This Week in Politics: Sept. 11, Hagel's Retirement

This week in politics, we look at the climate in Washington surrounding the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel's announcement that he will not seek a third term in office. Hagel is a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Robert Smith.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

For the next few minutes we'll be talking about the testimony General Petraeus will give on Capitol Hill. Coming up, the significance of his name.

SMITH: First though, General David Petraeus went before the cameras and microphones on Capitol Hill today to deliver his assessment of the Iraq surge. But General Petraeus wasn't the only one on camera today. There's all those elected officials up for reelection, angling for screen time.

To talk about this and other news from the world of politics, I'm joined by NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Robert.

SMITH: Can this kind of public congressional testimony - can this make or break elected officials' careers?

RUDIN: Well, it certainly could change President Bush's legacy, given the fact that most Americans are opposed to this war. We saw that in the 2006 elections, when Democrats took control of both the House and Senate, based mostly in the war. But some recent polls have shown a little uptick in President Bush's numbers. Perhaps his argument that the surge is working, it needs more time to work, the Bush numbers are improving. At the same time, the Democrats are very frustrated because they know what they saw in 2006, what the voters said in 2006, and their tightrope basically this week is to attack the war without attacking General Petraeus personally, make it more of a referendum on the Bush war.

SMITH: But what about the Republicans? I mean, what's at stake for them this week?

RUDIN: Well, basically, they have to decide, especially the ones who are up for reelection in 2008, there are 34 Senate races up in 2008, 22 of them now held by Republicans. Republicans have far more to lose. And given the fact that the polls show that most Americans are opposed to this war, a lot of the Republicans have to decide whether to stick with President Bush and his policy for another six months, as General Petraeus is perhaps urging, or go with their conscience. Because you have a bunch of senators like Norm Coleman of Minnesota; John Sununu, New Hampshire; Susan Collins of Maine; Gordon Smith of Oregon, all in top battles for reelection in 2008, and all hearing from voters back home saying the war has gone on long enough and it's time to withdraw our troops.

SMITH: Well, the Republicans have a lot to think about this week. Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska announced today that he will walk away from politics at the end of his current Senate term.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): I am here with my family this morning to announce that I will not seek a third term in the United States Senate, nor do I intend to be a candidate for any office in 2008.

SMITH: How are the Republicans feeling about that?

RUDIN: Well, you know, it's funny because there's a big irony here, because Chuck Hagel for the longest time was a thorn in President Bush's side on the war. He was a strong critic of the war, the handling of the war. He's one of the few Republicans who said that troops should be pulled out by next spring. So a lot of conservatives said, look, enough of Chuck Hagel already. But given the fact that Chuck Hagel's numbers in Nebraska are very, very high - he won reelection five years ago with 83 percent of the vote, a state record, and the fact that he would have held the seat easily had he run again for a third term, now he's going to step down. The Democrats now have an opening. Bob Kerry, the former governor and senator who's now at New School University in New York, may come back to Nebraska to run for the seat. It's just another sign that the Republican's chances of regaining the Senate in 2008 are just - are really minimal at best.

SMITH: Tomorrow is the anniversary of September 11th and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be in the Ground Zero area for the reading of the names. He goes every year. But of course now he is an actually presidential candidate. And it makes the politics a little bit difficult in order to reference 9/11 without exploiting 9/11. In fact, last week at the debate Giuliani had this to say.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York City): The reality is that I'm not running on what I did on September 11th. I'm running on the fact that I was mayor of the largest city in the country, the third largest government in the country. I was tested in that position with crisis almost every day.

SMITH: Well, is tomorrow an opportunity for Giuliani to make some points about 9/11 or is this something that he doesn't really want to reference?

RUDIN: Well, first of all, I've never heard Rudy Giuliani give a speech without references to 9/11. It's a two-edged sword for him because, one, he would not be the national frontrunner had it not been his stewardship of New York City on 9/11. There's no question that this is why he was the keynote speaker of the 2004 Republican Convention. Believe me, it's not because he's pro-choice or pro-handgun control, or pro-gay rights. It's because of what he did on 9/11.

But at the same time, there is a criticism that he has a tendency to politicize this. Hillary Clinton has pointed it out over and over again, that what we really should be concerned about 9/11 is taking care of the workers who got very sick at Ground Zero. Rudy Giuliani made a mistake a few weeks ago by saying that he spent more time at Ground Zero than the workers there and he's basically put in more time there. And that got a very uncomfortable feedback by members - 9/11 family members.

SMITH: NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. You can check out his latest political junkie column online at npr.org. Thanks a lot, Ken.

RUDIN: Thanks Robert.

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