Political Junkie: A New Congress and Looking to 2008

NPR political editor Ken Rudin talks about the new Democratic Congress, the hopes of likely presidential contender Rudy Guliani, and news about the lead-up to 2008.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It is Wednesday and so it's time for another edition of the Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of Political Junkie intro)

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!

SIMON: It's a brand new year, a brand new Congress and Democrats say that they remain committed to bipartisanship, but maybe not for the first 100 hours of business. A leak to the New York Daily News has exposed the hopes and the dreams and the concerns of a likely presidential contender, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

That and other news about the ramp-up to 2008. If you have questions or comments about the week in politics, please give us a call at 800-989-2855. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@NPR.org.

In our studios in Washington, D.C. is Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor and the Political Junkie. Ken, thanks very much for being with us.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Scott, I remember you.

SIMON: Yes, and I remember you as a matter of fact. Let's talk about former President Ford, who - there's been a lot of talk about him this week. But… I just want to hear your thoughts about this man.

RUDIN: Well, yeah. I mean I don't know what I could possibly say that hasn't been said over and over and over again. But what I am startled by, is that back in '74, '75, '76 - first of all, a really tough time in American politics. A president resigned in disgrace. Ford, who had been in Congress for 25 years, has really just, you know, by luck or by bad luck or whatever - bad luck for the country, good luck for the country - went into the vice presidency and then the presidency.

And for the most part, you know, he was not so much a joke, but he was somebody who was not seen seriously - thanks to Chevy Chase, thanks to fumbles of his own, thanks to a nonstop battle with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. But, you know, you look back at his years and you look back at what he did in the White House, and there's a sense of decency that you saw with Ford. And you saw that in yesterday's eulogies by former President Bush, by Henry Kissinger, by many others - that there was a sense of decency that the man definitely had.

And, you know, he's being laid to rest today in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And he was always a product of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he never forgot that - as a member of Congress, as vice president, as president.

SIMON: I want to ask you a question about the press, though. When we talk about the way Mr. Ford was viewed in the 1970s. Is there a herd mentality in the press - that when somebody makes a joke, and somebody becomes a joke, and everybody piles in. And here this man had this image of ineptitude, for example. I'm just talking about lack of physical grace and ineptitude.

When in fact he was a high-ranked collegiate varsity athlete. He was actually a very good golfer. It's just that most people who play golf don't have to have thousands of people lining the fairways. And somebody got too close and got hit by his ball.

You look back on it, did the press exactly help people seem him clearly?

RUDIN: Well, you know, this is in the days before 24/7 cable news. You know, all we had was Cronkite and Chancellor, and Huntley-Brinkley. And that's all we really had to cover him. And so he happened to have been president, to his dismay, in 1975 when a show called “Saturday Night Live” took to the airwaves for the first time.

That show was designed to spoof people in power, people in high position. And it just so happens that Gerald Ford was the person in high position, and they spoofed him mercilessly.

SIMON: Yeah. But you're leaving the press out?

RUDIN: Well, is there a herd mentality? Sure. I mean we know about Al Gore and discovering the Internet. We know about Howard Dean's scream that they play, you know, in this Political Junkie segment every time. And it's something that some people say a laziness, because we just seem to go back to the same-old, same-old all the time and not try to explore anything new. And of course, you know, Ford was always a victim of that.

SIMON: New Congress tomorrow. What's on the agenda?

RUDIN: Well, Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker in history, is talking about the hundred hours and the hundred hours she wants to pass ethics overhaul. Obviously ethics was one of the big reasons the Democrats are now in control of the House and Senate, given the fact that Duke Cunningham and Tom Delay and Bob Ney and Jack Abramoff - of course who is not a congressman but who did favors for members of Congress.

So you have ethics reform. You have implementing the recommendations of a 9/11 Commission. You have raising the minimum wage. You have perhaps stem-cell research. You perhaps - renegotiating the prescription drug benefits, cost of prescription drugs. It's a very ambitious agenda, but again, you know, we saw the same thing when the Republicans took over in '95.

Newt Gingrich with his Contract with America - tried to push a lot of things through very quickly.

SIMON: And what about the atmosphere of bipartisanship that both parties promise.

RUDIN: Well, we always say that, but look, this was a very angry election, it was an angry electorate. The Democrats and Republicans didn't speak to each other much in the 109th Congress. I suspect there won't be much difference in the 110th Congress, even though everybody's preaching, you know, we're all coming together, and the voters are tired of the partisan rancor.

But you know, a lot of the Republicans are already complaining that the Democrats are bringing some of this legislation straight to the floor. They feel that the Republicans are being bypassed - which is exactly what the Democrats said for the last 12 years. And before that, what the Republicans said for the last 40 years during Democratic rule in the House.

So we always talk about a new Congress, we always talk about starting fresh and starting anew, but the same old complaints, the same old complaints about partisanship will win out, ultimately. Plus the fact that everybody in the Senate is running for president, so it's hard to pass legislation and run for president at the same time.

SIMON: We've got an e-mail I wanted to share. Chris(ph) in Ohio says Nancy Pelosi has indicated she'll ignore Republican input in pending legislation -which you were talking about, Ken - in order to move things along by avoiding possible Republican roadblocks.

I tend to look at it in two ways - says Chris in Ohio - one, Washington business as usual. The Republicans made the Democrats irrelevant for six years, so the Democrats want their pound of flesh now. Two, the lack of viable statesmen or stateswomen who rise above the pettiness of politics and simply get things done in Washington.

I think that the recent Obama phenomenon is an example of the people's desire for such a public figure.

RUDIN: Well, there's certainly truth to that. I mean, if we talk about 2008 politics, what a lot of people like about Barack Obama and don't like about Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, is that Clinton represents a time in the past when there was just, you know, there was rancor, there was bitterness, there was partisanship. And Obama, even though it's early and things could change, and certainly things will change - but there's a sense that this guy is above it all, is above the partisanship.

You know, he speaks softly, he doesn't, you know, rattle a saber or anything like that, and I think that's why he's not only doing so well in the polls but he's scared many Democrats out of the race, as well.

SIMON: But hasn't Senator Clinton almost been a model of working bipartisanship since she came to the Senate?

RUDIN: And that's exactly the irony of the whole thing. Despite her reputation, despite, you know, all the hate mail that she undoubtedly gets - the hate mail that we get about Hillary Clinton - she has been a very civil - somebody who's tried to forge coalitions. She obviously got a lot of Republican support. She won overwhelmingly in upstate New York - narrowly the first time, overwhelmingly in November.

So she has tried to put that behind her, but again, there's stuff out there that just won't go away.

SIMON: Let me just rattle through some questions. I was flabbergasted to read, I believe last week, according to public opinion polls, 38 percent of the American people who were polled say that they could not vote for a Mormon for president.

Now there is a Mormon apparently running for president, Governor Romney of Massachusetts, but let's separate it out from him. That such a high percentage of the American people would - I have no fear in stating this - admit to a prejudice to a pollster, is flabbergasting to me.

RUDIN: Given the fact that that number - of course, that number was an L.A. Times poll from last July, which has since been reduced to 14 percent in the latest Bloomberg L.A. Times poll. But still, there's a sizable amount of people who said they would never vote for a Mormon. And I agree. Given the fact that we have seen time and time again that people say yes I would vote for a woman, yes I would vote for a Jew, yes I would vote for a black, but there's still that prejudice about Mormonism and what it represents.

Is it a real religion? Is it the work of the devil? I mean, the e-mails I get about Romney and his religion is just astounding, given the fact that this is not the dark ages. This is - ostensibly, it's the 21st century.

SIMON: A question, a couple questions, I guess, about Barack Obama - who I must say, in Illinois is sometimes called Obambi because of the great notice he's getting now.

Now, however, questions are being raised. Eleven years ago, he wrote an autobiography, admitted that he had used drugs or talked about the fact that he used drugs. Maybe more significantly, he has this relationship with a Chicago influence-peddler who's been indicted, named Tony Rezko, who in fact bought the lot of the house next to him in Hyde Park - the kind of thing - a good favor you do for a friend, saying I'll keep the lot. I won't build anything on it. At some point, you can add to it yourself.

Senator Obama has apologized for doing business. But it raises the question. There must be a million people in Chicago who would do that favor for Barack Obama. Why does he go to the guy who's been indicted? Does this prove that some of the luster is beginning to - people are going to try and chip away at it?

RUDIN: Well, they certainly will chip away at this, given the fact that he has done basically nothing wrong. I mean, he has seemed to be untouchable. Even the past use of cocaine, people were just shrugging it off.

Some people say that for Obama, given all his political smarts, it was really naive of him just to - because this guy who he did business with always had a shady reputation. But to his credit, Obama's credit, he said it was a mistake. It was a bone-headed mistake. I regret it, and I did the wrong thing.

Compare that to, let's say, Whitewater, which whatever Whitewater was, it was denial, denial, denial that went on forever. I'm not comparing the two. They're both land deals, of course. But the point is, that he owned up to a mistake, and he confessed to it - and then hopefully for him, or at least he thinks -that people will look past that.

SIMON: We have a caller, Kim(ph) in Tucson.

KIM (Caller): Yes. I'm wondering if Barack Obama is electable now, considering the history of the drug use or what you were just talking about. And I would vote for him, but is it going to be that the media is going to exploit this to a point where he won't be elected?

SIMON: Ken?

RUDIN: The media loves to do that. And it's unfortunate because - Howard Dean is a perfect example. The media created him out of nowhere. I mean, he was a phenomenon on the Internet. But then once he got to be the ostensible front-runner, the media just pulled him down as well.

That's what the media - I don't think the media is left or right or liberal or conservative, they just like to go after the leaders. And they like to cause controversy. And there's no shortage of journalists, let alone a shortage of other Democrats, who are going into Obama's past to try to come up with something. But so far, the only thing we know of is the land deal in Chicago, the previous cocaine use. But you know, 2008 - the Iowa caucus is 54 weeks from now, so there's plenty of time for more things to come out.

SIMON: By the way, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

New York Daily News carried a story this week, a document that seems to outline plans that former Mayor Giuliani has to - not just to run for president, but to raise $100 million to do it. Was this injurious to his campaign in any way?

RUDIN: Well, if you read the whole memo, and you read the Daily News article, what you see is probably what you already knew - that of course you have to raise a ton of money to be considered viable. We saw that with George W. Bush in 2000, we saw that with Phil Graham in 1996, we saw that with Howard Dean in 2004.

There's a sense that, if you raise a lot of money, you become considered a leading candidate. The problem with Giuliani is - and the memo, the leaked memo acknowledges this - is that he has tons of problems. given the fact that he's on his third wife in a very pro-family - ostensibly pro-family - Republican Party. He's pro-abortion in a pro-life party. He's against guns in a pro-gun party.

So - and the fact, as you know, if we talk about his business acumen - one of his former partners is Bernard Karick, who has a lot of questions about him as well.

So my gut tells me that Rudy Giuliani does not run, ultimately, does not run for president. But again, if you look at the national…

SIMON: He's on top of the polls.

RUDIN: He's on top of the polls, but of course that's based on one key day, one - I was going to say shining moment. Of course, it wasn't a shining moment. But it was September 11, 2001, where he did - he rose above it all and did really lead a bewildered and dumbfounded city to consciousness again.

But people forget that on 9/10 and on 9/9, Rudy Giuliani was not the most popular guy in New York. As a matter of fact, there were a lot of critics of his, about his civil liberties record, about police brutality. So he has certainly a mixed record.

Rudy Giuliani is far more than just what he showed on 9/11. And I'm not discrediting what he did on 9/11.

SIMON: But let me follow up on some of that, then. ON the other hand, have the American people over the past, let's say, decade, demonstrated that they will certainly vote for divorced people. If I'm not mistaken, President Reagan was certainly divorced.

RUDIN: Correct.

SIMON: And that was a number of years ago. And the American people, during the Clinton impeachment, can show that they are absolutely - they certainly can separate a man or woman's private life from their conduct as a public official. And on the issues that you just outlined. Rudolph Giuliani has taken positions that are in the mainstream of American thinking.

RUDIN: Right. But the people who vote in primaries are not centrists. They're not the independent voters. The people who show up in Iowa in January, 2008, are conservative, pro-family…

SIMON: At the Republican caucus.

RUDIN: At the Republican caucus, that's right. And Rudy Giuliani's views on abortion, guns, gays, things like that, are just anathema to the party.

SIMON: Returning to Mitt Romney in the same party. Does he need to make a speech the way that Jack Kennedy made a speech in 1960 - to, I believe, the Greater Houston Ministerial Association - talking about prejudice against Catholics and saying that of course, if I were elected president, my fealty would be to the Constitution, not to Rome. Does Mitt Romney need to have a Kennedy moment to put the religion issue behind him?

RUDIN: I think he does, and he has the same problem that Kennedy had, in a sense, because the Mormon Church is very good for Mitt Romney. It's a good fundraising base, it's a good base of support around the country.

But at the same time, given the fact that last July's L.A. Times polls showed a third of the electorate said they would never vote for a Mormon. Again, I think the more recent poll shows it less. But the fact that that's still out there, he should address it.

What he also needs to address, aside from the religion angle, is where does he stand on certain issues that are near and dear to conservatives, because when he ran for the Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, he was kind of soft on gay rights. As a matter of fact, I believe he said that he would even more of a champion for gay rights than Senator Kennedy. So that's something he may have to live down, given the fact that it's a conservative electorate on the Republican side.

SIMON: Let's go, if we can, to I believe it's Josh in Lafayette, Louisiana.

JOSH (Caller): Yes, sir. I happen to be interested in Giuliani because I tend not to vote strictly Democrat or strictly Republican. I kind of have a variety of opinions on these different issues, and I may be among many that would respect Giuliani's - I don't want to say multiplicity, but respect Giuliani's diversity of viewpoint - and wonder if there might be a chance he could affiliate with a third party, other than the Republicans or the Democrats, and have a pretty good turnout.

SIMON: Ken?

RUDIN: Well, I've heard actually a different name mentioned, because there's somebody who had similar views on abortion, and gay rights, and guns, and things like that - and that's the current mayor of New York.

SIMON: Similar job title, too.

RUDIN: Exactly. Michael Bloomberg, who was a Democrat all his life, but ran as a Republican because he had no chance of getting elected as a Democrat. Giuliani would not run as an independent because he is, tried and true, a Republican. He's run for mayor three times in New York, winning twice.

He was a big speaker at the Republican national convention. He is a big fundraiser for - campaigner for Republicans around the country. Bloomberg, on the other hand, is perhaps a subject of an independent draft…

SIMON: And I can think of a billion reasons why Michael Bloomberg would be able to run an independent party.

RUDIN: Several billion. As a matter of fact - and even when you talk about all the money that somebody like that needs, look at Ross Perot in 1992. He spent millions and millions of dollars, and yet how many electoral votes did he get? Zero.

SIMON: All right, Ken, it's always nice to talk to you.

RUDIN: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, and you can find his Political Junkie column and his Podcast called It's All Politics on our Web site, npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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

Roger McGuinn (Singer/Musician): (Singing) …and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land.

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