Loyal Opposition: Dems Weigh Party Challenges

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President Obama says he's "eager to hear good ideas wherever they come from" and expressed a willingness to work with Republicans after the GOP claimed control of the U.S. House of Representatives in midterm elections. But GOP leaders vow to roll back the size of government and the president's signature health care law. Host Michel Martin discusses the impact of the elections on the Obama administration with Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report and Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, it was a theatrical work that defied category and brought a new generation of black women to the theater. It was called "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough." And now it is the inspiration for a new film by Tyler Perry that opens tomorrow. One of its many stars, Kimberly Elise, is here with us today, along with playwright Ntozake Shange. Those conversations are later in the program.

But first, we have more on those midterm elections that rocked many people's worlds, including President Barack Obama's. Here he is at his press conference yesterday.

President BARACK OBAMA: What yesterday also told us is that no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here, that we must find common ground in order to set - in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges.

MARTIN: But is common ground what the Republican leadership will be looking for when the GOP takes control of the House in January? Here's the likely speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, talking about his priorities.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): The American people are concerned about the government takeover of health care. I think it's important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity and replace it with commonsense reforms that will bring down the cost of health insurance in America.

MARTIN: With these two very different perspectives about the way forward, we decided it was time to hear from some critical thinkers from our ongoing series, The Loyal Opposition. That's the way we've been marking President Obama's progress through the eyes of his more pointed critics on both the left and the right. Now, there's been so much talk about whether this is a conservative watershed moment that we decided to go in the other direction and ask our progressives for their views.

So we've called Glen Ford, executive editor of the online publication, Black Agenda Report, and Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Welcome to you both - or welcome back, I should say.

Mr. GLEN FORD (Executive Editor, Black Agenda Report): Thanks for the invitation.

Ms. ELLIE SMEAL (President, Feminist Majority Foundation): Great talking to you this morning.

MARTIN: So one of the things that I've been intrigued by is this question of whether the midterm elections are the result of differing opinions about policy. Or are these different opinions, or is this a result of a communications or strategic failures on the part of the president and the Democrats in Congress? So, is this a question - so, Glen Ford, let me ask you this first. Is this about a disagreement over exactly what government is for and supposed to do? Or did the president and Democrats just not communicate well about what they were doing?

Mr. FORD: Well, I know that it's no longer fashionable to talk about race. But I consider this to be a manifestation of a white backlash that all this talk about cutting back on government is actually a reaction to who is seen to be governing.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

Mr. FORD: I think it's quite obvious. This is the essence of the rise of the Tea Party, to which four out of 10 voters expressed sympathy, if not direct allegiance. And the Tea Party is a manifestation of a resurgent white nationalism, which used to be the dominant ideology of the United States. I think we're seeing a kind of reversion to type.

MARTIN: Ellie Smeal, what do you say about that?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, I think race does play a huge part. There's no question about that. But I also say the economy does. And I really don't think this was so much a vote for the Republicans, rather it's a frustration with the economy and it's - it was an anti-who-was-in-governing. And if you look at, you know, who won and who lost, it's in some ways the only way you can explain it.

Because if you look at the Blue Dog caucus, who would be more conservative, more in line with what the Republicans are doing, they suffered the greatest losses. Forty-eight percent of its membership lost. But if you look at the progressive caucus, the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, they only had a five percent loss. So the reality I think is that what you have here is the dominating - the dominant factor is the unemployment and the economy. But I do believe, also, race plays a part.

MARTIN: How does race play a part, in your view, Ellie Smeal?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, I think that what he just said. I think you look at the Tea Party, there is a - no question, a racial element. And, frankly, the Republican strategy has been the so-called Southern strategy, which is code for race. And it's been like that for years - I mean, decades. You look at where the strength is. And they have been playing to the whites of the South, fear factor. Fear was used largely in this whole thing.

Now, also, let's face it, some of the wins - and there were wins on Tuesday for Dems. Look what happened in California. And that was also a backlash of the Latino vote that made sure it went over two-to-one in favor of the Democrats, Jerry Brown and Boxer. Plus the women's vote played a very important part in that victory all up and down in California.

MARTIN: But, Glen, let me just press you on this question. I mean, one does not negate the other. I'll concede you that. But then if it's race that's the predominant factor to you, then how come the Republicans went and recruited so many candidates of color like Tim Scott in South Carolina, Allen West in Texas, Susana Martinez in New Mexico?

Mr. FORD: Republicans...

Ms. SMEAL: Well, they know they have a race problem. They know they have a -they know what's happening, and so they did some isolated recruiting. But basically, the factor of a racial divide is here. There's no question about that. I don't want to say it's the dominant factor of this race, though. I still think the economy was the dominant factor.

MARTIN: Okay, Glen?

Mr. FORD: Well, race is the backdrop, the background for American politics. But of course we have this great recession. And the fact of the matter is that in the absence of a counter-veiling, overarching, national mission, the country does revert to type, does revert to racial-type politics. And Barack Obama was unable to ignite a counter-veiling, national, overriding mission. Health care was certainly not it. A program to put the country to work might have been it, but he did not ignite that kind of call.

MARTIN: Let me just clarify myself - let me correct myself, Allen West is in Florida, not Texas. But I did think it was significant because these are two candidates of color who were going to Congress from Southern states that haven't sent African-American Republicans to Congress since the Reconstruction Era. So I just thought that was noteworthy to mention.

Talking and just picking up on a point that both of you were talking about, the whole question of, is it priorities, is it communication, is it backlash, this is some exit polling data analyzed by the Associated Press. They say that almost eight in 10 Republican voters want to repeal the health care measure. An equal share of Democrats want to expand it or leave it in place. Almost six in 10 Democratic voters said they wanted Congress to focus first on spending to create jobs, making it their top priority. But for Republican voters, nearly half want to cut the budget deficit. That is the top priority.

The question I have is: Where do you compromise in that? Where is the compromise, Glen Ford, that the president says that he is open to?

Mr. FORD: The last thing that we want to see is compromise. This president has been accommodating to Republicans when it was not necessary. We all knew the history. The worst thing that could happen would be for Barack Obama to start mollifying and accommodating these troglodytes once he gets in office - once they get in office and bring on a second Clinton-type regime, a roll back of accommodation.

MARTIN: All right...

Mr. FORD: In fact, what we have said at Black Agenda Report is that the best thing that we believe can happen would be that the Republicans in their arrogance and triumphalism force the issue, force Barack Obama to stand up and act like has some spine.

MARTIN: And Ellie Smeal, I want to hear from you on this also. I just want to throw out a couple more bits of information here, that the gender gap of course played a major role in 2008 with women voting for Democrats 56 percent of the time compared to Republicans 42 percent of the time. But in 2010, the split was 49/48 percent for Democrats for women. Women gave Democrats only a very slight edge in this election. Also, independent voters moved heavily to the Republican side. So, where's the compromise going to come from? Or should it? As Glen said, it shouldn't.

Ms. SMEAL: Well, let's face it - is that there was even - just about even Democratic/Republican voting, with the swing being independents in this race because in off year races the electorate gets smaller. In 2012, the electorate will be much bigger. And we can't forget another thing that's happening in these off-year elections. You have gerrymandering. And so even if - it makes the conservatives bigger than they really are because of the very big gerrymandering(ph) that undercounts, really, urban populations.

And people, I mean you've got a Republican stronghold in very small states, and yet California, which represents about 12 percent of the population also gets two senators. And so you have the effect of, I would say, gerrymandering, which is very racially driven.

MARTIN: Okay. But, you know, there's a saying, you've got to be good enough to beat the ref. I mean if you know that that's a pattern and if you know it's going to emerge year by year, then the question is, what are you going to do about it strategically?

Ms. SMEAL: Oh, as I said...

MARTIN: And I mean, just according to the polls, like, turnout for African-Americans and for young voters declined from 13 to 10 percent and from 10 to 5 percent of eligible voters in each category. I mean you can make an argument that that's about outreach. You can make an argument about the policy - the policies weren't there that attracted them to the polls. So, Ellie?

Ms. SMEAL: Right. But you also can make the argument that one of the reasons is that even though we looked at the highly contested races, which were about 100, right? Out of 435 in Congress, most of the races aren't contested. So it's very hard to get a big turnout in places where you know who the winner's going to be beforehand.

MARTIN: Okay. Ellie, we have less than a minute left. What's the way forward here from the standpoint of the issues you care most about?

Ms. SMEAL: I think it's organizing, organizing, organizing. We can't let this ever happen again 'cause we can't go backwards, especially on major issues of our day. And they want to put their head in the sand, they want to deny global warming, they want to deny women's rights, civil rights, et cetera, as if it never happened. We can't go backwards.

MARTIN: Well, Glen Ford, I gave you the first word, so I'm going to give Ellie Smeal the last word. She is the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. She's talking to us from her office in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington. Glen Ford is executive editor of the progressive online publication Black Agenda Report. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. I thank you both so much for joining us once again for our loyal opposition roundtable.

Ms. SMEAL: Thank you.

Mr. FORD: Thank you.

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