Congress to Campus at Rhode Island College

RIC’s Congress to Campus event from Oct. 25-28 offered a look at politics and public service in a series of forums, informal meetings with college and community members, and interviews with local media. Below are two stories as well as photos from all the forums.


Forum explores causes, concerns of congressional discord

By Rob Martin, Managing Editor

Political analyst Jennifer Duffy looks at current voter trends

By Lori Marcotte ’09, Staff Writer

Jennifer Duffy
Although the 2010 elections are a year out, Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of “The Cook Political Report,” forecasts potentially cloudy days ahead for congressional Democrats.

“We voted for change we can believe in, and the Congress hasn’t changed at all,” said Duffy, in a keynote address on elections and politics as part of RIC’s Congress to Campus initiative on Oct. 26.

“What we really hoped was that they [Congress] would take the President’s lead and perhaps do things a little differently; be less partisan, be more productive, and none of that happened.”

“It [voter sentiment] has yet to crystallize against the Democratic party, but it should and probably will, because they are the party in power,” she said.

The party in power, she pointed out, usually loses seats midterm.

Duffy, a native Rhode Islander who has over 20 years of expertise in nonpartisan political analysis, described elections as a rollercoaster, rather than the age-old simile of a pendulum.

“A pendulum suggests a sense of calm and tranquility as the pendulum swings back and forth between candidates. But, elections are anything but calm and tranquil,” she said.

The problem with being on the political rollercoaster, she said, is that you’re blindfolded, meaning solid predictions can’t be made until further into the election process.

The rollercoaster begins with the question, what do voters call themselves? Are you a Republican, a Democrat or an independent?

“If you say independent, they push you a little bit because here is the reality – there are few people who are purely independent voters. They tend to favor one party or another,” or swing back and forth under all sorts of circumstances, Duffy said.

There are four questions Duffy says she cares most about when predicting future campaigns.

The first is the party ID question – what do voters call themselves? The 11-point advantage Democrats had on that question in December of 2008 is now down to six points, a cumulative number for the first three quarters of 2009.

Secondly, Duffy says she watches for which party voters want to control Congress. The 13-point advantage democrats had in December of 2008 is now down to two points. Duffy said, “We are seeing a major, major shift,” among independent voters, who are affecting which party is more favorable in Congress.

The third question is that of re-election. Do you think your own member of Congress deserves to be re-elected, or is it time to give someone new a chance? Of voters who responded, 49 percent said it was time to give someone new a chance and 40 percent said their member should be re-elected.

The fourth question Duffy said she considers is the congressional job approval rating. Twenty-one percent of voters responded that Congress was doing a good job. That number fell from 31 percent between August and October, with the biggest decline among Democrats. Those who said they were not doing a good job – 76 percent.

“That is more than a failing grade,” Duffy said.

Duffy said the Obama election ushered in a new era where perhaps, more government and more regulation is better. They had to save the country from falling into a depression.

“But it’s what they did that voters have an issue with,” said Duffy, in regards to the level of government involvement.

There are three Americas, she said. Red America wants no regulation. Blue America tends to be more liberal and progressive. Purple America is comprised of the independent voters who want some regulation, but not too much. “I call this the ‘Goldie-Locks’ of politics,” Duffy said.

Research shows that independent voters have grown anxious about the choices Congress is making. “Somehow the White House missed the shift,” she said, and the government continues to move forward. Now these voters are questioning whether the amount of government intervention is a good idea or not.

“Voters still believe in the president and still have faith that he can affect change, but they see it’s really not entirely what he promised. But they don’t entirely blame him for that either.”

Currently Duffy said there are more vulnerable Democratic seats in the 2010 House races than Republican. She said the number of Democratic seats in danger is likely to increase, while Republican seats are apt to stay about the same.

But the elections are still year away, giving the rollercoaster of politics plenty of time to send voters though a new loop.

Forum panelists Wendy Schiller and Barry Goldwater Jr.
Congress to Campus sends pairs of former members of Congress to visit college campuses across the country to speak to students about the nobility of public service. Visiting RIC were Barry Goldwater Jr. and Beverly Byron, who exhibited the collegiality often missing on the floors of today’s U.S. House and Senate.

Goldwater and Byron were panelists in the Oct. 26 forum “Then and Now: Congress, Bipartisanship, and Governing.” They were joined by Jennifer Duffy of the “Cook Political Report,” and Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University. Michael Smith, assistant to the RIC president and college historian, moderated.

The forum examined the current tone of U.S. politics – a timely theme, to be sure when in recent weeks, a Democratic congressman described the previous vice president as a vampire with blood dripping from his teeth, and a Republican from the House indignantly blurted “You lie!” to President Obama, who was giving an address to Congress at the time.

Goldwater, whose father, Barry Goldwater Sr., ran for president in 1964, offered a humorous reason for the nastiness found in today’s Congress. He explained that the word “politic “is comprised of “poli,” meaning “many” and “tic,” meaning “blood-sucking creature.”

Beverly Byron
Duffy, a senior editor for “Cook Political Report,” had a simple and seemingly common-sense answer to the question of why members of Congress were so partisan: “They don’t really know each other any more.”

She recalled that in years past, those serving in Congress got to know each other and each other’s families, which made it difficult for them to call each other names while in session.

Now, lamented Duffy, “We’re not getting anything done."

Schiller noted that the constant fundraising being done by politicians left no time to meet with colleagues, “no private space to compromise.” She also mentioned that campaign donors want their view represented 100 percent.

“The voice that might suggest a compromise has no place to be heard,” she said. Important legislative matters then become “bottled up and trapped.”

Schiller said she didn’t think things had changed that much, noting the partisan rancor that occurred in arguments over the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which passed in 1930.

Goldwater, who served 14 years in the House as a Republican from California (1969-83), said that that though he was in the minority party at the time, Democrats allowed him to be heard. “It’s changed today,” he said.

Byron, a former Democratic congresswoman from Maryland, lamented the gridlock in Washington today. “To get legislation through, you have to work on both sides of the aisle,” she said.

As for whether there is any bipartisanship remaining in Congress, Duffy noted that predominantly old-guard members participate in groups like the recent Gang of 14 senators because, she speculates, they don’t like what the Senate has become.

Michael Smith, Beverly Byron and Jennifer Duffy.
Goldwater noted that when the Republicans in the House came back into power after the 1994 elections, after having been out of power for 40 years, it was payback time. “Democrats were relegated to the back row,” he said. “[They] had hardly any voice or say so.”

Since 2007, when the Democrats took back control of both the House and Senate, leaving the Republicans to complain about being marginalized.

Schiller noted that it is never good when one party is completely dominant, which tends to crowd out healthy disagreement.

Moderator Michael Smith asked the panel if President Obama is a “game changer” in the political process.

Byron noted that he has created excitement among younger people, but the commitments that were made during the campaign will have to be backed up – not just by Obama, but by Congress as well.

Smith asked Duffy about current voter trends in politics. She described the electorate as “a little bit anti-government” at the moment, but added that it was still too early to forecast the 2010 elections.

One prediction, however, seems solid: The voters’ opinion of Congress won’t improve as long as Democrats and Republicans continue setting new standards for incivility.

The four-day Congress to Campus program also included the forums “All in the Family: Our Greatest Political Legacies,” “Getting Started: Civic Engagement in High School,” “Real Time at RIC” media forum and “Preparing for Your Career: RIC Alumni in the Political Arena.” Several discussion sessions with students were held, as was a social event featuring RIC student clubs and organizations.

RIC was the only college in the state to be chosen to participate in the Congress to Campus program. This is the second year the of RIC’s involvement; the first was in 2005.

Congress to Campus was founded by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress in 1976, and continues as a collaboration with the Stennis Center for Public Service and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

Other Congress to Campus forums:

"Real Time at RIC": From left, Scott Mackay, Bill Rappleye, Jim Hummel and M.
Charles Bakst.

"Getting Started: Civic Engagement in High School": From left, Suzy Alba, Barry
Goldwater Jr., Valerie Endress, Beverly Byron and Ainsley Morisseau.

"Preparing for Your Career: "RIC Alumni in the Political Arena": From left, Nicholas Vincelette, Tom Coderre, Timothy Staskiewicz, Mayor Allan Fung, Christopher Farrell and Nicole Giambusso.

"All in the Family: Our Greatest Political Legacies": From left, Barry Goldwater Jr., Lincoln Chafee, Nancy Carriuolo, Beverly Byron, Richard Licht and
R.I. General Treasurer Frank T. Caprio.