Democratic Leadership Struggles for Momentum

This week has been a tough one for Democratic leaders in Congress. Among other setbacks, they couldn't muster the votes to override a presidential veto of the SCHIP children's health bill. Hear analysis from Robert George, from New York Post; and from Princeton University professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later in the program, the Barbershop guys, and the latest chapter in Bill Cosby's crusade.

But first, it's been a tough week for congressional Democrats with two high-profile failures. The House couldn't override President Bush's veto of a bill to expand a children's health insurance program. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was unable to win a fight to call the century-old killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks' genocide.

With us today to talk about these and other political stories of the week are Robert George, associate editorial page editor for the New York Post, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Princeton University professor of politics and African-American studies.

Welcome to the program both of you.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Associate Editorial Page Editor, New York Post): Good to be here.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Yeah. Now, there was a big fight over this bill to expand the number of kids covered by the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. The Congress narrowly controlled by the Democrats wanted to add about four million kids to the six million already enrolled; the president said no. Congress couldn't override the veto.

Melissa, you know, according to the new NPR poll, among other polls, a majority of Americans, including Republicans, support this expansion of the program. So why couldn't the Democrats get this done?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, a part of it has to do with the internal inclusions in the bill itself. So it's not completely dead in the sense that the House is now going to make a few changes and try to send it back through. But I do think the big sort of political question beyond this particular policy has to do with why the Democrats have been unable to turn even a single Republican vote. And I think it has a lot to do with the ways in which the Republicans are currently planning to rethink their power structure even as a minority party in the Congress.

MARTIN: I say I don't get that. What do you - I mean, is it…

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Okay.

MARTIN: You're saying the Republicans did what? They, just by staying together, by holding fast, they were able to thwart the Democrats?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Exactly. So there's a - what the Republicans have figured out is that because this is not a massive majority of the Democrats holding the House, the Republicans simply by sticking together and this is happening at the level of the Republican leadership. In other words, the Republican leadership is holding all of its votes together.

Even people who have districts where it would have been very advantageous for them individually to move over and vote with the Democrats here, they're being held in line by their party leaders in order to keep giving the Democrats failure after failure coming up to the 2008 presidential election. This way the party, the Democratic Party, looks as though it's a party that really can't get done the promises that it made in '06 to its voters.

MARTIN: Okay. Robert?

Mr. GEORGE: The classic charge of it being a do-nothing Congress is - has happened in the past. I partly agree with Melissa. However, it should be noted that the SCHIP did get 44 Republican votes, which is pretty large given the stakes. But the basic part is true in that…

MARTIN: Also, Robert, the other interesting thing about it is there's a gender gap in the Republican Party on this point, and that it's true that a majority of male Republicans don't support the expansion of the program, but a majority of women Republicans do.

Mr. GEORGE: I think that is true. It is also the case, however, that parties that are in the minority in Congress often find it - it's much easier for them to band together because they are in a sense, they get down to what are as perceived - what they perceive as their core principles. It's easier for them to draw a line in the sand and vote no. I mean, the Democrats did it when the Republicans were in the majority. And the Republicans are doing that now.

And it is also the case that for a lot of the Republicans, they - their only real core principle that they've got that they can really stick to is to try and keep a line on spending and keep taxes down and things like that. What really caused them to lose a lot of Republican votes back in the 2006 election - aside from the corruption issues and Iraq was the fact that they had forgotten that they had lost their way.

People vote Republican to keep your taxes down and to keep spending down. They had not done that, and they saw that this is way to get back to the basics.

MARTIN: But isn't this is a kind of a tough thing to take a stand on…

Mr. GEORGE: Oh, it's a very…

MARTIN: …you know, it's a health insurance for poor kids.

Mr. GEORGE: Well…

MARTIN: Or even not-so-poor kids.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, you see that's…

MARTIN: Health insurance for kids, period.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, you see that's the other issue, too. When SCHIP or SHIP(ph), which caused an any number of puns in every headline you can imagine. You know, the ship is down.

MARTIN: Well, that's not…

Mr. GEORGE: The ship is sinking and so forth.

MARTIN: But let's not take the cheap route and…

Mr. GEORGE: But, we won't take the cheap route.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. GEORGE: But when this program was created in the mid-1990s, it was created clearly for poor, low-income children. What the Democrats saw an opportunity to do here was in terms of expanding the income level eligible for this. In a sense and from the perspective of many conservatives and many Republicans, it's kind of a backdoor way to go in the direction of government-run health care or socialized medicine - however, you want to call it.

And the Republicans, aside from the fact that they didn't want to support the cost increase, they didn't want to give the Democrats a win on something which they see as going in a direction of health care, government-run health care expansion.

MARTIN: I see your point but it's just - it will be interesting to see down the road where you can - if that's the place to take a stand, you know, why not farm price supports or, you know…

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah. Well, you…

MARTIN: …if some of these other - Melissa Harris, I just wanted to move in to a different topic, which is that the Democrats had another setback and that the Democratic leaders had this high-profile effort to condemn the World War I mass killings of Armenians by the Turks. That there was a push to label those mass killings as genocide. A furious reaction from Turkey, also high-profiled diplomats, American diplomats, you know. Why go forward on something like this? Why now? And is this just - is Speaker Pelosi's leadership seemed to just misreading their opportunities or, you know, why do that? Why stir up…

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: …such a hornet's nest and then have to back down?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah. I have to say this was a bit of an odd choice. It has, I think, a fair bit to do with some - with a variety of policies being made at the level of Pelosi's leadership. But that, I mean, that said, I think that the Democrats are trying to stake out ground about something, right? We are the party that wants children to be able to see the doctor. We are the party that will say even in historical retrospect that it's not okay to engage in the mass murder of civilians, right? They're trying to stake out ground about being a party of principles.

And this has to do with a lot of the criticism that has been leveled against the Democratic Party over the course of the past 10 years, certainly the past seven years - but I would say even before that - that it's not a party that sort of stands for something clearly, which the U.S. can then either get behind or not.

So there's a way that the Democrats are really trying to stake this out, but they are making some errors. I mean, even on the children's health issue, I think they underestimated the extent to which we believe that children are the responsibility of their parents, and not of the state.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah, exactly. You - as I think as one comedian put it, you know the Democrats have decided that, yes, they are against the abuses of the Ottoman Empire. I mean, it's…

MARTIN: Who would that have been, Robert? You?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GEORGE: No…

MARTIN: An open-mic night.

Mr. GEORGE: You know, it was not me this time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Robert, I'm sorry. I just need to interrupt for just one second to say that if you're just joining us, we're talking about the week in politics with New York Post editorial writer Robert George and Princeton University professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

Robert, can I just ask you one quick question here that - we hear that Kansas Senator Sam Brownback is apparently giving up his presidential ambitions. And Melissa was talking about standing for something clearly. I mean, Sam Brownback, staked out some pretty, very clear conservative positions on a lot of that. What we — but are supposed to be the sort of that key conservative issue and he couldn't break through.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah. And he couldn't breakthrough and I think there was actually — I think that's actually unfortunate because Sam Brownback, if you examine his record closely, he's not necessarily what some people are considering, you know, your typical or stereotypical Republican. Yes, he was very strongly conservative on issues like - such as gay rights and abortion and things like that. But of all the Republicans, he, in the Senate at least - he has, he's traveled to Africa probably the most frequently, very much focused on dealing with HIV/AIDS there as well. And, but unfortunately, he could not, you know, breakthrough the top three or four of - Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and now Thompson. So it will be interesting to see where his support, as small as it is, it goes. It may go to say Mike Huckabee who has made a strong effort to become the socially conservative candidate, and it may go to say McCain who Brownback agreed with and actually sponsored some legislation with so we'll see.

MARTIN: I'm going to push forward on just one more topic just because, I think it's something that I really want to hear from both of you on. This is something we've talked a lot about on this program, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the so-called Jena Six case. Now, of course, these are the African-American teens who face charges on Louisiana for the alleged beating of a white classmate. There's been a lot of discussion about the fact that black kids who participated in some of these incidents treated as - ran way by the criminal justice system. And a lot of people feel that the white kids who engaged in similar conduct have been more leniently treated. It's just become a national - story emanating from the small town.

The House Judiciary Committee brought the - Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for Louisiana's western district, up and here's what she had to say to him.

Representative SHEILA JACKSON LEE (Democrat, Texas): Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene, not by way of this legal system but the consultation that the U.S. attorneys have with the local district attorneys. Why didn't you intervene? These broken lives could have been prevented if you had taken a symbolic responsibility that you have been the first African-American appointed to the western district.

MARTIN: I actually have about a minute left. But, Robert, very strong language but is it fair?

Mr. GEORGE: Of course, it's not fair. I mean, Miss Lee is just basically grandstanding, frankly, and she even admitted that it's a symbolic action. I mean, I think there's absolutely no way that the U.S. attorney is - going to be able to necessary perceived that the placing of a noose on a tree is going to create this kind of a situation. And I think it's embarrassing for the chairlady.

MARTIN: Melissa, very briefly.

Ms. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, absolutely, it's fair. Look, the white children involve committed a federal hate crime and the reason we did not prosecute them is because they were children. But when the African-American children involved in this also committed a crime they were punished to the fullest extent of adult law. And so, you know, I think that is unquestionably fair because this is exactly the central question of the racial disparities in criminal justice law that face us nationally.

MARTIN: Okay. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you all for engaging on so many topics on such a short time.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is a professor of politics in African-American studies at Princeton University. She joined us from studios on campus. And Robert George is the associate editorial page editor for The New York Post. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thank you to you both and have a great weekend.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah, you, too, Michel. Thank you.

Ms. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.

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