Political Wrap: Handicapping Frist in '08

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist uses home court advantage to catch an early lead in the race to the White House; plus a look at Sen. Russell Feingold's stalled attempt to censure the president; and a preview of the Senate race in Florida. NPR's Ken Rudin, aka the Political Junkie, analyses the latest political news.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Bill Frist uses a home court advantage to catch an early lead in the race to the White House. Russ Feingold uses the Senate floor to push for presidential censure. In Florida, Katherine Harris struggles to keep her Senate race alive, while in Pennsylvania, Kate Michelman decides not to run for the Democratic Senate nomination. Just a few of this week's stories in politics. And joining us now in Studio 3A for his weekly Wednesday feature is our political junkie, also known as NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. And Ken, as always, thanks for being here.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And let's start with the, well, the Dubai World Ports deal, in the news again today. The company explaining now again how it's going to keep the businesses independent and sell them to an unrelated American company in four to six months time. This story has been alive and dominating a lot of politics for a lot longer than anybody thought.

RUDIN: Well, certainly longer than the Bush administration thought, because their political people never saw the fire storm coming. And what happened, basically, is that, you know, even though they said they would agree to sell the American, their interest in the American ports, folks back home say that they still don't believe him. So, there's still an amendment by Congressman Jerry Lewis on a must pass supplemental bill today that's saying, basically, that they want no foreign ownership of U.S. ports.

Now, foreigners have controlled U.S. ports for a long time. It's really the Coast Guard and longshoremen who unload all the cargo, but again, it just seems to be some kind of a reaction from back home. And the Bush Administration never saw the uproar coming.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And some people are saying it's been a lot of element of political theater. Well, moving to another element of political theater, there's an obscure piece of legislation called the Debt Ceiling Raising that goes on, well, periodically in Congress. And it's always used by the party out of power to embarrass the party that's in power.

Mr. RUDIN: Well, it's especially embarrassing for the Republican Party, because the Republican Party because the Republican Party and its candidates have always run on the fact that we are, you know, fiscally responsible...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUDIN: And it's the Democrats who are the tax and spend, the ones who are going to get the deficit way out of whack. But, you know, the truth be told that when President Bush came into office, the federal debt was $5.95 trillion, and now it's $8.7 trillion and rising. And the Congress, and the Senate later this week, probably Thursday or Friday, we'll have to vote to increase that debt limit once again.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But as a tactic of embarrassment, does it work?

Mr. RUDIN: No, look, everything in Washington seems to be temporary gotcha. And, of course, this is certainly a good gotcha, because, again, given the fact that Republicans would rather not point out the fact that they cannot keep their fiscal house in order, given the fact that President Bush has yet to veto any kind of legislation, certainly on the excess spending...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUDIN: ...so the Democrats would just love to stick it to the Republicans, saying, look, you want to raise the debt, you guys vote for it. But, again, once again, shows that you're running the show, but you're not running, you're not watching what you're spending.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Dana Milbank, a national political reporter for The Washington Post is on the phone, with us from his office at The Post.

And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DANA MILBANK (National Political Reporter, The Washington Post): Hello, gentlemen.

CONAN: And Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold moved to censure the president for his program on warrantless spying on domestic phone calls. And this, Dana Milbank, wonderful story in today's paper about how well this is going over with his fellow Democrats.

Mr. MILBANK: Oh, they're scurrying like cockroaches. It was quite an amazing thing to see yesterday. The problem is they're really caught here. On the one hand, this is something the liberal base of the party really wants--something that Feingold, obviously, would benefit from if he's going to run for president, as expected.

On the other hand, as you guys were pointing out, the Democrats really have Bush on the ropes when it comes to debt, the budget, Iraq, the ports issue. And so, the last thing they really want to do is change the subject to an area where Bush actually enjoys the advantage in the polls.

CONAN: And to the point where you were describing, and Democratic senators in various forums yesterday, scurrying to avoid reporters' questions.

Mr. MILBANK: They really were. They used a little known backdoor after their weekly party lunch. So, we were all camped out at the main door they always come out of, then they're sneaking out the back and down a stairway like they're common criminals. You know, Hillary Clinton gave us the over-the- shoulder wave and tried to hide with Barbara Mikulski, who must be a foot shorter than she is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: Senator Kerry breezed by us, uncharacteristically having nothing to say. Chuck Schumer of New York, I think, said no comment for the first time in his life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: In all of this, it has not escaped that the names of several of those senators are expressing interest in running for president of the United States, or have run previously.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, that's right, and they're the ones that were particularly caught in this conundrum: they know they need to appeal to the liberal base that would like to see Bush censured, impeached--worse, if they could possibly have it done to him, but also knowing that if you could lose a lot of seats in the House and the Senate, where Democrats are in vulnerable races. And if you want to be a viable presidential candidate beyond the primaries, you can't look like you're an extremist.

Mr. RUDIN: Dana, it's Ken Rudin here. I know your column was absolutely the best. After everybody reads my Political Junkie column, I suggest they go immediately to your column...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUDIN: But having said that, you know, we know that the Democrats are hiding, and that they're really caught off guard by this, but I suspect that the Republicans have the opposite point of view.

Mr. MILBANK: They do, and they're trying to highlight this as much as possible. Now, I think today we're getting a little bit of--the Democrats are starting to get their act together a little bit. Howard Dean sent out an e-mail to supporters, basically supporting Feingold.

What they'd really like to do is have hearings on the subject about what a lousy president Bush is being, but not actually be forced to actually stand up and say yea or nay when the question comes up.

Mr. RUDIN: And Republicans would like an immediate vote, of course.

Mr. MILBANK: Oh, they tried to get it immediately, and when that failed, they tried to get it the next day. As it stands right now, I mean, my whip count yesterday would have it as coming out 98 to 2.

CONAN: And an e-mail question--by the way, if you have questions for our Political Junkie, 800-989-8255, or e-mail us, TALK@NPR.org. An e-mail question from Bill Carthy(ph) in Columbus, Ohio:

"What is censure," he asks, "and what punitive actions does this put on the president?" Dana?

Mr. MILBANK: None whatsoever. I mean, Tom Harkin of Iowa said it would be a slap on the wrist. It's not really that. In a sense, I mean, it's saying we disapprove of what you've done, but it has no force, whatsoever. It's, from that point of view, purely symbolism.

Mr. RUDIN: And the one time in history that it has happened with Andrew Jackson...

CONAN: Andrew Johnson.

Mr. RUDIN: Anyway, Andrew Jackson...

CONAN: Jackson, was it Jackson?

Mr. RUDIN: It was Jackson.

CONAN: I stand corrected.

Mr. RUDIN: Johnson was impeached, Jackson was censured. But this is over the federal bank, but what was interesting is that right after Jackson was censured by the Whig-dominated Senate, his own Democratic party took control of the Senate, and, in fact, the censure was expunged from the record. How about that?

CONAN: Well, Dana...

Mr. RUDIN: Ken Shore did a piece for NPR...

CONAN: Yeah, I was gonna say, Dana Milbank, Senator Feingold may be able to whip up a few Whig votes for this, but he's going to have trouble in the meantime. But doesn't that speak to the problem of the Democrats, who try to address their base, which if the rules allowed it, as you suggested, it would like to see the president drawn and quartered. And there are major political candidates, perhaps other than Mr. Feingold, who are leery of taking this kind of position.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, and this is the central conundrum for them right now. This is a time, look, there's a new poll out today by the Pew Research Center that has Bush at 33 percent support, almost Nixonian levels. The Democrats should be taking advantage of it, but they haven't been able to. They're only doing slightly better than the Republicans are, and in large part, that's because they have not been able to agree on a coherent message.

Now, Russ Feingold has his own coherent message. Hillary Clinton has another. Howard Dean has another. The problem is they just can't agree on one message, whatever it is.

CONAN: Dana Milbank, thanks very much.

Mr. MILBANK: My pleasure.

CONAN: Dana Milbank, the national political reporter for The Washington Post. We were talking about his column that was in the paper earlier today.

We're talking with our political junkie who's here with his weekly visit, Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail question from John in California--a question concerning the upcoming 2006 congressional elections:

"We're getting close enough to the elections. The candidates competing against incumbents should be identified. Do the Democrats have a chance to take over the House, and if so, how would you measure that in advance? Good, poor, or no chance at all?"

RUDIN: Well, I would say they have a chance. And the reason I think they have a chance is because if there is a wave, if there's an anti-Republican wave like we saw in 1994, an anti-Democratic wave, we didn't see that until towards the end of the race, until the end of the campaign, the anti-Republican wave of '74. Again, it could happen, and it's hard to tell in March what will happen in November, but having said that, most incumbents are in pretty safe districts-- unlike 1994, and certainly unlike '74.

There was a lot of old, dead wood, basically, among members of Congress. They were around for 30 years, they never had competitive races, and they were caught off guard. Since the Republican victory in 1994, most of the congressional lines have been redrawn, most incumbents of both parties are pretty safe, so it would take a national, an upheaval, really an anti- Republican tide for the Republicans, for the Democrats to take over the House. They need 15 seats. They haven't won that many in off-year elections since 1982. It's tough for them, but it's doable.

CONAN: Let's go back to last week's Southern Republican Conference. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee happened to be in his home state, took the lead in the straw poll that they were holding there, but still a year and a half off from the election. What, if anything, does this tell us?

RUDIN: Well, it says that in Tennessee, Bill Frist is the frontrunner. No, really, I don't know what it says. I mean, Bill Frist got 37 percent of 1,400 total people who showed up at this conference in Memphis. But what's interesting is that John McCain finished a poor fifth. Now, John McCain said in advance that he did not want to be considered in the straw poll vote. As a matter of fact, he said he wanted the delegates to vote for President Bush to show him a sign of confidence, a sign of support.

But I wonder what the difference there is between the media's love affair with John McCain--and there is a love affair with John McCain--and the sense that he could beat any Democrat in November of 2008, including Hillary Clinton. But can John McCain win over those conservative supporters of President Bush who voted against McCain in 2000, and they still don't seem to trust him in 2006 and 2007.

CONAN: Let's get a listener on the conversation. This is Travis, Travis calling from Louisville.

TRAVIS (Caller): Yes, I'd like to say, I'd like to stand up for Russ Feingold. You know, it seems like on a number of issues, the only Democrat that's standing up for what he believes in is Russ Feingold. And the problem with John Kerry was not him being liberal, in fact, he ended up being not the most liberal, but the 15th most liberal, or 16th most liberal, which is pretty conservative if you're from Massachusetts.

But I'd like to ask a quote, "question." This is kind of a comment/question at the same time. Isn't the problem with the Democrats, that they're seen as not standing up for what they believe in? And wouldn't this be an asset for someone like Russ Feingold?

CONAN: Ken Rudin, a lot of Democrats say that.

RUDIN: Yes, and absolutely that would be a plus for Russ Feingold. If he could portray himself as the true liberal of 2008, the anti-Hilary for all we know-- the anti-Mark Warner or the anti-Southern candidate, the anti-conservative-- Russ Feingold stands up for what he believes in. He was the only Senator to vote against the original incarnation of the Patriot Act.

In New York City, the World Trade Center was still in smoke, in ruins and smoking and when that vote came in, and Feingold stood up and said, no, I am not going along with the 99 to nothing pact. So, he voted against it. But he also voted for John Ashcroft returning for attorney general. He also voted for John Roberts for the Supreme Court.

So, saying he's a liberalist, too simplistic. He certainly is an independent, kind of maverick type, and will be certainly interesting if this helps him in his bid for 2008.

CONAN: Travis, thanks very much. And I guess we just have a few seconds left. In 30 seconds, interesting developments in the Florida Senate race where Katherine Harris, the representative member of Congress, running into some problems gaining traction.

RUDIN: Her campaign is a mess, it's been a mess from day one. She has been getting no contributions, she has lukewarm support from her party, and in fact, Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor who was in part of the Duke Cunningham scandal, admitted the other day that he gave $20,000 to her Congressional campaign in 2004.

She's supposed to make a major announcement tonight on Fox. Some people think she's going to pull out completely. My guess is that she's just going to appeal to her supporters to give her more money. And, in fact, the rumor is that Harrison is going to say that she's going to take $5 to $10 million out of her own fortune, she's a multimillionaire, to boost her chances.

CONAN: On Fox, really? Going into the lion's den, huh?

RUDIN: Who knew?

CONAN: Yeah. Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor joined us here in Studio 3A. His Political Junkie column appears at npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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