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Can Republicans Hold Their Majority?

The Journal Editorial Report

Paul Gigot: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report." With midterm elections just five months away, members of Congress kick off the summer campaign season amid widespread voter dissatisfaction. Can Republicans hold on to their majority? Plus the Senate passes immigration reform, setting the stage for a showdown with their colleagues in the House. Can Republicans reach a consensus and what's at stake if they can't? Those topics and our weekly "Hits and Misses," but first, these headlines.

Gigot: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot. As members of Congress head home for the Memorial Day recess, they'll be greeted by some unhappy constituents. With ethics scandals and pork-barrel spending driving voter dissatisfaction, Republicans are taking a beating in the polls. Heading into the summer stretch, what are the GOP's prospects for holding on to its congressional majority in the midterm elections?

Republican pollster Whit Ayres joins me from Washington. Welcome to the program.

Ayres: Thanks, good to be with you.

Gigot: Some of the people I talk to in politics say that the public mood for Republicans is as ominous as 1992 and maybe even that Watergate year of 1974. How bad does it look for you from where you're sitting?

Ayres: Well, it's not a pretty picture, Paul, and it's hard to paint it as a pretty picture. Seven out of 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and that's not good for the party in power. The real question is whether the institutional advantages of Republicans--the power of incumbency, the power of redistricting--will be enough to stem the tide. But we won't know that until November.

Gigot: Let's talk about that dissatisfaction. What are the issues, circumstances, that are driving that right now?

Ayres: A whole host of factors. The most important, of course, is Iraq, with 60% of Americans thinking the war's not worth it. But it goes beyond Iraq. Most of the people think the economy is lousy, even though we grew at 5.3% last quarter. They are frustrated over gas prices. They are frustrated over illegal immigration. They are frustrated over our response to Katrina. They are frustrated over the Dubai ports deal. It's a whole host of factors that have contributed to the sour mood.

Gigot: One of the things that puzzles me is this view of economy as somehow lousy. As you said, it's been growing strongly. Is that sort of a rub-off from Iraq, or is it gas prices; it rising interest rates? Because look at the objective circumstances. We're doing pretty well.

Ayres: The objective circumstances are wonderful. We've got a strongly growing economy with moderate inflation, low unemployment. All the objective indicators are very strong. I think people are concerned about outsourcing; they're concerned about competition from Asia; they're concerned about health care as well as gas prices. But there's no objective reason why the mood ought to be this sour on the economy.

Gigot: Well, turnout maters, especially in an off-year election, as you know. And so the enthusiasm of voters, Democrat versus Republican, matters. How do you see that changing now? Are Democratic voters more fired up and Republicans a bit sullen right now?

Ayres: Yes, and that is the most worrisome indicator we see out there right now. In 1994, when Republicans made so many gains, the Democrats were discouraged and Republicans were fired up. Today the atmosphere is almost the exact opposite, with the same sort of gap in enthusiasm with Democrats fired up and Republicans unenthusiastic. That's going to be a real problem if we can't change that before November.

Gigot: One of the Republicans on Capitol Hill I talked to this week says that he thinks--he feels pretty comfortable himself because he thinks that the polls are showing the Congress is unpopular doesn't mesh with what he sees in the polls, that individual members are popular. Is that going to make a difference this year?

Ayres: Well, that's always the case, where the public likes their own member better than they like Congress as a whole--although the popularity of their own members are down a little bit this year as well. The real question those factors can counterbalance this overwhelmingly negative mood. And in a lot of cases, it will. That's the power of incumbency. But we'll see if that helps those on the marginal districts.

Gigot: Do you see the field of seats that are competitive widening? I know three or four months go people were saying it was only 10 or 15. Now I hear it may be as many as 30.

Ayres: Well, if you include a broad definition of competitive seats, it's as many as 30. But if you look at the ones that are true tossups, it's still only about a dozen. Most of those are Republican, of course. But you're going to see the field broadening, I think, as we go through the next few months until this mood changes in the whole country.

Gigot: All right, what's your advice to Republicans to get themselves out of what looks to be right now a predicament?

Ayres: You mean aside from counting on the Democrats to mess up a good thing, as they seem perfectly capable of doing, like the "culture of corruption" charge?

The Republicans have to do several things. First of all, we need some better news out of Iraq. You can't talk your way out of this problem. You have got to have concrete actions. The Republicans have passed an extension of the tax cuts, which I think is important. It's very important that they pass an immigration bill. They need to overcome the differences between the House and the Senate, which are significant, and pass an immigration bill because there is an overwhelming desire in the country to do something about illegal immigration.

The administration has done a good job, after some initial hiccups, of administering the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Seniors who signed up for it actually like it and are saving money. So they have done some things to put the building blocks in place to fight back. But they still need to pass an immigration bill.

Gigot: Are you saying that if the House Republicans don't want to come to the table, and say, Look, we can't get anywhere close to the Senate immigration bill, that they may end up hurting themselves, even though they think that they are playing to their base?

Ayres: I think it's important to keep your eye on the big picture, and the big picture is an overwhelming demand among Americans for something to be done on illegal immigration and something to be done soon. If the party in power does nothing in the face of that overwhelming demand, there is going to be real problem and a lot of frustration.

Gigot: All right, Whit Ayres. Thank you very much for appearing.

Ayres: Thank you.

Gigot: When we come back, how can Republicans minimize midterm damage? Our panel weighs in. Plus, a showdown in Congress. The Senate passes a sweeping immigration overhaul as backers prepare for a bruising conference with the House of Representatives. Can they work out their differences before November?

Gigot: We're back with a look at prospects for the midterm elections. Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor Dan Henninger, OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto, and OpinionJournal.com columnist John Fund.

John, you heard Whit Ayres. From your point of view, how ugly is it out there for the Republican majority right now?

Fund: Well, most House Republicans would tell you privately if the election were held today, they would lose control. And Whit Ayres hit on the reason: disillusionment among the Republican base. The Hotline, a political newsletter, just did a poll that asked people how much interest you have in the election. One out of 10 Republicans said zero interest. Only 2% of Democrats said zero interest. If only 1 out of 10 Republicans stay home who normally stay home, it's a bloodbath. That is why the Republicans have five months to get a better record in Congress, pass some legislation, and change the public mood.

Gigot: Any good news out there, James, that you see for Republicans at this point?

Taranto: Well, I think the best news for Republicans is simply that it's really hard to beat incumbents. And Senate incumbents typically have an 85% re-election rate. House incumbents well above 95%. There aren't a lot of retirements this year, and House districts are drawn to protect incumbents. So I think--I'm skeptical about the prospects for a Democratic takeover, as ugly as things are for the Republicans.

Henninger: And I would add to that, I think an underreported story here is the disaffection of Democratic voters. In a Harris poll that was taken in May that showed Bush's approval rating was down to something like 30%, the approval rating for Congress is 18%, and that includes Democrats as well. They don't think that their representatives in Congress have done a very effective job of taking Bush to task, holding his feet to the fire, and standing up for their principles. So they're pretty disaffected too, and that supports James's point that it's going to be hard to defeat incumbents this time.

Gigot: But Dan, Republicans are in control. When you are in control, this negative view about all of Washington has to hurt the party in power.

Fund: That's true, but I think the Democrats have made a mistake by focusing just on mistakes the republicans have made. They have failed to put up a positive agenda, and in part it's because even Democrats will privately tell you that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, are not the A-team. In fact, they don't present well on television.

Gigot: But do they need a Contract With America like Republicans had in 1994? Do they even need a positive agenda?

Fund: No. But I think they need something more than pure negativity, because remember, events can turn. Listen, Paul. The culture of corruption that Whit Ayres talked about? Democrats thought that was going to be premier issue in January. Now it looks like a goose egg after the congressman from their party has been found with freezer--cash in his freezer.

Gigot: Yeah, that's right. That seems to have been somewhat neutralized. But what about this issue where Republicans need to do something concrete--they need to get something passed? What I see right now among Republicans is a lot of disarray--intellectual incoherence. The moderates don't want to do anything on spending. The conservatives don't want to do anything for a guest worker program like the president wants in immigration. And that's the way majorities die--where they hang separately. They don't have any real agenda to move forward.

Fund: The single thing that unites Republican voters is an aversion to taxes and spending. By failing to address the spending issue, or at least to articulate that the Republican Congress wants to do something about it, I think they are in danger of alienating their base further. And that is one thing they could at least have some demonstrated accomplishments on between now and November.

Henninger: The spending failure is baked in the cake. That's a big problem for them--that the public has internalized that. And I don't think they can turn that around before November.

Gigot: Let's talk about the Senate map. We have a map that shows that I think there are six or seven Republican seats that are in jeopardy: Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Montana in particular; Ohio and Missouri a little bit less so; Tennessee and Virginia also at least in play. James, is there a real danger there that the Republicans could leave the five seats that they would have to lose to lose the majority?

Taranto: Well, they'd have to lose six seats to go to 51-49 in favor of the Democrats. It could happen. It's very unlikely. The Democrats would have to beat at least five incumbent Republicans, and that assuming they pick up the open seat in Tennessee.

I think Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania will have a hard time winning even if the Republicans' fortunes improve simply because he is a very conservative Republican in a Democrat-leaning state. But I think all of the others, Republicans, have a reasonable shot of holding on to, and the likelihood that they'll lose them all is quite low.

Gigot: John, how do you see it? I mean, Ohio, for example, doesn't look good because of all the corruption that Republicans who run the state have suffered. That looks like a tough place for Republicans this year.

Fund: True, but Sen. DeWine now has a 10-point lead. Again, incumbency may be kicking into play. The Democrats have done something very smart. In key states they are running much more moderate candidates than they used to. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, who is pro-life, against Rick Santorum; Tennessee--Harold Ford, a Democrat who votes for Republican tax cuts.

Gigot: Any prospects for Republican pickups in the Senate? They have got a good candidate In Congressman Mark Kennedy in Minnesota, but that's a difficult state for Republicans.

Fund: In Maryland people said the Republican candidate for Senate, Michael Steele, didn't have a chance. But it looks like Kweisi Mfume, the former chairman of the National--the NAACP--he may win the Democratic primary. That could be a Republican pickup.

Henninger: I think one to watch is New Jersey, where Tom Kean Jr. at the moment seems to be in kind of a tossup race with Sen. Menendez. I'll tell you, if the Republicans picked up New Jersey, that would be a big story.

Gigot: If the election were held today, would Republicans hold the Senate?

Fund: Yes, with about 53 seats.

Gigot: All right, OK. Thank you, John.

We'll be back after this short break. Still ahead, White House adviser Karl Rove hit the Hill this week in an attempt to nudge reluctant House Republicans to pass immigration reform legislation. Can the Senate and House work out their differences, and what are the political consequences if they can't? That and our "Hits and Misses" of the week when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Rep. John Shadegg (R., Ariz): We are very skeptical about getting a good bill and very committed to not passing a bad bill. I hope we can find reasonable grounds here, but I see us as very far apart, and quite frankly I think the House is closer to where the American people are.

Gigot: The Senate passed a compromise bill late this week that would tighten border security and put most illegal aliens on a path to citizenship, setting up a showdown with their colleagues in the House over the most comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law in 20 years. This as the National Guard prepares to send soldiers to the U.S. border with Mexico as early as next week.

Before we get to the House-Senate prospects, Dan, let's talk about that Senate vote. Because it was really interesting. You had conservatives like Sam Brownback and Mitch McConnell voting with Ted Kennedy for this bill. And meanwhile, you had some labor Democrats like Byron Dorgan voting with other Republican conservatives against the bill. How do you explain the strange-bedfellows aspect of this?

Henninger: I think one way to explain this is that on the one hand, this is horrible issue, but on the other hand, it's just a wonderful subject for politicians, because no one can agree on what the terms of this debate are. "Amnesty" means whatever you want it to mean. "Sealing the border" means whatever you want. The guest--we're aren't able to agree on what a "guest worker" program is--whether it includes protections, whether the illegal aliens are going to be called felons, the burden is going to be put on business.

And as a result these politicians, I think, simply trying to make a commitment to what it might be, we're shoving it towards a conference now that I think it's going to be biggest circus that city has seen in a long time.

Fund: Paul, this issue has become completely emotional. We've lost touch with the facts. Everybody knows the way to solve this problem is, yes, you have some more border enforcement, but you model something after the Bracero program, which worked in the '50s and '60s--a guest worker program, which will bring people and regularize it, bring people out the shadows, and frankly allow people go back and forth between their homes and Latin America.

That all gone now, because I think what has happened is, there is now an anti-assimilation lobby in this country which has convinced people--I think in part wrongly--that the immigrants who come here aren't assimilating. Because of, look, bilingual education has been discredited, but the federal government is still funding it. We still have bilingual ballots, even though we require English to become a citizen. And I can tell you, I have a friend in Northern California. She is a soccer mom; she has her kids on the soccer field. The Spanish parents are being told by local Spanish groups, Don't speak English on the soccer field, because they're the enemy.

Gigot: And that's is very dangerous.

James, this is a test of Denny Hastert, the House speaker, is it not? Because he needs to--if something is going to get done, he is going to have to deliver it through the House. Tom DeLay could have done this, would have been able to do this, but he's out. Do you think the speaker can deliver enough Republicans to get a deal?

Taranto: Boy, that's a good question. I suspect if he can, it's going to be getting the House to agree on a somewhat watered-down version of their enforcement bill. Getting rid of this crazy provision that would make the 11 million people who have overstayed their visas or otherwise are in this country illegally into felons. I mean, that's just crazy. Maybe they could get that passed and find enough support in the Senate, but I'm somewhat skeptical.

Gigot: He has imposed the so-called majority-of-the-majority rule, which is that is not going to bring anything to the floor of the House that doesn't get the support of most of the House Republicans. But as we saw, most of the Senate Republicans voted against this bill. I think it was 38-23 against.

Fund: That is clear sign that we are heading toward something in the lame-duck session. Because we've already been announced we're going to have a session of Congress after the voters speak. I think you're going to have a very modest border enforcement bill before the election. I think there's going to be some unfinished business after the election, because members of Congress do not want to go and test the voters on the issue. It's too volatile.

Gigot: But you heard Whit Ayres say, look, they've got to get a big solution to this thing. They've got to pass something; otherwise the Republican base--they want something done.

Fund: You'd be amazed. A big solution can suddenly become a little solution, and suddenly everyone declares victory anyway.

Gigot: Well, is the president going to sign that? Because that's not what he's been supporting all along.

Fund: He will sign anything Congress sends him as long as it doesn't violate his basic principles.

Henninger: Well, they've got to get it off the table before 2006. because after that, you're heading towards a presidential election. And I think the general population of this country is not with the Republican base on this issue, and they don't want to drag into the issue the independents who are going to push the Republicans in the wrong direction.

Gigot: When Karl Rove, I was told, went up to the House a couple of weeks ago to talk to House Republicans and sell this bill, Bill Thomas, the chairman of Ways and Means, got up and said, Look, the president--President Bush, after his speech, has laid out a path for us to get this issue solved, right down the middle, and shame on us if we don't do it. That isn't a popular message within the Republican Conference right now, but it is, I think, the correct one, and he's right.

Fund: I think Bill Thomas is right. The problem is, remember, he is not running for re-election. The people he was speaking to, were.

Gigot: But Bill Thomas is somebody who has been able to criticize the administration often in the past. So he has some credibility within the conference. It's going to be fascinating to watch to see whose advice they take on this, because I'm afraid that if they just play for their own districts, they're going to lose sight of that big picture, and it may cost them the House.

All right. We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Gigot: Winners and loses, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses." It's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week. Item one, just in time for the summer travel season, Sen. Hillary Clinton gets behind a controversial idea. James?

Taranto: Well, Paul, is it controversial if everyone is against it?

Sen. Clinton gave a press conference the other day about energy policy, and somebody asked her, We had this 55-mile-an-hour speed limit back during the Carter administration. Would you favor bringing that back? And she said--well, she kind of hedged. She acknowledged there were some states where it just wouldn't fly, but she said "wherever it can be required and people accept it, we ought to do it."

Well, senator, where is that? The 55-mile-an-hour speed limit actually dates to the Nixon administration. It was relaxed in 1987 and abolished in 1995, in a law signed by President Clinton. Within a few years, 49 states had raised their limits to at least 65, and in 2002 the last holdout, Hawaii, raised its limit, albeit only to 60. So I think this suggests that perhaps Hillary doesn't quite have her husband's political acumen.

Gigot: Not going to carry the red states for her. Thanks, James.

Next, you'd think high school football coaches would be praised for leading their team to victory, but that's not necessarily the case in Connecticut. John?

Fund: Paul, the board that regulates high school football in Connecticut is going to impose a rule saying that a coach that has a blowout win can be suspended from managing teams, because this could hurt the feelings of the opposing team. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a science fiction story once about a society in which everybody was handicapped so all outcomes would come out equally. This is taken right out of that. This, I think it goes against life. Sports is teaching people about competition in life. By literally saying you can't have a blowout victory, you are basically teaching the wrong lessons about life, because there is no timeout in life.

Gigot: Vince Lombardi would be turning over in his grave on this one. All right. Thanks, John.

Finally, as the nation prepares to celebrate Memorial Day, a reminder that it's not just about picnics and parades. Dan?

Henninger: Yeah, that's right, Paul. This is a weekend that everybody looks forward because it is the first three-day holiday in a long time, so there'll be a lot going on. There'll be backyard barbecues. There'll be picnics, parades; people will go to the lake. There's going to be a huge concert on the Washington Mall; there'll be about 100,000 people there. So there'll be a lot of weekend holiday activity.

Well, I have a proposal. I would like to suggest that this Memorial Day, say around 3 o'clock, all of us simply stop and sit still for 60 seconds and give some thought to those people who, going all the way back in our history and right now, made this country possible and this weekend. Just give them 60 seconds of your silent time on Monday.

Gigot: Well said, Dan. That is it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to Dan Henninger, James Taranto and John Fund. I'm Paul Gigot. Thank you all for watching. We hope to see you next week.

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