabato from the Center for Politics moderated the morning’s opening panel on “The Declining Bush Mandate” which featured four of the reporters who know our 43rd president best: USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, National Journal White House correspondent Carl Cannon, NBC News Washington correspondent Rosalind Jordan, and The Weekly Standard Executive Editor and Fox News contributor Fred Barnes whose book Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush hits bookstores in January. Sabato began the discussion asking the panel to account for President Bush’s historically low approval ratings. Ideas ranged from an overexposure due to cable news and the Internet to a lack of personal appearances in an un-staged environment, but all agreed that Bush’s popularity ultimately hinges on Americans’ perception of the war in Iraq.

“The public are where these Senate Democrats who voted for the war resolution in ’03 are,” said Cannon. “They were for it and now they have reservations.”

Jordan added that whatever misgivings Americans might have are now being exacerbated by the ongoing investigation of who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to reporters. She said the story has, “brought everyone back to these questions of how the case for war was made, how that case was being sold to the American public, who were the people who were picked to be the conduits. That has renewed our coverage of this debate.”

Barnes posited that it’s not simply the investigation that’s driving the argument over Iraq. “The press is making this an issue because the Democrats are pushing,” he said. “The public didn’t dream up these worries on their own.”

Conventional wisdom would suggest Bush could boost his ratings by taking credit for positive economic results as indicated by recent gross domestic product growth and a downturn in inflation and unemployment numbers. But Page noted that, “Wages have been flat and health care has not been addressed,” adding, “I think people do not feel secure about their own economy just by looking at GDP, inflation and unemployment numbers.” Cannon argued that while so much of President Clinton’s popularity came from his taking credit, Bush couldn’t pull off the same maneuver because Clinton “was the man with the plan” touting a laundry list of policies while Bush “tends to think that the best way to improve the economy is to not screw it up.”

So what can Bush do to recover? Page said that it all comes back to Iraq because even a recent drop in gas prices doesn’t seem to be helping his rating. Cannon thought an upturn would have to do more with a change in one of Bush’s personality traits. Citing a recent poll that showed over 80 percent of Americans believed Bush to be “stubborn,” he said, “That stubborn number is a pejorative and people see his resoluteness as an almost pathological unwillingness to admit fault.”

Jordan came back to the issue of his lack of personal interaction with everyday Americans. “Especially in light of Katrina,” she said, “it’s almost incumbent upon him to be around people. Get back out among the people. Three years is a very long time to be to be removed from the people that you’re serving.”

Barnes dismissed the idea that higher approval ratings were a sign of recovery, saying that despite Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton’s mandate in opinion polls during their second terms that none of them used those numbers to accomplish much. “Recovery is if he can achieve his agenda,” he said, adding that meant successful results for “his guest worker program, Sam Alito and [selling the successes in] Iraq.”

Barnes also noted that Bush, whom he called “an acquaintance,” might be willing to pay a particularly high political price for achieving his initiatives. When Sabato recounted a conversation he’d recently had with an unnamed Republican congressman saying that Bush may be willing to sacrifice GOP majorities in one or both houses of Congress, Barnes responded, “I think that assessment is pretty accurate.”

Panel Discussion II – The 2006 Midterms

Whether or not that Democratic takeover will come to pass in the next election cycle was the subject officials from both parties took up in the day’s second discussion “The 2006 Midterms.” With Hotline Senior Editor John Mercurio moderating, DSCC Political Director Guy Cecil and DCCC Executive Director John Lapp locked horns with NRSC Communications Director Brian Nick, NRCC Communications Director Ed Patru and former NRSC Political Director Chris LaCivita, each making the case for why their respective parties would be the majority-elect this time next year.

In between spontaneous bouts of light partisan sparring, the five panelists offered up what they thought their party needed to do in order to be successful. LaCivita implored anyone forecasting 2006 to “just do the math.” “If the Democrats win all their open seats and we lose two, we’re still in the majority,” adding that he believed the GOP’s management of races on a state and local level was generally better “provided that Republicans don’t forget to counter attack and attack during the campaigns.”

For the Democrats, Cecil said that the key to taking Congress is a matter of message. “We can’t just be against Republicans,” he said, adding that rather than taking cues from a president, the Democrats have to unify around “a discussion about Social Security, prescription drugs, fiscal discipline and on the issue of Iraq war.”

Unity of message was undoubtedly a factor in the Republicans’ taking the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm elections, and many wonder if low approval ratings for both Congress and President Bush mean the time is right for a 1994-style takeover for the Democrats in 2006.

Patru says that in the House it’s not possible simply because of a lack of competition. “In ’94 there were 105 competitive races, 95 were Democrat-held seats. This year there are 27 competitive races, 17 are held by Republicans,” he said. “Without expanding the playing field, they have no hope of putting the House back in play.”

Lapp’s rebuttal to Patru’s math lesson was brief. “If the leader of my party was guilty and has to step down,” he said, “I’d talk about tactics, too.”

Panel Discussion III – Seeing Red: What’s Next for the Republicans?

In the day’s final discussion, Hotline Editor in Chief Chuck Todd moderated a panel of top Republican pollsters in “Seeing Red: What’s Next for the Republicans?” (the counterpart to his panel at the 2004 ADC, “Singing the Blues: What Now for the Democrats?”) The ADC’s annual discussion on one of the major parties is a dubious distinction given to the party in the worst shape at the time, but John Brabender, Kellyanne Conway, Linda DiVall, Tony Fabrizio, and Craig Shirley were all glad to offer their expertise.

Asked to address their concerns about the GOP’s immediate future in 2006, Brabender pointed to a decline in support among moderate women. “We’ve taken the war on terror, which was about keeping your family safe, and moved it to ‘should we be where we are?'” she said. “The gender gap is huge.”

Conway noted that 2006 might be shaping up like 1998. “[In ’98] 28 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for Democrats, and you had all these fiscal conservatives staying home,” she recalled. Fabrizio shared Conway’s worry saying that, “There is no evidence that we are the party of smaller government. If you are a smaller government, lower tax Republican you’re saying, ‘Okay, we got a tax cut, but the budget has grown more than under Clinton.’ For independent voters spending and size matters.”

However DiVall said that criticizing the president was the wrong tack for Republican candidates themselves to take, and noted that, “The ratings for Congress are just as bad as for President Bush. It doesn’t do any good to tear down the leader of your party.”

Likewise, the panelists weren’t about to tear down their party either and were happy to oblige when Todd asked them to play a time-honored national pastime: handicapping the next presidential election. The panel began by discussing the chances of Senator John McCain improving upon his performance in the 2000 primary and actually capturing the Republican nomination. “McCain should be credited for his conservative votes on some issues,” said Conway. “Whether it’s fortitude on the battlefield or fortitude to steer this economy, I do think that will be attractive. I think any Republican would be proud [of McCain].”

Other panelists disagreed. Said Shirley, “McCain is more disconnected from the base than any frontrunner we’ve ever had in the last 50 years. If he were the nominee, there is the risk that if he doesn’t move to the right that third party candidates could emerge.”

Fabrizio also believed McCain lacked appeal with the Republican base, and that, depending on how the midterm elections turn out, it might begin to show. “If the GOP suffers significant defeats in 2006, McCain will get a boost in terms of the media will embrace him as a maverick who stood apart from the party. But the leadership in the bases of the party will feel more betrayed that the party tried to move to the middle and that will help the conservative candidate in the 2008 primary.”

And just who might that conservative candidate be? The panel seemed to think the smart money is on Senator George Allen. “I personally think he is remarkable,” said Fabrizio. “When people see him, they just like him. His politics becomes almost secondary to his personality. I think he is the type of guy who can position himself to shake things up.”

Conway concurred. “He has a tremendous likeability factor and I think it will help raise money,” she said, adding that his conservative credentials will not keep the Virginian from appealing to a broad base because, “I don’t know the American people want insurgency in their politics.”

Insurgency or no, politics is and will remain a good thing and we would like to thank all who participated in the Eighth Annual American Democracy Conference for helping to spread that message. As America gets ready to say goodbye to 2005, we hope to see you at next year’s conference to discuss just who had a happy new year.