The collapse of immigration reform efforts in the Senate Thursday evening will add to the Republican party's reputation for incompetence. But despite poll numbers showing voters are overwhelmingly unhappy with the country's direction, Democrats should not expect an easy path in the 2008 presidential election.
That's the view of Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic political strategist and speechwriter who was the guest at Friday's Monitor breakfast with reporters. Mr. Shrum was a senior adviser in the Gore and Kerry campaigns, and during his career advised eight Democratic presidential contenders.
In the battle of ideas, Democrats are losing to Republicans, according to Shrum who is now a senior fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He described former Vice President Al Gore as having to weigh another presidential run against his status as "a prophet on a global scale." And he said that any candidate attacking Mitt Romney for his Mormon faith "will be punished" by voters.
Shrum, who retired from political consulting after Kerry's 2004 loss, said his new book "No Excuses: Confessions of a Serial Campaigner" is an opportunity to accurately describe the "flawed heroes" for whom he had worked.
"So much of what is written about politics is stick-figured dramas played out against papier-mâché curtains," he said. "All these folks were human beings and it was an honor to work for them.... They are more appealing as human beings than they are as ... artificial constructs."
One such human being, whom Shrum rarely praises, is President Bush. But on the subject of immigration reform, "I think George W. Bush tried very hard to do the right thing here," Shrum said. "I think he tried it out of genuine conviction and I also think he tried it because he understands, as Karl Rove understands, that the permanent alienation of Hispanics from the Republican party ... is doom for Republican prospects for the future."
Late Thursday evening, supporters of immigration reform legislation could only muster 45 of the 60 votes they needed to cut off debate and move towards a final vote, stalling and perhaps killing the legislation. Shrum said the short-term political impact of the vote is to "create the sense again that the Bush administration can't do anything. They can't do [hurricane] Katrina, they can't do Iraq, they can't do immigration."
Recent polls indicate voters are dissatisfied with the country's direction. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 73 percent of those surveyed said the country was on the wrong track while only 25 percent said it was on the right track.
But it would be misleading to read that dissatisfaction as a sign Democrats will have an easy time regaining the White House, Shrum said. The poll result are "like sending a message to Bush. The country, I believe, is still fundamentally approximately a 50/50 country. That has been undermined by the utter lack of competence that the Bush administration has displayed on a number of issues."
Shrum was outspoken in his criticism of the Democratic party. "We lose the vocabulary war.... I think we sometimes lose the bigger battle of ideas because we are afraid to do what" Republicans have done in terms of articulating the principles they believe in. "I think Democrats too often have looked for the evasion, easy way out, the inoffensive way of talking about things," Shrum said.
"The result of that is that, sure, we can win an election, because they can hand it to us on a silver platter. They can mess up the economy, they can mess up a war. But when we take over, we don't have much of a mandate for change. People don't have a great sense of what we are other than the alternative."
When he was asked to assess the current field of potential Democratic presidential candidates, Shrum noted that Mr. Gore "is conducting the greatest noncampaign campaign we have ever seen in this country. I mean, 3,000 people wait at dawn for a book signing ... and they are chanting 'Run Al, run.' "
"He has become a prophet on a global scale," he adds. "No other politician that I know of has done this. And he is having an impact on one of he biggest issues of all time, maybe more impact than some presidents. If he runs and loses, I think that goes away. It is obviously magnified if he wins. So I think it is a very tough decision for him and I don't think it will be made purely on political grounds.... I think the other ground for him is: What else can I do to move the progressive agenda forward?"
Shrum, who worked on Sen. Edward Kennedy's successful 1994 Senate campaign against Mitt Romney, was outspoken on the issue of whether Mr. Romney's Mormon religion would play a role in his presidential bid.
"I don't think it will play any role in the general election. In fact, I think if somebody attacks Romney for being a Mormon they will get in big trouble. I think the country has an image of itself that was settled in 1960 [when Catholic John Kennedy was elected president] and anybody who tries to breach that will be punished."
He added: "There is one exception to that.... The Catholic bishops – or at least a number of them – have now made it tough for the Democratic party to nominate a Catholic because they claim that if you are a Catholic they are allowed to bring you to heel on an issue like choice or gay rights. So they are allowed to condemn you publicly, say you can't have communion – to, in effect, send a message that Catholics shouldn't vote for you. But they don't do that with someone who is not Catholic."