Q&A With Ed Walsh
Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." I'm your host, Washington Post columnist, Bob Levey.
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to talk directly to major newsmakers and key Washington Post reporters and editors.
My guest today is Ed Walsh, who covers politics for The Post's national desk. Walsh joined The Post in 1971, after writing for the Houston Chronicle and the Catholic Messenger of Davenport, Iowa. Since then, Walsh has had a career whose highlights include a stint as The Post's White House correspondent, a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, tours as Jerusalem correspondent, deputy national editor, and Midwest bureau chief, based in Chicago. A veteran of covering four presidential campaigns, the last in 1992, Walsh returned to Washington in 1997.
The focus of today's discussion will be on the upcoming congressional races, what effect if any the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal will have on these contests, and whether anybody will be helped or hurt by the controversy.
Maputo, Mozambique: Some candidates are putting forward this election as a referendum on Clinton's personal behavior. If a voter strongly disapproves of Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky matter, would you expect them to vote Republican whether or not they want to strengthen the hand of the GOP in domestic and foreign policies in general?
Ed Walsh: I suspect this election will be less of a referendum that many of us thought a few weeks ago. Very few candidates are referring to it in their campaigns. In fact, the only one I know of who is running an ad about impeachment is a Democrat who is criticizing the incumbent for voting for an impeachment inquiry. My guess is voters who strongly disapprove of Clinton's behavior would have voted Republican in any case.
Bob Levey: The big number on election day will be 34. That's how many seats the Democrats need to have in the Senate to keep Clinton impeachment-proof (assuming all Democrats support him). The Democrats now hold 45 seats. Any chance they would lose 11 on Nov. 3?
Ed Walsh: I'd say almost none. Losing 11 Senate seats would be a real blowout, sort of like the Redskins game against the Vikings. I think most people expect Republicans to make modest gains in both the House and Senate, but nothing like 11 in the Senate.
Davidsonville, Md.: The tides of the election are ebbing and changing on a daily basis, with each new headline or news break. At this point in time, two weeks until the election, what is a reasonable, predictable gain, if any, for the Republicans in the House and Senate?
Ed Walsh: Well, I just predicted modest gains, but exactly what that is I don't know and I don't think anyone does. My best guess is probably a pickup of three or four seats in the Senate and maybe about 10 in the House. In that case, I think the GOP would declare victory.
Bob Levey: It's all about bucks or at least that's what the professionals say. Despite his problems, Bill Clinton seems remarkably good at raising those bucks. But so does his wife. Which Clinton will be invited by more congressional candidates in the next two weeks?
Ed Walsh: At this point, I think a lot of Democrats would love to have both Clintons, which is surprising. Hillary is no doubt more popular these days, but it is still the president who raises the biggest of the big bucks and given the choice I think most Democrats would opt for him.
Somewhere, U.S.A.: Is the propensity that journalists have of focusing on campaign spending of two candidates in a race an innate bias in favor of Dems and in opposition to Reps? Why is one candidate's having more money to spend on a campaign being portrayed as being "unfair?" Isn't that a media cultural bias?
Ed Walsh: I don't think so. The fact is money is a critical factor in every election and that is the biggest reason we focus on it. And it is not just Republicans who have a money advantage. Usually it is the incumbent who has the most money and that includes both Democrats and Republicans. That's also a big reason why there is relatively little turnover in Congress in these elections.
Bob Levey: Here's how screwy Campaign 1998 has been. The Post reported the other day that Gary Mueller, a House candidate in Illinois, "called a news conference to announce that he never had an adulterous affair, never abused his wife or children, never engaged in homosexual conduct and never has been charged with a felony." And his polls didn't go up at all! What do you make of this?
Ed Walsh: That voters are smarter than we often give them credit for and Mr. Mueller may not be the sharpest of candidates. This reminds me of former Virginia Sen. Bill Scott, who once called a news conference to deny a magazine's allegation that he was the dumbest person in the U.S. Senate. By calling the news conference, Scott proved he was. Fortunately, I don't think Mueller's little gambit is going to be a trend.
Hampton, Va.: What is your guess on voter turnout? A lot of pundits are expecting record low turnout this year, in the area of mid-30 percent.
Ed Walsh: Everybody thinks turnout will be low. That's the history of mid-term elections and also the recent trend in all elections. Ironically, the Lewinsky scandal may boost turnout a little. It certainly has energized the Republican base, but I think there may also be a boost in voting by Democrats who want to register their displeasure with the way Congress has handled the impeachment controversy.
Washington, D.C.: Do things look any better in the Senate race this year for women? I'm interested in how many new women candidates are running this year and how many you think have a real chance to win a seat.
Ed Walsh: It doesn't look great for women in the Senate this year. At least one incumbent, Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, is likely to lose. Two others, Barbara Boxer in California and Patty Murray, are in tough races, although I expect Murray to win. There are also women running in Colorado, Ohio and perhaps a couple other states, but so far all are trailing their male opponents.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Do you have any opinion on the governor's race in Minnesota? It's an interesting battle between the son of Hubert Humphrey, his former employee turned Republican, and a former professional wrestler.
Ed Walsh: Politics is sometimes compared to mud wrestling and I sure hope the younger Humphrey doesn't get in the ring with his opponent. I think his dad would be amused by this. Isn't the former wrestler also the mayor of St. Paul and a former Democrat who became a Republican? I think it will be an interesting race with Humphrey holding the advantage in what is still essentially a Democratic state.
Bob Levey: As you know from covering races around the country, the prevailing mood is often, "We hate Washington, but we love sending our same old guy back to Washington." And that's exactly what most Americans do. Incumbents are always a huge favorite to be returned. At least 88 percent of the House has been re-elected in every election since 1978. Do you see the same sort of numbers happening this time?
Ed Walsh: Probably. People "hate" Washington, but I'm not sure they know exactly what they mean by Washington. It usually isn't their individual member of Congress who may have helped them with a problem in the past. What they really may hate is the image of Washington as projected by their television set the screaming, pontificating heads that are always telling them what they should think.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post political reporter Edward Walsh
Washington, D.C.: I've heard a lot of Republican candidates using this argument in several campaigns, including John Ensign's in Nevada: A newcomer in the majority party will have greater influence (thus being able to get more done for constituents) than could a member with seniority in the minority party. It seems like they're saying "Vote for me because I'm Republican and Democrats as a minority can't achieve anything for constituents." How true is this?
Ed Walsh: The majority does have a lot more power in Congress just ask any Democrat who, after 1994, found himself in the minority. The majority gets to set the agenda and run the hearings. Still, I think this is a pretty narrow argument to make in a general appeal to voters. The political science professors among your constituents might like [it], but I don't think it has much appeal to the average voters.
Plymouth, Minn.: Is Al Gore doing anything to help Democrats around the country?
Ed Walsh: Sure. He's been out in the country campaigning for Democrats and, most important, helping them to raise money. Next to the president, the vice president is the party's best fund-raiser. He's also campaigning for himself in 2000 just as Dan Quayle and other potential Republican presidential contenders are doing as they try to help GOP candidates this year.
Bob Levey: There's one part of Clinton-Lewinsky that everyone seems to agree on: It's time to get beyond this. Some candidates have gained points by criticizing incumbents who voted to hold impeachment hearings. Other candidates haven't. How do you sort this out?
Ed Walsh: I think the most surprising thing is how little Republicans have tried to use the scandal. Remember back in August there were instant predictions that snippets from Clinton's grand jury testimony would make their way into GOP campaign ads. Another triumph for Washington conventional wisdom. Republicans are reading the same polls as Democrats and have wisely decided to stay away from impeachment as an issue. As I mentioned earlier, the only candidate who is running an impeachment ad is a Democratic challenger in the Seattle suburbs who is criticizing the incumbent for voting for the inquiry. A Democratic-commissioned poll has just shown the challenger pulling even with the incumbent. So maybe he is on to something and maybe other Democrats will try the same tactic in the closing days of the campaign.
New York, N.Y.: Have any of the candidates been able to use the Internet effectively in their campaigns? Will Internet campaigning ever become a major factor in congressional elections? Because it is inexpensive, will it be able to "level the playing field" between big money candidates and the less affluent?
Ed Walsh: More and more candidates are using the Internet although it is far from being a replacement for television ads and mass mailings as a way to reach voters. About the only thing I think it is safe to predict about this is that the internet will become more important in politics just as it will become more important in all aspects of our lives. But I don't think it will ever be a substitute for traditional methods of campaigning.
Bob Levey: Four incumbent Democratic Senators Fritz Hollings, Carol Moseley-Braun, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold are generally seen as being in trouble. Yet they are very different kinds of Democrats in very different states. If so many kinds of Democrats are being threatened in so many places, are Democrats in wider trouble than they care to admit?
Ed Walsh: The honest answer is I don't know, but I would be cautious in reading too much of a national trend into these races. Moseley-Braun has been her own worst enemy and she and Boxer and Feingold are all first-termers, which is when you usually have your toughest reelection race. Hollings has the opposite problem he's been around so long people may be tired of him. In addition, his state has grown increasingly conservative and Republican so it's not surprising that he's in a tough race.
McLean, Va.: Is the party of Ross Perot(forgot name of party already) running any candidates for Congress? If so, what will be the impact?
Ed Walsh: It's the Reform Party. I think they may have a few candidates running, but it will have zero impact because none of them will be elected, just as Ross will never be president. Wasn't it interesting, as Ross would say, that he had just about disappeared from public view until Clinton's grand jury testimony, when all of a sudden he was back on Larry King Live discussing the president's mental health?
Bob Levey: In a normal year whatever that means any more the future of Social Security would be a huge issue, and probably a huge Democratic issue. But I don't hear much about it amid all the Clinton-Lewinsky noise. Any candidate capitalizing on Social Security, one way or the other?
Ed Walsh: Not much. Of course, Republicans love campaigns in which Social Security is not a big issue because they have been burned so often on this in the past. I think Democrats will try to say Republicans are more interested in cutting taxes than saving Social Security, but since the GOP tax cut plan never got through Congress that is no longer such a good issue for the Democrats.
Washington, D.C.: Isn't voter turnout the biggest unknown variable in the mid-year election? Some argue that the backlash against Starr may motivate many ordinarily listless Democratic voters to get to the polls, while not actually increasing Republican turnout (since the right wing *always* comes out to vote anyway). You agree?
Ed Walsh: I think there is some truth to this. Certainly, the hard core conservatives were going to vote with or without Monica. I think there is some evidence that the Starr investigation and the impeachment inquiry have stirred the Democratic base, but how much is anybody's guess until the election returns are in.
Bob Levey: The Washington area has about as wide a mix of Representatives as a metropolis could have a classically liberal Al Wynn, a moderate Republican Connie Morella, a conservative Frank Wolf, a pugnaciously Democratic Jim Moran. Yet all seem safe. Does this yet again prove the cliche (almost as old as I am) that all politics are local?
Ed Walsh: Yes, Tip O'Neill was right all politics are local. My first assignment at The Post was in Montgomery County and Connie Morella is an almost perfect reflection of that upscale community. Much the same could be said for the others. But what this really proves is the advantages money, name recognition, etc. of incumbency. Most incumbents are very tough to knock off.
Swarthmore, Pa.: Do you believe that the impeachment controversy is a factor in the New York Senate contest, since the negative advertisements launched by both candidates have, so far, primarily focused on the opponent's legislative record?
Ed Walsh: It doesn't seem to be. If negative campaigning can be said to be entertaining, this race proves it. These guys have so much garbage to hurl at each other, why bother to bring in Monica and Bill?
That's it for this week. Thanks to our guest, Ed Walsh. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our scheduled guest is Charles Ramsey, chief of the Metropolitan Police in Washington, D.C.