Michael Steele Wants GOP To Give Him Another Chance

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Tell Me More discusses two political stories making headlines today. A federal district judge in Virginia has ruled that a key provision of President Obama's health care law is unconstitutional, setting the stage for a judicial battle. And Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has announced that he will seek reelection as the party's leader. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mary Kate Cary, columnist for US News and World Report and former speechwriter for President George H-W Bush and former Democratic pollster and Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies president Cornell Belcher.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

On the program today, it's time to make those lists and check them twice. And while you might know which family member is getting what, how much for the hairdresser, the mail carrier, the UPS guy who always remembers to put your boxes behind the holly bush, not in front of it. And why does that whole tipping thing give us a holiday headache? We'll try to ease your pain with our money coach. That is later.

But first to politics, where lawmakers are feeling the pain or trying to cram in as much as possible before their planned holiday break, including that tax cut package that has many liberal Democrats upset. Also yesterday, a federal district court judge in Virginia ruled that a key provision of President Obama's health care law is unconstitutional, setting the stage for what could be a long judicial battle over the law.

And in yet more political news, Michael Steele, that controversial chair of the Republican National Committee, announced that he will in fact seek reelection. And if all that wasn't enough, perhaps you caught Congressman John Boehner. He's the incoming speaker of the House - expected to be elected as speaker come January. He was showing his, shall we say, emotional side on "60 Minutes" Sunday night.

To make sense of all this, we've called on Mary Kate Cary. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News & World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Also with us, Cornell Belcher. He's a Democratic pollster who worked for the Barack Obama presidential campaign. He's the lead pollster for the Democratic National Committee and president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist, U.S. News & World Report): Good to see you.

Mr. CORNELL BELCHER (Democratic Pollster): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with the ruling against the health care package. As we've mentioned, federal judge Henry Hudson ruled that the government overstepped its bounds in requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance. And that's when that part of the package kicks in, in the year 2014. The question about the decision's impact was addressed yesterday by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. I'll just play a short clip of what he had to say.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I do think it is important that even this judge ruled that the bill continues to move forward in terms of its implementation. And obviously the individual responsibility aspects of this legislation weren't to go into effect until 2014, so there's some time to work this through.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that neither of you is a lawyer, but I did want to ask about the politics of this. Mary Kate, I'll start with you and ask, why was this suit brought to begin with? Why do some people evidently feel so strongly about this that they're challenging this in court?

Ms. CARY: I think the problem is that there are concerns about the cost of it at the state level and this individual mandate, whether states can afford it or not. Nikki Haley, the incoming governor from South Carolina - that all the incoming governors got brought in to meet with the cabinet and the president this week - and she sort of stepped up to the plate and said to the president, look, we've got great solutions at the state level. We cannot afford this individual mandate. Is there any chance you could repeal it? He said no way, no how.

She said, how about some sort of opt-out provision? And he gave her three very specific ways that states could opt out. And that was big news that got kind of overlooked in the middle of all this constitutional questions and all the legal analysis. There are states out there - South Carolina is one, Massachusetts is another - Scott Brown came out yesterday also and said one size fits all doesn't work for everybody.

MARTIN: Except that Massachusetts already has the individual mandate.

Ms. CARY: Right. But he likes it that it's affordable for them and it's not the federal government telling them, you got to do this, you got to do that. And I kind of think maybe that's where this is heading if this all gets thrown out in court; maybe the answer is some sort of state by state opt-out, everybody gets what works for them.

MARTIN: Cornell Belcher, how about - during the campaign that whole question of the individual mandate was a pretty controversial one in the Democratic primary. I'm curious to know if you know how voters more broadly feel about that.

Mr. BELCHER: Well, here's part of the problem, is that the health care accommodation has been so muddied up that you still have, you know, almost a third of voters who still speculate that there may be death panels, you know, as part of the health care reform package, which is still part of what weighs it down.

I mean, the individual mandate thing is real interesting to me because, I mean, our government mandates lots of stuff for me. I mean, I'm a resident of the District of Columbia and I got a ticket the other day. You know why? Because the officer who pulled me over said I needed my insurance card, you know. They mandate us to have insurance. And it's the same sort of thing in health care, where they're saying, everyone, in order for it to be more affordable, we need everyone to opt into this system.

It is sort of controversial and I'm not surprised that this has reached the courts and sort of got teed up for the courts. I mean I was surprised it took this long. I mean, you had 14 cases before this. Most of them got thrown out. Two federal judges, you know, approved it. This one did not. So it sort of teed up for the Supreme Court, but just like most major pieces of legislation, from Social Security to the Voting Rights Act to the Civil Rights Act, you know, had to pass through the courts, and it now puts the Supreme Court front and center of this.

But on the political side of this, I will say that the Republicans have done a masterful job of politicizing this health care debate. And quite frankly, Democrats do have to still do a better job, unfortunately, of explaining this and having the conversation. I think we lost the early round messaging battle to this. I don't think we can continue to lose the messaging battle if we want health care to be successful.

MARTIN: I hope you're pulled over now, by the way, since (unintelligible) cell phone.

Ms. CARY: That's another mandate.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Cornell Belcher. That's who you just heard. He's a Democratic pollster. He's the lead pollster for the Democratic National Committee. And Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's a blogger and columnist for U.S. News & World Report.

Now, more on politics. Michael Steele, perennial talk show favorite, announced that he will, in effect, seek another two-year term as chair of the Republican National Committee. This is Mr. Steele on Fox News.

(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast)

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): The work of the party that we began over a year and a half ago, two years ago, needs to continue as we set our sights to 2012 and what we hope will be the election of a Republican president in 2012.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what are his chances? He's already attracted a number of challengers, who came out even before he'd made his announcement. How do you assess his chances?

Ms. CARY: Not too good. I mean on the straight numbers, this meeting in January, where the RNC will vote, there's 168 votes to be gotten on a multi-ballot system. So for him to win, he needs at least 85 votes, which would be half plus one. And Politico this morning puts him at probably 30 votes right now. He's got at least five challengers so far. There's some speculation about six or seven.

MARTIN: But it seems like (unintelligible) more challengers the more challengers, the better his chances, don't you think?

Ms. CARY: Well, one of them is a guy named Mike Duncan, who's former RNC chair. He says he actually is not particularly interested in perhaps being a candidate himself. He's just going to lead the stop Steele movement and try and form some kind of coalition to block votes.

MARTIN: We've discussed previously what the issues are with Michael Steele from the Republican perspective. Cornell, I'd like to ask you, even though you technically don't have a dog in this fight - what do you make of all this? And I do want to mention that Michael Steele is also the first African-American chair of the Republican National Committee. And there's always some question about whether that plays any role in how he is viewed. He's also got a rather colorful way of speaking and sometimes pushes people's buttons. I'll just leave it at that.

Ms. CARY: That's the joy of him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's right. We love him. All talk show hosts love him.

Mr. BELCHER: Well, I will say that, you know - and actually I was lead pollster for the national party under Governor Dean, so I do know something about this process and what Mary and the Republicans are going through now. It's fascinating politics, 'cause one of the interesting things - we think sort of Washington, what people, Democrats and Republicans say in Washington, like, we're the party. But truth of the matter is that those people out there in Flint, Michigan and, you know, in Montgomery, Alabama, who are knocking on doors and pulling people out in the rain, those are actually the party. That's the party. I mean, the grassroots of - people make these decisions. You know, in a democratic process for electing the chairman, it's even more people.

I mean, when I was working for Governor Dean, you know, most people didn't think Governor Dean had a shot because people inside the Beltway, you know, were not for Governor Dean. But the truth of the matter is that with people outside the Beltway, the grassroots of the Democratic Party very much were for Governor Dean and they were, in fact, the party.

I feel, you know, sort of at odds here 'cause I'm actually wanting to rally and come to the aid of Steele, 'cause (unintelligible) it's really interesting that they are about to put out a chair who arguably presided over a really, really successful election year - I mean, one of the most successful election years that any chair has seen in quite some time. And Governor Dean had also a very good run. But this is an awfully successful election year.

Sure, they're $15 million in debt, sure he's handled some of his politics poorly. But it is really interesting to put out your chair at a time when Republicans have seen so much success on their time. And I got a feeling that, you know, that some of the grassroots - you know, and he's tried to work around a lot of grassroots - some of the grassroots may be thinking differently than some of the people inside the Beltway, but I'll leave that to Mary.

MARTIN: OK, I was going to say - she's, like, dab those crocodile tears. You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Finally, just wanted to talk a little bit about John Boehner, expected to be elected as speaker of the House when the Republican majority takes over in January. He's really shown his softer side in recent weeks since the election. I'll just play a short clip from his appearance on "60 Minutes."

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): There's some things that are very difficult to talk about - family, kids. I can't go to a school anymore. You see all these little kids running around - can't talk about it.

Unidentified Woman: Why?

Rep. BOEHNER: Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American dream -(unintelligible) it's important.

MARTIN: So I just - I have to ask, Mary Kate, is this is a plus or a minus? And of course the whole double standard thing comes into play.

Ms. CARY: Right. Right.

MARTIN: 'Cause you say, if this were Nancy Pelosi, who's currently speaker of the House...

Ms. CARY: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...would she just be hooted out of the room?

Ms. CARY: She would be toast.

MARTIN: But - but he isn't. So what do you think?

Ms. CARY: Well, here's my take on it, is I remember being in the Bush 41 White House. First meeting he had with all the speechwriters, he said, look, I'm not Ronald Reagan. This was a year after the wimp cover came out on Newsweek. He said, I'm not Ronald Reagan. Ed Muskie at this point is still alive and kicking and insisting that there were snowflakes on his face after his crying scene, which drove him out of politics.

And he said, if you give me a 10, I can only give you a five back, and especially if it's emotional, if I have to meet the bodies at Dover, Delaware. So Bush 41 never cried in public as president. He did afterwards. After that, the rules kind of changed. And Bill Clinton cried, Bob Dole cried, Bush 43 cried, Obama has cried. Men can cry in public. Women really cannot. Pat Schroeder, case in point from 1987, absolutely sobbing. And I do think there's a bit of a question. If this was Pelosi, it never would've flown.

MARTIN: Cornell, I hope you're not crying because I don't have time to give you an answer here. So dab your eyes. We'll have you back on. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News & World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

Cornell Belcher is the president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. As you heard, he was lead pollster for the Democratic National Committee under the leadership of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He was with us on the phone from his office. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. CARY: Thanks for having me.

Mr. BELCHER: Thanks.

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