Focus Grows On Dissension Within GOP

Republican leaders and activists meet this weekend in New Orleans to talk about the upcoming elections in 2010 and 2012. Also on the unofficial agenda is the future of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele who came under renewed scrutiny amid evidence of lavish spending by the committee, including a nearly $2,000 bill at a sex-themed nightclub in Los Angeles. Guest host Audie Cornish talks about the future of the GOP and the turmoil at the top with NPR news analyst Juan Williams and U.S. News and World Report Columnist Mary Kate Cary.

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

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

I'm Audie Cornish. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, NPR's award-winning Afghanistan bureau chief Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson shares some of the memorable moments from her reporting that war-torn country. And that's just ahead.

But, first, at the top of the political headlines today are two high-profile retirements. Liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has announced his resignation. He'd spoken recently about his desire to leave the court while President Obama is in office.

And House Democrat Bart Stupak will not seek reelection. Stupak is an anti-abortion Democrat for Michigan, who took a lot of heat for the deals he cut on the issue of abortion language in the health care overhaul legislation.

And also in the news, a resignation that has not happened. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is continuing to defend his post in the wake of reports that the RNC paid for a trip to sex-themed Los Angeles night club to woo donors. Steele has seen his chief of staff and one of his closest advisers resign in the aftermath of Bondage-Gate. It's one in a string of missteps and distractions that have dogged Steele during this time leading the RNC.

Joining us now to talk about these stories is NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Also with us is Mary Kate Cary, a former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush and former deputy director of communications for the RNC. She currently blogs for U.S. News & World Report. Welcome both of you.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Nice to be with you, Audie.

Ms. MARK KATE CARY (Writer, U.S. News & World Report): Thank you.

CORNISH: Juan, I want to start with you. The Stevens announcement isn't necessarily a surprise, but what can you tell us about the political implications of this retirement?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is intense because at this moment, as you know, President Obama has had some critical things to say about the conservatives on the Supreme Court. It's been an ongoing fuss and feud, especially with regard to a recent decision on political contributions. So here comes now an opportunity for the president to make an appointment. Is this - and it's replacing, of course, John Paul Stevens, who has been seen as the most liberal of the members of the Supreme Court, kind of the head of the liberal bloc, if you will, of votes on the court.

Does he make a decision here to put someone in place who would be a strong liberal, and who would, therefore, in the course of a nomination process, engage arguments over things like gay rights, Guantanamo Bay, campaign finance laws? Is this a moment where he wants that argument? Or does he choose someone who's more of a compromised choice?

So at the moment what the White House is looking at are some of the people that were also under consideration when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and confirmed for the court. And those people would include, according to what I'm hearing early, people like Diane Wood, who's now on the seventh circuit, Elena Kagan, who is the solicitor general of the United States, Janet Napolitano, who's the secretary of Homeland Security and maybe even Stanford law Professor Kathleen Sullivan.

CORNISH: I've also heard Merrick Garland, another federal judge...

WILLIAMS: That would be a compromised choice. He's on the D.C. circuit. Yeah.

CORNISH: Now, Mary Kate, I want to take this other retirement in the House with Bart Stupak, because he's saying he will not be going for reelection. And what does this say about the state of things for congressional Democrats, especially Blue Dogs and moderates like Stupak?

Ms. CARY: Well, I think with both of these retirements, they present an opportunity for the Republicans to try and appeal to the independent voters. I think with the Stevens replacement, Republicans have an opportunity to say what they stand for. And if there is a good story for some of these candidates that are being, you know, batted around on the shortlist, it's about an opportunity to say this is what we stand for. This is what we believe in.

With Sonia Sotomayor, for example, she had a great life story. Republicans should celebrate things like that and talk about the women who are on the shortlist and try and be welcoming, while also still standing for what they believe in. Same with Stupak. This is an opportunity for the party to talk about where it wants to go in the future with the pro-life vote, with independents, things like that. It's a great moment in the debate, I think, and opportunity for both sides to appeal to the middle.

CORNISH: At the same time, we've got many months between now and the midterm elections, and it's plenty of time to have a bruising Supreme Court nomination discussion.

WILLIAMS: I think it you know, the potential is there for a very bruising confirmation discussion. And the question is whether or not the base of the Republican Party - because the party is now in position to filibuster this if they choose. Remember that with Scott Brown's election, they have 41.

CORNISH: Right.

WILLIAMS: So, the Democrats can't force this through. So the question is: Are the Republicans going to simply say, you know, when it comes to gun rights, when it comes to partial-birth abortion, we are going to stand tall and make a fight out of this. Or do they decide, no, as Mary Kate was suggesting, do we want to appeal to the middle here?

CORNISH: And I want to talk about Republicans a little bit more. Mary Kate, the last time you were on our program, Michael Steele was in hot water for promoting his book, and at the time critics were going on about him doing this at this expense of his job as the RNC leader. And now he's dealing with complaints about, sort of, fiscal responsibility, lavish spending. And someone who's once worked in the RNC, is there any precedent for the kind of discord that he's sort of been dealing with almost constantly since he was appointed?

Ms. CARY: Well, he - when I was there, I worked for Haley Barbour, who I think is one of the model RNC chairs of all time. But people criticized Haley, too. There's always something. You can't please everybody. And the bottom line with Michael Steele is he's winning elections and he's raised $100 million. And there's a lot of this sort of Joe Biden type of gaffs that happen. But that's -you know, that doesn't seem to be that important.

Some of these in the states out in the hinterlands, for example, I talked to my mother-in-law in Missouri, said, what do you think about Michael Steele? She's a pretty regular Republican voter. She said: Remind me who Michael Steele is again? You know, so, I think there's, you know, this Stevens thing is going to take Michael Steele off the front page, I suspect.

CORNISH: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about GOP leadership and the future of RNC chairman Michael Steele. I'm joined by U.S. News & World Report columnist Mary Kate Cary and NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Juan, I want to continue this discussion about Steele, because the Republican Party chairman in North Carolina, Tom Fetzer, actually has gone public and called for Steele's resignation and sort of implied that, hey, other people feel the same way. They just don't want to look bad saying it. I mean, how significant is that?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's in combination with people like Karl Rove, who was President Bush's - George W. Bush's top political adviser and Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council who represents a lot of values voters on the Republican side, saying they don't want money going to the RNC while Steele is chair. And, of course, you know, you have to also factor in race here. I don't think there's any getting away from the idea that he is the first black man, or first black person to be the head of the Republican National Committee.

And this week, of course, he was on TV and said that like Barack Obama, he claims that because of his race, he has a very slim margin for success or failure.

CORNISH: And, actually, the former RNC chairman, current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour actually sort of had a rebuttal to that. I want to play a clip of something he said on CNN in response to this comment from Michael Steele.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): When you're a fat, redneck like me and got an accent like mine, you can say, well, they're going to hold me to higher standard. In fact, I don't think anybody ever held me to a higher standard than I held myself.

CORNISH: Mary Kate Cary, as usual, Haley Barbour is always good with a quip. But, you know, is what he's saying true? I mean, or is what Steele's saying have some merit?

Ms. CARY: Well, Haley makes a good point, that we should all hold ourselves to the highest standards we can. And, you know, I think to go down that path, if you continue it, there's never been a woman who was the head of the RNC or the DNC, and they'd be held to a different standard, too. So there's a lot of this going on, and I think that with this Supreme Court nomination, it's going to steer the conversation back to: What do we stand for? What are the values that are important to us? And get away from these other discussions about spending and strip clubs and all this sort of thing, that it's a great opportunity for the Republican Party - not only with the independents, but with the Tea Partiers, who are very concerned about liberty and the role of government and the Supreme Court decisions. It's a great opportunity for a wonderful debate about what the two parties stand for.

CORNISH: You talk about the Tea Partiers, and I'm also thinking of the political action committee American Crossroads that Karl Rove and others are involved in. Governor Barbour has talked about the Governors Association, maybe raising its own fund and helping out candidates. At a certain point, is Michael Steele, I mean, whether he steps down or not, like, kind of irrelevant? I mean, is he going to be - is it going to be a marginalization by the time we get to January and the end of his term?

Ms. CARY: I think so. I mean, just in the last couple years, look at the difference in American politics with Facebook and Twitter and all these blogs and the Tea Partiers, the town halls - it's a very fluid situation that wasn't that way five years ago.

WILLIAMS: You know, I don't agree with that, Mary Kate, because I think that the party offers structure and a direct way to raise money from people who have given money before.

Ms. CARY: True.

WILLIAMS: And so when you're looking at something - and I think Michael Steele, if he was in on our conversation, would say, hey, wait a minute. Look at the record. Look at the fact that we won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and then we won with Scott Brown in Massachusetts, really upending -that was an upset victory.

CORNISH: Right.

WILLIAMS: And he, the party, gave a tremendous amount of money. Michael Steele does well with low-level donors. Some of the big boys have been kind of put off by the things that have been going on, some of these antics. But I think for Steele, it comes down to: Is he raising money? Answer: Yes. I mean, the DNC outraised him in this last quarter, but not by...

CORNISH: Which is saying something, considering the health care debate.

WILLIAMS: Right. Because Republicans had been energized to give money at this point. But, yeah, but the DNC is also doing very well, turns out. But Michael Steele has nothing to apologize for, compared to any other party chairman. And so, right now, I think his saving grace is, look at the money, look at the victories. But you can't get away from the racial angle on this, Audie. It's going to be an issue, and I think if independent voters, you know, and even moderate Republicans think, oh, there's something racial about this and the Tea Party, that could be off-putting. That could slow Republican momentum going into the fall.

CORNISH: And I want to jump in here quickly. We have a minute left, and I want to just talk about Governor McDonnell in Virginia with his gaff with Confederate History Month and him initially omitting slavery as part of it, and then apologizing. Juan, we've got a minute, is this something that could hurt the party or McDonnell?

WILLIAMS: I think it can. I think that, you know, when you stir up something that emotional, that polarizing, it has danger to it. Doug Wilder, the former governor who's black, said, you know, he didn't understand that omission. I think he's since then said that he's forgiven the governor. But I think that the idea was that the governor was appealing to his conservative base, gut doing so in such a way that it was off-putting, again, not only to African-Americans or minorities in the state, reminding him of the macaca thing that happened...

CORNISH: With George Allen during his...

WILLIAMS: Yeah. But I think it's off-putting to some people who are just independents and who were open to this governor.

CORNISH: Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: My take on it is it was a staff-level mistake that was wrong and should've been caught. But it's understandable, because it was in response to a request from an outside group for a proclamation. It was not a speech by the governor. It was not something he wrote personally. And I think that is the difference. He wasn't on his computer writing the proclamation himself. And as soon as the mistake was found, he fixed it. It's a rookie mistake. I think he should just put it behind him.

CORNISH: Mary Kate Cary's a columnist for U.S. News & World Report. And Juan Williams is a news analyst for NPR. They both joined me here in our Washington studio. Thank you both.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Audie.

Ms. CARY: Thanks.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.