Federal

GOP, Democrats Vie for Education Bragging Rights

By Erik W. Robelen — June 05, 2002 7 min read
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“In education,” the political advertisement begins, “no child should ever be left behind.”

Echoing the name of the legislation President Bush signed in January, the recent television ad links Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., with a popular president on a popular issue.

“Working directly with President Bush, Lindsey Graham helped write and pass historic education reforms,” says the 30-second message, which features images of both men. It cites a few highlights of the law, then concludes: “President Bush calls Lindsey Graham a ‘leader on education reform.’ Tell Lindsey Graham—keep fighting for public schools.”

The statewide ad, supporting Mr. Graham’s bid to win an open U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina, is just one reminder that education will likely again play a key role in November. It also makes clear that Republicans feel they have bragging rights on an issue that voters have traditionally identified with Democrats.

Mr. Bush has shaken up the political landscape when it comes to education. He campaigned on the issue in 2000, worked aggressively to get a K- 12 bill through Congress last year, and continues to talk about education, especially the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

Now, the White House and many Republicans are hoping to capitalize on that emphasis in the midterm congressional elections, even as the Democrats appear equally determined that the issue will continue to serve them well.

“What Bush has been able to do through the education reform bill is reduce or, in some cases, eliminate [the Democratic] edge on education,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“The question is, does that relative advantage apply only to Bush, or does it apply to other Republicans? That’s a tough question,” Mr. Sabato said, “and I think it depends on the individual Senate race and House race.”

David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a GOP opinion-research firm based in Alexandria, Va., suggests that Republicans will benefit, but only if the party’s candidates and national leaders stress the issue.

“Education is a competitive issue [for Republicans], and it’s an issue that will be critical in how people who are uncertain how they are going to vote will decide,” he said.

His polling found that voters trusted the two parties about the same on education early this year, when President Bush signed the education bill, which revised the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since then, Republicans have slipped slightly. “Right now, [the difference] is in single digits,” Mr. Winston said.

“Specifically with Republicans, when we didn’t talk about it, people tended to drift back toward saying they had more confidence in Democrats,” he said.

That research concerned House GOP leaders enough that they urged members to talk more about the new law and future Republican plans on education.

Democrats certainly are not prepared to cede the issue.

While the new federal education law was approved with strong bipartisan support, Democrats have seized on the president’s proposed fiscal 2003 budget as evidence that he and other Republicans cannot be counted on to pay for meeting the law’s ambitious aims.

Mr. Bush’s spending plan for the year that begins Oct. 1 would provide a modest, 2.8 percent increase in the Department of Education’s budget. It proposes a $1 billion increase for the Title I program for disadvantaged students, but would freeze or cut spending in some ESEA programs.

“That is going to provide a real opening for Democrats,” said Alan Quinlan, the president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm in Washington.

Mr. Quinlan concedes that Republicans’ standing on education is much better than it used to be. But, he argued, “Democrats still have the advantage on the issue.” He said recent polling by his firm showed Democrats were 6 percentage points ahead of Republicans when it came to credibility with voters on education.

“It’s not all about money, but it is about keeping your promises to kids,” said Peter Fenn, a Democratic media consultant. “And if the public senses that education is the first to be sacrificed, or one of the first to be sacrificed when all of these promises were made to leave no child behind, they’re going to be angry.”

A ‘Huge’ Issue

It’s almost become a no-brainer that education is important to the public.

A poll conducted for Education Week in January found that education ranked second only to the economy and jobs on the public’s list of most serious concerns. It even out-ranked terrorism and security. And two- thirds said a candidate’s stance on education was either one of the most important factors, or a very important factor, influencing their votes. (“Poll: Public Sees Schools As a Priority,” April 24, 2002.)

“It’s a huge issue,” said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican who is fighting to stave off a serious Democratic challenge. “It may be the top concern of people in Arkansas.” He said that when he talks about education to voters, the No Child Left Behind Act is part of the conversation.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who faces a tough re-election bid of his own, has also emphasized the issue. For example, he has heaped scorn on Mr. Bush’s budget request.

“You cannot achieve the goal of leaving no child behind on a tin-cup budget,” he said at a recent press conference on Capitol Hill.

A Minnesota TV ad that ran last month for Mr. Wellstone called for freezing federal tax cuts for wealthy individuals to free up more cash for education.

Not to be outdone, supporters of his expected Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, have placed a TV spot emphasizing Mr. Coleman’s efforts to improve public schools and demand greater accountability. It also says that he “championed the first charter school in the nation.”

Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota, said the ads didn’t surprise him.

“A key group of swing voters are suburban women, and they care about education,” he said. “Education could be one of the issues that decides a close election.”

Mr. Coleman has seized on one aspect of the incumbent’s education record for criticism: Mr. Wellstone was among just 10 senators to vote against the No Child Left Behind Act. The bill did not provide enough resources for schools, Mr. Wellstone said.

A Coleman campaign statement chided Mr. Wellstone for opposing a bill that received “overwhelming bipartisan support, including a green light from Senator Ted Kennedy.” But that line may not work in Minnesota, since most of the state’s congressional delegation, including all three Republicans, also voted no.

Bona Fides on Education

With Rep. Graham hoping to pick up the GOP mantle of longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, his supporters turned to education for his first statewide television ad.

The ad linking him to President Bush makes a couple of central points, said Norman J. Ornstein, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“George Bush is very popular in South Carolina,” he said. “Lindsey Graham wants to not only identify himself with George Bush—remember, this is a guy who supported John McCain [for president]—he wants to show that on this issue, he’s a moderate.”

Mr. Ornstein added: “He’s running against a guy who’s been a college president. ... He wants to show his bona fides on education.”

The expected Democratic nominee, Alex Sanders, is not only the former president of the College of Charleston, but also a former college and law-school professor.

“He’s got a 25-year history of talking about education,” said Richard Harpootlian, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Mr. Harpootlian said Mr. Graham’s voting record on education is an easy target.

He noted, for instance, that Mr. Graham voted against the No Child Left Behind Act when it was approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee last year. However, Mr. Graham supported it later on the House floor and served on a team of House members who negotiated with the Senate on a final compromise.

“He got religion once he realized politically that his positions on education would be anathema in South Carolina,” Mr. Harpootlian contended.

He added that Mr. Graham several years back joined House Republicans in pushing to abolish the Department of Education.

“If he tries to run as the education candidate, he’s going to get electronically carpet-bombed,” Mr. Harpootlian said.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Mr. Graham, argued that the idea of eliminating the Education Department was really about ensuring local control of federal aid, and that President Bush has helped Republicans find a “new way of thinking on an old goal.”

“Lindsey Graham has a strong record [on education],” he added, “and it’s one he shares with voters across the state.”

Ultimately, it’s a safe bet that, in many races, both Democrats and Republicans will vie to claim the title as the education candidate.

“We political scientists call it a ‘valence’ issue,” said Mr. Schier of Carleton College. “You don’t run against education. The question is, whose got the better bragging rights?”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as GOP, Democrats Vie for Education Bragging Rights

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