Book World Live

Thomas B. Edsall
Author, "Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power"
Tuesday, October 10, 2006; 3:00 PM

In analyzing the conservative ascendancy, Edsall has clearly done his reporting and spent time trying to figure out both parties. With a few rare exceptions, he doesn't step into the reporter's trap of falling in love with every bit of his own field work. There's plenty of data, history and anecdote here, but it's not applied with a trowel. The analysis is clinical, not emotional, which means that Edsall can be sympathetic to conservatives' genuine cultural concerns even as he's being clear-eyed about the GOP's rejection of the politics of consensus and its use of anger and fear to rouse its base and demonize its opposition. (Review: What's the Matter With Democrats? , Post, Oct. 8).

Thomas B. Edsall , author of "Building Red America" will be online to field questions and comments about his book, "Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power."

A former political reporter for The Washington Post, Thomas B. Edsall is a correspondent for The New Republic and The National Journal, and holds the Pulitzer-Moore Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at Columbia University.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Thomas B. Edsall: Good afternoon. I haven't done one of these since I left the Post in June. I look forward to your questions about Building Red America, a book that everyone should buy one or more copies of, the Democrats and the Republicans.


Seattle, Wash: Why would you allow Hugh Hewitt to bait you into stupid questions about mainstream media bias and your personal loyalties? He and his ilk thrive on maintaing the illusion of a vast left-wing conspiracy in the news, and you basically confirming his worst suspicions makes you look like a sap and just serves to worsen conservative distrust of your work and the work of your colleagues.

Really, what were you thinking even answering those types of questions?

Thomas B. Edsall: I think his questions about the ideological leanings of reporters and editors are valid and appropriate. Instead of hiding behind claims of objectivity, members of the press should acknowledge and discuss their leanings. If anything, that will make them better reporters. Transparency is the best policy for almost all circumstances.


Arlington, Va: Right now African-Americans are leading the polls in races for Senate in Tennessee and Governor of Massachusetts. Barack Obama and Condoleeza Rice are among the most popular politicians in America. Republican politicians George Allen, Conrad Burns and Rick Santorum are in trouble for making statements that would have been unexceptionable a generation ago.

Unlike Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush seems to shrink from anything smacking of race-baiting. Even on issues where he may have a principled case to make, such as affirmative action, Bush has kept a low profile.

Has something changed in racial politics in America?

Thomas B. Edsall: My own view is that voters are increasingly willing to judge a black candidate on his or her merits, and this trend has been going on for quite a while--Doug Wilder in Virginia, for example, and the re-election of many black members of Congress after they had been redistricted into majority white constituencies.

That said, the politics of race continues to contribute to the larger debate, especially over taxes and social programs. Many whites, including many former Democrats, see their taxes going to pay for programs that disproportionately benefit minorities. Democratic candidates continue to lose by 20-plus percentage points (a landslide) among whites with just high school degrees, i.e. just the working class voters that the "party of the people" ought to carry by a landslide, in theory at least. Race is not the only factor, but it is one of a number contributing to these continuing Democratic problems.


Pittsburgh, Pa: Hi!! How's it going at the new place? My question is what do you think about all this happy talk on the Democrats' chances in the upcoming? I'm deeply skeptical that they will enjoy electoral success until they win on the state level and get to redraw district lines. Who do you think will win the strategy and tactics argument between Rahm Emmanuel and Howard Dean? Doesn't Dean's "Fifty State" approach carry a lot of short term risk but make sense on a longer term basis?

Thomas B. Edsall: I think the Democrats now look very much like they did in 1974 after Watergate. That year, they made huge gains in the House and Senate, and two years later, 1976, took the White House with Jimmy Carter. All of their success, however, was based on Republican scandals and failures, and the Democrats where unable to put together a viable set of policies. Carter, with strong Democratic majorities in both branches, suffered setback after setback, and became a figure of ridicule.

The Democrats now do not look much better prepared for victory than they were 32 years ago.

In the case of the Emanuel-Dean dispute (put money in the contested races vs a long range 50 state investment plan) looks like it may not turn out to be crucial. The GOP has been imploding so rapidly that the Democrats look likely to take the House, and quite possibly the Senate, without living up to Emanuel's call for more targeted use of Democratic National Committee cash.


Birmingham, Ala: May I broaden the question from Arlington about race and politics?

If Lt. Gov of Maryland, Mike Steele, wins the Senate, and if Ken Blackwell of Ohio wins the governor's race, could that be an example of more African-Americans being welcomed into the party of Abraham Lincoln?

As a product of segregation of the 1960's, what is the likelihood of Condi Rice being on the ticket in 2008 as either president or VP?

Thomas B. Edsall: The Republican Party leadership has clearly welcomed African Americans to run at the top of the ticket not only in Maryland and Ohio, but also Pennsylvania. All three currrently are, however, in trouble, especially in Ohio and Pennsylvania where Blackwell and Lynn Swann look like they are going down by solid double digit margins. What this suggests is that the leadership may be supporting more black participation, but Republican voters are not supplying adequate support.


Arlington, Va: You raise an interesting point that "working class" voters favor the GOP by a wide margin. Is the problem that the Dems have failed to make a coherent message to give those voters with regard to economic issues and things like health care? Does it have to do with the Dems shying away from all the god stuff? I suspect that those working class folks probably tend to be more socially conservative and likely more fundamentalist in their religious beliefs. Is that true?

Thomas B. Edsall: Many white working class voters are conservative, but it is a mistake to think, as some Democrats argue, that the Republican Party has suckered them to vote for its candidates, who then just turn around and vote to cut taxes on the rich.

In fact, many "values" issues carry high economic import to voters. Respect for parents, teachers and bosses are, to these voters, important ingredients of getting ahead in life, just as getting married and having kids is. Many parents want orderly disciplined schools with teachers that meet high standards. They often see Democrats and Democratic elected officials in charge of communities where these goals are not met.


Another Pittsburgher!: How should the Democrats proceed over the next few years to prompt a book titled "Building Blue America: The New Progressive Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power"?

Thomas B. Edsall: Sorry to duck the question, but that requires a book to answer.


Washington, DC: Your answer to Pittsburgh was interesting -- you seem to expect that a Democratic President would get sandbagged the way that Teddy Kennedy dragged down Carter and then Democratic Ways & Means folks like Jim McDermott and Matsui did to Clinton on welfare reform. What makes you think the Democrats are so ill-disciplined and uncoordinated that they would repeat these mistakes? From their voting patterns and consistency on messaging (even if the press ignores it), they seem more united than ever.

Thomas B. Edsall: You may be right, but I don't think so. The Democrats in the face of the Bush administration have found unity in their opposition. During both the Clinton and Carter presidencies, they demonstrated exceptional disunity once in the majority. In addition, when the GOP has ben in the minority, it has blocked Democratic inititives on every front, taxes, labor law reform, regulation, etc. The Democrats have not shown such consistency of purpose.


Washington, DC: "Democratic candidates continue to lose by 20-plus percentage points (a landslide) among whites with just high school degrees, i.e. just the working class voters that the "party of the people" ought to carry by a landslide"

This is the Thomas Frank argument, but is it really so? The kinds of policies advocated by the left are already law in Europe and unemployment is much higher. While many may perceive greater labor market regulation as beneficial for workers, is it really?

Thomas B. Edsall: My argument is not the Thomas Frank argument. 1) I think social conservatives have gotten a lot from Republicans in the way of judges, medical regulation, partial birth abortion laws, etc; 2) as I noted earlier, many so-called "values" issues have very high economic salience to many voters; and 3) Democratic policies like affirmative action convince a substantial number of white voters that they (or their children) are not going to be able to get hired, admitted to a good college or get a government contract on the basis of merit.

In contrast to Frank, I think there is some legitimate logic to working class white voters casting Republican ballots.


New York NY: I find your response to Seattle laughable. Routinely in these discussions reporters insist that they have no "leanings" (except Eugene Robinson the lone truth teller). It's pretty clear to me that most of the WP reporters are center right - i.e. they cling to the establishment and the values that their current paygrade espouses. Yes, they may be "socially liberal" but even that is questionable when you have characters like Newt Gingrich disavowing gay bashing in this climate of hypocrisy. The dems may not be unified but I used to think that Americans valued thinking for themselves.

Thomas B. Edsall: I think you have a strong case to make in terms of the establishment leanings of reporters and editors. In the voting booth, however, they overwhelmingly support the Democratic establishment, not the Republican establishment.


Philadelphia, Pa.: There have been claims that people react more positively to emotional appeals than to rational appeals. It has further been noted that Republicans, in general, has done better at advertising at an emotional level (i.e. wolves representing terrorists) while Democrats ahve tended more towards rational appeals. What do you think of the general manner in which Republicans have attempted to get their messages across?

Thomas B. Edsall: In practice, Republicans have concluded, accurately I think, that voters are most strongly motivated by anger, fear and threats, especially if these emotions can be linked to Democratic policies (on taxes, abortion, same-sex marriage, poverty spending, etc.). In the 2004 campaign, the GOP conducted extensive research to learn the "anger points" of different constituencies and individual voters so specific messages could be sent out directed to these points.

The Democrats have, in turn, used the claim of Republican threats to Social Security and Medicare to motive voters.


San Francisco, Calif: Mr. Edsall, I've been a fan since I read "The New Politics of Inequality". I agree with your answer to an earlier question that transparency is the best policy in reporting. Being human, reporters will inevitably have opinions about areas in which they've done lots of research, as you have. "Objectivity" was an honorable goal, but never realistic.

It seems to me that the builders of red-state America used the theory of objectivity in reporting to advance some of the less honest parts of their agenda. What's your take on that? Also, to what extent do you think those builders are interested in transparency with respect to their motives and their funding?

Thomas B. Edsall: The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.


Thomas B. Edsall: I want to thank everyone who wrote in and I wish there was more time to answer all your excellent inquiries. Maybe we will do this again soon. Best, Tom Edsall


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