Obama Keeps An Eye On Democrats' Political Scandals

Democrats are busy working to get past scandals and a messy debate concerning overhauling health care. The party is worried about how November's elections might affect President Obama's effort to get a health bill passed.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It is only the 8th of March, still eight months before Election Day, but if you're the Democrats in charge of Congress, it is never too early to be concerned. Democrats are working to get past scandals, not to mention a messy debate over health care. Democratic concern about the election is affecting President Obama's effort to get a health bill passed. That is just one of the problems the president faces as he tries to sell his bill with a speech in Philadelphia today.

We're going to talk about all this with NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays, including this one. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, these scandals have been centered, mostly, but not entirely, on Democratic politicians from New York. Might they have some national effect?

ROBERTS: Oh, I think so. You know, scandals are very effective tools for the opposition in an election year. And we saw, particularly in 2006, when the Republicans lost the House of Representatives and in large measure, they lost it - at least according to exit polls among the voters - because of the Abramoff scandals, where, you know, a prominent lobbyist in Washington was wining and dining and paying off members of Congress, some of whom went to jail. And the Republican leader, Tom DeLay, had money laundering problems. I mean, there were all kinds of problems with the Republicans in the House, and the Democrats were able to use those very effectively.

INSKEEP: You're saying that, four years ago, Republicans lost the House, not entirely or not even mostly, because of the Iraq war, it was more about ethics.

ROBERTS: Well, the Iraq war certainly played into it and people were very fed up with the Republican leadership. But the fact is that, you know, we here analyzing these elections tend to talk a lot about policy because it's what we care about and cover, but there is this tendency of both parties to overreach when they get all of the power - the - get both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. That was part of the reason, that sense that the Democrats were overreaching, in 1994, that they lost the House of Representatives then, after decades. But it was also due to the fact that they've been this big bank scandal, the internal House bank, where members of Congress - many members of Congress - hundreds - had overdrafted, but of the 24 worst abusers, cited by the Ethics Committee, 20 of them were Democrats.

And the Republicans were able to use that - talking about the culture of corruption in the House of Representatives - to convince voters that it was time for a change in the government, and they combined that with the sense that the Democrats were overreaching, owning - owing the whole government, to throw the Democrats out of the House of Representatives then.

INSKEEP: Okay. So, you've identified ethical troubles with the last two times that Congress has changed hands. Then, of course, there's the matter of policy, and here, Democrats with this gigantic health care bill they're not sure they can pass or even sure, in some cases, if they want to pass.

ROBERTS: So, the question is, what lesson do they learn from these...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: ...these elections - the 2006, 1994. Do they say the problem is that the Congress overreached and therefore we shouldn't vote for health care, or that the Congress was seen as just incapable and corrupt and therefore we have to get something done to show that we really are on the job? And I think the answer to that is that different Democrats are drawing different lessons and that's why the president is having such a tough time getting the bill passed.

INSKEEP: It's strange though. Everybody here has a lot of legislative experience - you wonder if there's just something that happens to them when they gain so much power?

ROBERTS: Well, I do think that sometimes when you have a majority party in -you know, one party in both ends of government, that there is this sense of entitlement, that they are wined and dined by the captains of industry, but they don't make anywhere near as much money as the people outside of government. And they start to think that they deserve it, and that's when scandals start to erupt. And I think that that becomes a problem for majority parties all the time.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Okay, thanks very much as always. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts on this Monday morning.

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