James LINDSAY: Hi, I’m Jim Lindsay. I am vice president and director of studies here at the Council [on Foreign Relations] and I want to welcome you to the council’s campaign 2004, the role of foreign policy. We are very fortunate tonight to have three distinguished pollsters, political strategists and commentators on American politics, and I’d like to introduce them.
To my immediate right is Andy Kohut, who is the president of the Pew Research Center for the People in the Press, and was formerly president of the Gallup organization. And he is a regular contributor to the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
To my immediate left is Doug Schoen, who is the founding partner of Penn, Schoen & Berland. He was a political strategist to Bill Clinton—played a particularly key role for President Clinton in 1994 and 1996, and his exploits there got him named pollster of the year by the American Association of Political consultants. In addition to being a distinguished pollster, Doug is also an author. Among his books is a biography of Pat Moynihan.
To my far left, geographically thought not ideologically—(laughter)—is Ed Rollins, who is the chairman of the Rollins Strategy Group, but he is best known to people as the man who managed Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection victory back in 1984. Ed has served for four American presidents. He has also been on the inside of government, and served two high level tours of duty in the U.S. government in the White House, where he held, among other things, director of the White House Office of Political Affairs, and was deputy chief of staff.
And so first let me say thank you, gentlemen, very much for coming and joining us here tonight.
Let me take a moment to sort of review the Council’s standard rules, because if I don’t review them I will get chastised by the people who set up these meetings and work very hard to make them happen.
First, I’d like to emphasize that tonight’s meeting, unlike most Council meetings of this sort, is on the record for attribution.
Second, we will end this meeting promptly at 7:30. I am going to be held to that. And I would ask everyone in the audience, as a courtesy to our speakers, that you do not get up while they’re speaking, and not leave the meeting early.
The third request I’ll make, and perhaps the most important one is, please, please turn off your cell phones. So all of you who have cell phones, or any other electronic gizmo that will go off, we’d greatly appreciate it if you could turn it off now.
Let me explain briefly our format for tonight. We’re going to spend a few minutes up front having a conversation among the four of us, and then we are going to go to the audience for questions and answers. And at that point I will give you all the Council directions about how we do questions and answers.
But right now I want to get to the topic of tonight’s talk, and let me begin with Andy Kohut. Andy, back in 2000 we had an election in which foreign policy didn’t figure very prominently. Remember looking at the polls back then, suggesting when we asked people what are the big issues facing the country—defense, foreign affairs were way down the list of issues. It’s pretty clear since September 11th, war in Iraq, foreign policy is a much more prominent issue than it was four years ago. My question to you is: How much more prominent is it and what are the issues when you go out to talk to people and do your polls that you see taking place?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the most important thing to recognize is that while people’s concerns about terrorism are not as pressing as they were a year ago or two years ago right after the attacks, they are still there, and the war on terrorism and protecting the country against terrorism is as high as any national priority. In fact, we are going to release a poll tomorrow where we ask people to rate 21 priorities as we do each January, and number one is fixing the economy. But number two is protecting the country against terrorism. And they are actually tied. And the president’s approval ratings on terrorism have anchored his overall approval ratings, particularly when times have gotten tough for him, when he sunk to 50 percent in the fall of 2003. He was always at 65 and 60 percent on terrorism, and that’s a good card for him at this point.
In fact, if you look at the polls, and if you look at history, foreign policy is an advantage to the Bush side in two very significant ways. One, an incumbent president always has an advantage, because of the stature gap. And whoever the Democrat is, he or she is going to have to measure up. And that’s a challenge. Secondly, Republicans do better typically—unless things are going very badly—on foreign policy—than Democrats. And so that’s two points for Bush.
The other issue, however, that cuts against the administration to a certain extent is the way things are going in Iraq. The capture of Saddam Hussein has put a Band-Aid over people’s concerns about the way the war is going in Iraq, the way the situation is going in Iraq. But you know the casualties and the chaos that the American public saw between July and September cost Bush about 15 approval points. And the cost-benefit analysis that the public makes now as a ratio has broken back a little bit in favor of it was worth it. But if we continue to have that drip, drip, drip, we could get to a turning point where the public says no longer worth it. But still, nonetheless, people have stuck with the idea that this was the right thing to do, even though they have many doubts about the way it was done, the timing of it, and the Democrats’ opportunity is to exploit those doubts, if that situation continues to get worse.
MR. LINDSAY: Thanks, Andy.
Doug, it seems to me that Andy just gave Democrats a little bit of hope, but not a whole lot of hope. And so I guess my question is, given what he just outlined, can a Democratic candidate make a case to the American people?
DOUGLAS SCHOEN: You know, I think a Democrat can, and probably will. And Andy is undeniably right in summarizing public opinion, so I am not really here to take issue with the numbers. I think the Pew polls are uniformly not only accurate, but a comprehensive assessment of where things stand.
But I think I’d choose to offer a couple of points. First, as Andy’s comments suggested, prior to the capture of Saddam, the president’s ratings on Iraq have really served to reduce his approval rating down to the 50 percent level that Andy spoke of. There was and still is a sense that there is no clear plan; that Iraq hasn’t been explained; that we are not necessarily safer as a people. And I think it’s not so much that Howard Dean’s formulation is what people are thinking—particularly in partisan terms—but rather there’s a sense that we went in looking for weapons of mass destruction, haven’t found them, apparently there isn’t a link between al Qaeda and the Iraqis—and the American people are left to wonder what is the benefit.
Now, Andy is absolutely right. At this point when asked, well, gee, was this a good idea or a bad idea, the right thing to do or not, you have got somewhere 53, 57, 58 percent that say it’s the right idea. But that’s for now. And I think that the Band-Aid analogy that Andy used is probably the right one, and it’s the right one because the doubts which I spoke to, which are not necessarily a reflection of what public opinion is—in fact, I’m offering a somewhat tailored view to answer Jim’s question. But the Band-Aid analogy is a good one because if we take more casualties—and already even in the few days after Saddam’s capture the American people were saying we’ve had an unacceptably large number of casualties—if we have more casualties—or heaven forfend a serious, serious loss of lives in Iraq on a scale we haven’t faced, we have the possibility of Iraq becoming and foreign policy becoming a great political benefit to the Democrats, even if arguably could well be of tragic dimensions to the country.
So I guess what I am suggesting is that it is by no means clear as we sit here today that Iraq and foreign policy are clearly going to be a benefit to Bush. So Andy is certainly right to say historically that’s the case. And there’s enough downsides to the Republicans and upsides to the Democrats that I think really we’re going to have to see how things play out over the next eight to nine months to definitively answer the question.
MR. LINDSAY: Okay, Ed, let me turn to you. Andy has got a lot of good news for the president. But there’s that sort of glimmer of bad news that things could go wrong. And I guess from your vantage point—you’ve been through a lot of campaigns—is Bush vulnerable on foreign policy? If he does have a vulnerability, is it simply Iraq, or could it tie into bigger issues? Are there other issues around the president, foreign policy, from a litmus test, or is it for the president—he’s really sort of chalked up the foreign policy vote and this is mostly about the economy?
EDWARD ROLLINS: Free elections are always about the incumbent president, and obviously when the country is looking for an alternative, as they were with Carter in ’80 and they were with Bush in ’92, someone can rise out of the pack and become a very significant alternative.
I think that the country is still very polarized. I don’t think there’s a dramatic change between the election of 2000 and the country today in the sense of partisan split, or even a geographical split, when you look at the blue states and the red states, the Democrat and the Republican states. I don’t think there’s a dramatic difference.
Where there is a dramatic difference is at the end of the election in 2000, nearly Bush nor Gore were viewed as a very strong leader. It was kind of a lesser of two evils. It was sort of a vote—it wasn’t a positive vote as much as it was Democrats blaming Gore for running a lousy campaign; people who voted for Bush weren’t overly satisfied. And I think until September 11th, when he clearly rose to the occasion, and the two men in this country who absolutely took on totally different dimensions—Rudy Giuliani who on September 10th had a 26 percent approval rating, and today is still sitting at 85 percent; and George Bush, who clearly went ahead and performed extremely well.
So I think Bush today has the most important presidential quality you can have, whether you like him or dislike him—and there’s a very strong dislike among a lot of Democrats towards him, and they would like to have an alternative. People can’t underestimate him again. They see him as a leader. They see him certainly as someone who has led us into a war. He holds the respect of the military. Obviously he led his party into a midterm election in which they picked up seats, which was unprecedented. So I think the reality is that the country is not looking for an alternative in the same way that they were Bush’s father.
He clearly has his own political base—very solid. There are no Republican defectors. There’s no challenge. And I think that’s a very, very good place to be. Once again, you go back and look at his father, who was the last incumbent president to lose: 29 percent of Republicans voted for Perot or Clinton. It was Republicans who defeated George Bush, Sr. There are no defections among Republicans this time. It would be very, very small—sort of the Northeast liberal Rockefeller Republican—and that’s a very small number at this point in time.
If we would have been sitting here a year ago or two years ago, and you said we are going to have this big debate the week before the Iowa primaries about foreign affairs, I’d have said, “Why waste your time?” I mean, obviously it’s the Council on Foreign Relations—so maybe that’s all you people want to do, is sit around and talk about it. (Laughter.) But in every campaign I’ve ever been in—I’ve been around a long, long time—people always say, What is the role of foreign affairs in the presidential campaign? I get this when I’ve been in Germany, in France, and everywhere else—and I say zero. Big difference this time.
I think the Bush campaign is not going to run on a stronger economy, which will be there. I think they’re going to run on their leadership abilities, both in war and the fight against terrorism. I think the Democrats very clearly have made that a line in the sand, and they’re going to go battle—led certainly by Dean, who initially started this sort of anti-war or anti—and certainly pleased an awful lot of Democrats who were waiting for someone to stand up and yell and holler about those issues. But I think at this point in time, is Bush beatable? I don’t think so. He has some tremendous advantages. And unlike the two gentlemen who serve on the panel with me, who are experts in national politics and geopolitics and polling, I always look at 270 electoral votes. And what I can’t find is where any of the Democrats can go and get any of Bush’s electoral votes from the last time. And I do see some states that we could be competitive in this time, and all I can tell you is Howard Dean will trounce them. If it’s someone else—if it’s a Clark—he could go redefine himself in a different way—maybe a Kerry, maybe a Gephardt—it could be a closer election. But his numbers today, Bush’s numbers today, are stronger than Reagan’s campaign numbers were when I was running his campaign 20 years ago, and he went on to win 59 percent of the vote in 49 states. No one is going to win 49 states again, but the reality is I think without a major slip-up—and one other big advantage—certainly to run on here—Bush is sitting with $200 million in the bank. No one has ever had those kinds of resources before. And those resources will be used literally from the 19th of March to September, in which he will define whoever the Democratic nominee is.
And the untold story of those of us who have been in this business is—is there enough money in the general election with public financing to run a presidential campaign? Yes, there is. Is there enough money in other financed elections to win a primary and be a viable candidate from there until the convention? The answer is absolutely no. So if you don’t have Kerry and you don’t have Dean on the Democratic side, who both basically wave their public financing—whoever gets the nomination—if it’s one of the others—will basically be sitting flat broke against $200 million and a team that’s ready to go out and define him in any way, shape or form. So I promise you Republican strategy has always been we win these things before September 1st, and they will go out and try and knock the teeth out of whoever the nominee is, and I think it’s a very big advantage.
MR. KOHUT: Jim, could we go home now? (Laughter.)
MR. LINDSAY: Sounds like it’s over.
MR. KOHUT: You know, I think that you always have to—if anything the odds of what you are saying are true. I mean, the odds favor Bush. There’s no question about it. But there are always wild cards. Another attack is a wild card. What would be the consequence of it?
The absence of a—or a change of mind on the part of the American public about how much of a terrorist threat we really face, in an environment where jobs don’t surface, and the domestic agenda takes supremacy, that I would really argue against. You know, I think that on balance you are probably right, but you can’t rule it out.
MR. ROLLINS: Never rule it out.
MR. KOHUT: And there has to be some—you know, there are some things that the Democrats can still say. The Democrats can talk about—on the domestic side of foreign policy. They can talk about the ways in which trade, free trade, has hurt them, and of course there are some problems with Clinton there. They can talk about the ways in which the Bush administration has increased the burden on the United States with respect to what we have to do in dealing with global problems, because we don’t get the cooperation of our allies. So it’s not all that one-sided.
And, you know, the two wild cards of another attack or real complacency about terrorism are something that the Republicans have to worry about.
MR. LINDSAY: Let me ask you a question here, Doug, and that is if you are advising a Democratic candidate on the issue of foreign policy, clearly I think Ed’s right, the administration won’t run on the economy or run on its leadership in foreign affairs and its willingness to prosecute the war on terrorism. The question then becomes for a Democratic candidate: What is your goal on foreign affairs? Are you trying to neutralize the president’s advantage there? Are you trying to redefine it? Are you trying to recast the elections?
I think for a Democrat who is a candidate presumably you are not going to want to be sitting around hoping that something bad happens, like another event, so that you then have an opening. Presumably you have to have some strategy. And I guess what is it that on your basis should you—what do you do?
MR. SCHOEN: I think there are probably three things you try to do. The first thing you try to do—I think your point was to suggest neutralize the nation. I think you want to do that. I think you want to do that in a couple of ways. First, you want to increasingly raise doubts about the success of the enterprise. And I think the polling that I’ve seen, and certainly Ed and Andy have seen, suggest that there’s real doubt about the way Bush has conducted himself in the international context: the failure to have a multilateral dimension, consult the U.N.—has again raised real doubts. So I think you can begin to undermine the president on that level, and also suggest that the venture in Iraq, however good an idea it might have been, has not been prosecuted successfully—or as successfully as it might have been.
I’m not sure you are going to succeed in winning the issue, and indeed if you neutralize it. As you question suggested, you’re way ahead of the game. But I think it was Andy who suggested the beginnings are the way to take the foreign policy issue and use it, which is to use trade as a basis to get to the issue, whereas I think that Ed would concede that the president does have real vulnerability, which is on jobs.
And I think that really to the extent that the Democrats are able to run an election campaign that in a certain sense neutralizes the economic recovery, speaks to people’s concern, underlying economic uncertainty, and suggests that this is an administration that has really failed to deliver, has played politics with the trade issue, with steel tariffs, and has ultimately not protected American working people, so that—I’ll give you one state, Ed, how about West Virginia? And my point in raising that is not to play rhetorical games. And Ed is I think on balance largely right. The president has a base of somewhere around 230 to 270 electoral votes that are not going to be really, really vulnerable. This is going to be a close election either way
But I think to just simply answer Jim’s question, the Democrats can turn the foreign policy issue into one that really raises questions: Are we really safer now under George Bush? Have we won the war on tariffs? Probably not. Have we succeeded in Iraq and Afghanistan? Isn’t clear. Have we neutralized the threat of North Korea? Again, probably not. So, really to take Ed’s first point, elections are referenda, and to raise those questions about the president, and hopefully to get a neutral to negative answer.
MR. LINDSAY: What about the argument about going after the president, really sort of targeting specific foreign policy issues that are important to swing states, where you can take trade perhaps to West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Michigan or—
MR. ROLLINS: You can. The reality is those are the kinds of discussions you would have had here at the Council on Foreign Relations four years ago or eight years ago when it was the issue of trade. I promise you I can walk into any truck stop in America and basically say, “How do you feel about those French? They don’t like us anymore because the U.N. wasn’t involved in the war. And I promise you I’ll win that debate.”
I think the critical thing here is the Democrats—I always try—when I plan a campaign, I never want to go against the great strength of whoever my opponent is. I’m always reminded—I don’t believe you were involved in this campaign—but it was a very vulnerable governor, Pete Wilson of California, in 1994. He had the worst approval ratings of anybody in California history, had gone through some very, very significant issues, and a very strong Democratic candidate, Kathleen Brown, who was Jerry Brown’s sister.
She decided the issue she was going to take Pete Wilson on was crime. There’s no place you could have beat Pete Wilson—you could have beat him lots of different ways, but you weren’t going to beat Pete Wilson on crime. And so the reality is the first three or four parts of that campaign, months of that campaign, she’s hammering away on Pete Wilson being soft on crime and he’s pounding her brother, her father, everybody else.
If I was running a Democratic campaign, which obviously I’m not, I would not take the president on in foreign affairs initially. I believe this is a longer battle. And what you want to do is you want to stay alive so that you’re still in the game beyond September. And if you want to go out and argue with no plan, that you’re just against the war in Iraq, and no real formative security plan you want to argue about trade and other things, I think, at the end of the day, Bush crushes you.
If you want to go out and talk about misspending, a lack of planning, lack of vision, lack of a real ability to look down the road—we got ourselves in a quagmire, but nobody can tell you what it’s going to cost; at the same time, we’re rolling up deficits, and in spite of Dick Cheney, according to Paul O’Neill, “Deficits don’t matter,” deficits do matter. And I lived in the Reagan White House, where we worried about them every day.
But I think if you go after about moon shots and billions of dollars for Iraq and everything else, I think that some people start listening to you. They agree with you on those issues. If you go out and take on the president on the first issue, which is he mismanaged the war—those who are against the war, fine. But if you go out and try and move people away, who feel it’s their patriotic duty to be there for a president at time of national affairs, then I think they turn everything else that you make after them.
So I would start a series of things, talking about the economy, talking about how they have taken care of their friends at Halliburton and what have you, the subculture of the country, which may not show up at the top of the polls, but people still are very bothered by the CEO culture and what have you. And that starts this drum beat.
And then, by the time I get to September and I say, “Oh, and by the way, let’s talk about the things he wants to claim most credit for”—I think, if someone would do that, I think they could maybe stay in the game. If they don’t do that, and they want to take Bush on head-on on the war, I think they’re going to get crushed.
MR. LINDSAY: I want to ask you quickly—we’ve been talking about foreign policy sort of at the broad national level. But not only do you have to assemble electoral votes in different states, but presumably, to get those electoral votes, you have to reach out to particular communities.
And I just want to get from you any sense, in looking at the poll data, that foreign policy particularly resonates one way or the other with different groups on gender basis or income basis or regional basis? And I should tag on, did the president lock up the Latino vote because he came out with the immigration proposal?
MR. KOHUT: Well, obviously that’s going to help him with the Latino vote. Whether it’s going to lock it up or not is another question.
I was just looking at our survey that we’re going to release tomorrow, and it has an extraordinary thing in it for Bush and the Republicans. And the fact of the matter is that two very important groups who have been on the Democratic side in most national elections are now giving higher priority than their corresponding demographic groups to strengthening the U.S. military.
Women are now giving strengthening the military a higher rating than men. Older voters are giving strengthening the military a higher rating than younger people. And those have been two core Democratic constituencies. And that’s a very, very big problem for the Democrats.
Remember, the gender gap era developed on the basis of women’s concerns about foreign-policy issues. The thing has flipped. I think that we’re going to see a lot of repositioning on demographic groups. We may see, on the basis of economic issues, however, some of the independent blue-collar voters who’ve been pretty strong, who were classified Reagan Democrats years ago, there’s some potential vulnerability there on economic issues and on health care.
So it’s a little hard to have this conversation about foreign policy, because this is not just—foreign policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But there are some changes afoot in terms of the demographic composition of support patterns.
MR. LINDSAY: Okay, fair enough. And I think what we’re going to do now is bring our audience into our discussion here, if I may. One, we’d ask that you please stand, after being recognized, state your name and affiliation, and wait, before you even say that, wait till we hand you a mike. We’d greatly appreciate it. So that way everyone from the audience can hear.
Second, we would ask that everyone keep their questions concise and in the form of a question so we can get as many of you involved as possible.
So if you throw up your hands, I will try to recognize you. Miles.
Audience: Miles Pomper. I’m the editor of Arms Control Today. A question some of your commentary provoked. Among the Democratic candidates—I mean, from listening to you, it sounds like Mr. Gephardt would meet the needs of what Mr. Rollins was talking about and what Mr. Schoen is talking about—the trade issues, the economic populism. And I just was wondering about your thoughts among the Democratic candidates, who might be the strongest against Bush, given the qualities you’ve listed?
MR. ROLLINS: I think Dean would be the weakest. And I don’t care if he gets nominated in the next three weeks, he’s going to get battered and bruised. And he has a glass jaw. He’s a guy that does not react well under pressure. And if you think the pressure has been hard on him by the Democrats in the last couple of months, you wait till the Republicans turn their guns to him with about 3,000 reporters following him everywhere and waiting for every gaffe.
I think Gephardt could be a strong candidate. I’ve always felt Gephardt—he’s from Missouri. He’s from St. Louis, the Italian community of St. Louis. He’s always had good blue-collar work support. I think the John Kerry story was a great story that could have been told in a different way than it’s been, and no offense to my friend here, who’s been involved there, for somehow that never got quite told.
I still think Clark is the undefined entity. I think if Clark ended up being your nominee, he could be all things to all people. And he’s bright and he’s articulate and he is someone who basically people have a totally different perception. They think of him as a warrior, and all of a sudden they find a man that obviously is articulate. He wasn’t quite ready for prime time and he stumbled out of the box, but he’s certainly today turning on some audiences there. And I think that he would be the most—I think those three would be the most formidable.
I think John Edwards is glib and articulate and is starting to catch fire, but I think it may be way too late. But my sense is that Gephardt could become a very strong candidate. I think Kerry’s got some work to do to become a strong candidate. And I think that Clark, who’s got some work to do, could be an extremely strong candidate.
MR. SCHOEN: You know, I’m going to probably take a pass on the question, as a Democrat who’s working not for John Kerry but for Joe Lieberman. And I guess what I would say is really we’re at a formative stage in the primaries. We haven’t really cast a vote other than the votes that were cast yesterday in the District of Columbia, and that didn’t elect a delegate.
And while I certainly am not going to sit here and quibble with Ed’s characterization—I think it’s, on balance, certainly one that’s fair and reasonable—nonetheless, I think we have to get through a primary season, have the Democrats coalesce, and have a message vis-a-vis George Bush from a single Democrat with a hopefully unified Democratic Party emerge before we can really do more than speculate, to answer your question.
I think, frankly, the underlying economic conditions are going to be more powerful in explaining the electability of the Democrat than is the individual rhetoric or position that they take. Put another way, Howard Dean to some is a radical economic populist, and to others on the campaign trail he was criticized for supporting Newt Gingrich.
I say none of that to be an advocate of Howard Dean—I’m not—but rather to suggest we really haven’t gotten to the point where the race has taken shape.
MR. LINDSAY: Andy.
MR. KOHUT: I agree with your comments about Howard Dean. He has defined himself to the American public as the anti-war candidate. That’s not good. We have a rating of—have asked people to rate themselves on a left-right scale on the major candidates. That’s way out to the left; most of the other leading Democratic candidates closer to the average voter.
And Dean is going to have a real struggle. His favorability ratings in the Gallup Poll are, on balance, negative. And he can do real well with Democratic voters, as the whole Democratic Party, Democratic people, have moved to the left as Republicans have moved to the right; the polarization that we’ve been talking to.
Among those swing voters and this definition of being anti-war, which resonates with a lot of bad vibes for people about the Democrats during a period in which they feel vulnerable, you’re going to have a struggle if he’s the Democratic candidate.
MR. SCHOEN: Andy, the only thing I would ask you to think of—go back to the summer of 1992. I think Ross Perot was in first place. George Bush was in second place, and Bill Clinton was running in the high teens, having had a tough, tough primary process where he was battered on a variety of different fronts.
My point in suggesting that is not to say that Andy or Ed is wrong. I don’t think they are. I think Dean is going to have some formidable obstacles to overcome. But really I’m suggesting that the nature of the race, both in terms of foreign policy and domestic policy, is going to really have a lot to do with what the candidates say, how they emerge after the winnowing-down process occurs. And I really think that while the analysis Ed and Andy offer is a fair and reasonable one, in a certain sense it’s premature.
MR. ROLLINS: You’re not going to give me credit for taking Perot from 39 to 16 in six weeks as his campaign manager? (Laughter.)
MR. SCHOEN: Well, again, Ed, with all due respect, he did click for a while. (Laughter.)
MR. LINDSAY: Okay, fair enough. I’m going to go to the right- hand side of the room; the lady in the third row, if we could.
Audience: My name is Gail Leftwich. I’m with the MacNeil-Lehrer Productions’ “By the People” project. And I want to connect the comment you opened with, Mr. Lindsay, in which you were making the note that, in fact, in 2000 foreign affairs—and the conventional wisdom is that you don’t talk about foreign affairs in an election year—that’s something which kind of bores people; and then also the same comment which echoed in a fashion by your comments, Mr. Rollins, about you would never go to the president’s strength; different reason, but another version of the same argument that you don’t engage the public on foreign affairs at this point.
And as the pollsters, what you’re seeing and what you’re looking at right now that suggests that, in fact, the public—whether it does, in fact, suggest that the public is engaged in a different fashion on issues of foreign affairs, or going back to the initial point that was made, is it they are engaged around terrorism, and that’s become the lens for getting into foreign affairs?
Or are we seeing something which is fundamentally different this year, which means that foreign affairs is, in fact, accessible in a meaningful way to the public? And, if yes, in what way? How is that happening?
MR. KOHUT: Terrorism is to the present the prism through which the American public looks at foreign affairs, just as the Cold War was and our rivalry with the Soviet Union in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I mean, we did a poll a couple of years ago, right after 9/11, and we found extraordinary levels of awareness and even information levels about issues related to terrorism.
But when we asked people about the coup in Venezuela or we asked people about Lapin’s success in the French elections, 4 and 5 percent was about what we would have gotten at any point in time.
But that brings us back—to bring it back to your question, the American public is going to want to hear about foreign policy because the American public feels a greater threat. And while their interest may be a good deal narrower than the interest of this audience, it’s not going to be 6 percent, as it was in 1996, when we asked them in the exit polls, “How important was foreign policy?” or 12 percent when we asked them in 2000. It’s going to be a very respectable percentage.
MR. SCHOEN: You know, I agree in large part with Andy. I think terrorism is the initial prism through which the American people think about foreign policy. But I think the best way I can go beyond that is to cite Andy’s own data in support of the argument that there’s more to it than that and that foreign policy has become really a much more central issue, separate and apart from terrorism.
Andy, back in December, asked whether the Bush presidency had been successful. And by about roughly two to one, the answer was it had been successful. Those who said that the war had been successful were asked—I’m sorry, that the presidency had been successful were asked why that was, and half said Iraq. About 9 or 10 percent said terrorism. And those who said the presidency hadn’t been successful were asked, and they too said that the top reason it wasn’t successful was Iraq.
And my point is to suggest that because of the war on terrorism, there’s an immediacy to foreign policy and there’s a sense that the war in Iraq is more than just a foreign conflict that is unconnected to our lives, if only because we’ve lost—what is it—400 or 500 men and women in Iraq.
So I think that it has an immediacy. And the reason why I don’t think we can sit here today with any specificity and answer the central question that we’re all discussing is there are exogenous events that could well determine this election, notwithstanding the extraordinary talents that the three of us would like to bring to bear in analyzing public opinion.
MR. ROLLINS: There is a smaller point, though. Since September 11th, America has been focused on some heroes. Cops and firemen have always been heroes in my book, but to America they were heroes the day after September 11th. You could cut firemen in any city in America and there’d be no protest. You close a fire house today, as Mayor Bloomberg has found out in New York, it’s the hottest issue there is.
If our soldiers are not being perceived as being fully supported, going to your point earlier of women, and having grown up in the era where we were always the party who was pushing for strong national defense and a stronger defense budget, and paid a price to a certain extent for that, I think, if there’s any way any of your candidates are perceived as not being fully supportive of those who are there today and to finish the job and give them whatever support, whether the numbers are dramatic or not dramatic as to the death toll, every troop that comes home is a boy or girl next door, as they always have been.
But more important today, I think, is that people really want to make sure, if they’re going to be fighting this thing, I’m not sure it’s right, but they’re there; I want to make sure they’re back. And any perception of weakness on that front, I think, would be a devastating blow to them.
MR. KOHUT: Let me just add a point. The reason why Iraq is defined that way and has had much acceptance, even given the fact that there are no weapons of mass destruction or clear links to al Qaeda, is that the American public has seen the war on Iraq as part of the war on terrorism.
And that was the essential perception or point of view that gave Bush 60 to 65 percent levels of support—55 percent, whatever the levels were—at any given point in time. It’s more—this is something that’s being done on behalf of the war on terrorism.
Absent the war on terrorism, absent the September 11 attacks, the American public would have never gotten behind going in after Saddam Hussein, ever.
MR. ROLLINS: I agree.
MR. SCHOEN: So the president successfully framed the issue for himself.
MR. KOHUT: Well, the situation framed it, and he exploited it.
MR. SCHOEN: But in terms of the war in Iraq, the president’s framing of the issue as being related to the war on terrorism—
MR. KOHUT: And that’s why the absence of the weapons of mass destruction doesn’t lead to a collapse in support for the war, because people say, “It’s still good we got rid of this dangerous guy, because we feel a threat.”
MR. LINDSAY: I want to go to the back of the room to Ambassador Burt if we might.
Audience [Ambassador Richard Burt]: Thank you. You’ve introduced me. No, my question follows really right on this issue. I mean, one of the most astonishing things to me about the public debate and the public support for both the war on terrorism and Iraq is the fact that the principal rationale that the administration and the president personally laid out for this conflict—weapons of mass destruction, links with al Qaeda—have not been proven. And this has been an issue, of course, that the Democratic candidates have raised. But it hasn’t resonated with the American public.
So my question is, why is it that when the principal arguments made in support of the war have not been proven, to this point, at any rate, and are very unlikely to be proven in the future, and when the Democratic candidates are making that point, why is it that the American public doesn’t seem to care? Why has the president and his administration essentially gotten a free pass on this issue?
MR. SCHOEN: You know, I’m not sure it is a free pass. And I’d suggest that, again, if you looked at the poll data pre the capture of Saddam, the 50-50 divide that Ed Rollins spoke of in terms of the country was pretty close to what opinion on Iraq was. There was as sense, a Ed suggested, that we were spending an enormous amount of money on an ill-defined purpose.
And I’m not suggesting, in response to your question, that really, you know, I have data that nobody else has and that the American people are secretly very angry about the weapons of mass destruction not being found and no link to al Qaeda. But rather, I think it speaks to a more generalized point, which is that, yeah, the American people on balance rally around a president, particularly when he’s taken out a demonstrable bad guy who’s done bad things.
But there’s enough underlying doubts about the mission, its value and the like, that I still think it’s an open question whether those arguments, not in and of themselves, but as part of a larger critique, will have some sway come the fall, particularly if the war effort does not go any better than it has.
MR. ROLLINS: If this was 2008 and we were still in Iraq and troops were still getting killed at 30 or 40 a month, it would be a very big issue. I think what’s happened is once our boys, and girls now, have gone there, and once we very effectively have proven once again that we are the true military power of the world, I think Americans say, you know, maybe the reasons weren’t right, but at the end of the day, it’s our team that’s there and we’ve got to support our team.
As I said, six months from now that may not be quite as true, and a year from now and two years from now it might be not as true. But right now, I think a lot of Americans still think this thing may have gone—we may have gone in for the wrong reasons.
I’ve heard many people say to me, and I had many Republicans say to me before this war, “I’m opposed to this war.” They don’t want to stand up publicly and take the president on. But at this point in time, the vast majority of them say, “You know, this thing is screwed up. We shouldn’t have gone. The reasons were wrong. But now that we’re there, we can’t pull out.” And I think that’s as much of the issue as anything else.
MR. ROLLINS: Well, first of all, I just wondered if I could sort of expand on Ambassador Burt’s question, which is, how much of the issue going forward has been that it’s not really the critique of the president’s policy but who’s presenting the critique?
My impression is most of the polls suggest that on national security, foreign affairs, the public has more faith in Republicans, as a general rule, than it does in Democrats. And how much is the problem not really the message but the messenger?
MR. KOHUT: Well, I don’t think it’s—making people’s judgments about the war, it has as much to do with the messengers—although, you know, Bush does have credibility on terrorism and on foreign policy. But I think it goes back to what we found before the war, and that is, we did a couple of very comprehensive polls—in fact, done in conjunction with the Council—when we asked all kinds of questions about the rationales for going to war with Saddam Hussein.
And what we found was the real driver was seeing a potential war with Saddam Hussein as good for the war on terrorism, more powerful than finding weapons of mass destruction, more powerful than al Qaeda specific links. It’s this notion that this was the right thing to do to protect the country.
And once we’re there, there’s great criticisms of the way the war is being managed, the way Bush is managing the war and the way the deal was done. But the notion that it was the right thing to do, people hold onto, because they say, “It’s a good thing, in a dangerous world, that we got rid of a regime that was a danger to us.”
Now, the way that this can turn is if the American public comes to see the situation in Iraq—now we’re in the future—as as much of a danger as it was in the past or a greater danger. And so far that hasn’t been the case. And that’s why, in our polls, we’ve never seen a number below 57 or 58 percent saying, “It was the right decision to go,” even though we’ve found large criticisms of Bush not having a good plan, not articulating it, too much money, all these things.
People hang on to the notion that it was the right thing to do because they feel they are safer as a consequence, which goes to this notion that Dean has articulated, “Are we safer now?” I mean, that was the wrong thing to say, especially at the wrong time.
MR. SCHOEN: I think we would have to concede, Andy, that, A, there have been other polls that showed that the judgment to go to war scores closer to sort of 50 to 55 percent; and second, with the doubts that you’re citing, this is something that could turn a lot sooner than 2008.
MR. KOHUT: Absolutely.
MR. LINDSAY: The other thing that’s interesting in that score is that a fair percentage of the American public was convinced very early on and believed very early on that Saddam was connected to al Qaeda. Presumably that plays into their belief or acceptance of the framing of Iraq advancing the war on terrorism.
Let’s go to the back of the room on the other side. Professor Goldgeier.
Audience: Jim Goldgeier from George Washington University and the Council. We haven’t talked about the primary campaign. Could any of the panelists comment on the role that foreign policy will play in the actual determination of the Democratic nominee, what kind of impact foreign policy is having among some of the—especially some of the early primaries?
MR. SCHOEN: You know, I think one of the best ways to answer the question, at least in my terms, is if you saw the front page article in USA Today—(audio break)—the Dean voters, versus the supporters, and I guess Kerry and Gephardt, Lieberman and Clark. And Dean is I think appealing to a constituency that we have seen time and again in the Democratic Party—upscale, white, suburban and urban activists, very liberal, as Andy certainly suggested, who take a strong, and perhaps strident anti-war position. You go back to the McGovern campaign, the McCarthy campaign, and it’s that strain in the Democratic Party. That’s typically been somewhere around 30, 35 percent of the Democratic primary vote, which is roughly what I think Dean is now polling in New Hampshire somewhat less than what he’s polling in Iowa. But I think you have that constituency that Dean is tapping into—Clark tapping much more into the constituency that Jim was talking about before, which is we have got to neutralize the war—we need somebody who is strong, who is tough and experienced in the military and foreign policy. Gephardt perhaps more classically tapping into protectionism, standing up for working people, anti- NAFTA. And Kerry—and I think it gets back to Ed’s point—somebody with a resume, a war hero who has a, I guess for the sake of this discussion, a more nuanced position on the decision to go to war. So that would be my characterization of the Democrats. And I think each of them has something to argue. And, again, the only clear and discernible constituencies that I would speak to would be protectionism and strong anti-war almost isolationist sentiment.
MR. ROLLINS: Where I think it’s affected it—it has pulled—as I said earlier, the Dean candidacy, and I can’t think of anybody else but Dean, who got off to such a fast start, pulled everybody to debate foreign policy issues. There are many issues the Democrats could be debating that really are their bread and butter. This has been the most conservative administration in modern times—even more conservative than the one I served in. And there’s a lot of issues that are traditional Democratic issues that are not even being debated—environmental regulations being rolled back, a whole variety of things, deficit spending, specialized spending for colleagues and what have you—you know, no attacks on the Republican Congress being an all-time big spender. So I mean there’s a whole variety of things that I think Democrats traditionally would have been debating—
MR. SCHOEN: Are you available—
MR. ROLLINS: Oh, no, no, I’m not—(laughter)—I’m very pleased. But I’m just saying it’s always nice to have you fight on our turf. I just think that because this is front and center, that I think it’s forced people like Gephardt on the trade and others to all show “I’m more anti-war” than they may have been. They’ve really forced the centers to move to the left.
MR. KOHUT: If you look—we did polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And if you look at what issues people are most concerned about, health care is the number one issue in New Hampshire, and the economy. But, as you said, or as you both said, Dean has stolen the march for the group that we call ’60s Democrats, and he’s shut out—he’s shut out Kerry among that group of liberal, affluent Democrats. And in Iowa Gephardt is hanging in, because he has this populist union base. But Kerry has been left in the cold, because Dean could tap into the anger that the ’60s Democrats had about the war in Iraq.
MR. LINDSAY: The gentle lady up here.
Audience: (Off mike.)
MR. LINDSAY: I’ll tell you what, if you could, would you please ask the question, the lady in front of you ask the question, because we’re coming up on the witching hour, and I’ll let the panelists answer both, if that’s a fair way to do it.
Audience: I’m Wendy Friedman. I’m from nowhere. (Laughter.)
MR. LINDSAY: Welcome.
Audience: Did you do any polling of the uniform military, since they’re the ones paying a very real price for this? And was the answer significant, if you did?
MR. LINDSAY: If you could just hold and get the second question.
Audience: Ann Carolick at Digital Globe. I have a question about party versus candidates. The panel a few minutes ago defined the weaknesses of the Democratic candidates are revealing. My question to the panel is: To what extent are those weaknesses a reflection of much deeper weaknesses in the Democratic Party?
MR. LINDSAY: Do you want to take the polling question on the military, Andy?
MR. KOHUT: It’s pretty easy. We have done no surveys of military people. It’s a really interesting question, though.
MR. ROLLINS: I think you’d find it divided. I think there’s a lot of reserves—I mean, if you really want to analyze where we have gotten very thin is the Reserves and the National Guard that never expected to do any more than go two weeks in the summer and one weekend a month. Many of them have had their families totally disrupted, and many of the families are not the traditional men who served in a war and came back and wanted to stay in 20 years. There’s a lot of unwed mothers who moved off of welfare, that have children. There’s a lot of two spouses and a family of kids who have been left behind, a lot of—and, equally as important, they are not trained to be there, and some of the casualties that are occurring on a regular basis are these—not the regulars. I think our professional military, because of the build-up in the ’80s and the adjustments we made post the Gulf War, is the best military we’ve probably ever had at any point in time, with the best weaponry. But where we’ve really gotten strained is this long term—so I would expect the Reservists and those people—many of whom are never going to re-up, and they’ll be so long gone—would not be very happy about any of this, as opposed to the professional military who clearly want to go—they want to go fight. They want to go use the weapons they’ve been training with. So I think there’s a real division here.
MR. LINDSAY: You want to step in here, Doug?
MR. SCHOEN: Yeah, I think military tend on balance to support Republican foreign policy to be more conservative. So I’d be surprised if the polling of military, which I have not seen, would show anything other than stronger support for the president.
But the more difficult question—at least more difficult in the sense that I think we can all try and offer an answer—is the question that was asked second about the Democrats. And I think you’re right: the Republicans themselves are now monolithic—90, 95 percent supporting George Bush, his policies, his approach. And I don’t think there are going to be any defections.
The Democrats, as I think David Brooks’s column yesterday pointed out, citing some of that, was a 45,000-odd Gallup interviews which showed a clearly divided country, but shows that the Democrats are really divided 50-50, both nationally and in terms of individual states, and indeed even in terms of primary voters. And as somebody who has worked with an been associated with the new Democratic position inside the Democratic Party, obviously I have my own personal views. But I would say that the premise behind your question is exactly right. You know, Will Rogers’s old adage, “I don’t belong to any organized political party—I’m a Democrat.” (Laughter.)
MR. LINDSAY: Fair enough. All the way in the back, sir.
Audience: John Zhang with CTI TV of Taiwan. Tension in the Taiwan Straits could easily escalate around March the 20th, when Taiwan has its presidential elections, and when it will conduct what President Chen Shui-ben is determined to push, the first referendum against Chinese missiles.
But despite the strong objection of the Bush administration, will there be a Taiwan or China factor in the upcoming elections? If so, to what extent? If not, why? Thank you.
MR. ROLLINS: I think if there’s a China-Taiwan, it will be on the—this—I don’t want to say an anti-feeling, but certainly the whole trade issue and what have you, and I think most Americans kind of put both together, even though obviously they are not thought of as together by anybody there. I don’t think we think about it as a hot spot in the world. I think we think of it today as someone who is a real economic power who is taking a lot of jobs away from Americans. There’s literally not one of us in this room who is not wearing something that was made in China. And I think to a certain extent if there’s any rhetoric about it in the election, I think it will be on that topic.
MR. SCHOEN: Yeah, I was going to agree. I think the most likely rhetoric will be about the issue of the mainland China’s currency and its artificially high valuation. And I think that’s—low value, I’m sorry. Low value—I misspoke, I apologize—probably telling answer right there. And I guess the two Chinas policy—I guess I don’t see that really being an issue, unless it’s forced into the American arena through, again, events that wee wish to avoid.
MR. KOHUT: Yeah, I don’t have anything to add to that. If it’s forced into the arena, it would be a hard one for the administration. I don’t—I can’t imagine that the American public is going to want to see strong commitments at a time when our resources are probably seen as overcommitted, or at least being stretched to a great degree.
MR. LINDSAY: Okay, we’ll take one last question, the gentle lady all the way in the back.
Audience: My name is Theresa Barger. Because I’m so dispirited by this conversation, I was just going to ask a fun question. Is there any vice presidential candidate that could make a difference to the Democrats? And here I’m thinking of a Christian Science Monitor editorial or op-ed piece that says that the only way Howard Dean could win is if he had Oprah Winfrey as his vice presidential candidate. (Laughter.) So I will ask you if you think there is anyone who could bring a Democrat to the fore.
MR. LINDSAY: Let me broaden it for one second, because beyond that is is there anything either on the presidential level or vice presidential in terms of biography that could help the Democratic ticket, or is it simply the $200 million onslaught that is going to—
MR. ROLLINS: I go back. I mean, I’ll never forget in 1980, when the two men that Ronald Reagan wanted to choose as his vice president, and the discussion coming across country was—I apologize, that’s my phone in my bag, which I forgot to turn off—were Jack Kemp and Paul Laxalt. Everybody argued you could not have Paul Laxalt because they’re from neighboring states, and obviously Gore-Clinton proved that didn’t really matter, and you couldn’t have a movie star and a football star, which obviously wouldn’t have made a whole lot of difference in 1980—Ronald Reagan was going to beat Jimmy Carter, no matter what.
Usually you try and pick someone who won’t hurt you and will help you a little bit. Dan Quayle proved to me that doesn’t matter—(laughter)—and I think that’s where it is. People don’t walk in and vote for a vice president. It’s good f or the politics of bringing a party back together, it’s good for the convention, but at the end of the day no one votes for the vice president.
MR. SCHOEN: You know, let me take at least some issue with Ed. I think if Howard Dean is the nominee—and I think that’s still or increasingly a big if, he will be quite vulnerable on security issues, and I think that he would be probably well advised to revisit with Wesley Clark his perspective candidacy, just to do what Jim Lindsay suggested needs to be done by the Democrats, which is at least try to neutralize the foreign policy issue.
But the other possible alternative—again, I’m speaking just in foreign policy terms—because I think that’s probably the most relevant—is the whole issue of Hispanics. And, again, one of the issues I would throw out, or names I would throw out, would be Bill Richardson, as a means of trying to appeal to Hispanic voters, and also have somebody with at least some experience in foreign policy. So those are I guess two alternatives. And obviously depending on who is the nominee the choice will be dictated accordingly.
MR. KOHUT: I agree that vice presidents don’t matter—one percent at most. But I think categorically a female candidate on either side of the ticket would make the most difference, because I think women’s votes are to a certain extent up for grabs in this election, and I think that—that’s what I think.
MR. LINDSAY: I think that was telling me that it is time—(laughter)—we’ve come to the end of our hour. So I would like to say thank you to our panelists. We greatly appreciate your comments. (Applause.)
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