Ayres, Brazile dissect major issues from opposite sides

GOP pollster and strategist Whit Ayres and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile joined Jim Lehrer for the morning lecture program Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

The 2012 election between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has often been compared to the 2004 election.

The line between Americans’ dissatisfaction with United States politics and the trust the public has in Obama compared to Romney leads to a close race.

“There are people who will never like President Obama, there are people who will never like Gov. Mitt Romney,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and founder and managing director of Brazile & Associates, during Tuesday’s morning lecture.

Brazile and Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, had a conversation with retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer as part of Week Two’s programming on the theme “The Lehrer Report: What Informed Voters Need to Know.” Ayres and Brazile discussed why they believe each candidate should win the election and the recent Supreme Court health care decision’s role in the 2012 elections.

Ayres, who is also president of Ayres, McHenry & Associates, was the first to explain why he believes Americans should vote for Romney as president.

“You should vote for Mitt Romney because four more years of what we’ve had would be a disaster,” he said.

Compared to 2008 and based on what voters are saying, Ayres said, a substantial majority of Americans think the economy is worse, the federal government’s fiscal standing is weaker, the government’s ability to solve problems is worse, and that the U.S.’s standing in the world is worse.

Re-election campaigns become a referendum of the incumbent. Looking at the president’s record and the increased partisanship, Ayres said he does not believe Obama deserves to be re-elected.

“It will be close, but I think most Americans will agree it’s time for something different,” Ayres said, “and that something different is going to be Mitt Romney.”

Brazile agreed that an incumbent’s re-election is a referendum.

“However, unless the president is wholly unpopular, the other candidate must be an acceptable choice,” she said.

The U.S. will re-elect Obama so he can finish the job he started, Brazile said. She said he would bring the economy to fiscal health, improve American lives, strengthen national defense and keep the country safe and secure.

Though she agrees the public is dissatisfied with the politics of the country, division and partisanship, she said Obama still possesses the traits of a leader.

“I think that he will win the re-election,” Brazile said, “and he will continue to tackle some of the most pressing problems we have in this country.”

Ayres responded to Brazile by telling the audience to remember three numbers: 77, 47 and 8.2.

The first number, 77, is the percentage of people who told Gallup Organization last week they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

“It’s a truism in my business you can’t get re-elected if a majority of the country is dissatisfied,” he said.

The second number, 47, is the percentage of Obama’s May job approval average, according to Gallup. Usually, presidents who are re-elected have a job approval average of almost always 50 percent or higher, Ayres said. Obama is hovering just below that percentage.

And the number 8.2 represents the most recent unemployment rate. Previously, the highest unemployment rate during a re-election campaign was in 1984 during Ronald Reagan’s re-election. At the time, it was at 7.4 percent, Ayres said.

If those three numbers remain as they are by Election Day, it will be difficult for Obama to win the re-election, Ayres said.

Brazile agreed that the numbers Ayres shared with the audience were legitimate, but she also said Romney should be seven or eight points ahead of Obama based on those numbers.

“But we’re not dealing with a national election, ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “We’re dealing with an election that will be fought in about eight to 10 states.”

In those states, she said, Obama is in a strong position. The election will come down to a handful of states that make a difference in the Electoral College, she said.

The 2012 election is also expected to be similar to the 2004 election between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

“It’s going to be close,” Brazile said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable for a lot of people who don’t like to stay up and watch CNN until 3 in the morning.”

She said another aspect of the election affecting the numbers Ayres shared is the level of uncertainty there is among Americans.

“Uncertainty sometimes breeds fear, and that fear is what’s driving consumer confidence,” Brazile said.

Though the economy will be the main issue around which the election revolves, the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act could also play a role.

When the health care legislation was introduced to the public, Obama did not explain the bill in a way that could be understood, Brazile said.

Ayres said the fundamental issue with the health care legislation is that many people don’t believe what Obama said about it. Rather, an overwhelming majority believes the law will increase health care costs, premiums and the federal deficit, he said.

“It’s not that he hasn’t tried to sell it,” Ayres said, “it’s that the credibility on the issue is not sufficient so that he can sell it.”

Now that the Supreme Court has made a decision, Obama has the opportunity during his campaign to have the conversation he did not have before, Brazile said.

Just before the conversation on health care shifted, Brazile made a final point that Romney had difficulty fighting against Obama during the primaries and will continue to have trouble during the campaign.

The decision on the health care legislation will ensure that this year’s election is a referendum on Obama, Ayres said. But both he and Brazile agreed that the economy is still the top issue.

“It’s still the quality of our lives and our future as it relates to health care itself,” Brazile said.

The amphitheater audience listens as GOP pollster and strategist Whit Ayres and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile continue the discussion of this week’s theme, “What Informed Voters Need to Know,” on Tuesday morning, July 3, 2012. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.


Q: I think we really did try this morning to listen and to hear things we might not agree with, and we’re not perfect, but we’re going to go back to our communities, and we’re going to say, how can we try to have civil conversation? And I would like to know what each of you would say, across the aisles, how can we try to have civil conversation that’s informative at home?

Whit Ayres: First of all, you recognize that not all wisdom lies within your own political party. I know that there are some people for whom that is a very difficult idea to swallow, but I’ve known a number of Democrats, like Donna, from whom I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I think that’s a starting point. A second point is to recognize that these are our opponents, they’re not our enemies. And we need to start thinking about the people who disagree with us politically as opponents but not enemies. We are still all Americans, we still want what’s best for the country and we need to stop demonizing our opponents. And there’s a third thing. And this is really hard. But if you can stop assuming the worst about an opponent’s motives — we are everlastingly assuming that the opponents are evil connivers who are trying to do something bad — it helps civil discourse if we just recognize that maybe they have a different idea about what’s good for the country. They don’t have evil motives, they just have a different idea, and it’s our job to try to persuade them. So if we can do those three things, I think we’ll be more likely to have civil discourse.

Donna Brazile: Well, I think it starts with who we are and what we expect from this next election. I think it starts with a conversation with our neighbors, our friends, our family, our coworkers, the people we sit in pews with each Sunday. Start with the people we know and love the best. To talk to them about this election, to inspire civility within our own families, to talk to our children about what’s at stake and the importance of this election. It also begins with us becoming more informed and more engaged and more tolerant of each other despite our differences. You know, I live on a block on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and just after that wicked storm blew through and knocked down tree branches and power lines and so forth, we came out the next morning, Democrats and Republicans — we even have some Tea Party people on my block — and I found out they like gumbo with just a little more spice; I just throw a little Tabasco, and that little one thing — they like it hot. They drink cold beer, and I like my wine not so cold. But we came out and we raked up and picked up after each other, and for the neighbors who were out of town, we picked up their debris as well, because we are neighbors. We’re a family. And we didn’t talk about politics, we didn’t say whether that nasty storm that blew through was Republican or Democrat, we said it was a nasty, wicked storm. And thank God everybody’s alive and everybody’s OK. We live to tell another tall tale. I think we need to bring that kind of civility, that kind of common sense, neighborly reaction, trust, to our body politic. It won’t happen overnight, but if we invest in it at the local level, we can manifest it at the federal level. And I hope this election sees that. It comes down to two good men. We look at them as two good family men seeking to run this country, or manage this country, however you want to describe it, and we look at the good in each of them. I went to several Republican debates — and that’s why I’m wearing red, I can’t get rid of all this red I purchased — but I wanted to fit in and look like one, so I bought a lot of red. And I’m glad I went, because throughout that primary process, I found myself rooting for this one, rooting for this one, you know, trying to help this one out, and I kept saying: “You’re a Democrat! What are you sitting with your heart waiting for Rick Perry to say, ‘One, two, …’” — because I’m a Southerner, I was rooting for my team. I was rooting for the governor who opened up his state, who gave many members of my family a place to come to after that nasty storm. So find the good in others and praise it.

Q: This is a question for Whit: Which vice-presidential running mate would help Romney?

WA: Well, one of our clients is Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio may be the single most talented politician I’ve ever worked with. He’s the Michael Jordan of American politics. He is truly amazing. To me, it just sort of seems like a no-brainer: Florida, mega-state, Hispanic, young, articulate, bright, conservative — but I understand there are others who may be considered. There are a wealth of good choices; we’ve got a strong bench. Rob Portman from Ohio is a good guy, Bobby Jindal from Louisiana, Tim Pawlenty from Minnesota, Chris Christie. There are a lot of good, strong choices, I just happen to have one preferred alternative, but I don’t know if they’re going to go in that direction.

DB: No females. You didn’t mention one woman.

Q: How important is the vice-presidential candidate in the Republican Party, for each of you or either one of you?

WA: The vice president is important for doing no harm. That’s the first criterion. We used to say “ready to be president of the United States on a moment’s notice.” Now the first criterion is: Do no harm. So, “ready to be president,” in recent years, chemistry with the nominee has been more important. It certainly wasn’t important with Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy, but since Al Gore and Bill Clinton, or Dick Cheney and George Bush, it’s become more important. Generally, people vote for the top of the ticket, and you hope that the vice president, politically, can provide a little boost in his or her home state.

DB: And you hope to select someone who’s been publicly vetted because the last thing Gov. Romney would like to do is spend two or three weeks explaining things that you cannot explain, because it’s the first major decision that people will look at that he made as a president — you know, the selection of his vice president. My money, right now — and not my $10,000 bet, I’m not there — my money, my $18.50, is on Mr. Pawlenty. I really do believe it’s Pawlenty.

WA: Well, it’s a good choice.

JL: You don’t represent him, though, right? You don’t represent Pawlenty?

DB: No, I don’t represent anybody but myself. I try to represent a lot more, but things are hard for Democrats these days. I just think that he’s been vetted, I believe in a team of rivals that you choose somebody who’s been out there running and somebody who can complement your record. Mitt Romney is a former executive, and Gov. Pawlenty is a former executive, and I think that would be the ultimate way that Mitt Romney might choose or select his vice-presidential candidate.

WA: He also brings a blue-collar background — which is one place where Barack Obama is really weak — is among blue-collar whites.

DB: And that’s true.

Q: There are lots of people in the audience who are really, I think, excited, because they’re from Pennsylvania, or Ohio, or Florida or North Carolina, but the question that always comes up: Is there any chance we’ll see a change in the Electoral College system that would make all of our votes more important?

WA: If you do away with the Electoral College, whatever little attention is paid to the small states would disappear entirely. The small states still matter a little bit because they’ve got those — at least — three electoral votes, with the two senators and the one representative. So if you went purely to a popular vote, any of the smaller states would simply be totally ignored. It’s the reason we have small states represented equally in the U.S. Senate. It was a compromise from 1787, and it’s worked pretty well. But, it would be like if you just had an election in the House of Representatives and you didn’t have a Senate to counterbalance it. I’m not sure that would be good for the country, to make all the states basically irrelevant.

DB: But you know, while some of you may not have the presidential motorcade coming through your state, tying up your traffic and cluttering up your airwaves, many of you have, as you know, 33 senatorial campaigns, 37 gubernatorial campaigns, and all of you have the House of Representatives, so enjoy this wonderful election season.

Q: We’ll let Whit have one more word, and then we’ll thank our three guests.

WA: As the pollster on the stage, I do feel the need to say at least one thing here. Whenever we ask voters, “Do you think politicians pay too much, too little or about the right attention to polls,” do you know what they say? “Too little! Too little!” And do you know why? Because when they say, “I don’t pay attention to polls,” what that means to many voters is, “I don’t care what those people think. I’m going to do what I want to do.” And in a country where you have government of the people, by the people, and for the people, what the people think not only does matter, but should matter. And so I think that’s something to keep in mind when we talk about the polls.

Q: How can we convince the candidates and the media to stop being negative?

DB: Oh Lord. I need an answer.

WA: If you’re going to hire someone for a critically important job, one of the things you do is check references, and you check references not only for what they do well, but for what they don’t do well. You check positive information, and you check negative information. It is a fundamental part of any intelligent decision, and it gets ugly sometimes in politics, it just does. But I don’t think we would want to say, if there’s something really bad about this person, that it shouldn’t be brought to light for the most important job in the world. And so, I don’t think you will ever do away with negative information. People over-read it a lot. People say, “Oh, negative ads work!” Well, some do, some don’t. I’ve seen negative ads blow up the campaign of the candidate who ran it. But if it’s relevant, and if it’s true, and if it’s factual, then it should be a part of the conversation.

JL: I agree.

DB: Has Andy left? OK good. I am so tired of the poll-driven conversation we have in American politics. Everyday, poll, poll, poll. They’re as useless as those boats in the Venice canal. That’s all we talk about; we don’t talk about substance, it’s always superficial. It’s drive-by conversation. That’s why I enjoy the “NewsHour,” because at least I can have an opportunity to let my blood pressure go down and listen. I notice that when I turn on the “NewsHour,” my dog stops barking. He sits down, he’s relaxed. I never feed Chip while CNN, Fox, MSNBC is raging because my dog won’t settle down.

JL: Can we use that as a commercial?

DB: Yeah. And you should see him, he loves the “NewsHour.” He’s like, “Mommy, that’s what doggies like. We don’t like to bark all the time.” But ladies and gentlemen, this is a serious moment in our history. We’re talking about how to regain our competitiveness. We’re talking about the health and viability of our economy — the housing sector coming back. We’re talking about our financial institutions; we’re talking about the eurozone. We’re talking about Middle East and Iran and the possibility of a nuclear weapon. There are so many serious conversations that we should be having, and yet, “Today the poll said … ” Well, hello, they’re going to change tomorrow, so just give it a day.

WA: Can I have a rebuttal?

DB: Oh no, no, no, no, I’m not talking about you Whit, I’m sorry, baby.

WA: That’s all right.

—Transcribed by Leah Harrison