Conservative groups target Republican incumbents

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This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," February 22, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," President Obama pressing ahead with his climate change agenda. Will he soon be getting some help from a hedge fund billionaire?

Plus, Republicans say that taking back the Senate is within their reach but could internal divisions keep them from victory.

And a stunning defeat for the UAW as Tennessee autoworkers vote against union representation. Can big labor survive without the south?

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

President Obama, making good on his State on the Union to act with or without Congress, ordered tough new fuel efficiency standards for American trucks this week, a move aides say is just part of a push to address climate change through the use of executive power. The announcement came days after Secretary of State John Kerry attacked global warning skeptics as shoddy scientists and extreme ideologues and called global climate change one of the top threats of our time.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, all challenges that know no borders. The reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them.


GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; Washington columnist, Kim Strassel; and assistant editorial page editor, James freeman.

So, Dan, that language looked calculated. That didn't look like he was speaking off the cuff. Meant to say it. So what is Secretary Kerry and the administration trying to do here?

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: Let's put it this way, Paul, I don't know whether you can possibly be too cynical about what John Kerry was doing here. It's about politics. And I think the closer we get to the November elections, the more we're going to see the standard Democratic play book, which is to try to position Republicans as in an awful light as opposed to what is undeniably good, as the president did in his re-election campaign. And the idea here will be that climate change is -- and you're trying to move voters. And in this case, they're trying to move younger voters, people in their early 20s, the way Obama did in his reelection campaign.

Second thing, I would not doubt at all that John -- this suggests that John Kerry is actually thinking of running in 2016. Why would he say these things? To signal the funding base in the environmental movement, which has got a lot of money now, that he's on their side and he's in the game.

GIGOT: So, Kim, but some people were saying maybe this was a way to get out ahead of a decision to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline and State Department, as you know, has to make a formal recommendation to the president. That secretary of state is John Kerry. Could this be a little jujitsu, talk tough on it rhetorically but then approve the Keystone?

KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: Absolutely. Here's the problem, Paul. The president needs to shore up support among his environmentalists on his left flank. They're not happy with him for all manner of reasons. He never passed a Cap and Trade bill for climate through Congress. He's been talking up natural gas. His administration has approved export terminals for natural gas. And, indeed, he may support, in the end -- we don't know -- the Keystone Pipeline. So this is his way of saying, no, I'm really still do, I'm on board with your agenda. And he's talking about this fund he wants to promote, all this money to study climate change. He's out making case that climate change is a fact, blaming things like the drought in California on it. This is about making nice with that crew.

GIGOT: James, we had a piece this week in "The Journal" by a couple of climate scientists, John Christie and Richard McKnighter, saying that while -- no question that the earth has warmed some. In fact, the real mistake or the real bad science has been practiced by the people putting together these climate computer models upon which all the estimates of future warming are based, and they really overestimated the amount of warming we've had considerably.

JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: That's right. I think maybe it's possible that Mr. Kerry may not have appeared so frightened in that speech if he had seen --

GIGOT: Right.

FREEMAN: -- all of these models predicting doom had not panned out. And what you see is a moderate warming suggesting, over the next century, a moderate warming, perhaps a little bit more than one degree. And the models showing catastrophe year after year after year have proven wrong. I would just add that if they're pressing this as a political issue, I think it's mainly about the money they can raise because --

GIGOT: So you guys are also cynical? Don't you think they --


FREEMAN: No, no, no. I'm not -- this is not an opinion.


GIGOT: I don't mean that as a -- you know, obviously, political calculation plays into it. Politicians, OK?


But do you think they actually might believe that?

FREEMAN: Are they true believers?

GIGOT: Do they believe that?


FREEMAN: It's in every Obama speech. So you do wonder. But if he believes it, he's acting at least in part on old information. He talked the other day about how we've got to reduce our dependence on foreign energy. He seems unaware that we've had a boom in this country and we're now the world's largest energy producer.

But just the point I was making on politics is Wall Street Journal recently surveyed voters. Dead last among a list of more than a dozen priorities was climate change. People don't want this.

GIGOT: Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire out of San Francisco, is going to spend $50 million of his own money, he says, and raise another $50 million to distort this issue in the election and help the Democrats keep the Senate. What do you make of that?

HENNINGER: What I make of it, it reflects how the environmental movement has changed since it's beginning in the middle '70s or so, up until now. Back then, people were trying to integrate the environmental with humanity and the private sector. This is the environmental left. Their agenda is to impose their ideas on the environmental on the population. To do that, they have to win elections and gain control of legislatures. I think that's what's going on here.

GIGOT: Kim, do you have any objection to Tom Steyer spending this money? Because I'll tell you what, I think spend it all. Spend half a billion. Spend a billion.

STRASSEL: Spend more. Spend it all.

GIGOT: The more the merrier.


And I don't think you're going to see the liberals criticizing Tom Steyer like you do see them criticize the Koch brothers for their spending.

STRASSEL: No. This is about free speech and elections. I would just add one thing to what Dan said, which is that Tom Steyer, he does wants Democrats to keep the Senate but he also wants a particular type of Democrat to be in the Senate, one who is on board with his climate challenge religion. That's why it's interesting, one of the people he has suggested he might campaign against, put this money towards, is Mary Landrieu down in Louisiana, who's up for re-election.

GIGOT: Right.

STRASSEL: And she's going to face a really tough race. This is his way of putting up a warning signal, saying if you guys are not on board with a particular kind of liberal ideology, then you may be a target yourself.

GIGOT: All right. Thank you all.

When we come back, there we're just six seats shy of a Senate takeover. And some Republicans believe 2014 could be the year. But could divisions within the Republican Party derail that ambition?


GIGOT: Some veteran GOP lawmakers are coming under fire this midterm election year and it's not from their Democratic opponents. Instead, groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was founded by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, and support Texas Senator Ted Cruz's shutdown strategy, are taking aim at incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the target of this recently released ad.


ANNOUNCER: Bullying, threats, intimidation. The IRS? No. Try Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. That's right. Mitch McConnell is trying to bully and intimidate conservatives just like the IRS is. Mitch McConnell tried to silence conservatives, calling them traitors who he wants to punch in the nose for criticizing his liberal votes. And McConnell told other conservatives they'd get the death penalty for opposing him.


GIGOT: All right, Kim. That's the sort of thing you don't usually see, party to party fights.


That's what Democrats would say about Republicans. So --

STRASSEL: I would think they would be nicer, Paul.

GIGOT: Yeah, probably. Is there a precedent for this kind of thing, just briefly, that you can recall?

STRASSEL: No, I do not remember a precedent for anything like this.

GIGOT: OK, so --

STRASSEL: This is very harsh. It's brass knuckles.

GIGOT: OK, so what's the strategy here? Is it to really take down the entire leadership? Because they're not only challenging Mitch McConnell. They're challenging the deputy Republican leader in the Senate, John Cornyn. They're challenging Pat Roberts in Kansas, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. There's a whole network of incumbents who are being challenged by the Republicans in the primaries, in particular by these conservative groups.

STRASSEL: What you have here, Paul, I think we refer to them as the kamikaze caucus in the Senate. These are the guys who -- they want to fight on every issue. They pushed for the shutdown. They wanted a big protracted fight over the debt ceiling. And they want their party to run into the Obama bayonets. They have been very frustrated with Mitch McConnell and other Senators that they have not wanted to do that. So this is a fight over tactics and what they're doing is --


GIGOT: Kim, is there any substantive issue here? I mean, is there a real difference over policy, or is this just about how much you're willing to fight?

STRASSEL: No. This is all about tactics. Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz hold nearly identical positions on everything, from the debt to ObamaCare to everything else. This is about the fact they feel Mitch McConnell has not gone out there and fought hard enough with them. It's a concerted effort to topple him and a number of other guys and try to get more people like themselves who would be willing for that fight in the future.

GIGOT: Dan, is that a legitimate point that the leadership just hasn't fought hard enough?

HENNINGER: In a sense. Look, the basic problem is that Barack Obama has sucked all the political oxygen out of Washington. There are a lot of long-serving Democrats in Congress who are quitting basically because they don't do politics up there anymore. So Obama --


GIGOT: You mean they don't do policy up there.

HENNINGER: They don't do policy anymore.

GIGOT: They do a lot of politics.


HENNINGER: Right. Over his term, it's been almost impossible for Boehner or McConnell to do any politics at all with Barack Obama. They don't have the votes either to prevail over them. I think the anxiety is that out in the country of the grassroots, people feel they their story, their arguments are not being made strongly enough by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. They want a spokesman who will make their argument against Barack Obama, and that hasn't happened, and I think that's a big source of the frustration.

GIGOT: But that's the historic weakness of Congress.


GIGOT: It's very hard to have a spokesman coming out of Congress, which is, you know, 435 people all looking for their TV camera at the same time. It's very hard to speak with one voice.

FREEMAN: Yeah. I think if there's a knock on McConnell, it's that he doesn't do offense. He's one of the all-time greats at stopping Washington from doing bad things, but maybe not someone to advance an agenda. But this may be a measure of how far the conservative movement has come, where '60s and '70s conservatives were trying to get rid of the eastern establishment, liberal Republicans like Rockefeller. If Mitch McConnell is the establishment, he's no Nelson Rockefeller. The party --


GIGOT: That's for sure.


FREEMAN: The party has moved far away to the right, and I think that's in response to the president. There is a sense that there needs to be a passionate counterattack, but you need the votes for that.

GIGOT: Kim, obviously, one goal here of Republicans this cycle is to take back the Senate. They need six seats to do it. But is the goal of some of these groups really not that -- it's take out the leadership first and if you stay in the minority, so what, because, you know --


GIGOT: -- then at least we'll be in charge and we can frame the arguments?

STRASSEL: No. And I think it's more disturbing than that and worrisome than that, Paul. I think that not only do they not much care but their actions they are taking are potentially undercutting the best Republican chances they have at taking over the Senate. So, for instance, down in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell -- the primary guy who's running against him, he's not going to beat Mitch McConnell. He's very far behind in the polls. But these ads coming from the Senate Conservative Fund, they are really roughing McConnell up in the state. And he could have a very difficult time running against a Democratic competitor in the general.

GIGOT: Are there any of these races in the primaries that the challengers are likely to win?

STRASSEL: Not at the moment. But, again, what's coming out in support of them is doing some real damage to the incumbents who are likely to prevail.

GIGOT: James, briefly?

FREEMAN: The Tea Party is doing a great public service pushing the debate towards smaller government. I think members of the Tea Party have to be careful who they follow, people like Ted Cruz, the so-called populous on the Goldman Sachs health plan. Maybe just think about the leadership there.

GIGOT: All right, James.

Still ahead, a big setback for big labor as autoworkers in Volkswagen's Tennessee plant vote against the UAW. Is the battle over, or can unions still conquer the south?


GIGOT: A stunning defeat for big labor last week when Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, rejected a bid by the United Autoworkers Union to represent their plant. The vote was seen as the UAW's best chance to make inroads in the south and bolster its sagging membership.

Wall Street Journal senior editorial page writer, Collin Levy, joins our panel with more.

Collin, this came as a surprise to a lot of people, I think maybe even including the union itself, which I was told, had only prepared one speech, a victory speech, and instead they had to give a defeat remark. Why did they lose when they had management at least formally neutral and arguably even on its side?

COLLIN LEVY, SENIOR EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: Right. Paul, the union lost because the union is its own worst enemy. That's true really across the board here. You know, V.W. workers rejected it for the same reason we've seen union membership declining across the country. Back in 1975 -- back in 1979, the UAW had 75 percent more workers, so this is something that is very natural that the workers of V.W. are saying, why would we want to turn ourselves into Detroit.

GIGOT: But the company itself was neutral but a lot of Republican politicians in the state, including Senator Bob Corker and the governor spoke up and said, look, don't do it. They had been very vocal. The union itself is saying that's why they lost because they had the opposition from these politicians. What do you think of that, Collin?

LEVY: Right. The union's only version of a fair election is one where the only voice heard is the unions. These voices spoke up because the company was neutral I'm sure, in part, and, you know, workers deserve to hear what the different options are and what the issues are. That's not something the union should be criticizing, that workers are too dumb to make decision themselves.

HENNINGER: You know, Paul, I think to some extent the UAW is a victim of its own success. This isn't the 1940s anymore. Over the years, the UAW has gotten all sorts of things in terms of wages and benefits for their members. The only other thing you associate with the word "unions" is dues. To join the union, you've got to pay them dues.

GIGOT: Right.

HENNINGER: And a lot of these young workers are saying, what am I getting in return for these dues, especially in a place like Tennessee? I've got a good job. I'm happy with my job. What is the union doing for me? Why should I be giving them all this money? And I think a lot of it has come down to the fact that these unions have not figured out a way to make themselves relevant to the modern workplace, like worker's circles, where you try to improve the product and that sort of thing. And some of the Tennessee workers walked away from the UAW.

GIGOT: But, Kim, we had Bob King, the head of the United Autoworkers, come see us a little over a year ago. He talked a very good game. He said, look, we learned our lesson's from Detroit's problems, we realize we have to work with the management and we want these companies to succeed. Some of that was the same message they talked about in Tennessee. You may not believe it or not but clearly the workers didn't believe it. Why not?

STRASSEL: No. The workers didn't believe it because -- here's the important point. Talking of outside influences, it's notable, President Obama made a comment about this election before it happened, making the case that those who oppose this unionization cared more about German shareholders than they did U.S. workers, and that was really the UAW's biggest problem. They have come to be seen as an extension of the Democratic Party.

And that party is not very popular in places like Tennessee. There were billboards up, pointing out that UAW helped elect Obama and other local politicians. And that's something that resonated. The UAW, so long as it looks as though it's an extension of a political party, is going to engender a lot of distrust, especially in places like the south.

GIGOT: A lot of talk, Collin, that this is the end of the United Autoworkers, that unless they can organize in the south, they're going to be slowly wasting away. I guess I don't buy that. Because I think they are still going to make a lot of efforts in the south. And they have that strength in Detroit. And they have a lot of political support from the Democrats and the administration. What do you think?

LEVY: Yeah, I think you're right, Paul. I think unions and the Democrats become something of a self-sustaining system here. But there's no question, a real sense that if they can't do it when they have the support of management, when can they?

GIGOT: And, Dan, it's the --

HENNINGER: They look like yesterday's solution. It's a big problem for the Democrats. They're affiliated with these old industrial unions, like the UAW and the public-sector unions. They don't look like they have any forward vision.

GIGOT: But it's the private sector. I mean, private-sector unions, they at least have a stake in economic success.


GIGOT: If the union movement becomes dominated now by public-sector unions and government unions where it's easier for them to organize, isn't that a particular problem maybe for some -- the image they project, a problem for some of the private unions?

HENNINGER: It is a problem for the private unions because they become less important. And I think if the younger workers see them as a failing or declining institution, there's no incentive to join them.

GIGOT: All right.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Collin, first to you.

LEVY: Paul, last year, the IRS was caught targeting conservative nonprofit groups for additional scrutiny and they promised to make amends. Instead, the agency proposed a rule that would further restrict the free speech rights of nonprofit groups. That proposal is now open for comments and it has already generated over 25,000 individual comments, a lot of them extremely negative, and many from liberal groups like the ACLU. So I have a hit to all those commenters for sticking up for the First Amendment.

GIGOT: All right, Collin, thanks.


STRASSEL: A hit to House Ways and Means chairman, Dave Camp, who after many years of work will this next week release a comprehensive blueprint for the GOP for tax reform. Some in Mr. Camp's party are pushing back, saying this is too ugly an issue, we don't want to tackle it in an election year. He's still pushing ahead. And good for him. Republicans are going to have plenty to criticize Democrats going ahead, but they're also going to need something that can show the Americans it' about their ability to tackle big thorny issues.

GIGOT: All right, Kim.


HENNINGER: My hit is from the Sochi, Olympics. Not for Ted Ligety's wonderful gold in the giant slalom. This goes to the Ukrainian skier and her father/coach who decided to go home to Ukraine rather than to dignify Putin's Olympics by competing in them. What the Russians are doing to Ukraines is devastating and it's not a game. I give credit to Bogdana Matsotskas for making that clear by going home.

GIGOT: All right, Dan, here, here.

And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, please send it to us at And be sure to follow us on Twitter at JERonFNC.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. We hope to see you right here next week.

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