Same Old Standoff In Washington?

President Obama wants Congress to act fast to avoid massive government budget cuts that could hit in March. Washington is seeing more gridlock as Republicans blocked a vote to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Host Michel Martin talks about the latest in politics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we decided to ask our panel of women commentators in the Beauty Shop about some cultural stories that are making people think, including the TV show "Girls." That show's creator, Lena Dunham, is trying to change the way many people think about women's bodies and her methods have gotten a lot of attention pro and con. So we want to talk about that.

But first we want to dig into the latest political news. Yesterday President Obama pushed Congress to act fast to avoid the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. The cuts are going to hit March 1st if Congress and the White House cannot figure out a plan to reduce the budget deficit. Plus, confirmation votes for Obama's nominees for Secretary of Defense and the CIA director are delayed.

And the former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, one of a handful of African-American Republicans to serve in the Congress, has some new ideas about how to diversify Republican leadership. He's got a new initiative he calls Insight. So we wanted to talk about all of that. So we've called two of our trusted observers. Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. That's an online publication that features a variety of African-American voices.

And Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KELI GOFF: Great to be back.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: Ron, those massive budget cuts are going to kick in about two weeks from now. People in Washington have been preoccupied with this, but for people living outside of Washington, how do you make it real for them? And I'm really interested in your executive experience, here, as a person who served, you know, in the White House.

If you're in the White House are you thinking about trying to make people outside of Washington focus on this or not?

CHRISTIE: Yes. And I think what we saw with President Obama and his press availability with the first responders, was in D.C. people understand what budget cuts are and they understand about budget baselines. But if you talk about sequestration around the dinner table in Des Moines, Iowa, people are going to look at you and say what in the world are you talking about?

So I think what he tried to do yesterday was to humanize a very draconian process, and one which will - it's not $82 billion. If you look at the accelerated counter for this year, it's closer to $41 billion across the board that will disproportionately impact the Department of Defense.

So President Obama is going to more than likely get the upper hand, because if it's a popularity contest between what the Republicans offer in Congress versus the president's overall personality and his popularity, I think he might well come out on top of the PR war.

MARTIN: But why, then, would the Republicans continue on this path? I mean, it seems like there are some very strong voices within the party. I mean, obviously everybody doesn't agree with this, but there are some very strong voices within the party that say let the cuts happen.

CHRISTIE: Because President Obama - Michel, this is the irony. President Obama put this in the bill. President Obama was the one who insisted that he would veto the bill if a sequestration wasn't included in it. And Republicans have concluded, the people I have talked to in the last couple of days, that the only way to get this administration to actually have spending cuts is for sequestration to go through.

Because they haven't passed a budget four years in the Senate and President Obama is late on his budget submission. So they feel this is our only recourse.

MARTIN: Keli Goff, what about this? I mean, is this some smart, if hardball, tactics, or just yet more Washington dysfunction, in your view/

GOFF: Yes, yes, and yes to all of the above.

(LAUGHTER)

GOFF: I think Ron is actually 100 percent right. I mean, the polling seems to show that the American public is behind the president on this one. Now, part of it is his likeability but part of it is the other issue that Ron touched upon, which is that who the heck knows what sequestration is? Who can say it? Who can spell it?

I practiced saying it before I came on the show and I write about this stuff for a living. So for the average American, I mean - and for the record, Michel, that's why you see the president prepared to go on the road, to take this on the road. We've seen this before with the student loan bills and he got a lot of American support for that because he visited college campuses and he, sort of, broke it down into terms that were accessible for Americans.

He's going to do that now and that's going to be to his political benefit and help him maintain the upper hand. Now what a lot of analysts, though, are predicting and a lot of historians, Michel, is that this is a battle he'll probably win in the short-term, but he knows it can be devastating to his legacy.

He knows it can be devastating to his presidential legacy, the repercussions on this economy, were it to go through. So it's a great negotiating tactic, but, yes, it speaks to Washington dysfunction and that wouldn't be good for his legacy.

MARTIN: And to that end, Keli, just briefly on this, the Republicans recently blocked a vote to confirm Chuck Hagel, the former Nebraska senator, as Secretary of Defense. You know, we've previously aired people's various, you know, objections to him. But the Senate also - the Senate Intelligence Committee also delayed a vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director. What do you make of this?

I mean, again, there are substantive policy and philosophical reasons - and some of it personal - behind some of these issues.

GOFF: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean, let's just admit that. But, again, is this one of those issues that kind of resonates beyond just, you know, the couple of square miles of this city?

GOFF: Absolutely not. All it does is, actually - I don't know if you saw the polling recently that showed that Senator Mitch McConnell is actually the least popular, I believe it is, member of either houses. And there's a reason for that. And what kept popping up is this perception that he has been leading obstructionism.

Now, I don't know what you call what's going on with Hagel and Brennan, but I think to a lot of Americans, it looks like obstructionism. So I think that there's actually no benefit to Republicans to, sort of, continue down this path. I think they sort of know that. I think we're going to actually see Hagel confirmed. But I think they kind of feel like they've made their point.

Which is, see, you know, you have to work with us on this. And we're willing to put up a fight. And I think once that point's been made they're going to go ahead and confirm him.

MARTIN: Ron, briefly?

CHRISTIE: I think she's right. You know, while I stand with my Republican brothers and sisters on Capitol Hill, there comes a point where you say you know what? Enough is enough. You know, I understand they did it to President Bush's nominees. Miguel Estrada comes to mind for the D.C. circuit court.

But I genuinely believe that people want an up or down vote. Let's have a committee hearing. Let's have an up or down vote. And let's move on with it. I mean, it just seems to be protracted GOP opposition that people say are they just the party of no? Let's just get that vote and get it over with.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our regular political chat with Republican strategist Ron Christie and TheRoot.com political correspondent Keli Goff. And Keli, you recently wrote an article about former congressman J.C. Watts. Later this month, he says he's going to launch a new initiative called Insight.

And that's an effort to bring more diversity to the GOP. Now, you know, we recently talked to J.C. Watts before on this program. Last week we talked to Ed Gillespie who's a top Republican strategist, former top White House aide/counselor. What's new here?

GOFF: Well, I think what's fascinating and what's new here is the way that he's actually thinking about it, which shows there actually is some thinking going on about it as opposed to simply some desperation for media reasons, or for election based reasons. His plan is really thinking long-term. And what I mean by that is he recently said in an interview that, well, of course there's not going to be diversity in the leadership of the GOP when you don't have diversity in the trenches.

And I think that's a really fair point. And as he said, people often point to Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell and they're so busy doing that pointing that they forget to actually look at the base of their party and who's actually filling some of the entry level roles. And that's what this organization, Insight, a 501C4, is going to seek to do, is to take promising young men and women of color and try to get them early into careers in public service for Republican-elected officials.

And if you do that, his argument is, that then you will have African-Americans running Republican campaigns and being in prominent positions and you won't have to wait till a month before the election to try to convince them.

MARTIN: He also said that in addition to these issues he's going to try to focus the GOP's attention on issues of particular importance to minority communities, like reentry programs for former prisoners and things of that sort. Ron Christie, you know, you're one of those people who made it, right, within the party. Would something like this have made a difference to you?

CHRISTIE: Oh, no question about it. You know, I showed up on Capitol Hill in 1991 and there were a handful - and I mean literally, you could put us all in a phone booth - of the number of African-American Republican staffers. And now, that number still has not grown all that much. I was just on the phone with Congressman Watts, his closest political advisor, talking about Insight.

And I'm really excited about this, Michel, because this really could have helped me. I'd do a little reversal and say, gosh, where was this 20-something years ago, where you have a number of Republican offices that have said we will take several interns in the program, and bring them in, mentor them, and then have a corporate sort of partnership to allow people to learn about banking.

To allow people the opportunity to learn about lobbying. You know, I'm going to try to help Insight out by actually giving a symposium on: This has been my career path as a lawyer, and as a lobbyist, and as an author and one who teaches. So that if you could actually make a difference in one student's mind, perhaps getting them involved in public service or, you know, the D.C. sort of echo chamber, I think it's a fantastic idea and a fantastic opportunity to get more people of color in the party.

MARTIN: But can you grow the party without changing the party? I mean it seems to me that the point has been - and I've talked to a number of women in the party too who feel that they're just not listened to, and so can you really grow the party without - isn't it a two-way street? I mean growing the party means sometimes listening to people when you don't always agree with them. I mean, there have been points along the way when you've disagreed with party leaders about certain things. Do you feel listened to?

CHRISTIE: I do, but you know, the only way that you're going to actually have real power and influence is to actually have a seat at the table. In order to have a seat at the table, you have to get folks involved in the process, and you know, I look at the opportunities that I have had and certainly on the Hill and in the White House and if you're not there, Michel, you can't stand up and actually say, hey, you know what, folks? This is wrong. Or, hey, you know what, people? We need to do more of these type of activities.

So we need to get more people to have a seat at the table so that we can shape the party from the inside out.

MARTIN: Speaking of a seat at the table - this is a terrible segue - how about a seat on the golf cart? What about...

GOFF: Nicely done.

MARTIN: What about President Obama's private golf vacation over the weekend? He went to Florida, not an unusual place for people of means to go when it's kind of cold and dreary in Washington, both politically and with the weather. But the thing that caught a lot of people's attention is that he was golfing with Tiger Woods, number one, scandal bunny, and also, critics say, what's up with that whole - what about that whole economic inequality thing? What about that? And this is something that a lot of people can't afford right now. What's going on with that?

Keli, you were not a fan of this trip. Very briefly.

GOFF: No. I mean I think that the media kind of missed the story. They made a whole big stink about not being allowed to go playing - watch, you know, the president golf badly and, you know, I said that the real issue is not the White House worrying about unflattering footage of him golfing or trying to control the media narrative, but really, you know, the president being photographed with probably one of the most scandalized African-American men since O.J. Simpson. And that's what the White House was worried about and no one wants to have the courage to say it.

MARTIN: Well, but nobody thought Tiger Woods killed anybody, though. Come on.

GOFF: Well, no, no, no. And I did say that in my column on TheRoot.com about this very topic. Had to get that plug in there. But, no. But we all know that there were lots of comparisons between Tiger Woods and President Obama early in their careers. Right? There are all these - this talk about - isn't Barack Obama the Tiger Woods of American politics? I said that in my first book. A lot of people said it. It wasn't that original when I said it.

And so they're very conscious of his image of President Obama not portraying any negative stereotypes of black men, and no, Tiger Woods didn't kill anyone, but he did sort of - he's guilty of the crime of sort of living up to that ultimate negative black male stereotype of getting caught in major scandal by sort of chasing white ladies. And that's something that...

MARTIN: And not just a few. And not just a few.

GOFF: And not just a few. And that's something the White House is obviously sensitive about, even though Jay Carney's never going to go on TV and say that, so...

MARTIN: But you just did.

GOFF: I just did.

MARTIN: That's it.

CHRISTIE: She went there.

MARTIN: She went there.

GOFF: I went there.

MARTIN: Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. That's an online publication that features a variety of African-American perspectives in particular. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. They were both with us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel.

CHRISTIE: Bye.

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