Political Junkie: Wilson, Health Care, And ACORN
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Can the Baucus health care bill fly on one wing. Did the Democrats make a martyr? And who leaked the president's off-the-cuff and off-the-record remark?
President BARACK OBAMA: He's a jackass.
CONAN: No truth to the report he was talking about Ken Rudin. It's Wednesday and time for a rebukable edition of the Political Junkie.
President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Where's the beef?
Senator BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.
Governor HOWARD DEAN (Democrat, Vermont): (Screams)
CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to breach decorum, and as usual there's a lot to shout about: protests here in Washington, a primary election in New York City. Rick Lazio announces a run for governor in the Empire State, and a prostitute and a pimp ask for tax advice, and no, that is not the start of a bad joke.
Later on, our own Mara Liasson joins us to talk about ACORN, health care, immigration and the right. We'll also find out how the Joe Wilson drama is playing out in South Carolina. But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ken, and as always, we begin with a trivia question.
RUDIN: Thanks, Neal. You lie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RUDIN: Okay, this trivia question goes all the way back to yesterday.
CONAN: Oh, okay.
RUDIN: In the vote to rebuke Joe Wilson, which of course passed in the House yesterday, two-part question: Who was the only African-American in the House to vote no. And there were two former presidential candidates. They both voted no. Who were they?
CONAN: So if you think - you've got to get all three here.
RUDIN: Got to get all three.
CONAN: If you think you know the identity of the only African-American member of the House of Representatives and the two former presidential candidates who voted no on the motion to reprimand Joe Wilson in the House of Representatives yesterday, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
RUDIN: What do they win?
CONAN: And they win a fabulous no-prize T-shirt.
RUDIN: My God. That's beautiful.
CONAN: It's beautiful. They have to promise to take a digital picture and mail it in to us in return. But anyway, Ken, the story of the week is that reprimand for Joe Wilson.
RUDIN: It's the first time in history that a member of the House was reprimanded or rebuked or whatever you want to call it for I guess disrespecting or disapproving the president while he was giving the address to Congress. The vote was 240 to 179.
CONAN: Basically across party lines.
RUDIN: Well, yes, and seven Republicans voted for the resolution; 12 Democrats voted against it; five voted present, including Barney Frank of Massachusetts. And, you know, a lot of people thought that this might end the debate and the rancor, and of course it hasn't because the issue of race, which is never far behind so many things in American political life, and especially since January 20, 2009, and that has reared its head as well in this debate.
Hank Johnson got on the floor - I'm sorry, not on the floor.
CONAN: But on TV.
RUDIN: On TV, and this is what he said. He said - this is a congressman from Georgia. He said: I guess we'll probably have folks putting on the white hoods and white uniforms again and riding the countryside intimidating people had we not had this resolution. And of course Republicans say the opposite: This is just a smokescreen. It's just an excuse to not do what the people's business is.
Now, of course, any party, whenever they talk about something they don't want to talk about, always say, well…
CONAN: It's just a distraction.
CONAN: Nevertheless, they also say anytime anybody criticizes the president, the Democrats play the race card.
RUDIN: Well, there's that too, and of course some of it is true. I mean you'd have to think that race has to play a part of it, but when they - you know - now, Jimmy Carter, of course, in an interview, the former president said that is obviously racism that Joe Wilson was, you know - but when people criticized Jimmy Carter, what was that? I mean, it's just - you know, it's hard to distinguish, and basically it's personal experience that will decide for many people whether this was racism or not.
CONAN: And of course the thing it's distracting everybody from is health care. The long-awaited bill by Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the leader of the so-called Gang of Six, finally emerges today with the support of Max Baucus.
RUDIN: That's right. It's the Gang of One, and Max Baucus came out a short time ago announcing his bill, $856 billion over 10 years. There are some changes. There are some - you know, definitely reforms. There's no lifetime limits on coverage. The insurance companies can't use the excuse of pre-existing conditions to deny you coverage, things like this. There's portability when you move from state to state.
CONAN: But what about the public plan?
RUDIN: But there is no public option, and so the right and the left are not happy with this. You know, for all the work that Max Baucus tried to get Republicans on board, Chuck Grassley is on the committee, he said, look, I can't support this, and the left can't support it either without a public action.
Move On today, called it today a dream come true for the insurance industry. Jay Rockefeller, other Democrats, said there's no way we could support it.
CONAN: Anyway, let's see if we can get some listeners in who think they know the answer to our trivia question, and again, that is the only African-American and the two former presidential candidates to vote no yesterday on the resolution to reprimand Joe Wilson, the Republican from South Carolina, the man who shouted you lie during the president's address to a joint session of Congress last week.
800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com, and John is with us from Littleton in Colorado.
JOHN (Caller): Yes. My guesses are Dan Maffei, Eric Massa and Eliot Engel.
RUDIN: Well, they all voted no, but - no, I'm sorry. Dan Maffei - okay, let me start again. Eliot Engel voted present, and the two other New Yorkers you mentioned did vote for the resolution.
CONAN: But as far as I know, none of them ever ran for president.
RUDIN: And none of them are African-American.
JOHN: Okay, thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RUDIN: Maybe we should repeat the question again. Who was the only African-American member of Congress to vote no, and who were the two former presidential candidates to vote no?
CONAN: Let's go next to Paul, Paul with us from Corvallis in Oregon.
PAUL (Caller): Yeah, hi, I have a guess. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin is an African-American who voted no, and then Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul also voted no.
RUDIN: And we have a correct answer.
CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding. Paul, well done.
PAUL: Great, thank you.
CONAN: Okay. Stay on the line, Paul, and we'll get the information, and we'll be happy to send you a no-prize T-shirt.
PAUL: Great, thanks.
CONAN: Thanks very much. That was very quick.
RUDIN: That wasn't as tough as I thought it was.
CONAN: No, I guess not. Anyway, moving right along.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: There are, of course, only 59 Democrats in the United States Senate at the moment because there is an open seat in Massachusetts. There is going to be a Democratic primary in December and a special election in January, where I think they'll even allow Republicans to vote, but in the meantime there may be an appointment of an interim senator.
RUDIN: Well, maybe. Last week they had a town hall meeting, kind of like a town hall meeting, in Boston. Deval Patrick wants the state legislature to change the state law to allow him to have the power to name an interim appointment until the general election on January 19th.
Now, until then, there are a lot of candidates getting in the race, and a lot of candidates getting out of the race. We thought that when Joe Kennedy, the nephew of the late Edward Kennedy, said he would not run, we thought all these candidates would jump in.
In the past week, we had Congressmen Stephen Lynch, Ed Markey, John Tierney, and former Congressman Marty Meehan all saying they will not run. The only two Democrats we see so far running is Michael Capuano, who is announcing - who is going to announce on Friday, and State Attorney General Martha Coakley. So we thought it should be a tremendous amount of candidates running.
Now, there's only one Republican candidate. Andrew Card, the former White House chief of staff under President Bush, thought about it. He said he won't run. The guy is Scott Brown, who's a state senator.
CONAN: And Curt Schilling, of course.
RUDIN: Curt Schilling is thinking about it. The news about Scott Brown is that they found out today, or at least they released it today, pictures of him as a Cosmopolitan centerfold.
CONAN: Some years ago.
RUDIN: Yes, 27 years ago, and unfortunately the staples got in the way, so I couldn't see everything, but it seems like it's Scott Brown.
CONAN: And if there is an interim senator to be appointed from the state of Massachusetts, more rumors that it might be former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
RUDIN: Well, the former governor - that would be a Massachusetts miracle, which is what he said when he ran for president in 1988. Dukakis on the list, and of course you've seen a lot of other names on the list - Vicki Kennedy, the senator's widow, but Dukakis's names has been mentioned more and more, but there's still no indication from the state legislature or their leaders if they're going to change the law.
CONAN: And speaking of the Senate, there was, of course, a senator appointed from the state of Colorado, as well, and he could be in for a fight in a primary.
RUDIN: There are five appointed senators, and this one is Michael Bennet, and he is the only one of the five who seems to have a serious primary challenge. Andrew Romanoff, who's a former speaker of the house, who has done a lot to give the Democrats control of the state legislature, he's one of the people who really wanted the appointment. He was upset that Governor Bill Ritter did not appoint him. Perhaps this is about pique, we don't know, but Romanoff is announcing his candidacy this week, and it could be a very serious challenge.
CONAN: He's probably trying to establish a dynasty. Anyway, we had actual votes cast yesterday in the city of New York for the Democratic candidate for mayor. This will, of course, be facing Michael Bloomberg.
RUDIN: I'll tell you, I couldn't contain my excitement because, first of all, nobody had heard of these two. The person who won it is a city controller, William Thompson, who's been in office eight years, and yet very few people know him. He won with 70 percent against a city councilman from Queens who also nobody ever heard of. William Thompson is hoping to become the second African-American mayor of New York, following David Dinkins, but he's up against the multi-gazillion-dollar machine of Michael Bloomberg, who is a Republican or was a Republican, but he's running on the Republican-independent lines.
CONAN: And also, there was an election, a very rare turnover in the Manhattan prosecutor's office. Of course, the current owner of that, Robert Morgenthau, has been there 35 years. His predecessor, Frank Hogan, was there forever before him, and now it's going to be, well, oddly enough, not Fred Thompson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RUDIN: No, but it will be Cyrus Vance Jr. Cy Vance - Cyrus Vance, of course, was the late secretary of state under Jimmy Carter. His son won a convincing primary victory yesterday backed by Morgenthau. Just the thought of not having Bob Morgenthau as district attorney of Manhattan is just, you know, beyond me.
By the way, trivia question: The last New York City controller who was elected mayor, do you know that?
CONAN: I'm going to have to work on that.
RUDIN: Abe Beame.
CONAN: Abe Beame, all right, anyway. But as long as we're talking about the Carter administration, sad news just in the past couple of days, Jody Powell died of a heart attack.
RUDIN: Sixty-five years old, you know, one of the original - they talk about the Georgia mafia. He was with Jimmy Carter from the beginning, even well before he was elected governor in 1970. He was his press secretary during the campaign, before the campaign, during the presidential campaign as governor, as president, too. Jimmy Carter once said that aside from my wife, nobody knows me better than Jody Powell. He was sad at his death. He was the head of, the CEO of Powell Tate, a public relations firm. But Jody Powell really, you know, got everybody. He was there - whenever Jimmy Carter was there: the Israeli-Arab summit, the Iranian hostage crisis, the election against Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan. Jody Powell was always there.
CONAN: Jody Powell died yesterday in his home in suburban Washington, D.C. He'll be missed.
Ken Rudin, stay with us. Our political junkie is with us. Up next, how is the Joe Wilson affair playing out in his home state? If you live in South Carolina, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Drop us an email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.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. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Representative Joe Wilson may have been rebuked in the House yesterday, but he's raking in the cash back home. Since he yelled you lie at President Obama, he's pulled in a million and a half dollars. The catch? So did his opponent.
How are voters in his home state reacting? If you're in South Carolina, what reaction are you hearing to the outburst itself and to the congressman's response? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we'll be talking with a reporter in South Carolina in a moment. Right now, Ken Rudin is with us, our political junkie and NPR's political editor. You can check out his blog and listen to his podcast at npr.org.
But joining us now from Charleston, South Carolina, is Robert Behre, a reporter for the Post and Courier, and it's very good of you to be with us today.
Mr. ROBERT BEHRE: (Reporter, Post and Courier): Thank you. Good afternoon.
CONAN: And what was the initial reaction after South Carolinians saw Joe Wilson shout out you lie during the president's speech?
Mr. BEHRE: Well, I think the initial reaction was one of shock. I think there was a bit of a oh-no-here-we-go-again quality to it. We've already had a politician, one of our politicians in the news this summer in a rather promising and regretful way. So the fact that this came on top, I think there was initially a kind of an oh, forehead-slapping moment.
CONAN: Is Joe Wilson known as a passionate, outburst kind of a guy?
Mr. BEHRE: No, I think I could pretty safely say he's been a fairly quiet, moderate-spoken politician throughout his career here. He's never, to my knowledge, done anything like this before in the state, at least that's attracted attention here in South Carolina. And everyone I've talked to agrees that this was very much out of character, that while he's passionate about his politics, he's not one to just shoot off at the mouth, normally.
CONAN: Nevertheless, he seems to be taking this and running with it for all it's worth. Here's a video that he posted on his Web site that includes his wife, Roxanne, saying she was, quote, "proud to stand with Joe."
(Soundbite of video)
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ROXANNE WILSON: I watched the speech. Joe called me after the speech on Wednesday night, and I said: Joe, who's the nut that hollered out you lie, or you liar? And he goes: It was me. And I said: No, really, who did it? I couldn't believe that Joe would say that.
CONAN: And of course, that's part of the video, and indeed, Joe Wilson has gotten a lot of support on this.
Mr. BEHRE: Oh, indeed. I think the reaction here in South Carolina is probably somewhat similar to the reaction across the country. You've got the Democratic partisans who are embarrassed and outraged, but you've got a lot of conservative-minded folks who are applauding and sending him money. And then you have the independent voters that seem to be just sort of scratching their heads about the whole thing, certainly disapproving of his comment but not necessarily sure that the House resolution yesterday accomplished that much, either.
RUDIN: Robert, the Democratic opponent, Joe Wilson's Democratic opponent will be Rob Miller, the former Iraqi war veteran who held him to 54 percent last year. In such a conservative district - and of course, Barack Obama was running last year - but in such a conservative district, what made that race so close?
Mr. BEHRE: That's a good question. I mean, I have to think it was partly, you know, Rob Miller's message and his war credentials, too. I mean, there's a strong military presence in that district, and both Rob Miller and Joe Wilson have military credentials. I have to think a good bit of it was Barack Obama's coattails. And the district does have a kind of a new sort of Republican type for South Carolina down in the Beaufort and Hilton Head area. These are Republican voters, but they - in all likelihood, many of them didn't grow up here but rather moved down here from New York or other places.
CONAN: Chillier places. Anyway, let's get some callers in on the conversation. This is Terry(ph), Terry with us from Columbia, South Carolina.
TERRY (Caller): Good afternoon.
TERRY: I have been a registered Republican all of my adult life, and I'm outraged. Most of the people from South Carolina have more manners, and I just can't believe that everything that Obama wants to do, they want to fight and argue about. I'm tired of them fighting and arguing instead of getting behind the president and let's get him something done.
CONAN: What did you think of the reprimand yesterday?
TERRY: It was a slap on the wrist. I thought it needed to be more. It just goes back to as long as you get away with it, just they're going to keep doing it, and I've heard comparisons of the Democrats booing Bush. I'm sorry, but a boo compared to you're a liar to me are big differences.
CONAN: Terry, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
TERRY: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Eric(ph), Eric in Newbury, South Carolina.
ERIC (Caller): Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
ERIC: Let me just start off by saying the Republican Party is where the Dixiecrats went right about the time of - well, it was an alternative for the Dixiecrats. They bolted from the Democratic Party, and they became Republican.
Strom Thurmond is a Republican from South Carolina. Jesse Helms is from North Carolina, but they're from the same ilk. And this extreme that the Democrats went to, they had to do something because of the backlash - or I call it the blacklash - yesterday. So they went for this resolution. It's going to take on a life of its own. It's going to make a folk hero of this man. The money is coming in like crazy.
I worked on the Obama campaign when I was living in Alabama, and I noticed there was a trend, say, in South - I'm sorry, in Kentucky and Tennessee, where there was a huge anti-Obama faction.
These areas have huge Klan populations. The same thing happened in West Virginia, I lived in West Virginia for a bit. But if you notice those areas, and make no mistake, this area that Joe Wilson represents, these are not people who are moderates. These are not people who would even consider voting for Barack Obama. It's - out of lack of a better word, it's a citadel for racism, and it's going to galvanize people behind him. And I'm sure he's a hero in his own district.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much, Eric, appreciate it. Robert Behre, is that an accurate representation of that district?
Mr. BEHRE: I think that's a little harsh. I mean, I'm not - I certainly think that there are voters in there whose racial attitudes aren't progressive. Calling it a citadel of racism, that's strong. Obviously, there's a big generational component to this, too.
The older voters in South Carolina are more likely to have, you know, views toward race that could be considered racist or at least not politically correct. I think the younger voters, though, increasingly are moving beyond that. It's still very much a factor, but especially, like I said, down in the coastal part of the district of Beaufort and Hilton Head, I think the racial dynamic perhaps isn't quite as strong.
But it's interesting, the question that race will play into this because obviously both Rob Miller on the Democratic side and Joe Wilson are white. The district is predominately white, and it's actually pretty strongly white in part because it's right next to Jim Clyburn's district, which is our minority majority district here. So a lot of the black voters who kind of live in the vicinity of Joe Wilson's district have actually been drawn into Representative Clyburn's.
CONAN: And of course, interesting on the floor of the House yesterday, you had one representative, as you say, neighboring districts, one being reprimanded by the House of Representatives, and the main speaker on the other side was his neighbor from the district next door, that the majority whip, Jim Clyburn.
Mr. BEHRE: Right, exactly. That was an interesting dynamic, to say the least.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BEHRE: I mean, essentially South Carolina, in my mind, has two sorts of breeds of Republicans. There are the Republicans like Representative Wilson and our senator, Jim DeMint, who value, I think, ideological purity, who really strive to be considered very conservative in all aspects, and then there are Republicans who are less so. This is maybe best typified by our other senator, a senior senator, Lindsey Graham, who are more interested or open to the idea of compromise and realize that there's not maybe going to be one Republican solution to this.
The ironic thing is that, you know, the criticism that Joe Wilson and Jim DeMint normally come under is that they're naysayers and that they aren't engaged in the conversation to find constructive solutions. That was why kind of the height of irony to me yesterday was during the House's discussion on this. When Representative Wilson took the floor, he basically kind of threw that argument back at the Democrats, saying what is this resolution - you know, censuring me or criticizing me - doing to provide health care to Americans.
CONAN: We actually have a clip from his speech. This is Congressman Joe Wilson defending himself yesterday on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): When we are done here today, we will not have taken any steps closer to helping more American families afford health insurance or helping small businesses create new jobs.
The challenges our nations(ph) faces are far bigger than any one member of this House. It is time that we move forward and get to work for the American people.
CONAN: And let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Nick(ph). Nick with us from Columbia, South Carolina.
NICK (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
NICK: Good. I'd say so far, I disagree with everything everyone has said.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NICK: You know, I grew up in South Carolina. I've lived here all my life. And for someone - the previous caller to say that we're all racist that are Republicans, is just a fallacy. The majority of racism that is in this state and in many other states that I've been to is mostly encouraged by the African-American community. So, I think that's very offensive that we are saying because we're Republicans, because we don't agree with Barack Obama that we're racists. And I think that that's a not.
CONAN: And because African-Americans do agree with him, they are racists?
NICK: Well, I would say that African-Americans that do agree with the previous caller would be racist, yes. I would say that because I believe that it is a very, very small minority of people that are - that's - that vote or don't vote because of their race. I think that's a very, very small minority and I think it's silly.
CONAN: All right.
NICK: And I have to say, Jim DeMint - I mean, not Jim DeMint - but when he said that you lie on the floor, I don't believe the initial reaction was shock or disdain or oh, no, here we go again. A large amount of people that I come in contact with in South Carolina were thankful that someone finally said something. And we're like, yeah, somebody from South Carolina is doing this. I mean, it's - I think it's a pride for our state. A lot of people in this state are very proud to have him as a part of our state. You know…
NICK: …Republicans constantly get pushed around and constantly get criticized by the media for doing this - what much less than what majority of Democrats do. I don't recall this kind of treatment of any Democrat leader when they criticize Bush and called him a murderer or called Republicans Nazis or anything. I mean, there is no sort of backlash like this and it's a huge double standard. And I think (unintelligible)…
CONAN: Nick, they didn't do it to his face on the floor of the House of Representatives. But we can argue about that later. Anyway, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Some emails that we've gotten. This from Britney(ph) in Pueblo, Colorado. I am a Democrat. I was a little disheartened to see the reprimand that came through. Though I agree Congressman Wilson was out of order and should apologize, I feel he did so and President Obama graciously accepted it. I think Congress should have let it go and gotten over it. Don't give him more than the 15 minutes he already has.
This from Mark(ph) in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Joe Wilson's outburst was another in the growing list of most embarrassing moments for the people of South Carolina. I hope in the future all elected officials are presented a roll of duct tape upon assumption of office.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: We're talking with Robert Behre of the Charlotte - Charleston, excuse me, Post and Courier. And, of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
RUDIN: I'm just sitting here thinking around the time when Fritz Hollings, a Democrat…
CONAN: From South Carolina.
RUDIN: …from South Carolina referred to Howard Metzenbaum, the senator from Ohio, as the senator from B'nai Brith. So, I think both parties - both - the members of both parties do have a way of expressing themselves interestingly in South Carolina.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Bob(ph) in Cleveland. Regarding the racial component of Joe Wilson's outburst, has NPR investigated whether Joe Wilson was in fact one of only seven South Carolina state senators to vote against removal of the confederate flag from the state capitol dome in the year 2000? If so, his track record on racial issues certainly does not help his defense that this was not racially motivated. Can you help us out on that, Robert Behre?
BEHRE: Well, clearly, I think that - my understanding is that is - that fact is correct. But to say - but and that's, of course, been a topic, you know, with Maureen Dowd in her column in the New York Times as to what extent was Joe Wilson acting on a racial - from a racial perspective with this because the president was black and he comes from a district that is very white and has some very old school, you know, attitudes. That's something - you know, as a reporter, it's extremely difficult to go into somebody's heart and to really try to measure that. I really don't think that that's a big component.
But clearly, one thing that, you know, that's polarizing this whole thing and what you're hearing in some of these comments from people in South Carolina is the degree of division that we have. And that is - that does often a break down racial lines. I mean, our congressional districts here as well as our state house districts are drawn to kind of increase that polarity because the goal has been to maximize the number of African-American lawmakers which in turn maximizes the number of Republican lawmakers. And they often - these districts are often so polarized. They only face serious challenges during the primaries.
So, their priority, politically, is to look ideologically pure, to keep themselves free from threats from their own party much more - and there's - so that's more of a political motivation as far as their own self-survival than it is to actually try to find the middle ground, which is, of course, is so vital on these complex issues like health care reform, Social Security reform, et cetera.
CONAN: Let's get one more caller in from South Carolina. This is Charles(ph) from Myrtle Beach.
CHARLES (Caller): Hey. How it's going?
CONAN: Good and thanks.
CHARLES: All right. You know, I've lived here, what, almost 20 years. And with Joe Wilson, he has a strange habit of saying things that are just patently offensive. I - if you'll recall, when Strom Thurmond's daughter - I believe her name was Essie Mae, something along those lines.
BEHRE: Essie Mae Washington.
CHARLES: Yes. That would be it. Announced that her - the paternity, he was - he goes - his immediate response was, this is blight on Senator Thurmond's record, and, yada, yada, yada. He has history of saying things that are completely insensitive. And let's not forget, his weekend hobby is out waving his treasonous little flag. And so he's like, but it's my heritage. These people took up arms against a government so they could keep slaves.
CONAN: Well, let's not refight the Civil War. Ken?
(Soundbite of laughter)
RUDIN: Just quickly though, that Joe Wilson did work for Strom Thurmond. So perhaps he was defending Strom Thurmond's reputation, whatever it was, without ascribing racial - a response to it.
CONAN: Anyway, thanks very much for the call, Charles. Appreciate it.
CHARLES: You're welcome.
CONAN: And we'd like to thank Robert Behre for his time today. He's a reporter for the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. Joined us by phone from there. Thanks very much for the time today.
Mr. BEHRE: Thanks for having me. Thank you.
CONAN: And when we come from a short break, NPR's Mara Liasson will join us on Political Junkie day. Of course, Ken Rudin will stay up with us as well. We'll be talking about tea parties, anti-Obama slogans as the right rises to the attack. Does the President risk losing control of the agenda if he does not respond aggressively to a vocal minority? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: After tens of thousands attended last weekend's tea party rally here in Washington, D.C., anti-immigration groups gathered right wing radio hosts for broadcasts outside the White House yesterday.
Representative Joe Wilson, the congressman who shouted at President Obama, was hailed as a hero at both events. Signs with sometimes crude images and slogans denounced big government in general and President Obama in particular. And while the White House has been restrained thus far, some of the president's supporters call for a much more aggressive response. Does the president risk losing control of the agenda if he declines to react to vocal minorities? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Political junkie Ken Rudin is still with us and NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us from the White House.
And Mara, very good of you to be with us today.
MARA LIASSON: Nice to be here.
CONAN: And it's pretty clear that neither the White House nor the Democratic leadership in the House wanted to go ahead with that rebuke of Joe Wilson.
LIASSON: No, they didn't, because it just calls more attention to it. And of course, Joe Wilson, despite the fact that he admits that what he did was inappropriate, have actually been catapulted from being a back-bencher to a kind of celebrity in the Republican Party. He's raised a tremendous amount of money off this. And it's something that is only adding kind of fuel to the fire of the anger of the right wing base, and anger equals energy. And that's something the White House and the House leadership didn't want to encourage.
CONAN: But speaking of anger, some of the president's biggest supporters, the Congressional Black Caucus, were extremely angry and said, there is no choice, we must go ahead with this.
LIASSON: And that's why they did. I mean, you know, there's always a balance between the members of your coalition and the big broad electorate. And that's why the president himself has been very, very careful to say that, for instance, that he doesn't think that race is behind the opposition to him.
Today, Robert Gibbs was asked again to react to former President Carter's statement that race was at the heart of this opposition and this anger. And he said again the president doesn't believe that the criticism is based on the color of his skin. He understands that people have a lot of objections and opinions about the decisions he's made. And I think that's the line that they're going to keep on - they're going to stick to that. And that is the way he ran for president.
And the only time that he has ever waded in to a racial controversy, he has gotten bit by it, and by that I'm referring to the - what he made the initial comments about the arrest of Skip Gates in Cambridge.
CONAN: Well, that was as president when the tapes came out of his former pastor's speeches in Chicago, then-candidate Obama made an incredibly well-received speech on race.
LIASSON: But what he did in that speech was kind of transcend it. He didn't actually take sides or issue an opinion that was based on his perspective as an African-American. What he did in that speech was give a speech that kind of understood both sides. And don't forget, it was not right after those tapes came out, it was after the tapes were proving to be a threat to his candidacy. But he did gave a wonderful historic speech. I'm just saying that their general approach to racial matters is not to get involved with them.
CONAN: And it's interesting. There are some people saying, hey, where is the energy on the other side? Michael Moore, the provocateur filmmaker whose got a new picture coming out, so he may have some interest in making public comments. But anyway, he's showing it to the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh yesterday and said, hey, why aren't you guys showing up at those town hall meetings?
LIASSON: Well, I think people on the left are showing up at the town hall meetings. The problem is that, until recently, the intensity in this debate has been among the opposition. In other words, there are plenty of people who are for the president's plans…
(Soundbite of coughing)
LIASSON: …sorry - but they don't feel as strongly as a people who are opposed. There's an intensity gap.
RUDIN: Mara, you covered the White House during the Clinton presidency and you were well aware of the conservative attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton for most, if not, all of the eight years. Now, we have an African-American president this time. And I know obviously that's a difference, but how - was there - is there a difference in the intensity of the attacks on the Clinton presidency or compared to what we're seeing now?
LIASSON: Well, they certainly went more personal during Clinton. They -especially after Monica Lewinsky, it was more about his personal behavior, whereas I think these attacks are based on Obama's policies and the large amount of government intervention we're having in the economy.
Now, there is this argument that this all has a kind of race-based subtext. That's very hard to prove. But I also think that the difference in these past 16 years is that everything has gotten more intense and angrier and the level of vitriol is higher because of the Internet, because of the disappearing center of American politics, certainly in Congress. And everything is coarser and rawer than it was with Clinton.
But I think that when - if you wanted to draw a line, if there was kind of animosity index, you saw the incredible kind of, like, visceral reaction to Clinton. He really - especially in his first year with, you know, the reaction to - what is it, gods, guns and gays - you know, people - the right really reacted against him. Look at how the left hated George W. Bush. Remember: Bush lied and people died. And now, you have Obama. I mean, unfortunately, this is becoming a real staple of American politics.
CONAN: The question to our callers, is the president risking losing control of the agenda if he does not respond to the vocal minority? 800-989-8255, email email@example.com. Joe(ph) is on the line from Cincinnati.
JOE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me today.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JOE: Okay. So, to answer the question is, yes, I firmly believe 100 percent that he will lose basically complete control in any type of basis that he has to stand on. Not only will he lose his own integrity but his entire chamber and the entire left side of that political spectrum is going to lose their integrity. If he doesn't put his foot down and say once and for all, I'm the president, I'm making these decisions. This is what I'm doing.
Well, like I said, I'm Republican. I think he's a great guy. I think the November 2008 election was simply the lesser of two evils. It came down to who I hated more. And, frankly, it came down to me thinking Obama would just do a little bit better job considering McCain's counterpart. But that's neither here nor there.
But you get really down to the (unintelligible) of it. If there are going to be continuing outbursts - and I don't think Joe Wilson will be the last - I think there's going to be a continuous (unintelligible) if issues are not addressed. And Obama, as president, needs to come forward and say, this is my health care plan, this is what I want to do, this is where I'm going to do, and not present it as if there is an ultimatum.
He is the president. He was elected. He is the face of our country. He is one of the most integral people in all of world politics and he needs to finally realize that and stick to his guns, for lack of a better term.
CONAN: All right, Joe…
JOE: And finally say (unintelligible).
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for that. And, Mara, the president did say in that health care speech the other night, if you come up with - I'm paraphrasing here - wacky criticisms, I will call you out. But he didn't call anybody out.
LIASSON: Well, he did say that some of the criticisms were a lie. I mean, he used that word. You know, he said that the notion that we're going to have death panels or that we're going to…
CONAN: But he didn't say, Sarah Palin, that was a lie that you said.
LIASSON: Oh, he didn't say it to somebody in particular?
LIASSON: But I don't think that that is required, that he should get into - that he should personalize it and elevate Sarah Palin or Joe Wilson to be his opponent. I think he did something in that speech that at least that night the left wing of his party, the base of his party, was very happy about. They thought that he was being bold, finally. They thought that he was doing the things that they've been asking him to do which is show more fight, push back against what they consider falsehoods about the health care plan.
So, I mean, you can't satisfy everybody. But I think the White House thinks that they are trying to push back. You know, when it comes to race, that's - as I was trying to explain, that's a kind of a whole different subject that the president has to handle very carefully.
CONAN: Let's go next to Steve(ph). Steve with us from St. Louis.
STEVE (Caller): Yeah, hi. I attended a town hall meeting here in St. Louis a while ago that was rather acrimonious and spent quite a while before the meeting talking to people on both sides of the aisle. And the people who I spoke to who had been really involved with a lot of these tax protests seemed like they're people who are very threatened by the direction that the country is taking. And I think that there's virtually nothing that the president could (unintelligible) that would…
(Soundbite of car horn)
CONAN: Car alarms going off?
STEVE: …that would change their minds. Ultimately, it's really about, for a lot of people, the direction of the country. And the best way, really, that the president, I think, can address that is to do what he did during the campaign to say, you know, this is how I think the country should go and these are the policies that I've set out. He's not really going to be changing a lot of opinions.
CONAN: All right. Mara, Steve's approach - that seems to be the approach the White House is taking. Is this under debate, as far as you know?
LIASSON: I think there's always a debate here about how hard to push back. And, you know, there's a lot of different ways to push back. I mean, they can do it themselves in the person of the president, although that's generally not their modus operandi. They want him to stay a little bit above the fray but still show that he's willing, as he said to the AFL-CIO, you know, he's got a lot of fight left in him.
There are plenty of democratically-aligned groups who can push back and who do. I mean, I also think there's another way to look at that. There is a risk, I think, for the Republicans if Joe Wilson becomes kind of the face of the Republican Party. You know, right now, it's good for fundraising, and it's certainly good to energize their base. But I do think, you know, both sides flirt with kind of extreme animosity at their peril.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steve.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let me ask you one other aspect of this, Mara, and that is the president's past association with the group ACORN. This came up, of course, as an issue during the presidential campaign. In recent days, as a result of videotapes where people posing as pimps and prostitutes were filmed in ACORN offices getting advice on how to set up a brothel and get tax rebates, this has really turned into an embarrassment.
LIASSON: Yes, it really has. Now, it's not - you know, of course, the White House is now downplaying his past association with ACORN, saying that when he brought the motor voter lawsuit in Illinois, it was with a whole bunch of groups. It wasn't just ACORN.
But, yeah, ACORN now has been pretty much discredited. I mean, the Census Bureau has dropped them as a signature gatherer or census taker. And, you know, the Senate has voted to rebuke them. I think that…
CONAN: And defund them, yeah.
LIASSON: Defund them, I mean, not rebuke them, defund them. But I don't think -I think the president is now far enough away from the days when he worked with ACORN. That in and of itself is not going to hurt him. But it does - it's just more thing that is something that his opponents have found very useful to latch on to, and it's all these things are a problem. But I still wouldn't underestimate the kind of - the power of his own bully pulpit and what he is able to do in the big debate.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and our political junkie Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?
RUDIN: Mara, when Van Jones was sacked by the White House for past comments, and the controversy over ACORN, a lot of people on the left were crediting, well, you know, they're listening to the Glenn Becks of the world, they're listening to the FOX News of the world. But do you think the right wing is gaining here, or do you think that basically Van Jones and ACORN made their own mistakes?
LIASSON: I think both. I think that there's - it's just inconceivable to me that this White House had a choice with Van Jones. How could they have kept in their employ someone who signed a petition questioning whether the U.S. government - calling for an investigation of whether U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks? I mean, I just don't think it's possible. I mean, that was totally beyond the pail.
I don't think that he was let go because he had some, quote, "disparaging things to say," expletive, deleted things to say about Republicans. I mean, if he hadn't signed the 9/11 petition, I think he probably would still have been -would still have been on board.
RUDIN: And the right is blaming Glenn Beck, I mean, not…
LIASSON: Well, the left is blaming Glenn Beck, yes.
RUDIN: The left is…
CONAN: The right is crediting Glenn Beck.
LIASSON: Yes. And you know what, Glenn Beck did a tremendous - Glenn Beck is a force on the right. There's no doubt about it - kind of like Rush Limbaugh has been. I mean, he kind of single-handedly keeps these issues alive. He has a tremendous audience. And there's no doubt that he's a force on the right. But just - but letting Van Jones go does not mean you caved in to the right wing. Van Jones did something that I have to believe, if the White House knew about this before he was made the green jobs czar, he wouldn't have been made the green job czar.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Dave(ph), with us from Timonium in Maryland.
DAVE (Caller): Yes. Hi. Good afternoon. Longtime listener, first-time caller.
CONAN: Well, thank you for both.
DAVE: Love the show. Many of the points that have been made today, I think, are absolutely spot-on. I just wanted to comment, I guess, a response to the general question as far as whether President Obama risks, essentially, losing control of his own administration if he doesn't get his hand on this. I absolutely believe he does risk losing that control of his own agenda.
We - I am not aware of a time in American history that we have had so overtly treacherous an environment, where the opposition party or parties are openly stating - I mean, upper level members of the Republican Party have said at speeches that they want to see him fail. They're mimicking Rush Limbaugh. That they want to see the Obama administration fail, even at the peril of the country, so that they can win. So that they, the Republican Party, can regain control of the houses next year which, hypothetically, according to their claim, seems to be that they will, of course, return control of the country to the people.
CONAN: Dave, I'm not sure how openly people have been saying that in public. But nevertheless, certainly, Mara Liasson, this has been a subtext where some people on both sides have been talking about this, and some of Obama's supporters say, look, they're actively working against you. That's what's at stake here.
LIASSON: Well, there's no doubt about it that many of the president's opponents want to see him fail. I mean, the Democrats wanted George W. Bush to fail. I mean, I remember Nancy Pelosi saying we're going to, quote, "take down" the president. You know, when she was - when they gone to the fight about Social Security privatization. I mean, she said we're going to take down this president.
Now, that might have been just an artful thing for her to say. But that's just a fact of American politics. And Jim DeMint said, you know, if we can beat him on health care, it'll be his waterloo. I mean, this is what partisan politics is.
Now, there - I think there is another kind of subtext here, and this is a question a lot of people are asking; it's a little more substantive. It's whether Obama is going to be tough enough. Now, some of it gets expressed as will he be tough enough in fighting back against his critics. But will he be tough enough in actually being able to overcome the opposition to his policies, from whether its banks on Wall Street or the health insurance industry.
And in the end, does he just want kind of - is he searching for a consensus that doesn't really exist? That's something that you'll hear now kind of talked about around the edges a lot in Washington.
CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
DAVE: As a longtime supporter of his, I certainly would like to see him stand up stronger.
CONAN: All right, Dave. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.
DAVE: Thank you, too.
And Mara, thanks for your time today. I think there's somebody trying to reach you on the phone.
LIASSON: I'm sorry about that.
CONAN: It's all right. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, with us from our booth in the White House. And political junkie Ken Rudin, with us here in Studio 3A. He will be back with us next Wednesday. As always, Ken, thanks very much.
RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And if you'd like to read Ken's blog and listen to his podcast, you can go to npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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