Gulf Oil Spill's Effect On Midterm Election

Renee Montagne talks to NPR's Cokie Roberts about the effect of the blown-out oil well on the congressional races. Roberts also talks about the influence of the Tea Party movement on those elections.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

The Gulf oil well stayed sealed shut over the weekend, although officials detected a seep on the seabed, near BP's broken oil well. The government has told BP its test can continue for another 24 hours. Also, the company announced, today, that it has spent almost $4 billion in its cleanup effort. We're going to turn, now, from the oil well disaster, to the political disaster that the Republicans are hoping the spill will create for President Obama and his party.

NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts joins us now to discuss this. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The oil spill in the Gulf, of course it continues to be a political problem for the Obama administration. What are the Republicans saying about it lately?

ROBERTS: Well, they're trying to find a way to use it for political purposes and to make political points. Here's Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell yesterday on CNN.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY, Minority Leader): This is mainly a failure of the administration. BP caused the spill. It's BP's responsibility to plug the leak. The federal government is in charge of trying to keep that oil off of the shores of the United States. It took the administration 70 days to order skimmers down to the Gulf.

ROBERTS: Now, what this is playing into is this sense that, you know, nothing is working right. The administration is not getting the job done. And, of course, when you've got bad economic times and people are unhappy, thats pretty much how people feel. They dont like anything coming out of Washington, and accusing the president of being slow to respond to the oil plays into that.

It also somewhat counteracts what we're hearing a lot, as a Democratic theme these, which is do you really want to go back to the bad old days of George Bush.

MONTAGNE: And we heard that theme from several Democratic Party leaders on the Sunday talk shows. How effective is that line likely to be?

ROBERTS: I can't imagine that it will be effective. Elections are about the future, not the past. And midterm elections, especially after a president's first two years tend to be about voters telling the president where he's gone wrong and where he's gone right.

So even though the Republicans rank lower in the polls, in terms of who voters think can solve the problems, they still say they prefer somebody new to their current member of Congress. And, you know, thats a problem, obviously, for Democrats.

What is heartening to them is the fact President Obama's approval numbers -though they are low - track almost exactly with President Reagan's through his first two years in office, and the Republicans didnt do so badly in that 1982 election when there was 10 percent unemployment.

Vice-President Biden, said yesterday, he's confident the Democrats will win both the House and the Senate. He's counteracting some complaints of congressional Democrats that the White House is not doing enough for their re-election, which is pretty classic when you're in a tense time.

MONTAGNE: And the Tea Party Movement. It's a new element effecting this election cycle. Over the weekend, we heard various responses to the NAACP's demand that the Tea Party Movement repudiate what it was referring to as racist elements in its mist - midst.

ROBERTS: You know, Renee, I find it curious note - that no one really wants to take the Tea Party on. McConnell said he didnt want to get into that argument. Biden said I dont believe the Tea Party is a racist organization. Even the NAACP's Ben Jealous, yesterday on "Face the Nation," tried to downplay his own organization's resolution, saying it was just one of many and not all that important. But it did have an affect.

The representative of the Tea Party, David Webb, said on the same program, that the national movement had expelled one of its most activist groups, the Tea Party Express, because of a racist letter by one of its leaders.

It's very interesting, because everybody but the NAACP is dancing around this. And Sarah Palin denounced the NAACP for doing it. The Tea Party Movement itself has decided it has to deal with what are racist elements in its midst. And Ill be curious to see what effect it has electorally.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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