Political Outlook 2008

AggMan Staff | Published on January 1, 2008

As the nation and the aggregates industry gear up for fall elections, we embark on an uncharted road.

As we enter the 2008 election year, we are embarking on an uncharted road, particularly as it applies to the presidential contest. The presidential race has not been so wide open since 1952, with no obvious “heir apparent,” no incumbent president running for re-election, and no vice president standing in the wings. Other things making this election cycle different are the early primaries, which mean we could know the presidential candidates by February 2008 and then have the longest gap between the nomination fights and the presidential nominating conventions in history. Also, it is the first campaign in which a woman is a leading contender for a nomination of her party. Finally, the 44th president will be the first since Richard Nixon to inherit an unpopular war.

According to a November 2007 Washington Post/ABC poll, 60 percent of the populace is looking for change, including — overwhelmingly — those who identify themselves as Democrats; three-quarters of those who identify themselves as independents; and one-half of those who identify themselves as Republicans.

In an ominous sign for Republicans, the Iraq War continues to be the primary drag on public opinion. About seven in 10 people view a recession as likely. On all key issues: including healthcare, the situation in Iraq, the economy, immigration, and taxes, the Democrats are viewed as the most trusted to do a better job of handling them. Only on the U.S. campaign against terrorism are the Republicans seen as more equipped to handle it, but even then by a very small percentage.

On the issues of most concern to the construction industry — infrastructure investment, taxes, natural resource development, labor, environment, health, and safety — the outlook is mixed. Generally, the Democrats have been more willing to increase funding for the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. Republicans look at increased highway funding and see increased taxes. This is particularly true now that they seek to recover the Republican Party brand of fiscal conservatism and lower taxes.

The Minnesota bridge collapse prompted an immediate response from Congress in the form of a $250 million earmark. Likewise, the Senate added $1 billion for bridge repair and replacement to the FY ’08 Department of Transportation appropriations bill. Despite these positive signs, however, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) was shot down almost immediately by the anti-tax increase chorus when he proposed a one-time, 5-cent increase on the gas user fee to fund a bridge repair program. Several members of Congress have advised that an increase in the user fee on gasoline is not politically achievable during an election year, meaning the financial gap that is expected in the Highway Trust Fund in 2009 will have to be filled in some other manner. In fact, the nation’s transportation infrastructure was only briefly mentioned by several of the presidential candidates after the Minnesota tragedy, followed by deafening silence.

Democrats traditionally favor more restrictive policies and regulations on natural resource development and environmental issues. Climate change proposals abound, and the next Congress is sure to act on some of these. For the construction industry, there could be opportunities (e.g., diversion of some of the resulting revenues to the Highway Trust Fund), as well pitfalls. Smart growth still trumps quality growth (balanced common-sense approaches to solving community’s growth related needs), which could result in putting badly needed construction material deposits off limits.

Republicans have been more leery of labor proposals that are cloaked as “safety” improvements when, in fact, they are really added regulatory burdens and attempts to undo the long-standing federal notice and comment rulemaking process and circumvent laws that require assessment of the impacts of regulatory proposals on small business. Think S-MINER (Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act).

So, we enter the 2008 election year with an appetite for change as strong as it has been since it was in the summer of 1992 leading up to the election of Bill Clinton. It is significantly stronger than it was in the summer of 2000 or the fall of 1998. The GOP clearly is weighed down by an unpopular president and an unpopular war. Ironically, at the same time, the Democratic-controlled Congress rates lower in job approval than the president.

The construction industry, and America, is probably best served by divided government, with all the power vested in neither political party.

Now, let’s take a look at the upcoming political races, always bearing in mind that much can change in the months ahead that could reshape the political landscape.

The Presidency

If you didn’t already know it, we have entered what promises to be the longest general election campaign in the history of presidential politics. The presidential contenders of both parties have concentrated an unprecedented amount of time in Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the primary calendar with the two major party nominations possibly decided by the tremendous number of caucuses and primaries being held on Feb. 5.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has led the Democrat presidential pack for most of the fall, with Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-S.C.) trailing by as much as 20 points at times. Those who suggest, however, that her nomination is a fait accomplis need only consider her negatives, which are higher than any other Democratic presidential candidate. More than one-third of the public has strongly negative views of her, more than 10 points higher than any of the other Democratic contenders. This has led her opponents to attack her as being the least electible. Although she cites her seven years as a senator and her eight years as first lady as experience that well qualifies her to be president, she must also contend with the legacy left by her husband.

Sen. Obama thrilled supporters early on and seemed like the embodiment of the change for which so many appear to be looking. By fall, however, his momentum slowed to a near stop, and he was once again contending with opponents’ charges that he is too inexperienced to serve as president.

Former Sen. John Edwards was running third most of the year, tarnished by reports of $400 haircuts and mansions when poverty has been his cause célèbre. Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) are viewed as effective senators, but barely register with the public. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson looks to have all the right credentials — minority status (he is Latino), governor, House member, cabinet secretary, United Nations representative — but his experience doesn’t seem to have made a difference. His muted criticisms of Clinton in some of the candidate debates have given rise to talk that he might be angling for the vice presidential nod if he is unsuccessful in his bid for the top spot on the ticket.

This year’s Republican race is notable for being wide open. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani maintains a lead over his main rivals, but he has yet to gain momentum among key primary voting groups or to distinguish himself as the best candidate for the Republican Party.  Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), after stumbling badly during the summer, seems to be reinvigorated. The Republican race is also notable because the national poll leader does not lead in either of the first two states to hold contests. That lead goes to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney has raised more money and spent more money to get noticed than the other candidates, but Republican voters still seem to have reservations about his previous liberal positions on social issues making him vulnerable to the “flip-flop” charge. Plus, his Mormon religion gives some would-be voters pause.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the latecomer to the race and the actor some felt could assume Ronald Reagan’s mantle, has failed to “wow,” and his approach has led to questions about whether he has the requisite “fire-in-the-belly” for the job.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, has staked claim the socially conservative mantle and showed well in an early Iowa straw poll. If one of the leaders falters, Huckabee, another son of Hope, Ark., could emerge.

Even though the political landscape appears to be less favorable to the Republicans, political pundits still expect the election to be close, with the biggest dynamic being a desire for change from Bush Administration policies. It is not a clear path to victory, however, when you consider that no Democrat has obtained more than 50 percent of the vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The U.S. Senate

Republicans are facing a decided disadvantage in the Senate races if for no other reason than numbers — 22 Republicans seats are up for election in 2008 while only 12 Democratic seats are in play. Four Republican senators have said they are not running for reelection: Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

Both Virginia and Colorado are becoming bluer for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Democratic governors and increasing numbers of registered Democrat voters.

Hagel is likely to be succeeded by former Republican Gov. and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in one of the most Republican states in the union.

The Senate race in New Mexico will be hard fought with the retirement of “Saint Pete” Domenici. Both GOP Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce are fighting for the Republican nomination. George Bush lost New Mexico by a slim margin in 2000 and won it by a slim margin in 2004. This race will be a hot one.

Other Republican Senate seats thought to be in jeopardy are Sen. John Sununu in New Hampshire, Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, and veteran Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, who is thought to be in jeopardy due to an FBI investigation and allegations that he took money for legislative favors.

On the Democratic side, only one seat appears to be in jeopardy. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has squeaked by before based on her popularity in her hometown of New Orleans.  But in the fall, Louisiana elected Republican Rep. Bobby Jindahl as governor. Landrieu could be in trouble due to those who left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have never returned.

The magic number is 60. If the Democrats are able to increase their numbers, now at 51, to 60, they will have the votes needed to stymie any Republican filibusters. Nine seats seem like a stretch, but who thought the Democrats would have seized the Senate majority two years ago?

The U.S. House of Representatives

To regain the House majority, Republicans need to gain 16 seats.  In a normal election cycle, that would be highly possible. In the current climate of an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and a party that appears to have lost its brand of fiscal responsibility, it seems like a long reach. On the other hand, the new House Democratic majority has now been in control for a year with not much to show for it and the public appears just as dissatisfied with them as the Republicans.

As a percentage of each committee’s stated goals, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is doing a better job of recruiting than is the NRCC. It has failed to recruit candidates who appear credible in only three of the 44 Republican-held districts it is promoting as vulnerable to a Democratic takeover.

Conclusions

Although the political road ahead seems smoother for the Democrats, lots can change before Election Day 2008. If the war goes better and recedes as an issue, that could impact the election terrain. A downturn could propel the economy into greater prominence as an issue that favors either the Republicans or Democrats — whoever can present the best road to recovery.

After reading this, you may be asking yourself “Why should I care?” Let me tell you why.

You should care because the next president of the United States and the 111th Congress will preside over the next surface transportation reauthorization. Hopefully, they will realize the transportation vision for the 21st century.

You should care because Congress makes the laws that either facilitate commerce and economic prosperity or stifle it through higher taxes and more restrictive statutes that legislate increased regulatory burdens.

You should care because the president will choose the regulators who implement the laws affecting the construction materials industry through the federal rulemaking process.

You should care because construction materials are your business, and they are base materials essential to America’s surface transportation infrastructure and the way of life we enjoy.

Be involved. Be heard. Be a participant in developing and negotiating the laws that govern the aggregates industry and not a spectator. Spectators have only themselves to blame for undesirable outcomes.

Yes, the road ahead is uncharted, but the flashing signs blinking “Caution,” “Yield,” “Go,” “Stop” and “Slow — Uneven Pavement Ahead” are clearly visible.

Sources:

  • “DCCC Outpaces NRCC on Quality Candidates,” David Drucker, Roll Call Preview, Nov. 5, 2007

  • “Heir Unapparent,” Carl M. Cannon, The National Journal, Sept. 29, 2007

  • “Poll Finds Americans Pessimistic, Want Change,” Dan Balz and Jon Cohen, The Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2007

  • “Republican Nomination Most Open in Decades,” Jon Cohen and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2007

  • “Senators at Risk,” Jennifer E. Duffy, The National Journal, Oct. 20, 2007

Pamela J. Whitted is the vice president of government affairs for the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association. She earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communications from the University of Nebraska and a master’s degree in public policy from The American University. Whitted serves as the senior staff executive to the Government Affairs Division. She is the chief association advocate on Capitol Hill and oversees development and dissemination of association policy position papers.

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