Week in Review: Midterm Elections, Iraq Rhetoric

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Highlights of the week's news include the upcoming congressional elections; President Bush's changing rhetoric on Iraq; and legislation to authorize — but not pay for — a 700-mile-long fence along the Mexican border.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Two major stories dominated the news this week: the battle for votes in the United States and the violent struggle for power in Iraq. October has been one of the deadliest months in Iraq since the war began, and events there seem to be affecting political attitudes in the United States.

NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And midterm elections are now less than two weeks away, and the increasing perception that control of the House, and perhaps even the Senate, are in the balance. What have you noticed in this election cycle that you think is especially remarkable?

SCHORR: Well, you know, as Tip O'Neil, the great Speaker, said that all elections are local. You might be surprised to see what's happening in this off-year election, which has pretty been nationalized in a way that I can hardly remember during an off-year election. Pew Research finds Democrats are holding a double-digit advantage in competitive districts. The Democrats hold 49 to 38 lead among registered voters. It maybe an off-year election, but in a way, it's a referendum on the presidency.

SIMON: What issues have you noticed in the polling information you've been over that seems to be foremost on the minds of potential voters?

SCHORR: Well, the thing that had emerged, by all odds, is the great issue - to the surprise of many - is Iraq. About 50 percent of people in polls, cite Iraq as the reason for voting as they are voting, which is generally now anti-Republican. It's hard to tell whether President Bush, who really enjoyed a great advantage by positioning himself as the great war leader and the great anti-terrorist leader, where the chickens are coming home to roost, because that war is not going so well.

SIMON: The president gave a speech on Wednesday in which he said he wasn't satisfied with the way things are going in Iraq and talked about benchmarks for measuring progress in Iraq. What's your assessment of his speech?

SCHORR: Well, I think the president is caught on the horns of a dilemma, in which he must say more or less opposite things to Iraqis and to Americans. He has to give Americans some indication that one of these days the troops are going to come home, or maybe start to come home, or maybe think of going home. At the same time, he has to assure Prime Minister Maliki that he will not be abandoned no matter what. And so, you juggle words. It's timetable now, benchmarks is the word, the very in word. It's a very, very delicate thing in which you say to Americans, they're coming home, and to Iraqis, don't worry, not for some time.

SIMON: Those words seemed to replace the phrase stay the course. And last Sunday, when the president was interviewed on ABC, he seemed to stand back from that term, stay the course. Do you notice this change in language and what does it suggest?

SCHORR: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. I mean, week after week you see these terms change a little bit. For example, there was a point at which they're going to have tactical - tactical was the big in word. Now of course strategic means big, big change. Tactical means, well, only very small changes. So everything now that's being changed is tactical.

SIMON: Let me ask you about at least some of the rhetorical and maybe more than rhetorical differences between U.S. and Iraqi leaders. Because this week Prime Minister al-Maliki promised to crack down on sectarian militias, but he absolutely denied that he'd agreed to a timetable...

SCHORR: Sure.

SIMON: ...which seemed to contradict what U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had announced the day before. And then the prime minister criticized an American raid in Sadr City that occurred this week.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: Is Prime Minister al-Maliki trying to, in a sense, establish his bones by being rhetorically opposed to U.S. policy?

SCHORR: Well, exactly. If we talk democracy and politics, he's acting very politically. He wants to tell people things which are different from what he tells Americans or which Americans tell him. And that is the way he does it. And when they kill civilians in the course of trying to kill terrorists, he has to be the one to say we don't want the United States killing our people. I mean, he knows what's happening. He knows why it's happening. The U.S. knows what's happening, and they both have to pretend.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the border fence. The president signed a bill on Thursday that would create a 700-mile long border fence across the U.S./Mexico border. What does it say about the kind of issue immigration has become?

SCHORR: Well, immigration probably would have been a big issue if it were not for Iraq, which is edging it out as the big issue. There a lot of people care about the question of immigration, and so Congress passed a law saying we'll build this big, big fence, 700 miles. And the president waited some time till - until he got close to the election to sign it, when he hoped it might have some impact.

And it should be noted this is an authorization for a big fence, it's not yet an appropriation. And I don't want to seem cynical, but if after the election you don't hear quite so much about a $6 billion for building that fence, don't be surprised.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Obama mania. A few weeks ago, before the Senator began his book tour, we discussed the fact that Oprah Winfrey essentially said, run Senator, run. And you expressed the conviction that Senator Obama knew his own mind well enough not to respond to those blinders...

SCHORR: I said I thought he'd be sane.

SIMON: Well, we'll leave other people to judge, and apparently they might get that chance on the ballot. Because increasingly, he seems to be suggesting he's open to the possibility of running for president. What does this mean?

SCHORR: What this means, and I might be wrong, which we cannot...

SIMON: I'm sorry. Are we running? Wait, wait, wait, is the microphone open? What did you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: I did not think, as of a week ago, that he was going to run. And then he went on Meet the Press to indicate, well, maybe I'll think about it after the election a little bit. And so, I might have been wrong. Perhaps. Only time ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Thanks for - thanks for - thanks for coming on and sharing that with us, okay.

SCHORR: Not at all. My pleasure.

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