Putting Congressional Civility In Perspective

In Congress, discourse deteriorated during the health care debate. Notably, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) yelled out "baby killer" on the House floor.

But it's not a new phenomenon, nor is it the province of a single political party.

Guests:

Ken Rudin, political editor and Political Junkie for NPR

Lou Frey, former Republican Congressman and editor of Political Rules of the Road

Scott Horsley, White House correspondent, NPR

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Private jets, stretch limousines and parties at a Hollywood nightclub, GOP chair Michael Steele is at the center of a spending scandal. Republicans accuse President Obama of foul play at recess, and Carly Fiorina breaks bread during Passover. Was it leavened? It's Wednesday, time for a spring break edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Wheres the beef?

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Former Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But Im the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

ROBERTS: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to talk about politics, and it's been a busy week. Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his primary challenger, Marco Rubio, faced off on Fox News. MSNBC has Rachel Maddow fired back at Republican Senator Scott Brown, and President Obama needs to practice his fastball for the baseball season opener.

Later this hour, former Republican Representative Lou Frey, Jr., joins us to discuss civility in Congress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: And NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley discusses the president's ambitious agenda.

But first, as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A, as he does every Wednesday. Hi, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Rebecca. Civility in Congress, I do like that. That's very nice. Okay, here's a tough one, a tough question for this week. Bob Ehrlich, the former governor of Maryland, is going to announce his candidacy today, or at least soon, that he's going to seek a rematch with Martin O'Malley, the guy who beat him four years ago. Who was the last governor who was defeated for re-election and then came back to defeat his opponent in the rematch?

ROBERTS: Now, Ken, this has to be governor because we have seats in Congress that switch between two people all the time.

RUDIN: That's correct. That's right.

ROBERTS: So the last time a governor was beaten for re-election, and he came back to defeat his opponent in the rematch. If you think you know the answer, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or send us email, talk@npr.org. And while your answers are gathering...

RUDIN: By the way, what do they win, by the way?

ROBERTS: You need to tell us, Ken.

RUDIN: Oh, they win a very special Political Junkie T-shirt.

ROBERTS: An extra-special...

RUDIN: Extra-special.

ROBERTS: While we're waiting for those brilliant answers to come in, let's start with the spending scandal at the RNC. What happened?

RUDIN: Well, here's the story. People were looking through the expense reports for the Republican National Committee, and they found that a few staffers went to this West Hollywood sex club. It's called the Voyeur Hollywood West. I think that's where Neal Conan is right this week, actually, as we speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But anyway, and they whatever expense they had - $1,946 in expenses. They submitted it, and they got reimbursed. And of course, I guess it was the Democrats who found out about this, and they went ballistic and haywire and no, I'm sorry. It was a conservative group like Tucker Carlson, a blog by Tucker Carlson who discovered this, and suddenly everybody was talking it was Michael Steele who attended, off with his head, and it turned out it was only just some members of the staff.

But the point is that it led to a serious questioning of spending priorities for Michael Steele, who has been under a lot of pressure, a lot of controversy, since he became chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And so it turns out that $17,000 was spent for private planes, $13,000 for car services. And so given the fact that the Republican Party has an uphill battle to win back House and Senate seats this year, to win control of those two bodies, a lot of people are suggesting that perhaps the priorities of Michael Steele, spending priorities, are not in the right direction.

ROBERTS: And which do you think is more sort of out of line with what the RNC chair is supposed to be promoting, just the sheer amount of these expenditures, or the racy sex-club part of it?

RUDIN: The racy sex stuff, of course, got the headlines.

ROBERTS: And we should say Michael Steele was not there.

RUDIN: No, he was not there. And of course, you know, of course this...

ROBERTS: We also have no proof Neal Conan is there.

RUDIN: Well, I may have made that part up. But I do know that this week is Passover, and just at the time that the Jewish people are celebrating their leaving from bondage from Egypt, there's another bondage club in West Hollywood, and I think that's not a coincidence.

But more importantly, it's more bad headlines at a time when of course the Republicans would love to put the Democrats on the defensive, President Obama on the defensive, and as it turned out, it seems like now the Democrats are on a roll not so much because of the Michael Steele scandal but passage of the health care, jobs bills, student loans, things like that. So there seems to be, you know, there seems to be momentum going in the Democrats' way. It is the last thing the Republicans wanted to be focusing on.

ROBERTS: So do those two things add up to Michael Steele losing his job?

RUDIN: Well, if you ask Republicans, and you ask Republican state committee members around the country, they say no, that he'll weather it, that it's just much ado about nothing, that ultimately, money is the name of the game, and the Republican Party has $9.5 million in its bank, you know, cash on hand, with no debt, and he's been raising a lot of money.

But of course, a lot of the headlines he's been getting have also not been so complimentary, and there are some whispers that perhaps maybe after the 2010 midterm elections in November, Michael Steele might find himself with another job.

ROBERTS: Speaking of elections, Sarah Palin is back on the campaign trail, in this case on behalf of John McCain. Let's listen.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Governor, Republican, Alaska; Former Vice Presidential Candidate): You know, many, many years ago, I competed in a pageant.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. PALIN: And you know what? Coming then from an expert, I can tell you: He could win the talent and the debate portion of any pageant, but nobody's ever going to dub him Miss Congeniality, not out of the Washington elite.

ROBERTS: Sarah Palin stumping for John McCain. Do we think we will see more of her as we get closer to November?

RUDIN: Oh, I think you can't help but see more of her, and the question is what kind of effect her campaigning has. I think she probably would be more effective in what she did at a Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nevada, after the McCain thing.

She can campaign against somebody like Harry Reid. She can argue why Harry Reid should be defeated, and of course, her supporters will go crazy, but her supporters did not go so crazy in Arizona last week, when she campaigned on behalf of John McCain. Everybody was yelling Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, but if you talked to the people who were there, they said well, I'm not sure that translates into support for John McCain, whose conservative opponent J.D. Hayworth has been saying is not sufficiently conservative.

So I think she would be more effective attacking Democrats than perhaps promoting fellow Republicans. Remember, Barack Obama, even though his numbers were still good in New Jersey and Virginia last year and in Massachusetts, of course, with Scott Brown, couldn't help Republicans from winning those elections. It's hard to see it's hard to make the case that personal popularity can transfer to an endorsement.

ROBERTS: Although it's interesting with the Tea Party conversation because that movement has said they are not of either party, and Sarah Palin has been in some circles criticized for supporting the Tea Party movement at the expense of the Republican Party. But when she was at the McCain speech, and she brought up Tea Party, this is what happened:

Ms. PALIN: In respect to the Tea Party movement, beautiful movement you know what? Everybody here today supporting John McCain, we are all part of that Tea Party movement.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROBERTS: That's a big cheer.

RUDIN: It is, and of course, look. The Tea Party people may not say they're Republicans, but they seem to support Republican views on taxes and big government, of course not when the Republicans were in big government, when they ran the government. Then, they were also accused of being big government. But right now, it seems like the Tea Party groups are a reaction to what they see as big government, aka the Obama administration, and they're certainly backing Republican candidates for now.

ROBERTS: Moving down to Florida, Governor Charlie Crist has a conservative party a conservative challenger in the primary, Marco Rubio. They had a debate on Fox News. What's the latest in that race?

RUDIN: Well, once upon a time, Charlie Crist was the prohibitive favorite not only to win the Republican nomination for a vacant Senate seat or soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat, but clearly the Republican winner in November, Marco Rubio, was considered just a no-chance conservative outlier. And yet, ever since Charlie Crist and Barack Obama hugged, when President Obama came to Florida, pushing his economic stimulus package, which Charlie Crist later endorsed, Marco Rubio and the conservatives have been going ballistic about that, saying that he is the same as Obama, that Charlie Crist would not be any different than the Democrats in the Senate. And while Charlie Crist has always been popular with the majority of Republicans, conservatives, like Jeb Bush, who has not come out publicly, but conservatives have always looked at him with a wary eye, and now every poll I've seen shows Marco Rubio with a clear lead in the August primary.

ROBERTS: Well, Marco Rubio made all of those points directly during this debate.

Mr. MARCO RUBIO (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Florida): You signed the budget that raised taxes, you tried to oppose a cap-and-trade system in Florida, you appointed liberal supreme court justices to our Supreme Court.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida; Senatorial Candidate): Who were those who's the liberal supreme court justice?

Mr. MARCO: Justice Perry to the supreme court, Justice Perry...

Gov. CRIST: Do you know who Jeb Bush appointed to the court originally is liberal?

Mr. MARCO: You not only did that, in addition to that, you worked with ACORN and groups like that...

Gov. CRIST: That's astounding.

Mr. MARCO: ...to give felons voting rights in Florida. And finally, you campaigned with Barack Obama on behalf of a failed stimulus program. So it is about trust. Who you do trust to go to Washington and stand up to Barack Obama?

ROBERTS: That's Marco Rubio on the debate on Fox News, debating Charlie Crist.

RUDIN: Remember in 2006, when Joe Lieberman in Connecticut was shown hugging President Bush, Ned Lamont and the progressive Democrats went ballistic, and they beat Lieberman in the primary, even though Lieberman wound up winning. But just as the left base hated the fact that Lieberman and Bush would hug, the right base in Florida hates the fact that Charlie Crist and Obama were intimate during the stimulus package.

ROBERTS: Well, so the lesson from this Political Junkie is be careful who you're intimate with. Let's get some answers to the trivia question. We were, again, looking for the last governor to take on the person who beat him and then win his seat back. Let's hear from Chris(ph) in Gainesville, Florida. Chris, what's your answer to the trivia question?

CHRIS (Caller): It may be too obvious, but my guess is Bill Clinton.

RUDIN: Well, Bill Clinton is on that list. I mean, Bill Clinton was defeated in 1980 by Frank White and beat him in 1982, but that is not the most-recent time. That's a good guess.

ROBERTS: Okay, let's try Richard(ph) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes, my guess was Governor Edwin Edwards.

RUDIN: Well, actually, Edwin Edwards was never defeated. What happened was he was term-limited in 1979. Dave Treen was elected governor in 1979, and then four years later, Edwin Edwards came back to recapture the election. Of course, he tried again and lost, but he never was beaten he never defeated the person who defeated him.

ROBERTS: So Ed Edwards in Louisiana not the right answer. Let's hear from Steve(ph) in Galloway, New Jersey. Steve, are you there?

STEVE (Caller): Yes, I am. My guess is Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

RUDIN: Well, Mitt Romney only ran for governor once, and he was elected in 2002, and that was the end of it. He did not seek re-election in 2006.

ROBERTS: And we have an email from Jason(ph) in the Virgin Islands who says Bill Clements of Texas, who beat Mark White.

RUDIN: Well, that is the correct answer. The last time a sitting governor was defeated and wound up beating his opponent in a rematch, Mark Clements Bill Clements, a Republican, was beaten in '82 by Mark White, beat him in the rematch in '86.

ROBERTS: So Jason in the Virgin Islands, we have his contact information. He will get a fabulous...

RUDIN: You don't need T-shirts in the Virgin Islands.

ROBERTS: You only need T-shirts in the Virgin Islands. You don't need ties in the Virgin Islands.

RUDIN: You don't need T-shirts at the West Hollywood Voyeur's Club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor and our political junkie, is going to stay with us here in Studio 3A, and coming up, we will talk to former Republican Congressman Lou Frey, Jr., about civility in politics. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

Our political junkie, Ken Rudin, is here in Studio 3A, as he is every Wednesday. While Congress debated a health care overhaul, discourse on Capitol Hill - well, it deteriorated somewhat. There were personal attacks. There was yelling. Republican Representative Randy Neugebauer, in a now much-talked-about moment, yelled out baby killer on the House floor. In short, there wasn't a whole lot of bipartisanship or respectful disagreement.

In just a minute, we'll talk to Lou Frey, Jr., who was a Republican congressman from 1969 to 1979. Now he's got the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government, which is designed to help promote civil engagement and civil political discourse. He's also the editor of a book called "Political Rules for the Road: Representatives, Senators and Presidents Share Their Rules For Success in Congress, Politics and Life."

If you're in elected office or you've been in elected office, what did you do to promote civility? What worked? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now by phone is former Congressman Lou Frey. It's good to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. LOU FREY, JR. (Republican, Florida; Founder, Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government; Editor, "Political Rules for the Road: Representatives, Senators and Presidents Share Their Rules For Success in Congress, Politics and Life"): Well, we're delighted, and of course, we love to pump the book, but I don't make any money out of it. It all goes to charity. So I can shamelessly say the truth about it loud and often.

ROBERTS: So as you watched the health care debate over the last month, what did you think about the level of discourse?

Mr. FREY: Well, the first thing, it worries you because one of the things when I was fortunate enough to be there, we had friends, and we had a middle aisle to work with. And even though I was in the minority, in its leadership, I was able to get legislation through because people would at least listen and would work with you.

And we just had our 15th semi-annual symposium, entitled "Congress Bipartisanship: Can We All Just Get Along?" And we had 800 young people there, mostly high school students. And it was very interesting the reaction of the young people to the problem that was going on, and we heard over and over again from them: Why can't people just agree? What's wrong? Why does everybody put a label on everybody else? Did they forget they took an oath to the Constitution, not to the political party.

And it wasn't just they were mad at the Democrats or just the Republicans. They were basically mad at not mad - they were just disappointed in a lot of people that were in office and really, I think, had forgotten why they were there, (unintelligible).

ROBERTS: What do you think accounts for the change in tone in the 30, 40 years since?

Mr. FREY: I think it started with Watergate. I think it started to drift down. One of the problems we have in our country is people don't understand our government.

Florida is 46th in the nation, for instance, in civic education. Forty percent of the people in Florida can't name the three branches of government. Seventy-three percent of the fourth-graders, in a multiple-choice test, can't pick out the Constitution as our basic legal document.

You know, there's just not an understanding of the government to begin with. It's very easy to be cynical about what goes on and how it goes on. And I think one of the big problems of the Congress now - and Norm Ornstein was on, we had a number of people from Washington on the panel is people don't know each other.

They truly do not know each other, and part of the problem is the schedule. You know, you fly up on Tuesday and vote in the afternoon, work Wednesday, go home Thursday. It's roll-call. It's no more a roll-call vote. You know, it's you stick the thing in in 15 minutes, you're in and out, and it's very easy, I think, in life, and I think the Internet has helped, to really say nasty things about people you don't know and put labels on them.

When we had some very significant and hard-fought debates in Vietnam, like Ab Mikva is one of my close friends and he and I didn't agree on it. I was in the Navy, I had had a part-time roommate shot down in '65, I had some strong feelings on it, but it never was personal.

We could go out after the debate and have a beer or go play paddleball or do something. The issue didn't go away, but it was never a personal issue, it was a philosophical issue. And we seem to have lost that.

Right now, if you don't agree with somebody, you put a label, or you name-call, or you use the N-word, or you spit on them, or you know, you do things that have no place, I don't think, in the political world.

But there is some hope. The Texas professor, the John Bond(ph), that came, who's supposedly the national expert, said that basically, we really, today, aren't much worse than we aren't the worst, by far. He said that if you go back to 1865 and try and track the thing, that it really isn't all that bad.

And he also pointed out that the job of political parties is to win, not to be bipartisan. In my book, one of the...

ROBERTS: Although comparing favorably to 1865, when the country was in Civil War, doesn't necessarily seem like that big an accomplishment.

RUDIN: But Congressman...

Mr. FREY: Well, that, you know, that was there were instances, but he tracked it from there, and he showed us the different polls and so forth, showed us that while it's bad, it isn't it's been worse at other times. The only time he said we had bipartisanship in the last 100 years was in the 1950s and the 1960s. He said there was that was the only real time he felt there was true bipartisanship.

And he I think all the speakers in that, hopes there's bipartisanship. The answer is now, there probably isn't, but don't give up the ship. You're getting a lot of newer and younger people in, who I think, long for some of those days, and maybe the health care bill was the bottom of the barrel, and we're going to start back again.

RUDIN: Well, Congressman, explaining on this - extending on this for a little bit, you talk about the '60s. As much as there was criticism about socialism regarding Medicare, still Republicans voted for Medicare. Bipartisan there was bipartisan support for the war in Vietnam, as well as bipartisan opposition to the war in Vietnam.

But here, you had this historic health care vote where not a single Republicans in the House or the Senate voted for it. I mean, that's never been seen before.

Mr. FREY: Yeah, I'm not arguing about that. I'm just telling you that when you look at it, and this gentleman supposedly is one of the experts on it, he will point out a whole bunch of things of where there wasn't real, true bipartisanship and where there was a lot of a lot of people didn't like each other. But as he pointed out and several others did, the job of the political party is to win. And it's easier for the people who are not the leaders in the political party to be bipartisanship than it is, for particularly, the leader of a political party.

So, you know, - and we can talk about - it's interesting to look at it philosophically. We can look back on our experiences in it when, because, you know, we've been around for a while and that.

It was a lot more fun to be in the Congress. You had a lot more friends. You did a lot of things together in the Congress. And I think, to a certain extent, many of us really didn't feel we'd taken an oath to one political party or the other. We felt a little more freedom in how we were voting. And of course, you know, for many, many years, the Democrats ran everything. So the issue of who was in control never came up. That makes things a lot more dicey, when you're talking, boy, if I do this vote or do something, it can cost my party the thing, and I'd much rather be a chairman than a ranking member.

RUDIN: Congressman, your book quotes about 170 former members of Congress about how to get along in Congress, what should be done, what lessons they've learned. If you are a young person - you quote young people here - if you're a young person, and you want to make a different in the Senate or in the House, why would you run for Congress at all? Why would you run for this office if so much is so partisan, and things cannot get done?

Mr. FREY: Well, Bill Frenzel(ph) said politics ain't bean bags. And you know, I've often said if you don't like the sight of blood, especially your own, stay out of it. But there is nothing, I don't think in the world, there is no place in the world you can have such an impact on issues for the good or for the bad. This is the big leagues, and to play in the big leagues, you usually have to pay a price, whether it's baseball or whether it's in politics.

And so the fact that it's tough right now, well, that's just the way it is. It's my grandson I played baseball. My grandson just got a scholarship to BC, you know, and a lot of times, you get some pitchers who will throw it by you, but that doesn't mean you quit. You hang in there, and you try and get a hit.

So there's nothing like it. You know, to me, the House is somewhat like a cathedral. Pat Cafferty(ph) said, you know, when we were talking about the rules, that when he went in there, he felt like he was literally walking in a cathedral and that he felt that what he was about was something out of the ordinary.

And I think there are a number of people who, in the book and that, talked about that. Gerry Ford, for instance, said one of his rules and they're not just rules. There are vignettes about them. He said do what's best for the country, no matter the cost personally. And then he wrote about why he pardoned Richard Nixon.

And of course, it was very interesting to me because I was a rather new member of the Republican leadership. I'd been a prosecutor, and I argued with the president about pardoning Nixon when he did. I pleaded with him to wait after the midterm elections and pardon because I said if you pardon him now, Mr. President, you're going to kill the Republican Party, and you're going to cost yourself the election.

And of course, he pardoned him, he killed the Republican Party, and he cost himself the election, but in retrospect, you know, you have to admire what he did. You have to be delighted that the Kennedy Institute gave him their annual award, and as much as I love the president and respect and that, I still personally think that he could have waited to pardon them. But I mean, you know, when you talk about young people coming in that, I think they got to know why they're there and what they want to do and what they believe inside, because, boy, with the press today, with all the different aspects, you know, you really get beat up and down and you can't answer everything.

You know, you got to be able to look in the mirror in the morning, that's what Elizabeth Holtzman said. She said, her answer to all the problems was could she look in the mirror in the morning and do something that wouldn't her parents wouldn't be ashamed of.

ROBERTS: Let's take some calls. This is Dan(ph) in Newfane, Vermont. Dan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

DAN: I served on the board of selectmen in my town for three years and I'm definitely on the progressive side of things and the other folks on my board were - it changed from year to year, but there are lots of conservatives on that board. But the interesting thing is when we run for local office, we do it in order to try to take care of the business of the town. And in fact, on our ballot sheets, it doesn't even say what party we're a member of.

So when we go to those meetings even though - I mean, I am the person that initiated Vermont's impeachment of George Bush and, you know, my other board members did not agree with that at all, but that was a separate they were -when we went into a board meeting, we were able to put those differences aside and we would look at the you know, with what do roads needs, what does this bridge needs, how are we going to deal with this problem, how are we going to settle this zoning dispute, whatever it might be. And it's because our ideology - we were every single person on that board was willing to have their ideology take a backseat to the facts at hand.

So if your if there were facts that contradicted my ideology or my opponent's - if you want to put that word in - ideology, we didn't let our ideology stop us from acknowledging the facts. And I think that's what's changed. When the purpose of the Democrats and Republicans, sadly, you know, your fellow just a moment ago talking about this is the big leagues - well, it's the big leagues, but the purpose of the game is to get reelected and is to have their party in power. The purpose of the game is not to govern well.

And on the local level, the purpose of the game is still to govern well, and that's the mindset that people go into when they're running for office. When your purpose is simply to put your party in power, there's no possible way that that can be good for the common will.

ROBERTS: Dan, thank you so much for your call.

Mr. FREY: Yeah. And I'd like to respectfully disagree. I don't think he was listening. I didn't say it was the big leagues in term getting election. I was talking of the ability to have an effect on this country, and every person in this country, right? You know, starting cancer research, having the EPA -there's many things that you can do in a positive way.

I would agree with him about the fact that your philosophy, you ought to look in it. But on the other hand, if you looked at things and that and you believe in something, I think there are votes you should be willing to leave office, whether it's a local office or national office. There's votes you should stand up on and say, look, this is what I believe. I don't care what I'm offered or anything else. This is where I'm coming from. This is where I'm drawing the line.

And that happened in our country a number of times over the years, maybe not as much as we'd like to recently, but I still think that's the basic way the Congress should act.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from David(ph) in Middleborough, Massachusetts. David, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. The gentleman preceding me kind of covered some of the stuff that I wanted to talk. I was a local board of health member, but - and we didn't really get political on that board. We were looking at trash disposal and waste water treatment, that kind of thing. And we held it pretty well there and we didn't have a lot of argument within the town.

But it looks like our elected officials in the at the Washington level and to a lesser extent at the state level, although not true in Massachusetts, it's a battle and they've forgotten that they were there to get things done. They just if, you know, getting reelected means that and putting my party in power, they're not doing anything. They're not doing anything for the good of the country. It's all for the good of the party or the good for me, and that's where I see us going down the tubes.

ROBERTS: David, thanks for your call.

DAVID: I'll take your comment off the air.

ROBERTS: We also have...

Mr. FREY: That's pretty hard to argue with. Its a I think, many of the people in the rules and that like Jack Edwards, you may remember from Alabama, he said respect the sincerely held positions that your colleagues have on the issues. And civility is the glue that holds the House and the Senate together. I think we're all struggling to find out how to make it better, how to maybe return to some of the time we had when a Jerry(ph), when Tip O'Neill and Bob Michael would go out and play golf together and talk and then fight on the floor.

The issues are certainly complex, but they haven't changed over the years, basically. And I still think that the Congress, despite the 17 percent approval rating they've had and that, is still an incredible institution. Sometimes, the people don't live up to it, but we've been given something that is very dear and sacred. And I hope we just don't get to the point where it becomes meaningless.

ROBERTS: And we have an email from Chris(ph) in Bainbridge, Ohio, who says, assuming the politicians of today are very similar to politicians of the past -whether that's good or bad - maybe the current incivility is more reflective of the public's acceptance of incivility. When Joe Wilson erupted during the state of the union, there was a short period of outrage and then shortly afterward donations started flowing in from Republicans who were happy with him. They also equally flowed in to his opponent's campaign chest. But what do you make of that point, Lou Frey, that it's not necessarily the civil discourse, but how much voters are willing to put up with it?

Mr. FREY: You know, we live in a different era. I was the ranking member of the Communications Committee and was guilty for letting cable get going and so forth, and now we have all these stations and everything and, you know, everybody is competing for ratings. People you get more notice yelling at somebody than you do otherwise. And we've lost, I think, to a certain extent the common decency and the manners that go along with it.

I don't think that's an excuse though for members in terms of their actions. You know, I believe there's a right and wrong and the people that do that there's no place to do that. It doesn't have a part. I don't care whether, you know, you can get anonymous emails and all those kind of thing we get today, that still doesn't make it right. I think, to a certain extent, that maybe encourages some people, but I don't like it. I think it's really wrong. And whether it's a Republican or Democrat who does it, I think they should be justly criticized.

ROBERTS: Lou Frey Jr. is a former Republican representative and the founder of the Lou Frey Institute for Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida. The book is called "Political Rules of the Road: Representatives, Senators and Presidents Share their Rules for Success in Congress, Politics and Life." He joined us from our his office in Orlando. Thank you so much for being here today.

Mr. FREY: Thank you very much. And my quickly, my two rules are: If you got to explain you're in trouble, ask Tiger Woods, and secondly, don't get in a fight with the press. And they've worked pretty well over the years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Words to live by.

Ken Rudin, our political junkie, is going to stay with us for the hour. Coming up, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley will join us to give us a progress report on President Obama's ambitious policy agenda.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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ROBERTS: The last few weeks have been busy for President Obama: Congress passed his health care overhaul, he took a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan, made headway on a nuclear arms deal with Russia, met with Israel's prime minister, he signed a law boosting government-backed student loans, and today, the president announced plans for more domestic offshore drilling for oil.

Joining me and NPR political editor Ken Rudin is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. He traveled with the president to Afghanistan a few days ago. It's good to have you with us, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rebecca. When you say it that way, it does sound like a busy few weeks.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, I hope you have been able to get some sleep. That was quite a quick turnaround to Afghanistan. What do you think the president accomplished?

HORSLEY: Well, he had two missions when he went. One was to say thank you to the U.S. troops, and he certainly did that. The more challenging and daunting task was to try to persuade Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, to take some more steps to clean up corruption in his own government. I think the results there are hard to test this time. It's not the first time that the U.S. has made those kinds of demands on Karzai only to be disappointed.

ROBERTS: And was this a - distract Americans from what's going on in the capital trip or was it actually advancing an agenda?

HORSLEY: I think it was more the latter. I don't think the president is terribly interested in distracting Americans from what's going on right now because the White House is pretty happy with the way the winds have been blowing in the last couple of weeks. As you say, they managed to pass the health care bill, which had been the president's number one domestic priority. They made some tangible progress on one of his key foreign priorities of fighting nuclear proliferation with a new arms control deal with the Russians. Next week, the president's off to Prague to sign that deal, and then he's going to be hosting a nuclear deterrence summit here in Washington. So I think they're feeling pretty good about the way things are going and not just trying to pull a sleight of hand.

ROBERTS: And what did the president say today about offshore drilling?

HORSLEY: Well, he's opening up a limited area of the Outer Continental Shelf to offshore drilling. And he's trying to position this as part of what Republican John McCain described as an all-of-the-above energy strategy. In other words, it's not drill, baby, drill, but one piece of a broader energy package.

Now, of course, the headline that we're all going to focus on is the increase in offshore drilling, something that he sort of pooh-poohed as a candidate for the White House. But he's also talking about the other elements to the policy which include, for example, more stringent fuel efficiency standards so that cars have to milk more miles out of every gallon of gasoline, increased hybrids in the federal government's own fleet as sort of an example to American consumers about trying to shop around for cars that get a lot of gas get a lot of miles to the gallon.

And, of course, he has stressed green energy throughout his presidency. This is, in some ways, bait for Republicans, trying to win some support for a more comprehensive energy bill that would also address greenhouse gases.

KEN RUDIN: Scott, in Obama's efforts to reach out to both sides, he often has a tendency to disappoint both sides. And I think in this announcement today, he did say that he would not like parts of Alaska, Bristol Bay and ANWR would be off-limits to exploration while at the same time, he perhaps he opened up some more avenues of drilling to win Republican votes. But at the same time, Republicans don't seem too receptive to his climate bill. And the environmental groups, which, of course, supported him so strongly against the drill-baby-drill Republicans of 2008 seem to be disappointed as well. So he almost as he's reaching out to both sides, he seems to almost come away with little.

HORSELY: It's a very delicate balancing act that he's trying to achieve here. As you mention, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had sort of very faint praise for the president saying this was a step in the right direction to open the door to offshore drilling. But he called it a small step. The Republican whip in the house, Eric Cantor, said it was a good move to free up offshore drilling off Cantor's home state of Virginia. But he said it's too bad that all these other coastal states aren't going to have the same privilege. And so the administration should go much farther.

But Lindsey Graham, who has been the, kind of the Republican pivot person, issued a statement really with, you know, unadulterated praise for the president's move today. And, of course, Lindsey Graham is part of that trio, along with Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who are trying to come up with at least a semblance of bipartisanship around a comprehensive energy and climate bill.

RUDIN: And yet, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg called it kill, baby, kill. He said...

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RUDIN: ...this would kill jobs, kill marine life, kill the coastal communities. So there is a problem he'll have with the environmental left.

HORSLEY: Oh, yeah. The environmentalists were quick to pounce, calling it a throwback to the failed policies of the past, a disappointment for President Obama.

ROBERTS: And while this might be an effort to find some sort of bipartisan middle ground it's also in the context of, of course, the health care overhaul which was not at all bipartisan and things like recess appointments, which have a habit of ticking off the opposition.

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HORSLEY: Yes. Now with the recess appointments - and Ken has written about this on his blog. The Obama...

RUDIN: Can we talk a little bit more about my blog?

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HORSLEY: The Obama administration very self-consciously has said, we have made exactly the same number of recess appointments that former President Bush had made at the same point in his tenure, and also arguing that they have faced much more obstruction from Senate Republicans in trying to get their nominees into position. A lot of Obama nominees had been held up in the Senate, sometimes for genuine philosophical reasons - real opposition to those nominees - but often in order to advance completely unrelated causes, pet causes of various senators.

RUDIN: Scott, you've been watching the president closely. About two and a half months ago when Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, a lot of the Democrats were walking around with their heads down, the sky is falling. They felt that, you know, every Democrat is at risk. And now, the White House seems to be on an upswing. Do you see - do you - have you noticed any difference in the president's mood?

HORSLEY: Well, you know, the thing that's characteristic of both of this White House, and it was true of the Obama campaign as well, is these are folks who generally take the long view. They don't get terribly, terribly up when things are going their way. They don't get terribly down when things are moving against them because they realize that they're going to have a lot of ups and downs in the course of four years in the White House.

That said, even with the president's, you know, famous even keel, I think it's certainly true that they're pleased with the way things have been going in the last few weeks. much more so than they were around the middle of January.

ROBERTS: And what do you think kicked that off? Was it the health care overhaul?

HORSLEY: Definitely. And, you know, it's interesting, I mean, we were all set to head off to Indonesia and Australia for a foreign trip the weekend that the House finally passed the Senate bill and then the Senate passed the reconciliation measure to put the bow around the health care law. And on this short hop to Afghanistan, one of the president's advisers was talking to reporters and he said, can you imagine what would've happened if we'd actually gone to Australia and Indonesia? I mean, it's kind of remarkable how cancelling that trip put the president in position to enjoy all these victories.

ROBERTS: You mentioned the nuclear arms deal with Russia, those negotiations. Give us a quick recap of what happened there.

HORSLEY: Well, this is something that president and his counterpart, President Medvedev of Russia, had been working on for a long time, beginning last spring when they met in London at a G-20 meeting. Of course, President Obama, a year ago, had outlined a long-term vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. He doesn't necessarily expect to get there anytime soon.

But as a step in that direction, he has thought it important for the United States and Russia, who together have the vast majority of nuclear weapons, to show a good faith effort to the rest of the world by reducing their own nuclear stockpiles. And President Medvedev had agreed to that. They had both set their negotiators to work after a summit meeting in Moscow last summer. And they had hoped to have it all done before the old arms control treaty, the START Treaty from 1991, expired in early December.

They didn't get it done. There kept being delays. The Russians continued to express concerns about American missile defense systems which they thought, you know, if we're going to be cutting back our number of missiles and youre - at the same time, youre building a missile defense, that could really put us at a disadvantage.

But President Obama held fast. He didn't blink in the face of that Russian tough negotiating position. And with a telephone call last week after an earlier telephone call a couple of weeks earlier, they managed to get the deal done. And so, next week, we're going to have a signing ceremony in Prague just about a year to the day after the president gave that big speech where he talked about riding the world of nuclear weapons.

ROBERTS: He also seemed tough in his conversations with Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

HORSLEY: Yes, he did, although, it's sort of interesting - all those conversations were held out of sight. You know, when Netanyahu was here for a closed-door meeting with the president, there was none of the photo opportunity, there was none of the formal Rose Garden news conference that we often get with visiting foreign leaders and...

ROBERTS: Why is that, do you think?

HORSLEY: Well, I think the White House wanted to have a very tough conversation with the Israeli leader. On the one hand, they are adamant about saying that the United States' commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. But this is an administration that is clearly angered by Israel's movement on settlements in the disputed section of east Jerusalem and didn't want to do anything -didn't want to do any favors for Mr. Netanyahu in sort of the way that - the sort of public spectacle of the visit.

ROBERTS: So how would you sort of in a bigger picture characterize the administration's relationship with Israel?

HORSLEY: Well, the way the administration characterized it is, we are friends and sometimes - and we are, you know, fast and unshakeable friends, but that sometimes friends have to take a tough line with one another. And the administration, both the president himself and the secretary of state and the envoys, George Mitchell, have taken a very hard line that Israel, and in particular its expanded settlements in east Jerusalem, are unhelpful to the peace process.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Scott, yeah, obviously polls are so meaningless at this point because these numbers are so fleeting and they keep moving around so much. But I was struck by the fact that the Gallup poll, after - in the days after the health care victory, showed a pretty minimal bounce for the president and the Democrats.

HORSLEY: Yeah. You know, this health care victory - Americans do like winners. And it would've been worse for the president had the health care bill gone down to defeat. I think in the long term that would have been devastating for the administration and probably worse in the long run for the Democrats in Congress as well.

But this health care law is still very divisive. There is a good deal of opposition to it around the country, perhaps not a majority of opposition as maybe there was at the worst points for the health care proposal. But with so many people concerned about what this is going to mean for them, for their own policies, their own choice of doctors and so forth, despite all the reassurances from the administration, what is a legislative and political victory for this president just didn't translate into a huge bump in public support.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, if we're talking about him riding the momentum from that passage in order to press some other agenda items, there may yet be a political gain to be had.

HORSLEY: Well, and - some of this may also just reflect the way he's viewed in the Senate. I mean, he has certainly demonstrated to Senate Republicans and House Republicans as well that on those issues that he cares most about, he is going to go do the mat for them. And their idea that if we can beat him here we can stop him in his tracks may have backfired on them.

ROBERTS: And, Ken, you talked about how the momentum might have shifted back to the Democrats after a low point after the Scott Brown victory. But of course there's still quite a long way until November. What could make the Democrats lose that momentum and send it back to GOP?

RUDIN: Well, as Scott has reported all along, ultimately what's going to decide Democratic fortunes in November will be the state of the economy. Now, there may be a better jobs report coming out in next few days. But if the unemployment numbers are still hovering around 10 percent, you could - talk about health care all you want, but if people - economic future is threatened or their present is threatened, that's going to hurt the Democrats in November.

HORSLEY: And we're all going to be watching, of course, Friday, we get the latest jobs report from the Labor Department. Private economists were anticipating that report would show a net gain of 200,000 jobs for the month of March. That would be huge for the administration. That would be almost the first net gain wed seen since the beginning of 2008. There - we did see a small net gain last October, although it only came out when the numbers were revised. It didn't come out when the initial number was released. But to have any gain at all would be a plus for the administration. And a gain in the range of 200,000 would be a big swing. I mean, to go from losing jobs every month to gaining 200,000 would be big.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with new people being hired by the census, and those are temporary jobs that won't last. Some of it has to do with sort of making up for the jobs that didn't appear in February when they otherwise might have but for the bad weather. And then we got a sort of discouraging forecast -not forecast, a discouraging report today about private sector jobs in March from a private economic analyst, the hint that maybe that 200,000 forecast for Friday may be a little too optimistic. So we'll wait and see.

RUDIN: And remember what happened in the end of 1992. President Bush, the first President Bush, his economic policies were ridiculed and badgered for much of his term. But even though employment numbers seem to go - do better at the end of 1992, the perception out there was that the economics were so poor for the president that he never was able to benefit.

HORSLEY: Yeah. And the perceptions are going to be a telling thing, because we're not going to probably see a big drop in that unemployment rate of being close to 10 percent for a long time. I mean, the White House's own forecast see the unemployment rate staying pretty high all the way through this year, well past the November elections. But if they can get each month, month after month, a few hundred thousand jobs being created rather than month after month tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost, that would be - certainly it would help the perception for them. And they're going to be focusing, I think, on those jobs numbers rather than on the unemployment rate.

ROBERTS: And Scott, do you get the sense that this sort of burst-in ambition on the president's agenda is going to continue? Are there things next on his plate? Or is it sort of Easter egg roll and opening pitch time for a little bit?

HORSLEY: No. The president has big, big ambitions. Whether his congressional Democratic allies share those ambitions, we'll see. One thing that they really want to get done is an overhaul of the financial regulations. And that actually looks like it has a chance. There is while there havent been any Republicans voting for the proposal in the Senate thus far, there are at least Republicans talking about maybe being able to support it.

The president would also like to move ahead with a climate and energy bill, and that's what's behind this announcement today. That's a lot more doubtful.

ROBERTS: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joined us from our booth at the White House. Thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Great to be with you.

ROBERTS: And Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, our Political Junkie, joined us here in Studio 3A, as he does every Wednesday. You can download his podcast and read that famous blog at npr.org/junkie. Thanks, Ken.

RUDIN: Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, the national debt is $12 trillion. The government is on track for record spending this year. Former Senator Alan Simpson and NPR News analyst Ted Koppel on who's going to pay the bill. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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