Political Junkie: Midterm Fallout, Rangel and the Draft

NPR's political editor Ken Rudin talks about the aftermath of the midterms and Rep. Charlie Rangel's (D-NY) call to reinstate a military draft.

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

(Soundbite of Political Junkie opening montage)

President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Aaaaaagh!

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And Wednesdays, of course, time for your favorite segment of the week, Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of Political Junkie intro)

CONAN: The voters have spoken but in some places apparently not loudly enough. Five Congressional races remain undecided. Here in Washington, Democrats elected Nancy Pelosi to be the first female speaker of the House and promptly thumbed their noses at her by electing Steny Hoyer as majority leader. Plus Democrat Charlie Rangel calls for the draft.

Again, give us a call with your questions about the week in politics. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-2855, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@NPR.org.

Just before the program I was in Ken Rudin's office. He was struggling to find the last few words to finish his column. Did you finish it?

KEN RUDIN: I did finish the column. And as you know, Neal, you know, we just heard in the introduction we heard President Kennedy the Berlin Wall, and we heard Lloyd Benson telling Dan Quayle you're not Jack Kennedy, and of course today is November 22, a date that will always remain with us.

CONAN: The assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. But let's talk about more modern politics. And, by the way, is your column up on the Web site?

RUDIN: You know, they're so slow upstairs. They have other priorities.

CONAN: They're going to improve after hearing that don't you think.

RUDIN: It will be absolutely…

CONAN: Political Junkie…

RUDIN: It's written up there and it'll be out there soon.

CONAN: Okay. PoliticalJunkie@NPR.org. Let's begin with a couple of races whose tallies have at long-last been finalized. The people of New Mexico's first district reelected Heather Wilson by a very slim margin, less than one percent. And in Ohio, Congresswoman Jean Schmidt won by a small but slightly more convincing margin.

RUDIN: Both are very interesting races. Heather Wilson has always been a targeted race. It's a majority Democratic seat. You had a very popular state attorney general, Patricia Madrid, who's Hispanic, who ran this time. But Heather Wilson was a very independent candidate. You know, she's boasted of her independence from President Bush. Of course, the Democrats and Patricia Madrid tried to tie the two together.

But Wilson won by 875 votes. You know, you always does my vote count? It certainly counts in these close races, 875.

And Ohio, as you say, it was not as close. Jean Schmidt, the woman who was best known for standing up on the House floor and calling John Murtha, the war veteran, a coward - barely held on in a very Republican district in southwest Ohio.

CONAN: That was Rob…

RUDIN: Rob Portman's seat, right.

CONAN: Now there are five Congressional races still up in the air. One in Florida's 13th district, in which there are, as I understand it, concerns about the electronic voting machines.

RUDIN: Well, what's happened is the Florida state officials have already declared Vern Buchanan, the Republican candidate, the winner. The Democrat, apparent loser, is Christine Jennings. And she said, well, you know, maybe yes, maybe no. But there are 18,000 people who voted in this Congressional district who somehow their vote for Congress did not count. And so she has taken this to court.

And the irony of ironies, of course, is this is Katherine Harris's House district. And if any district, if any election needs to go to court, it's the Katherine Harris House seat, right.

CONAN: Of course she was the secretary of state then presiding over the dangling chads of election 2000.

RUDIN: That's right. Two more are also outstanding. In North Carolina eight, Robin Hayes, a Republican, who was thought to be pretty safe. But, you know, the textile bills, those kind of bills, have really hurt Republicans in that district. He's holding on to a narrow lead. And a bigger lead for Republicans, Deborah Pryce, currently the number four in the Republican leadership in Ohio, Columbus, Ohio, has about a 3,700-vote advantage over Mary Jo Kilroy. Pryce is probably going to hold on to win that seat.

CONAN: Which would make the total of Democratic gains if all of these hold up?

RUDIN: I think it'll be 30 including picking up the Independent Bernie Sanders seat in Vermont. Democratic net gain of 30. Last week they picked up, they ousted Rob Simmons in Connecticut so that was the 30th pickup.

CONAN: And there are a couple of runoffs. One in Texas, one in Louisiana.

RUDIN: Right, and the Louisiana one, there's two Democrats in that runoff. Bill Jefferson, he of the of the $90,000 in cold cash in the freezer. He has a December 9 run-off with a fellow African-American, Karen Carter. Two Democrats. And on December 12 in Texas, Henry Bonilla, around the San Antonio area, he has a runoff with a former member of Congress, Ciro Rodriguez. So that's going on.

CONAN: Bonilla is the incumbent Republican.

RUDIN: The Republican incumbent, right.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Kara(ph), Kara calling us from Jamestown, New York.

KARA (Caller): Hi. I am curious to know how all the - there were several Iraqi War veterans who ran for Congress in this go-around. How did they do?

CONAN: Tammy Duckworth, I know, was running in Illinois, and was just named the Veterans Administration - the head of the VA in Illinois. So we know she didn't win.

RUDIN: She lost, right. That was Henry Hyde's seat, and it was a Republican seat, and a lot of people thought that she might have a chance. You know, she lost three limbs in - she lost her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, and it was a very compelling story - but it was ultimately a Republican district, and the Republicans held on to it.

Joe Sestak, an Iraqi War veteran from Pennsylvania knocked out I think it was Don - and I can't remember if it was Curt Weldon or Don Sherwood - but Joe Sestak, an Iraqi War veteran won in Pennsylvania. And also there's other Iraqi war veterans won in Indiana as well.

There was a big to-do about Democrats courting and recruiting war veterans early in this year because of the old kibosh that Democrats were soft on military and defense…

CONAN: Issues…

RUDIN: …policies and things like that. But two or three of them were elected, including Sestak in Pennsylvania.

CONAN: Thanks, Kara.

KARA: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. As we look ahead to some of the other issues, there were some elections inside Congress last week, and that's of course to select the new leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress. And of course, on the Republican side, it began with the soon-to-be-former speaker, Denny Hastert, announced that he would not be standing for election as minority leader.

RUDIN: Right. But that was a very interesting election, given the fact that the Republicans said they learned a lesson from their defeat, they got the message. John McCain, after the election, said that the Republicans need to know that they failed their principles, and they've got to stand for something.

It was interesting in that, given in the elections for the Republicans in the minority in the House, they returned two of their leaders - John Boehner, the minority leader and Roy Blunt, the minority whip. Now some people say well, they know their voters, they know their constituency better than anybody else. They can still get things done. But given the fact that Roy Blunt was, you know, after all a creation of Dennis Hastert - Tom DeLay, it was part of the old leadership.

Both Boehner and Blunt were challenged by strong conservatives, and Boehner and Blunt won overwhelmingly. So I'm not sure what the message is. I guess they feel that whatever the problems Republicans in the House have, it's not with their leaders. And as you say, Hastert is not standing for another term as speaker or leader.

CONAN: On the Democratic side, the big news - beyond the election of the first woman to be speaker of the House when she is so sworn in come January - and that's the fact that her preferred choice as majority leader didn't win.

RUDIN: Well, there's a lot of hubbub about that. Steny Hoyer defeated her choice, John Murtha. Murtha and she - Murtha and Pelosi share a strong anti-war sentiment. Murtha really shocked a lot of people, having been a long-time defense hawk, very close with the defense industry, standing up opposing the war in Iraq, calling for withdrawal last year. And Pelosi and Murtha were very, very close.

At the same time, Pelosi and Hoyer were never close. Hoyer challenged Pelosi for Democratic whip in 2001. Jack Murtha was her campaign manager during then. So there's always been kind of bad blood. Whether it's a fatal blow for Nancy Pelosi - that's really overstated. I mean, whether they love each other, no, but they have the majority for the first time in 12 years, and they certainly have an agenda.

CONAN: Let's go to Rich, Rich calling us from Cambridge, Maryland.

RICH (Caller): Yes. This whole fuss about Pelosi, and Hoyer, and Murtha - I find kind of surprising. The media seems to really cave into this whole middle-school drama-queen take on it. As you say, Murtha was an old-time friend and associate of Pelosi's. She backed her friend; he didn't get it. And you have admit, you even kind of caved into this thing, too, in your intro about, you know, the House thumbing its nose at Nancy Pelosi.

CONAN: But Ken Rudin, it's hard not to read this - the newly elected speaker says here's my man, here's the guy I want to be majority leader, and it's hard to read it as anything else but thumbing their nose at it.

RUDIN: Well, yes and no.

RICH: Speaker is only one person that has a vote there. It seems like we've been so inculcated to the whole Republican lock-step, Kremlin method of governing for the last few years that, you know, when everybody doesn't come out 12 abreast miming the same words, we are really shocked by it.

RUDIN: Rich, there are two points to this. First of all, you're right about one thing - it is much ado about nothing. Remember when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took power in 1994, his candidate for whip was a guy named Bob Walker from Pennsylvania, and he lost to Tom DeLay. And nobody said well, Newt Gingrich was seriously wounded.

But at the same time, there had been a lot of alleged threats sent out against people who dared to back Hoyer over Murtha. There are some people who said Nancy Pelosi will not be happy about this. But no, I think you're overstating what NPR's reaction to it is. I mean, it was a blow to Pelosi, yes. Is it long-lasting? Absolutely not.

CONAN: Let's thank Rich for his call and go on now to Jason, Jason with us from Boston.

JASON (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

JASON: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JASON: I live, as you say, in Boston, and we've just seen - for those of us who have been waiting for this, it's been a great relief - Mitt Romney no longer governor, and now we have liberal Deval Patrick about to take the reigns. But in his last days in office, in a disgustingly transparent bid for the 2008 presidential nomination, Mitt Romney is now ramming all sorts of conservative legislation down our throats. He's trying to force the Massachusetts legislature to vote on gay marriage, and he's been seen on television doing some pretty outlandish, almost Mussolini-like things. My question is…

CONAN: Well, this is to try to force the legislature to vote to make it a referendum next time around, correct?

JASON: Correct.

CONAN: And this has been put in train - this has been in train for a couple of years.

JASON: Right. But you know, it's clear that he knows that if he can really sign his name to this effort, as he goes through - like you said, this is something that's been going on for some time - but he's really trying to push it through before he leaves office.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, is this posturing ahead of 2008?

RUDIN: No, absolutely not. Of course it is. I think everybody agrees. And part of Romney's strategy, the way I see it, is that several key conservatives were defeated on November sixth - November seventh - mostly Rick Santorum and George Allen. The two senators from Virginia and Pennsylvania respectively were seen as possible conservative standard-bearers against the dangerously independent John McCain. And we can talk about whether McCain is a true independent or not, but a lot of conservatives saw George Allen as the second coming, or at least the second coming of Ronald Reagan for 2008. Mitt Romney is certainly trying to fill that role.

Now in Romney's defense, he says look, you know, the legislature should stand for something. They should make a decision one way or the other. But as many other people have said, you don't put constitutional rights or the rights of minorities to the whim of a popular majority on a ballot - and that's what Romney's doing, and that's what his critics are angry about.

CONAN: Okay. Jason, thanks very much for the call. We're talking to the political junkie, Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And another prominent Democrat who will be holding a position of power come the next congress, and that's Charlie Rangel - the Democrat from Harlem, from New York City - has reintroduced the idea of going back to the draft. He's got a lot of reasons for it. He's got a lot of arguments for it. Politically, is this going anywhere?

RUDIN: Oh absolutely not. I mean, clearly Charlie Rangel is trying to make the point that he wants the draft, that he wants the people who go to war -especially the War in Iraq - he wants it to be more equitable. But you know, anybody with a short memory who remembers the Vietnam War - you know, Charlie Rangel's point is that members of Congress, had their sons and daughters been subject to a draft, they would never vote for this war. But anybody who remembers Vietnam knows that children of privilege either went to college or in some way got out of the draft.

CONAN: National Guard.

RUDIN: Exactly. I don't see how the draft becomes more equitable. Also, at the same time, Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker, says that she's against this. She says this is not the Democratic position, although she has suggested that maybe Steny Hoyer should be drafted - no, that's not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But no, she has said this is not on the table. Charlie Rangel's heading Ways and Means Committee. This is not his purview.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to - this is Barbara, is that right, in Tallahassee?

BARBARA (Caller): Yes. I'm calling about the District 13 vote that is in dispute. And my comment is just that Sue Cobb, the secretary of state, is really trying to, you know, push this through. And it's supposedly been certified by - experts who've looked at the voting machine, types of voting machines that are used in Sarasota have said that, you know, there's no way to really do a recount because there's no paper. And they're trying to bring in -what they ultimately want to do is have a new election, that that might be the only recourse to really get it, you know, straight.

RUDIN: Everything you said is exactly correct. The Florida officials have certified this election. They've called Buchanan, the Republican, the winner. Christine Jennings has gone to court saying there's obviously - there's no way to check by looking at the tallies - you're absolutely right. The numbers say that the Republican won because there is no paper ballot, there's no paper trail.

But it's my understanding that what happened, it's very similar to 2000, that if you look at the congressional ballot, if you look at the ballot in Sarasota County, it almost looks like the race for Congress is a continuation of the question about the Senate race. So it's very possible that - I mean, 18,000 is a lot of voters, but a lot of voters may not have even noticed there was a separate election. It looked like, to the naked eye, that it was part of the Senate ballot, and people just skipped it altogether.

CONAN: How many of those votes went to Buchanan?

RUDIN: Pat Buchanan?

CONAN: Yeah, exactly right.

RUDIN: But so anyways, she would like a new election, which is very, very unlikely. The question is whether the determination goes to the 109th Congress, which has two weeks to go in December, or it goes to the 110th Democratic-controlled Congress. And of course if the Democratic-controlled Congress throws out the results in Florida then you're going to have, you know, anger. You know, what we saw in 2000 will repeat in 2007.

CONAN: The Bloody 13th, it'll soon be.

RUDIN: That's right.

CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BARBARA: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And some time this afternoon, the new political junkie column will be up at our Web site, npr.org.

RUDIN: If you want to talk about turkeys, yes the column will be up, right.

CONAN: And Happy Thanksgiving, Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: You, too, Neal. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, the political junkie, joins us here every Wednesday on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

(Soundbite of song “I Want To Grow Up and Be a Politician” by The Byrds)

Roger McGuinn (Musician): (Singing) …the old red, white and blue. I want to grow up and be a politician and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land.

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