Tea Party Prepares For Televised GOP Debate

Guests

Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, NPR
Sal Russo, co-founder, Tea Party Express
Kate Zernike, author, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America

In 2010, the Tea Party proved an influential player in American politics, helping Republicans regain a majority in the House. As the organization Tea Party Express co-hosts a GOP debate with CNN Monday, some now wonder if the movement can help a conservative candidate win the White House.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tonight, CNN and the Tea Party Express host the Republican presidential hopefuls at a debate in Tampa, a significant benchmark for a group that only emerged three years ago. Every since then, pols, pundits and political scientists have tried to define a movement that doesn't much embrace structure, organization or a precisely defined agenda beyond broad goals like lower taxes and smaller government.

The group played an important part in the election of conservative Republicans to Congress last year and looks set to play a critical part in the selection of the GOP presidential candidate, though some argue that Tea Party support could be counterproductive come the general election. If you vote Republican, how has the Tea Party changed the GOP? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can email us, talk@npr.org and join the conversation on our website if you'd like. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Simon Schama joins us on the opinion page to talk about the 9/11 memorial that just opened up in New York and the purpose of memorials. But first, the Tea Party, and we begin with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, who joins us here in studio 3A. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And some say tonight's debate will be especially critical for one-time Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann.

ELVING: That would seem to be demanded by the showing that she had in the CNN poll that has just come out. She was down to 4 percent among Republicans. Now, this was not a huge poll. This was under 500 respondents with a 4.5 percent margin of error, which is a little bit higher than we're used to. But still, to be all the way down, not only into single digits, but into lower single digits, down with Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain and so on, far from the frontrunners where Rick Perry was up at 30 percent and Newt Gingrich at 18. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Mitt Romney at 18.]

And even Sarah Palin, who is not a declared candidate and may never be one, was at 15 percent. So that moment during which Michele Bachmann seemed to have eclipsed thoughts of Sarah Palin and seemed to be right there with the top candidates, those moments seem to be, well, not forgotten at this point, but fading, unless she can make a comeback quickly, perhaps tonight.

CONAN: And the importance of a single debate, reminded of it today. Tim Pawlenty, who missed an opportunity to challenge Mitt Romney in New Hampshire at a debate, later left after the Iowa Straw Poll and today endorsed Mr. Romney.

ELVING: Very interesting that on the very day that Michele Bachmann got into the campaign officially, there was a debate in which Tim Pawlenty was given these multiple opportunities to challenge Romney on Obamneycare, as Pawlenty had called it. He pointedly refused to do so, to a large degree losing the momentum that lead up to those Iowa Straw Poll results in August that were so bad for him, so good for Michele Bachmann. And that whole phase of the campaign seems to have claimed his campaign, but we have this lingering memory of him wanting to be nice to Mitt Romney.

Now we see him endorsing Mitt Romney. Obviously he would be interested in some sort of role in a Mitt Romney campaign or a Mitt Romney administration, and Tim Pawlenty saying some fairly trenchant things in general about the entire contest since he's gotten out.

CONAN: One of the - Mr. Romney, one of the two Republican frontrunners, at least in the opinion polls, has not exactly run away from the Tea Party, but he has not exactly embraced it either.

ELVING: In that last debate, Mitt Romney was asked how he felt about the Tea Party and whether or not he wanted their support and he immediately said, well, if they're for liberty, if they're for smaller government, if they're for holding down taxes, if they're for all the things that perhaps all Republicans are for, then of course I want their support, and of course I'm a Tea Party supporter. But there was something about the entire answer that seemed slightly hypothetical or at arm's length - if this were the situation.

In fact, the other candidates, many of the other candidates on the stage, would probably have tackled that question head on and said, you bet I do. I love the Tea Party. I am the Tea Party. I support it. It supports me. Just put Tea Party right here on my forehead. Mitt Romney did not.

CONAN: And is there, at this point, a distinction between the Tea Party and the perhaps most conservative element of the Republican Party's base?

ELVING: Yes, I think there are still distinctions. I think there are, for example, Ron Paul Republicans who are libertarians who do not necessarily share the exact same priority list of issues that the Tea Party does, that have different issues, such as the legalization perhaps of drugs, pulling out all American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. There are still differences among the hardcore base conservatives, some of which go back to where people were on issues in the 1950s, some of which may get a little paleo, but there are real differences among hardcore conservatives.

I would say this, though, that the Tea Party as we know it is not so much a brand new phenomenon, not so much something that just emerged during the Obama presidency in its early months, but is a consolidation of a number of different strains and threads that run back through American conservatism through not just decades but generations and really to the very beginning of American political life.

CONAN: More on that in a minute, but what about the structure of tonight's debate? What role does CNN play and what role does the Tea Party Express play?

ELVING: You know, this has been in the works back to December, that CNN and the Tea Party Express started talking about putting together a debate and they wanted to do it originally back on Labor Day weekend. It's been moved to tonight. And here we're going to see Wolf Blitzer, of course, who is just about synonymous with CNN, very familiar face, very familiar news personality, asking some of the questions as moderator. But we're also going to see the questions asked by members of the Tea Party Express, by members of the audience, by people who will be put forward as real people, real Americans, not journalists.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who vote Republican. How has the Tea Party changed the GOP? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Doug. Doug with us from Roanoke in Virginia.

DOUG (Caller): Hello, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

DOUG: It's - I actually turned to NPR today to get the weather report and heard this on and decided to call in. I think that in order to keep me, a very traditional conservative, the Republican Party had to turn away from a certain set of principles and embrace another set of principles. And the Tea Party has helped them focus on that. I was on the verge of not voting, well, not voting at all. And you know, if they can - if they can pursue the principles of - not just smaller government, it's not all about smaller government. It's about appropriate government and three levels of government, federalism. These are the things that I believe in and that's what I hope that they will continue to support.

CONAN: So from your point of view, the Tea Party's made the GOP better.

DOUG: I think it has. I think that they - I think that they're listening to a group of really, really normal people. If you ever go to a Tea Party rally, the guy who flips pancakes at the Kiwanis Club pancake breakfasts, well, he's there at the Tea Party rally in the evening. You know, it's - they're not right-wing radical, you know, foaming-at-the-mouth folks like they've been portrayed on a lot of the other news things. And just, by the way, I do appreciate the fact that you took my call.

CONAN: All right. And I certainly hope the weather in Roanoke is as nice as it is here in Washington today.

DOUG: It's just cloudy, but that's OK. We need the rain.

CONAN: All right.

DOUG: Thanks, brother.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much for the call. Joining us now from Tampa, where tonight's debate is being held, is Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express. He's with us from member station WUSF and nice to have you with us today.

SAL RUSSO (Tea Party Express): Oh, glad to be with you.

CONAN: And I wonder, do you think the Tea Party is going to pick the next presidential candidate of the Republican Party?

RUSSO: I do, for many of the reasons that your last caller, Doug, just articulated. I mean, the Tea Party Express has been singularly focused on the economic issues because that's the thing that unites all the Tea Party groups. There are some groups that have ventured off into social issues or foreign policy issues on one side or the other. But the unifying theme is that we've got to get control over the excessive government spending, the skyrocketing national debt and the problems that it's creating with our economy and a jobless - new jobs - not creating new jobs, so that it's jeopardizing the opportunity of our children and grandchildren to realize the American dream.

So that's the crux of what the Tea Party Movement is. It's a very mainstream movement, and it had a remarkable effect in 2010, and I think it's going to have that same kind of effect in 2012 because people are very concerned about the economic woes that this country is facing.

CONAN: You say mainstream, yet in opinion polls, certainly in the last few months, the Tea Party has not come across well, at least to most Americans, who say, well, they're a little concerned about the movement.

RUSSO: Well, I would say the proof's in the pudding. And you look at the elections of 2010. I think many times people misunderstand what the Tea Party Movement is because there's - I always think of it as three segments, kind of like an iceberg.

You see the top, the above-the-surface part of the Tea Party Movement, which is noisy and a lot of signs and hats and all of the rallies that we've just completed, 31 rallies across the country, leading up to this debate tonight.

But beneath that five percent that's really out there and active, there's about 20 to 30 percent of people that identify as Tea Party members, even though there's no membership card, and it's just a self-described description.

But beneath that, perhaps the most important part of the Tea Party Movement is I think the 30 or 40 percent beneath that, which are people that aren't quite sure that they want to associate with an organization that they're not quite sure what it is because, as you pointed out earlier, it is only two and a half years old, but they relate to the issues that I just articulated that are the Tea Party issues.

And so what we saw in 2010 was the 5 percent plus the 20 to 30 percent plus the 30 to 40 percent all coming together and voting for Tea Party candidates. So it's a little, I think, it's confusing if you just try to identify people that are self-proclaimed members of the Tea Party Movement versus people that connect to the issues that we've been addressing for the last two and a half years.

CONAN: And you say Tea Party candidates to vote for. Some as you know have objected to the presence of, for example, Mitt Romney at tonight's debate, saying he's not a real Tea Party member.

RUSSO: Well, you know, I think Governor Romney is quite comfortable with the Tea Party Express. He came to our rally in New Hampshire just a week or so ago. I think he's totally sympathetic with the ideas that the Tea Party Express articulates, which again, as I always say is, we stay focused on the economic issues.

And one reason that we do that is: One, it's the most important issue facing the country today; but secondly, is about 70 percent of Americans feel very comfortable with what we articulate as the issues facing the American people in this election cycle.

CONAN: Will the Tea Party Express endorse whichever candidate gets the Republican Party nomination?

RUSSO: Well, we're going to play a bigger role than that because the Tea Party Movement, as it did in 2010 and as it's doing now, is providing all the energy and action in the political process this election cycle. So we're going to endorse before the Republicans pick their candidate, and I think the candidate that we endorse is likely to be the one that's going to be the Republican nominee and ultimately I think will be the president of the United States.

CONAN: Well, stay with us, Sal Russo, if you would. Also Ron Elving is going to stay with us, as well. We're talking about the Tea Party and how it's changed the GOP, 800-989-8255 if you vote Republican, email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Last November, the Tea Party supporters made up more than 40 percent of the electorate and helped hand control of Congress to the GOP. That's according to numbers from the Pew Research Center. Tonight, the Tea Party Express pairs with CNN to host the next Republican presidential debate and will likely play a key role in picking the next GOP presidential nominee.

If you vote Republican, how has the Tea Party changed the GOP? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests are NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving and Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, a long-time Republican political strategist and a consultant with Russo Marsh & Rogers.

Let's get a caller on the line, and this is Dan, and Dan's with us from Philadelphia.

DAN (Caller): Yes, hello, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

DAN: I've got to say I registered Republican as soon as I turned 18 and was eligible to vote, and I got to tell you, at this point with the Tea Party Movement, I'm getting ready to switch my allegiance because I really don't think that it's done good for the party.

CONAN: In what way?

DAN: Well, as a major example, health care. I really think that it's appalling that we have inadequate health care. I think it's appalling that not every single man, woman and child with a Social Security number in this country can go see a doctor and get better. I think that that's part of what should be in this country. I think that if you're sick or injured, you should be able to get better.

And finally we have something. It's not perfect, but it's something. It's a start. And at this point, the Tea Party is so far against it, for no reason it seems, other than it wasn't their idea. And even when it was something that was their idea, there were parts of it that were their idea, as soon as the Democrats said OK, they immediately said no.

And this kind of arch-conservatism simply for the sake of being arch-conservative is not good for the country. I think we really need to come together so that we can represent more of America, not just the extreme right, and actually do good for the bulk of the country, not just for the party.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much. Sal Russo, if there was one issue that got people excited about the Tea Party two and a half years ago, it was probably the health care law.

RUSSO: Yes, I think Obamacare was certainly a major factor in the growth of the Tea Party Movement. Obviously, it started before the battle over Obamacare took place. You know, it's clear when you look at the physical bad health that the United States is in, the skyrocketing debt, the huge deficits that are simply unsustainable, we have to look at what the federal government can do.

And I think one of the key principles of the Tea Party Movement is let's take a look at the 10th Amendment and get some of the things the federal government's doing and get them down to the state and local level where they can be done more efficiently, as well as more constitutionally.

And so one of the things I think is a unifying theme is opposition to a national health care policy. I mean, health care belongs at the state level, not at the federal level. I mean, just like the Department of Education. It was 20 years ago we spent a billion dollars. Now we spend $77 billion. And yet I don't think we educate a single child with that 77 billion that we spend out of Washington, D.C.

So schools should be run by the states and local school districts and parents and teachers. It shouldn't be done in Washington, D.C. So we've just allowed the federal government to grow and grow and grow, and it's now unsustainable. So we've got to return back to the states and the local communities some of these responsibilities that our founding fathers never intended the federal government to be involved in.

CONAN: The 10th Amendment says any powers not vested by this document to Congress or the president should be reverted to the states, so just to clarify that. This email from Janice in Boise to follow up on another point that was made by our caller: I think the Tea Party comes off as too narrowly focused on their preferred goals to be able to govern responsibly. I'm frustrated that even though I share some of their goals, they don't know how to compromise or moderate their goals.

And that seems to be a badge of honor for some who call themselves Tea Party politicians - no compromise.

RUSSO: Well, I don't, you know, I don't think that's true. First of all, the Tea Party Movement has got tremendous diversity, as I mentioned at the beginning. The Tea Party Express, which I think is the largest and most effective of the Tea Party groups, focuses entirely on economic issues.

You know, some of the groups are involved in all kinds of other social and foreign policy issues. But we supported, for example, the tax bill at the end of the last session, at the lame duck session, because we thought it was very important to extend the Bush tax cuts. We're very much into being - very much into encouraging economic growth. We have to have a growth agenda.

We don't believe you can cut your way out of these problems. So I think there's a divergence of opinion. We happen to be on the pro-growth side, I think, of the Tea Party spectrum, and that's I think one of the reasons that we've been the most successful and one of the reasons that we're sponsoring this debate because I think we have a pretty responsible position and have been willing to compromise and work with getting this job done.

CONAN: A question many on the question of compromise might ask is the one that was put to Republican presidential candidates, I think, a couple of debates ago: If there was a deal that involved a 10-to-one ratio of spending cuts to tax increase, revenue increases, would you take it? Every single one of them raised their hands and said no.

RUSSO: Well, I think you have to take the context of the question. I mean, I think I probably would have answered the question the same way. I mean, we have to have a program and a plan how to get our spending under control, to bring down not only the annual deficits, which are just extraordinarily high, but how do we turn the national debt down.

We can't spend our way out of these problems, and we can't borrow our way out of these debts. So when you look at these questions in isolation, well, would you trade this for that? Well, it has to be in the context of are we getting America's fiscal house in order? Are we trimming down the scope and intrusiveness of the federal government and returning those functions back to the states and the local area? Are we getting spending down so we don't have these gigantic deficits?

And do we have a plan that we can get our national debt under control, get our entitlements under control because obviously Social Security and Medicare are not funded correctly. So how do we fix the funding and yet maintain the benefits, which I think we're all committed to doing for both Medicare and Social Security.

So I think you have to look at it in a bigger picture. Much like the president's jobs program, which was sort of silly. He's got all this kind of short-term stimulus. The problems that our economy face are long-term problems, not short-term. He tried...

CONAN: People who are out of work say there are short-term problems.

RUSSO: Yes, but we tried stimulus. We've been going for - President Obama's been president now for three years, and we've done it his way, and it hasn't worked. So we've got to go back and fix the long-term problems in our economy. With these short-term fix, that's all they're doing is aggravating the debt. That's all they're doing.

CONAN: Sal Russo, thanks very much, and I'm sure you're going to have a good time this evening. Good luck.

RUSSO: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Joining us now is Kate Zernike, a national correspondent for the New York Times, author of the book "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America." She joins us from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you with us today.

KATE ZERNIKE: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And who are we talking about when we're talking about the Tea Party? Ron Elving was talking earlier about a coalition of groups, not just the hard-core conservative wing of the Republican Party.

ZERNIKE: Absolutely. I mean, you have to remember this - the Tea Party sort of starts in opposition to the stimulus, which you still hear in Sal's comments just now. And there are sort of two wings in the Tea Party. There are some who have been with the more - what I would call the more ideological spectrum of the Tea Party, the libertarians, who have been with Ron Paul, and really do approach this from an ideological point of view, who feel that we have to get back to a very strict interpretation of the Constitution, that things like Social Security are unconstitutional and are not the role of the federal government.

And then you had people who were, you know, and to be colloquial about it, who were just sort of freaked out about the economy, and they weren't approaching it from an ideological spectrum, ideological point of view, they were approaching it from just what are we going to do about the economy? Things are so bad. What do I do? They were looking for an outlet for their frustration. And they saw the Tea Party, and it felt like a good outlet.

I think they looked at the economy and the stimulus and thought why are we spending money when - we don't have enough money. Why are we spending more money to get money? They were sort of impervious to economic arguments. They were impervious to the argument that the stimulus bill was actually preventing people from losing their jobs or actually included some tax cuts.

So it really is this coalition of people who - some of them come at it very ideologically, and others are just sort of - not even so much conservative Republicans but people who are very concerned about the economy and feel like we really need to do something about the debt.

CONAN: Yet would it be wrong to say, as a group, the Tea Party members would be whiter, richer, more evangelical and more conservative?

ZERNIKE: It is not wrong at all. In fact we did - the Times did a poll last Apr-- sorry, in April of 2010, of the poll, and we found 18 percent of Americans were - call themselves Tea Party members. They were, yes, disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy, disproportionately well-educated.

I don't know about evangelical. I think you sort of - you do see some crossover but not absolutely. But yes, certainly these do look a lot like conservatives. And as Ron mentioned earlier, we see strains of this going back to the earliest days of this country, I mean, in the federalism versus anti-federalism debate.

You know, they were - the founding fathers debated whether we should have a central bank. Well, now you hear all these arguments about ending the Fed, which is something that Ron Paul supporters in particular have taken up. But that's become a Tea Party rallying cry.

You know, you see - you hear echoes of the Goldwater movement. You hear echoes of the tax revolts of the '70s and the early '80s, you know, there's certainly - you know, hear some of the same arguments about, that people made against welfare. There's a feeling among Tea Partyers that they are working hard and someone else is taking advantage of that. That they are the ones paying taxes, they are the ones who've done the good job and someone else is getting a free ride, and that's why the economy is so bad.

CONAN: And, Ron Elving, there is, to some degree, an element, some political researchers say, of racial resentment within the Tea Party.

ELVING: There were in the early going of some of the rallies that came here to Washington and so on. There were another - a number of signs that were held up by some of the people protesting that had a strong racial theme. There was a picture of Barack Obama with a watermelon smile, for example. There was a picture of Obama that also harked back to a villain from one of the "Batman" movies, of the Joker. And some of those pictures carried more than a hint of racial animosity.

To their credit, many of the organizers of those very rallies, those very protests went to those people, said we don't want that kind of sign. We don't want that kind of image. And a lot of that was suppressed thereafter within the movement. There was much less of that sort of feeling to their organization.

But there is a resentment factor here on the part of many of the people in this movement, which at times has been interpreted, certainly many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other people of color in American politics as being directed against them.

CONAN: And Michael in San Antonio emails: Please ask your guests to discuss the role of the Koch brothers with financing Tea Party activities, thereby promoting their political agenda. And, Kate Zernike, I don't think any political movement gets started without money, and the Koch brothers may have provided some of it.

ZERNIKE: I think that's true to a certain degree. You know, it didn't take a lot of money to start a Tea Party rally. You know, you had people who were angry, people who were fed up and people who could make a sign. That's pretty basic. But, certainly, as soon - you know, there were a lot of groups, for instance, you know, the Koch brothers among them and FreedomWorks, which is Dick Armey's group in Washington, they had been trying to create and they'd even talked about the - they've even used the language of the Tea Party and tried to get this - the metaphor of the Tea Party and tried to get this movement going and hadn't been able to, because there wasn't the frustration - there wasn't the popular resentment, popular frustration out there. So this was a gift to them.

And the minute they saw this bubbling up - and I do think that it was - that it starts out, at least to some degree, as a grassroots movement. But the minute they saw this frustration bubbling up, FreedomWorks and groups like Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers, was very quick to organize it, to - you know, Americans for Prosperity did a bus tour against the country against the health care act. FreedomWorks, in particular, trained Tea Party activists and taught them how to go lobby their lawmakers and how to create - how to make their groups bigger. So I don't know that it was - and money is obviously important. It was - but I think it was largely their organizational power that made these groups so important.

It's also - just because we were talking to Sal Russo earlier - it's also important to make distinctions about various Tea Party groups. The Tea Party Express, as you mentioned, was co-founded by Sal, who's a long-time Republican consultant. And it's considered - you know, it's not - sort of, certainly not a grassroots group. In fact, a lot of other Tea Party groups refer to it as Astroturf Express, because they say it's sort of artificially created grassroots.

So - and there's debate and a split within the Tea Party Movement groups, like the Tea Party Express, its chairwoman Amy Kremer said that they would support any of the Republican candidates no matter who it was, including Mitt Romney, which really, sort of, sent some Tea Party activists over the edge. They think that Romney is certainly not a Tea Partyer. Then there are groups like Tea Party Patriots, which is - which received a lot of early organizational support from FreedomWorks. So I think we're talking about a bunch of different groups.

Certainly, where this all matters, where the organizational power all matters was in the election. So you saw Americans for Prosperity setting up, you know, get-out-the-vote operations. FreedomWorks did much the same thing. Tea Party Express has been most influential because they gave a lot of money to candidates like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Joe Miller in Alaska, so that's really been their influence.

CONAN: Kate Zernike of The New York Time, also Ron Elving with us, NPR's senior Washington editor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Mike and Mike is on the line from Lehigh Acres in Florida.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: One of the things that I have to address that was brought up earlier the mention that people were asked to take down racist signs. I think more to the point - even though I've never been to a Tea Party rally, I do consider myself a Tea Party sympathizer - I've seen handheld cell phone videos on YouTube of the people holding the signs being asked to leave. It's not good enough just to get rid of a racist sign. We don't want racists in the group at all. We don't tolerate stuff like that.

CONAN: So you consider yourself a supporter in particular, why?

MIKE: Well, personally, I point out a problem with the (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: And...

MIKE: ...the government has continued to grow. In this - and most recently, if our country were the Titanic, the Democrats seem to want to just scuttle the ship, the whole idea of limited government and smaller government and liberty in general, and a lot of the Republicans just want to re-arrange chairs on the deck. And only people like - and I have not considered voting for Ron Paul until recently. I've voted Republican ever since the early '90s. I've always liked Ron Paul, but I've always had an issue with his foreign policy. And I've finally come to the conclusion that I think that we are a bigger enemy to ourselves, a bigger danger to ourselves than any outside threat. And I think people like Ron Paul and other - some of the other Tea Party people are actually willing to fix the problem.

CONAN: And, Mike...

MIKE: And I personally feel...

CONAN: ...I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to get a chance to respond. And, Ron Elving, he's talking about Republicans re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Perhaps, the biggest influence in the Tea Party has been in Republican Party primaries, and that may be, again, this time around.

ELVING: This is a struggle within the conservative movement to determine what constitutes the conservative movement. Is it enough to want to slow down the New Deal or is it necessary to reverse and dismantle the New Deal? And one of the things that I think Rick Perry has said that has caught the attention of a lot of people who are hard - who are serious about the conservative alternative viewpoint in the New Deal is to refer to Social Security as a monument to the ruin of the New Deal. So I think that some people are out there appealing for this support in very direct ways.

CONAN: And, Kate Zernike, do you expect that Social Security, the remnant of the New Deal - hardly a remnant. Is that going to be the main focus in 30 seconds tonight?

ZERNIKE: Absolutely, because this is somewhere Ron Paul - sorry...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZERNIKE: ...where Mitt Romney is hoping to set him aside from Rick Perry. This battle for frontrunner is now between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and this is the issue where Mitt Romney thinks he can pull ahead.

CONAN: Kate Zernike, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

ZERNIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Kate Zernike, national correspondent for The New York Times, also the author of "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America." As always, Ron Elving, thank you for your time today.

ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Ron Elving, senior Washington editor here at NPR. Coming up, as the public gets its first glimpse of the 9/11 memorial at ground zero today, Simon Schama considers what makes a public memorial successful. He joins us next on The Opinion Page. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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