Ken Mehlman: 2006 Is Not Like 1994

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman spoke to me yesterday about the GOP’s prospects in November, what a Democratic-led Congress would do, the RNC’s advanced get-out-the-vote drive and the role of conservatives in the blogosphere.

What follows is a transcript of our interview. It is also available for download in Windows Media and .mp3 format.

You’ve been very optimistic about the Republicans’ prospects this year. Can you tell us why Republicans will win in November?

Well, I think what I’ve hopefully been is realistic about the prospects. I, early in the year, said to my colleagues in the congressional and senatorial committees and I said to members of Congress that I think we’re in a very challenging environment, and I think unless we do the right things we could be in trouble.

I, at the end of the day, think the reason we’re going to keep our majorities is that most voters, when offered a choice, are going to choose in favor of lower taxes, not higher taxes. They’re going to choose in favor of moral clarity and strength in the face of a terrorist enemy. And they’re going to choose in favor of candidates that believe that judges ought to interpret the law, not legislate it from the bench. And if you look across the board, while ever election is different, those are some common issues and common ideas.

What’s interesting is that the mainstream media divorces ideas out of politics. They say it’s just like ’94 because people are unhappy. Well, people are concerned. At the end of the day, though, we won in ’94 because the American people liked our ideas. The Democrats’ biggest challenge is they don’t like their ideas. And so I think the most important thing we need to remember in politics are the ideas.

Democrats have tried to make these elections about a national referendum on certain issues. Do you think it will come down to national issues or is it going to be decided on local issues?

I think there’s really a combination of factors. I think there certainly is going to be local choices, but in many of those cases, the choices on the ballot involve issues that are of national importance.

So in a lot of races, there will be a debate on whether we should have the Patriot Act, or if the Patriot Act should have been killed, as the Democrat leaders wanted to do. In a lot of districts, there will be a debate over whether judges ought to take “under God” out of the Pledge, or we don’t think there ought to be judges who are doing that. In a lot of races, there will be a debate over whether we favor higher or lower taxes. All of those are national issues that will have an impact in particular races.

Can you tell us what you think a Senate and a House led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi would look like and what Americans could expect from them?

Well, the first thing we know we could expect from an economic perspective is $2.4 billion in higher taxes because they’ve already said they will repeal the Bush tax cuts. We can expect about $2.3 billion in higher spending, which is what the Senate Democrats have proposed in spending increases over the last five years. We certainly know the Democrat leaders have said that they were proud that they killed the Patriot Act last year. They’ve called for the investigation or even impeachment of the President for a surveillance program.

So what I think you’d see is a lot of the tools we need to win the War on Terror would potentially be weakened. I think you’d see our generals and our military leaders, instead of fighting the terrorists, would have to worry about fighting subpoenas because a lot of these folks have said they want to have massive political investigations into the war. I think you’d see a block on judges who are constitutionalists because the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would be a gentleman, Mr. Leahy of Vermont, who has supported 22 filibusters already.

If you, like I do, believe that Americans who are going to change jobs a lot in their lifetime ought to not worry about losing healthcare—and the way you fix that problem is by giving individuals ownership of their own healthcare—then you worry like I worry about the fact that they will oppose reforms like that and make healthcare more expensive, more bureaucratic with more government involvement. All of those are things you’re likely to see.

Do you think that if Democrats control the House they would follow the lead of someone like Congressman John Conyers and maybe launch an impeachment inquiry?

Well, certainly that’s a real possibility. We have to assume that they could do that. But the bottom line is, it seems to me, again we know at a minimum there would be massive investigations and massive censuring potentially, and certainly he has said that’s a possibility, so I think we need to look at all those factors.

Now without giving away any secrets, could you explain what the RNC is doing with its get-out-the-vote efforts?

The RNC will spend more resources to keep the Republican majorities in Congress than the RNC’s ever spent in its history by a factor of many times. We will spend $60 million on two fundamental things. The first fundamental thing we’re going to spend the money on is TV ads in key races around the country. And the second thing will be in voter-turnout activities—mail, phone, helping build infrastructure and all that.

In addition to that $60 million, over the last two years when I’ve been chairman, one of my biggest focuses has been in changing how Republicans identify and turn out voters, so that we’re able to do it in a more household-by-household basis, as opposed to a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. The reason for doing that ought to interest a lot of your viewers and listeners. The reason is this, I’ve long believed that there are many conservatives who are out there who many people don’t know about because they either live in big cities where there aren’t a lot of conservatives or they live in Democrat-leaning areas.

In ’04, Republicans increased our support from 26% to 39% in cities over 500,000. We did that because for the first time ever, if you were a conservative or you were pro-life or you were a Republican and you lived in a big city, you suddenly heard from the campaign or the party. We’ve now done that in all 50 cities, and I think it’s a very exciting model.

I’ve long believed that those of us who are right-of-center—I’ve often analogized we’re like nightingales. Nightingales don’t sing until they hear other nightingales sing, and then they sing a song. And the reality is, if you think about the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater was the first guy to preach a solid conservative message. What happens the first year he runs? Conservatives take over the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan’s the next guy who does it. We have a conservative America. Then Newt Gingrich does it. And we know the effect of that is a conservative Congress for the first time ever.

In ’04, it was the first time since 1936 that the President wins re-election and his party gains seats. It’s no accident that it occurred when we had a conservative President running a grassroots campaign that could reach out to every neighborhood in every area because we could reach people by household, not just by larger demographic groups. The fact that we can do this nationally, I think, is one of things that I am proudest of achieving because I think it will be good for conservatives for a generation.

Do you think the so-called values voter, who played such a key role in 2004, will have such an impact in 2006?

Well, I think absolutely. I think values voters are critically important. There was an article by Dick Armey in the Wall Street Journal that he called, “Pocketbook Conservatives.” I think that certainly that people who are concerned about the coarsening of the culture, who are concerned about the fact that you’ve got judges who are making decisions that the people ought to make, have real stakes in this election.

I think when they think about the fact, Do you want a Roberts and Alito on the court or do you want those guys filibustered? Do you want private property protected or do you want people to take it? Do you want a minor daughter to have access to an abortion without parental consent or do you believe that she ought to be able to? All of those are important questions.

In these next 43 days, what message can we expect to hear from President Bush?

I think the President will continue to talk about lots of different messages. Certainly the most important message he’ll talk about is the fundamental challenge we face—the existential threat of Islamofacism. We face a threat, that in my opinion, like the World War II or the Cold War threat is ideological in nature, involves a movement and fundamentally is a threat to the American way of freedom. You’re going to hear the President talk about what we’ve got to do as a nation to beat that threat.

And finally, much is made of the left’s successful use of the Internet as both a fundraising vehicle and means to spread a message. How are Republicans and conservatives doing in comparison?

We’re doing it right now talking on this website. I get a report each month of right-of-center vs. left-of-center websites and the number of web traffic. We’ve got much more web traffic than they do.

We’ve used the Internet as an organizing tool. What I just described in how we organize helps overcome the left’s advantage because of unions and trial lawyers. And finally, I think the right benefits from the fact that bloggers help sometimes correct the mainstream media.

So I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a conservative because technology is empowering us to reach new people. It’s empowering us to spread our message. It’s empowering us to get out the vote. And all of those are areas we are focused on.