Political Wrap: Good News for White House, Dems in Danger

NPR's Ken Rudin talks about the latest in White House politics, local Democrats in trouble, and a blogger's criticism of Hillary Clinton.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOE PALCA, host:

And now, it's time for our Wednesday feature, Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of “I Want To Grow Up And Be A Politician” by the Byrds)

Mr. ROGER MCQUINN (Musician): (singing) I want to grow up to be a politician,

And take over this beautiful land.

I want to grow up to be a politician…

PALCA: It's been a rare, rare week of good news for the Bush administration. White House advisor Karl Rove, it was announced, will not be indicted in the CIA leak investigation. The head of al-Qaida in Iraq was killed. And then there was President Bush's secret trip to Iraq.

This week congressional primaries continued. We'll take a look at what happened in Virginia. We actually misspoke at the top of the show, it was Republican-turned-Democrat James Webb who won the Virginia primary. More on that race in a minute. Plus, Democratic activists and bloggers, are giving their party's presidential hopefuls a piece of their mind at a convention this week, in Washington, D.C.

You can call us with your questions about the week in politics. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

And with us at studio 2A, ah, 3A, well, we're upstairs, is, as always, Ken Rudin, NPR political editor and author of the Political Junkie column at npr.org. Welcome.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: So, today the president held a press conference, the day after his secret - just a few hours after his secret trip to Baghdad. Is it a sign that they're feeling pretty good about how things are going there?

RUDIN: Well, it doesn't sound like he's gloating or anything like that, but he certainly sounds like he's - certainly the news is better than it had been a few days ago, or a few weeks ago. I don't know if there's been any spike in the numbers in the polls. USA Today had him, I guess, gaining a few points. But a CBS poll showed no change.

Although it was interesting, you mentioned earlier, that the good news for he White House is that Karl Rove is not going to be indicted. I think it's always a fascinated thing, that somebody's - the fact that somebody's not going to be indicted, is good news for an administration. But I guess, given the fact that he was under the gun for so long - under the supposed investigation of the special prosecutor, for so long, I guess that's good news.

PALCA: Yeah, I was thinking that. Well, I mean, good news is where you find it. And, at the same time, Lewis Scooter Libby, who was an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, is awaiting the beginning of his trial. Is the White House distancing itself from him? Because the president said this morning, that, you know, he complimented the special prosecutor, saying he did a really thorough job, and, you know, he was really cautious and really careful. And he exonerated Karl Rove at the same time he indicted - is that right, the right term - indicted Lewis Libby?

RUDIN: Well, Lewis Libby is under indictment. And its interesting how, that, the prosecutor is even talking about calling Vice President Cheney to that kind of a trial, which would be an amazing spectacle in Washington, given the fact that the Republicans are trying to ward off this so-called culture of corruption that the Democrats keep hammering, and hammering over them, over the last couple of years.

But certainly, the Rove news is good news. The killing of Zarqawi is good news. But, you know, I remember this same, or similar elation when they got Saddam Hussein, when they got his two sons. And they said, well, you know, the tide is turning. And of course, the daily beheadings and killings and violence goes on. So obviously what will happen in the field, on the war scene, will make the difference; not an immediate, a little spike, because of Zarqawi's death or a secret trip to Iraq.

PALCA: Well, let's talk a little bit about the Virginia election that we were, misspoke about at the top. James Webb, I guess the reason for the confusion is he used to be a Ronald Reagan Republican and now he's a, some kind of a Democrat. What does it mean that he's going to be the Democratic challenger to the Republican, Senator George Allen?

RUDIN: Well what was interesting about this race is that James Webb, the former, as you say, the former Navy Secretary under President Reagan who, six years ago, endorsed the George W. Bush for President and endorsed George Allen for the Senate against Chuck Robb.

But Webb, what's interesting about Webb is that a bunch of senate Democrats, including John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, the Chairman of the Democratic Campaign Committee, decided to involve themselves in the primary before the voters had their say, and endorse Webb. They thought that Webb would be the stronger candidate against George Allen. He's a, you know, decorated Vietnam vet and an anti-Iraq war spokesman. He's very strongly against the war. That's what made him leave the Republican Party and become a Democrat, because of the Iraqi war.

So the Democrats' feeling is that somebody like that, a military man, would have much more credence talking against the war, having, you know, having those military credentials.

PALCA: Okay. Well, we're inviting our listeners to join the political parlance here: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And let's take a call now from Steve, in St. Louis. Welcome to the program.

STEVE (Caller): Oh, well, thanks.

PALCA: You're welcome.

STEVE: The question I have for Ken is the fact that, just recently about the Democrats in the recent past. Hillary Clinton's been declared the frontrunner for the next election for the Democrats, and I'm just wondering, one of my dissatisfactions with our system is, there are pronouncements that go out and they're now taken as the truth. So who crowned Hillary? I mean, my favorite would be Russ Feingold, personally. So I want to know, how did the Hillary name come up and who made that pronouncement.

RUDIN: Well, I love that question, and it's a very valid question. Because here it is, two years before the Iowa caucuses, and we're already anointing frontrunners and winners or losers. There was a Democratic poll, a Des Moines Register poll last week about the likely caucus attendees for 2008. And John Edwards beat Hillary Clinton 30-26. And there was a newspaper headline that says, The former frontrunner, Hillary Clinton…. Now, the fact that we're paying attention to a poll of Iowa - we had a poll two weeks before Iowa in 2004 and Howard Dean was the frontrunner, and two weeks later he finished third.

So I mean, a poll two years out is nuts. So I agree with you. I think the reason…

PALCA: Now, tell us what you really think.

RUDIN: It's just ludicrous. But having said that, Hillary Clinton, if you look at the polls, the national polls - which again is mostly voter ID - but Hillary Clinton seems to be the strongest Democrat for 2008.

Now, nearly to a person, every Democrat I've spoken to said, gee I hope she doesn't run because she'll get clobbered by this Republican right-wing scandal machine. So, it's very interesting how some people will insist on calling her the frontrunner. And of course she has a ton of money in her non-existent reelection for the Senate this year. She's going to win, you know, overwhelmingly in New York for a second term. But given the fact that she has the polls, and she has the money, and she has a tremendous Clinton, bunch of loyalists, who could just raise a gazillion dollars for her at the drop of, in a moment, at a moment's notice, that's why they call her the frontrunner.

But again, we've seen it before. We saw this with Ed Muskie in '72, we've seen it, you know, with Ted Kennedy in 1980. The press, the media, the political professionals insist that these guys, these people, are the frontrunners until the voters have their say. And often the voters, you know, have an interesting way of defining who the real frontrunner is.

PALCA: Yes, they determine it by placing a vote someplace.

RUDIN: I think that's the way to do it.

PALCA: Well, that's a good way. I mean you usually find out that way. We're talking politics here, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Democratic activists and bloggers have had an opportunity, this week, to talk strategy and voice their concerns and complaints to some of their political leaders. They're gathering at a conference in Washington, D.C, and now we're joined by one of them. David Sarota, he's a Democratic strategist and author of, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered our Government, and How We Take it Back.

He joins us by phone. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID SAROTA (Democratic Strategist and Author): Thank you.

PALCA: So, you know, have the bloggers had their say about Hillary Clinton and her frontrunner status?

Mr. SAROTA: Well, I think that what we've seen in the last couple of years, and especially in the last couple of weeks, is that the net roots and the grass roots of the Democratic Party is trying to open up the Democratic Party, and trying to go up against the establishment forces in the Democratic Party. And I think that Hillary Clinton has positioned herself as a representative of the Washington Democratic Party establishment, and I think that as she has taken positions that have, has embraced George Bush on the Iraq war, and she has not really used her platform to raise major sort of Democratic Party issues, I think she's opened herself up to a challenge from - it's not from the liberal wing of the party, but its from the outside wing of the party. There's a divide, right now, that's outside-inside.

PALCA: So what are the Democratic roots, if they're different from liberal roots, and different from what Hillary Clinton is talking about?

Mr. SAROTA: Well I, again, I think it's a paradigm where its grass roots activists who have been locked out of power in the Democratic Party, versus insiders, most often in Washington - consultants, elected politicians, and operatives, professional operatives. And I think that what we've seen is that the operatives and the insiders have preached, essentially, caution; to not really challenge President Bush as frontally as I think that the Democratic base and the Democratic grass roots would like him to be challenged.

PALCA: But activism isn't a political position. That's just a way of getting a political point across. What are their political philosophies that are being neglected?

Mr. SAROTA: Well, I would say that on the Iraq war, I think people, I think most Americans and certainly most Democrats, want their politicians to advocate for a serious exit strategy. I think most Americans, and certainly most Democrats, want politicians to talk about and advocate for universal healthcare. I think most Americans, and most Democrats, want their politicians to talk about seriously raising wages and reevaluating our trade policy that sells out ordinary Americans.

These are issues that really, are largely not embraced, by the Democratic establishment in Washington.

RUDIN: David, Ken Rudin here. At the progressive conference this week in Washington, both John Kerry and Hillary Clinton spoke, and both, of course, voted for, to go to war, in 2002. But John Kerry, unlike Hillary Clinton, John Kerry said I regret that vote. And he's pushing a proposal to get out, you know, get troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, which Hillary Clinton will not sign on.

Is that going to be a major sticking point in the Democratic primaries in 2008?

Mr. SAROTA: Absolutely, a hundred percent. I think that, you know, John Edwards has come out, he voted for the war and he said it was a mistake. John Kerry has said he voted for the war and it was a mistake. Russ Feingold didn't vote for the war and has trumpeted his vote against the war. So I think that's going to be one of the major, major fissures.

But I also want to say, I think another major, major fissure will be whether candidates are willing to stand up, on domestic issues, to big money interests. I mean, I write about this in my book, Hostile Takeover - which is about, you know, there are certain Democrats who've shown a willingness to stand up on major economic issues against big money interests that run Washington. And there are other Democrats who seem much more fearful of those interests. And I think that's going to be another major fissure.

PALCA: Well let's take one quick call now, and go to Greg in San Diego. Greg, welcome to the program.

GREG (Caller): Hello. I'm curious. It would take seven Democratic wins to get the 51 margin. What, if any, Republican incumbents, or the Tennessee seat, have a chance of moving from Republican to Democratic? That's my question, and I'll listen off the air.

PALCA: Okay, Greg. Thanks very much. David Sarota, any thoughts on that?

Mr. SAROTA: Well, I think there are a number of states that could be in play, that haven't been in play, depending on who the nominee is. I think particularly - I'm from, I now live in Montana - and I think that the Rocky Mountain West is a place that can very easily be flipped to the Democratic side over the next two or four years. It just depends, again, if the Democratic party is willing to embrace a serious populist agenda on economic issues that fights big money interests, I think they will win in those regions. We've seen a win - Governor Brian Schweitzer won Montana, in a state that went 60 percent for Bush. If we get more Democrats like that, we will win more states like that.

PALCA: Okay.

RUDIN: Greg, in answer to your question, quickly, in addition to Montana, we have Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum is in big trouble. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island has a tough race. If the Democrats also have to win Missouri, with Jim Talent, Ohio with Mike DeWine, and they have to take the open seat in Tennessee that Bill Frist is giving up. If they win all those six, and hold onto all their seats, they could win the Senate.

But again, everything has to fall into place for the Democrats for that to happen.

PALCA: Okay, well, that's where we have to leave it.

Thanks Ken. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. You can read his weekly Political Junkie column at our website, npr.org.

RUDIN: Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: And David Sarota is a Democratic Strategist and author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered our Government, and How We Take it Back. He joined us by phone here in Washington, D.C.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca.

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