Exclusive Interview: Mehlman Cites Border Security as Key Issue

In an exclusive interview with the editors of HUMAN EVENTS, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman argued that border security would be a key issue for Republicans seeking re-election to Congress.

“I think it is very important that we move on border security,” Mehlman said in the May 24 interview. At the same time, he argued that Republicans have already done a great deal on the issue and that President Bush’s recent immigration reform proposals are a substantial move toward increased border security.

“I think we’ve done a lot on it,” said Mehlman. “I think we need to explain what we’ve done on it. … I think that what the President announced, in terms of the $1.9 billion in increased funding, in terms of what he asked Congress for, is a good step and an important step in the right direction.”

Mehlman said he believes Republicans face a very tough midterm election in November, but predicted they will maintain their majorities in both houses. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

You have a lot of pundits out there predicting that the Republicans are heading into a tough election, might even lose Congress. Why do you think they’re wrong?

Well, I think they’re right. It’s a very tough election. I don’t think we’re going to lose Congress, and I think we’re going to maintain a majority in both houses because of a number of different factors.

First of all, I think we’re going to maintain control because most members I talk to, in their races, are going to run elections as choices and not referendums.

The right-track number is not a good number today. The right-track number in 2004 was 43%, and yet the President got re-elected in what is usually a total referendum. The reason he got re-elected was because people decided that while they were concerned about some things, they recognized the leadership of this President is better than leadership of John Kerry. So I think that all over the country, candidates are going to be able to ask, “Do you want to see $2.4 trillion in higher taxes? Do you want to see a Congress that raises the white flag in the War on Terror? Do you want to see government bureaucrats between doctors and patients on health care? Do you want to see a litmus test that prohibits constitutionalists from being appointed to the courts?”

All those are things Democrats would do if they were in power. Are these Republicans going to go out and say, “Here’s what we did, and what we’re going to do in the next few years?”

That’s the other side of it. It’s a choice. A choice doesn’t mean it’s a negative referendum. A choice means we say, here’s what we’ve done and we will do, and here’s what they’ve done.

What have we done? Every year that George W. Bush has been President, that we’ve had a Republican majority in Congress, Americans have received a tax cut. Every single year—including this year now the $70 billion law of the land.

… I also would argue: Tax cuts every single year. Moral clarity—and not just moral clarity, but the sense of purpose that we need in the war on terror from this President. A judicial record that our friend Pat Buchanan says is better than Ronald Reagan’s, which is true, I think. A fantastic record in terms of who was appointed. An outstanding record of protecting innocent human life, from the first thing the President did which is the Mexico City Policy, to the ban on partial-birth abortion to the ban on interstate moving around of young girls to have abortions, to parental notification, to the positions we’ve taken in the courts on this issues.

Do you think the abortion issue, the pro-life issue, is good for Republicans?

Absolutely. I think that anyone who has ever measured this objectively—I’m personally pro-life, but taking off my pro-life hat and speaking as a political professional—if you look at the volatile voters, which is to say people for whom this issue moves them from one side to the other—this was a test that was done in ’02 in the Missouri race for Senate and in the Minnesota race for Senate. It’s clear to me that the pro-life position is the one, is a position that politically has benefited the Republican Party. Which is not to say we should not be a big-tent party. We are a big-tent party. We’re a party that has people of all positions. It’s a position that candidates ought to choose on the basis of their principles. But you asked me a political question. I believe that answer, politically, is one that’s benefited us. That’s not why we’re doing it, we’re doing it because it’s morally right.

So the people like Christine Todd Whitman who say Republicans have to get away from that are just dead wrong?

I think that the fact is that she’s wrong as a political matter. Those people who say we should abandon our pro-life platform, I believe, are wrong from a political perspective, and I think are wrong from the perspective of what’s right for this party.

What exactly is the role of the RNC between now and November?

There are basically four things we can do that can be helpful to candidates around the country. First, we can provide them with financial support. Second, we can help them develop a smart and effective voter turnout and communication machine. In the old days people thought the way you communicate was through TV, the way you turnout the voters is through, mostly, TV but some word-of-mouth, some talk radio, some grassroots and phone banks. Today, the way you spread the word is through word-of-mouth. So setting up that kind of infrastructure, embracing the new-media and new technology, is important for them to get their message out. We can do that.

The third thing we can do is build the parties in their states to turn out more conservatives and more Republicans, and that can be helpful to them.

And the fourth thing we can do, that I try to do, is work with them and advise them on issues and on ideas that we think and I think and they think will be effective in turning out the vote, both the members of Congress here and in their individual campaigns.

How do things look in the House races?

… The House is going to be very challenging. This is going to be a tough, tough cycle, and I’ve told everyone this. I think there has been very important progress made. I think it is critical that they passed a budget in the House. They had to do that, and it was the right thing to do.

I think it is very important that we move on border security. That is something that is very important for us to do. I think we’ve got to remind people of the differences, both by the good things that we do and remind us who those guys are and what they’re going do. That’s very important.

Here are the advantages you have in the House. I think there are really four advantages. One advantage is just the narrow playing field. Compare for instance where we are today compared to where the Democrats were in 1994. We have today 18 open seats, they had 28. Going into that election in 1994, they had 42 Democrat members who the last time had won by 5% or less. Those were people in vulnerable districts. We have four.

They had in that election, 53 Democrats that represented districts that 41 [President George H.W. Bush] had won in ’92. We have 18, and there are 41 that cut the other way. So the playing filed is much more narrow.

Second, financially: Since 1972, if you look at every election in a competitive race, and you see who’s won and who’s lost, on average the candidate with $200,000 or more cash on hand has won 93% of the time. If you take every one of those races [where our candidate or their candidate won less than 60% of the vote] our guys are up $220,000 on average.

So the first reason is a narrow playing field, the second reason is resources, and the third reason is the Democrats are in no better shape than we are, defying the laws of political physics. For the first time in a generation when one party went down [in the polls] the other party did not go up.

The fourth advantage we have is that people understand we’re in trouble in a way they didn’t in 1994. They understand we have a problem, which hopefully clarifies the mind. It makes you run better races. It makes people take action on things that our voters care about. It makes people focus and take the necessary steps to be in a strong position.

There seems to be such great anger about the direction the Senate is heading on immigration and the fact the President hasn’t secured the border, that that one issue can cause voters to go against Republicans.

Well, I will tell you, I think it is very important we secure the border. I think we’ve done a lot on it. I think we need to explain what we’ve done on it. I think that you’re going to see, over the coming weeks, us do that. I think that what the President announced, in terms of the $1.9 billion in increased funding, in terms of what he asked Congress for, is a good step and an important step in the right direction.

Let me just go over some statistics: $1.9 billion is requested for the border and Congress, I’m confident, will pass it. If you add up that plus previous funding, this government will be spending, essentially, $4 million a mile to secure the border in this country. We’ve had a 66% increase in funding for border security since the President took office. There will be 18,000 Border Patrol by 2008. That’s double the number from where it was originally. And obviously we’ve got the National Guard in there until that happens, and that’s gonna be critically important. Ending catch-and-release, that is critically important, very important to success at the border. Build a virtual wall, which this President is committed to doing, and the fact that there have been 5.9 million apprehensions.

Here’s how I look at it, and I look at, again, as someone who’s paid attention to this issue for a while. (I worked for Rep. Lamar Smith [R.-Tex.] in 1996, you may remember, when he was working on this issue.) In 1986, we did, in my judgment, the wrong thing, because we violated two fundamentally conservative principles. The first principle was the rule of law. By providing amnesty we violated the rule of law, and we also ignored the law of supply and demand.

By not recognizing that there was reason we had illegals in this country, which was the fact that we had jobs that weren’t being met, not having real employer sanctions that would go forward and giving people amnesty, we essentially said: “OK, we’re not going to change the supply and demand of the job market, we’re not going to really enforce the rules and we’re not going to have a penalty for people who violate the law.”

What I think we’ve got to do this year—and I hope we can get something that does it—if you combine a real work ID that you can’t get into the job without, with real employer sanctions, with real border security (that I just went over), with a temporary-worker program that allows you to meet your economic needs (and it could be one of a number of different ways to that program), if you add that stuff together, you’re actually doing, from an incentive perspective, the opposite of what we did in 1986. And you’re making it consistent with things that we all understand, which is the rule of law, and which is the law of supply and demand.

There are two important concepts you put out there: The Republicans have to show the people that they’ve secured the border. No. 2, they have to show that they’re enforcing the rule of law, which means no amnesty. You cite all these figures and proposals, some of which come from the President’s speech last Monday. But isn’t the problem that people believe the President hasn’t secured the border? They believe the proposals he’s made are not going to secure the border. And the problem you’re going to have, politically, is come election Tuesday in November, illegal aliens are still going to be streaming across the border and the night before the election Lou Dobbs is going to be on CNN, probably with a live camera on the border, showing illegal aliens streaming across.

Well, I don’t think that they will be. I think—

You think the border will be secured on Election Day?

I think that there have been important steps. The 5.9 million apprehensions that have occurred over the last couple of years by this administration, I think represents progress. I think you’re going to have more progress.

How much of a problem will it be for Republicans if on Election Day, in fact, illegal aliens are streaming across the border and you have Lou Dobbs down there interviewing them as they come across?

I think the public understands. I mean, the polling consistently shows that the public understands this is a difficult and complicated issue. The public wants to see progress. They want to see us protect our nation. They recognize we are a nation at war. I think we need to show progress. And I’m hopeful and confident that they can.

So we shouldn’t expect to see the border actually secured by Election Day?

I’m not, as the chairman of the party, going to sign a check that [Homeland Security Secretary, Michael] Chertoff and others need to cash.

But President Bush as commander in chiefcould secure the border, correct?

Well, as commander in chief, I think he has announced very important things that will make sure we are controlling our border and that we are—the problem with what you’re saying to me is I don’t know the definition you have. I believe the President has taken important steps and our border is more under control today than it was when he took office. And I believe he will take even further steps to get more under control.

I believe the border could be secured almost tomorrow, if you put 30,000 or 40,000 National Guard down there. What’s the explanation about training the new border guards, why does it take two more years?

There’s going to be the National Guard at the border until they’re trained.

But they’re not even going to be able to capture people.

My opinion is we will have a border that is secure and controlled in the coming weeks and months. And I think it’s already more secured and controlled than it was. This President has made important progress, and he’ll make further progress.

So if people are streaming across the border on Election Day, will that be a disaster for the Republican Party?

I know what you’re trying to get me to say.

But this is what you hear people say. All you have to do is turn on Chris Core [on WMAL radio in Washington, D.C.] in the morning—

Listen, I live in the grassroots. So I understand the concern, and what I’m saying is that we’ve shown progress. We’ve made progress. Much more needs to be done. Much more is being done. When the $1.9 billion is passed, that’s important progress. When the National Guard troops are sent, that’s important progress. And these people are trained, that’s important progress. You will see significant progress. Our country will be more secure before this election than it is today. And it’s more secure today than it was a year ago, and more than a year before that.

This really gets to another part of the equation where it seems like the President’s credibility on the immigration issue is potentially going to do profound damage to Republican Party. It’s the whole question of the rule of law and amnesty. Most people, quite frankly, don’t believe that what the President is proposing and the Senate is about to pass is not an amnesty. On the face of it it’s an amnesty. Ed Meese said in the New York Times it is amnesty. So, people don’t believe it.

I’m a fan of Ed Meese. I think he’s a great man. I think he served our country well. I just happen to disagree with him about that specific definition.

In 1986, the way it worked was there was no penalty, you automatically became a citizen. We don’t know where this is going to come down. There are a number of different proposals in the Senate. [Rep.] Mike Pence [R.-Ind.] has a proposal. The fact is, though, no one on our side is proposing what President Reagan did in 1986, which is to say you automatically become a citizen. What the penalty ought to be includes in most cases learning English; includes in most cases a fine; includes in some cases going back to the port of entry; includes in other cases waiting in the back of the line. It includes in other cases a criminal background check.

There are a number of different proposed penalties, but I don’t see how, as simply a matter of factual argument, you can say that’s the same thing as 1986 when there was no penalty.

If Senators Chuck Hagel’s (R.-Neb.) and Mel Martinez’s (R.-Fla.) bill, which is the one before the Senate, wins tomorrow in the Senate (which we expect) [and it did] and then it’s eventually signed into law by the President, do you believe that Republican candidates in vulnerable districts should go out in November and say: “I voted for Hagel-Martinez, vote for me”?

I think that if that became law, members should go out and say that I voted for massively increased border security. I voted for a biometric work card that is critical to protecting our nation. I voted to make sure that we meet our economic needs in the future. And I voted for a way for us to figure out who the people are that are here so that if there are criminals or drug dealers or terrorists we can deal with them appropriately.