A Political Forecast for 2007

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Farai Chideya examines the political landscape for 2007 with Melissa Harris Lacewell, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Princeton University, and Robert George, an editorial writer with The New York Post.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

If you made a list of New Year's resolutions for some of America's top politicians it might include increase the minimum wage, get out of Iraq entirely and, of course, run for president. Now, every one of those resolutions has someone who probably wants the exact opposite. That's politics.

And for a look at what lies ahead we're joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Princeton University. Also from NPR's New York Bureau, Robert George. He's an editorial writer for the New York Post and was a senior writer for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998.

Welcome back both of you.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Political Science, Princeton University): Thank you.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): Great to be here. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So the new Congress begins office next week. Robert, will Republicans be more moderate? Will Democrats be more partisan? What do we see ahead?

Mr. GEORGE: I think there are certainly, you know, some areas involving the domestic policy where they'll see eye to eye and you'll get a few things passed. But in terms of the big issues that are on the table, obviously Iraq, we're waiting to hear what the president is deciding to do, going forward. And right there you're going to have both partisan battles between the Democratic Congress and the Republican White House, and intra-party battles on the congressional level as well.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: And remember that this is no ordinary Congress. This is a Congress that is ramping up for the presidential election. And not again, in a regular way that we might expect, sort of the end of a second term. But because we have no expectation that the vice president is going to run for the nomination of the Republican Party, this means full, open-seat races on both sides of the aisle.

Mr. GEORGE: And by my count, I think we've got about seven senators, Republican and Democrat, who are definitely running or thinking of throwing their hat into the ring. The big names there, obviously, are John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama. But we're also hearing from Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel and on and on. So that really makes this a much dicier and a much more volatile set of circumstances in Congress than has been in the past.

CHIDEYA: And Melissa, former Senator John Edwards, who also was on the vice presidential slot of the Democratic ticket last time around, is the latest politician to announce that he's running for president in 2008. Is there anyone besides the list of people that Robert named that you think is going to throw their hat into the ring?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: There is no question that we are going to hear probably not only from these sort of federal folks, but there is going to be some state level people who we do don't yet know. There's going to be some governors of places like, you know, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas. You know, if you look at who our last presidents have been, they have not been our senators and congresspersons but in fact folks who were coming up through the ranks of state executives.

CHIDEYA: Robert, taking about Katrina, do you think that there is going to be a bit of a backlash against the Republican Party? With the Democrats in power in Congress there's going to be some hearings about what exactly happened in terms of federal response. Have we heard the last about Katrina yet?

Mr. GEORGE: I certainly don't think we've heard the last of it. But where the backlash is going to be I still think it's going to be open to question. Certainly, you're going to have these oversight hearings where they'll be looking into FEMA and looking into the Department of Homeland Security.

And - but the other aspect of it is the rampant abuse of the Katrina aid. And that is happening partly at the federal level, but it's also happening at the state level as well. I mean there are a lot of issues. There's a big question, actually, as to whether the incumbent governor, Kathleen Blanco, is going to run for re-election because even some of the Democrats feel that she's very, very vulnerable. There's a lot of assessing of her record as well.

So I think it is definitely the case that Katrina and the politics of Katrina are going to be with us for several more election cycles, but it's not all going to be washing in one way, that is to say against the Republicans.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: But, I will say, if we take 2006 as a whole and look at some of the key stories which hit the stage and which mattered then in our midterm elections, if we think about this Sago mine disaster, which occurred closely on the heels of Katrina, if we think about the immigration marches which heated up in the spring, if we think about the issue of minimum wage, which became a central campaigning issue, even if we think about more local politics - people like Cory Booker winning in the city of Newark, New Jersey -it seems that there may be, and it's pretty early, but it's possible that there's a move towards thinking about ordinary people and the ways that ordinary people's lives have been detrimentally affected by the sets of political choices and policy prescriptions that the GOP has provided for us over the past, you know, at a minimum, during the time of the Bush presidency. But certainly, also going back to the Newt Gingrich Congress.

CHIDEYA: Robert…

Mr. GEORGE: And I think it's something of a - I mean, I think there's a kind of a just, you know, just fix it. You know, Nike is Just Do it. You know, this is a kind of a just-fix-it mentality. You mentioned Newark with Cory Booker there. You know, there you had, you know, 20 years of an urban kind of a Democratic machine run by Sharpe James and there's a whole lot of things there that need to be fixed. And they're looking at this young Ivy League-educated black mayor Cory Booker to come here and just, you know, just fix these kind of things.

And certainly there are a number of things on the federal level where people, you know, they don't want to excuses as to whether the Democrats were running at a given time or whether it was a Republican. They just want somebody there who can get it done without any excuses.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like both of you were talking about populism, which no party has a lock on. But Robert, I really want to ask you about these hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage. They were things that we saw in the ballot initiatives, as well as on the federal level. Are the Republicans going to have to move away from those issues in order to be more populist?

Mr. GEORGE: I don't think so. I think, in fact, that Democrats actually have tempered their rhetoric, say, on the abortion issue. What I think would happen with the Republicans in the last election, they realized that, you know, it's one thing to say OK, we're pro-life and we believe in protecting the fetus and so forth. But then, when they go so far with their rhetoric into, say, the Terri Schiavo area, that's where people start to say, OK, this is going a little bit too far now. All right, it's one thing to say that there's certain protections need to be made for an unborn child. But here you're interfering with family, with family life, and that's where I think where the populist aspect starts to come into it.

On the gay marriage issue, I think it is still the case that whether you're talking about liberal states like California or very conservative states in the South, the general mood of the public is that marriage is something that is between a man and a woman. Now - and that's what's going to be decided on a state by state basis, is that people who make these determination just to whether what kind of legal protections should there be made between same sex couples, whether you want to call them civil unions. There was a bill that was just passed and made into law in New Jersey that allows the civil unions. So that's still going to work out. But in terms of the actual calling it gay marriage, that - it still seems that the country is not quite ready to make that step yet.

CHIDEYA: You know, the president - President Bush - is what political observers call a lame duck president. That's such a horrible term, I imagine, if you are in that position. But it just means that he's approaching the end of his second term. He won't be able to run again. What will he do to build his legacy and influence the political process? Melissa first.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, you know, he interestingly said to reporters just over a week ago that he wasn't interested in the question of building his legacy, that, you know, we're still writing about the first presidents and therefore it would be silly to be thinking about such a recent president.

But, you know, clearly we know that in second terms presidents tend to be thinking about, well, how will I be remembered in history. At the moment, it is the failure of the war in Iraq that is going to define George W. Bush's presidency.

Mr. GEORGE: But going beyond that, it's been very clear for quite sometime that this president wants most to be thought of, in terms of historically, is Harry Truman. And there you had a president who left office very, very unpopular because of the Korean war and we now look back at him historically as one of - it's not one of the - in the top five but one of the near-great presidents.

So, I think that's what…

CHIDEYA: So history was kinder to him than politics were at that time?

Mr. GEORGE: Than the politics were at that time, exactly. Now, obviously, I mean it's very much an open book as to whether that's going to be the case with this current president.

CHIDEYA: Now if you look at the 2008 presidential race, which in some ways has to be influenced by the legacy of President Bush, you have not just players who were in the game, people who are running for office, but you also have outside players, people who can endorse. People like Reverend Jesse Jackson, for example. Who do you think is the most powerful African-American in politics, elected or non-elected? Robert first.

Mr. GEORGE: Oh, nobody is hoping that this is going to be on the test. I think obviously in terms of elected officials you're certainly going to look at Barack Obama, who could be that worthy to make a very historical leap into the presidency. In terms of unelected, I think there are some people like Colin Powell, which we - who has not completely vanished from the scene yet.

CHIDEYA: Melissa?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah. I mean, I guess it depends on what we mean by power. If we think about the most purely powerful African-American in the country, it's got to be Condoleezza Rice just in terms of access to, you know, what we think of as sort of the governmental structure, the power, she is the ultimate citizen. She represents her nation to other nations. That said, I don't know that she has the ability to move electoral politics.

So if we think about the power of kingmakers, by far the most powerful African-American kingmaker is Oprah Winfrey. I often complained that Oprah Winfrey is the reason that George W. Bush is currently in office because during the first run he was on her show. She did as she always does, which is to make people who appear on her show in their very best light. And he got a big bump with married white women after that, which had an important influence on the electoral outcomes. But if…

Mr. GEORGE: And he kissed her, too.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, it was quite a moment.

CHIDEYA: Well, Robert, Melissa, thanks so much.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks.

Mr. GEORGE: Farai, thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Princeton University. And Robert George is an editorial writer with the New York Post and was a senior writer for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, former Senator John Edwards takes another shot at the White House. And we re-air a NEWS & NOTES greatest hit, my brief affair with the high art of boxing.

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