Iraq War Resolutions, Finding the Right Candidate

NPR political editor Ken Rudin and National Review editor Richard Lowry talk about war resolutions from the Senate, two new presidential candidates and the search for a conservative right-wing winner.

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

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And it's time now for the Political Junkie.

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: Iraq resolutions are piling up in the United States Senate. It's not coincidence that a few of them are penned by presidential hopefuls, one of them, Senator Joe Biden, Democrat, who made his bid for the presidency official earlier today. And on "Meet the Press" a former governor from Arkansas made his announcement to run.

No, Bill's not running against Hillary. It's Mike Huckabee. A little later we'll talk with the editor of "The National Review" about their conservative powwow. The topic: prospects for a conservative candidate in 2008. If you're conservative, are you satisfied with the current crop of Republicans running for president?

As always, we appreciate questions and comments from our listeners about the week in politics and the look ahead towards 2008, or even 2007, which is the subject of Ken Rudin's weekly Political Junkie column, which is up on our Web site at npr.org.

If you'd like to join the conversation, our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And sitting across the table from me here in Studio 3A is the Political Junkie himself, Ken Rudin. Nice to have you back on the program.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And Ken, how many nonbinding resolutions are there going to be before the Senate sits down and votes on one?

RUDIN: Well, there's no end in sight. There's at least five or six right now, and most of them are offered by Republicans who are unsure of exactly what statement to make. They saw what happened on November 7th. They know the American electorate is angry about the war. But they also know that they have a Republican president that they would like to support even though the policies may not be working so well.

So there are a lot of little shades of gray in a lot of them. But for the most part they want to do something that will, you know, certainly not hurt their chances in 2008 but at the same time not want to be a complete sellout to the president.

CONAN: And at the same time as all of these, as you say, different shades of gray in these different resolutions, you keep looking at the number of sponsors and the number of Republicans speaking out, it's getting to be quite a problem.

RUDIN: Well, it's a problem in the fact that there was not one united Republican Party. You know, a lot of the Republicans for the longest time saying, well, the Democrats are so, you know, all over the map on Iraq. They're not united. Well, look at the Republicans in the Senate. They're not united either.

Chuck Hagel doesn't agree with John McCain, who doesn't agree with John Warner, who doesn't agree with John Kyl. So there's a lot of plans out there and there's hardly much consensus on the Republican side.

CONAN: And does any one resolution seem to be getting any traction?

RUDIN: Well, the two biggest ones are obviously the majority Democratic one, which is backed by Joe Biden, who, as you say, announced his candidacy today, and Chuck Hagel, the maverick Republican from Nebraska. Which basically says that the war is in the - that the policy is not in the national interest.

There's a John Warner substitute amendment, which a lot of concerned Republicans were backing, including Susan Collins. It's basically saying that they're disappointed with a lot of the policies, but it's not an outright break from the president.

CONAN: As you mentioned, Joe Biden, Democratic senator from Delaware, announced his candidacy today. Didn't mess around with an exploratory committee. He goes right in as a declared candidate.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Friends, today I filed the necessary papers to become candidate for president of the United States. You know, this is an incredibly challenging time for our country because in my view President Bush has dug America into a very deep hole.

This administration's mishandling of the war in Iraq may be the greatest foreign policy disaster of our time. Above all else, that's why I'm running for president of this great country, for the next president of the United States is going to have to be prepared to immediately step in and act without hesitation to end our involvement in Iraq without further destabilizing the Middle East and the rest of the world.

CONAN: Joe Biden announcing his candidacy for president of the United States. He's slated to appear tonight on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" where, Ken Rudin, he may be answering more questions about Barack Obama rather than the war in Iraq.

RUDIN: Well, you know, he does. Joe Biden talks about the hole - the mess that the president - the United States has gotten us in with Iraq, but the hole that Joe Biden dug himself in. He was quoted in an interview today in the New York Observer regarding Barack Obama.

Here's what he said. He said: I mean, you've got the first mainstream African-American who is an articulate, and bright, and clean, and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.

Well, I mean, you know, to call - well, whatever. But Joe Biden just had a phone press conference, and about 55 to 60 reporters got on it, and the first 15 questions were all about his comment about Obama, and Biden tried - you know, Biden thinks out loud a lot of times. He doesn't - there's not much of a filter, sort of like the - he has a Ken Rudin problem, basically.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But what Biden does, he just say things, and then he has to backtrack. I mean, he did that when he ran for president in 1987. He dropped out because he embellished his record and plagiarism and all those things. I mean, that was a lifetime ago, but Joe Biden has been like that. He just - he's kind of like an aw shucks, I'll tell you exactly what I'm thinking. And sometimes when you're running for president, that's not the smartest thing to do.

CONAN: His campaign was already regarded as a long shot. Is it now a longer shot?

RUDIN: Well, he still has a great platform. He's still chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and given the fact that so much attention will be - you know, remember all the attention we spent on foreign relations in the 1960s over Vietnam. The same attention will be put on his committee and what they plan to do about getting out of Iraq, or at least a policy alternative to the Bush policy in Iraq.

But what's interesting is that you have so many senators running for president, so many on that committee, on the Armed Services Committee, that they may be just fighting with themselves as opposed to coming up with a coherent plan.

CONAN: We mentioned Barack Obama, the symbolic, non-binding resolutions in the Senate. He introduced a piece of legislation on the floor of the Senate, a real piece of legislation that would call for U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq by the end of the first quarter of 2008, in other words, in about a year.

So that's, I guess, according to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. So he's taking a stand on the issue.

RUDIN: Right, and you know, he said that he wants all troops out by March 31, 2008, and that's 40 years to the day of another famous withdrawal, and that with Lyndon Johnson of the Vietnam War in '68.

CONAN: The National Review, a conservative magazine, sponsored a conference over this past weekend to discuss 2008. Rich Lowry is the editor of that publication. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Mr. Lowry, good of you to be with us today.

Mr. RICHARD LOWRY (Editor, The National Review): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I understand that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a presidential hopeful in the Republican Party, was the keynote speaker. How did he go over?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, he got a mixed reaction. You know, he's obviously, he's a very attractive guy. He's well-spoken, he's bright, and he has very impressive business experience and a pretty good record in Massachusetts - but I don't think he bowled people over.

A couple things. One, he went on for about 50 minutes and didn't even mention Iraq. I don't even think he said the word Iraq, let alone, you know, taking a strong position on the surge - one way or the other - or even saying that we should be attempting to win there; which is something conservatives still want to hear.

And in the longer term, you know, his conversion on the pro-life issue. He was pro-choice until about 2002. Now he says he's very strongly pro-life. His story on how he changed, it may be right, it may be God's truth, it may be exactly what happened, but it strikes, I think, a lot of people as very unpersuasive. He says he was converted to the pro-life cause through the issue of embryonic stem-cell research, which one wag has said is a little bit like saying you converted to Christianity because of intelligent-design theory. It just, it doesn't have a true ring to it.

CONAN: Were there other prospective candidates at the conference?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, Newt Gingrich really knocked people's socks off Saturday morning. You know, he has a huge upside as a candidate. You know, whether he's plausible, ultimately, as a president I think there're some doubts about that, but he speaks the language of conservatives. He's, you know, as smart as they come and is probably one of the most compelling voices the right has at the moment.

Jeb Bush, the biggest non-candidate out there, also was really impressive and I think left a lot of conservatives thinking jeez, you know, we wish that guy had a different last name.

CONAN: Or just buy a vowel, maybe, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I mean, Newt Gingrich is a kind-of candidate. He said he'll get in if it looks like he might prosper, what, in the fall?

Mr. LOWRY: Yeah. You know, he has this very brilliant spiel about how the front-loading of the entire process is driven by consultants, and it makes no sense, and he's not going to abide by it, and if you're so desperate to have a presidential candidate right now, go out and find your guy, but it's not me, and I'm going to wait.

And all that may be true, but it's also just true this train is leaving the station faster than it ever has before. There are real doubts about how much money he can raise, and he's just going to be way behind in the fundraising and the organization if he waits to get in until the fall.

CONAN: So whom does that leave conservatives with?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, it's unclear. You know, one of these guys still may take off and really inspire conservatives. It still may be Mitt Romney. I think he had kind of an off night, but it's one night. There's Sam Brownback, who's out there and I think is making a little progress among grass-roots conservatives in these early states.

CONAN: That's the senator from Kansas.

Mr. LOWRY: But - the senator from Kansas, but again, he's not going to raise much money. I don't think he has that X-factor you need in a presidential candidate. So you look at all this, and you have to say so far, the picture really benefits John McCain, because so long as conservatives do not have one strong alternative to John McCain, it's going to help his candidacy. And so long as some of the animosity on the right to John McCain dissipates a little bit, as I think it's been doing with his forthright support for the troop surge into Baghdad, that all helps him.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a listener on the line, and this is John(ph), John's with us, calling from Kentucky.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, hi. Good afternoon to you gentlemen.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

JOHN: I appreciate the show. A couple things. First off, I saw Governor Huckabee, and I think he made a very good impression on the weekend talk shows.

CONAN: He was on Meet the Press, among others, yup.

JOHN: Yes, sir. And then second, I was wondering - and that's coming from a conservative Democrat, actually. And then I was wondering what you though, whether Duncan Hunter was positioning himself as a vice presidential pick simply because of him being from a very populous area and very populous state.

CONAN: That's in California. Duncan Hunter is the now-ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. And let's see what we can get from Rich Lowry.

Mr. LOWRY: Well first on Huckabee, he spoke to the National Review Summit on Sunday morning. He's really a spellbinding speaker, very talented speaker, very personable guy. So there is some upside to him, but again, he has the same sort of problems that Brownback does: no money and I'm just sure whether Republicans in this environment are going to look for an Arkansas governor.

Duncan Hunter, I just don't think he - the Republicans are basically hopeless in California no matter what, and there would be no hope that Duncan Hunter would deliver that state as a number two.

CONAN: As a number - and that's the vice presidential candidate's primary role these days is to deliver his home state, isn't it?

Mr. LOWRY: It's one of the things. You know, sometimes you do something thematic, the way Clinton did with Gore, just emphasizing his relative moderation and his youthfulness. Or you know, Bush did something different with Cheney, you know, sort of filling in his experience gap.

So you can - there can be political uses to a vice presidential candidate besides winning a state, but winning a state's pretty important.

CONAN: We're speaking - and thanks very much for the call, John.

JOHN: I appreciate it, thank you.

CONAN: We're speaking with Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, and of course with political junkie Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

RUDIN: I just thought - Richard, it's Ken Rudin here. I was just listening to possible reasons why you have somebody on the ticket. I was just thinking of why Barry Goldwater picked William Miller, the congressman from upstate New York, in 1964. He said he picked Miller because he drove LBJ nuts, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But you know, you made a comment. It was interesting to me that you thought it was interesting that Romney did not speak about Iraq, and yet when you think of the sensible frontrunner, John McCain, every time he talks about Iraq, he perhaps loses more and more votes from either a general-election audience of perhaps from the Republicans as well.

Mr. LOWRY: Well that's interesting because, you know, McCain in 2000, he had the support of independents and some Democrats, and the press loved him. He's been losing among all three of those groups, and the support for the troop surge has made that loss even steeper. But he's been gaining, or at least holding the same among Republicans. And if you're going to win a Republican primary nomination, that is what matters most, and that's why I think the extent to which McCain has hurt himself with the support of the surge has been exaggerated.

RUDIN: That kind of reminds me of what - brings into question what Chuck Hagel is trying to do because he has become the favorite of the media and the Democrats and, you know, those in the anti-war camp, and yet I don't know how that helps with a Republican nomination.

Mr. LOWRY: It doesn't. It hurts, and he has no chance whatsoever.

CONAN: And who at this point do you think conservatives will back a year from now?

Mr. LOWRY: I don't know. You know, I think conservatives should have a wait-and-see attitude, see who actually runs - you know, does Newt get into the race - and see how they run. And it's still - still is early in the process. So we're going to be watching closely.

CONAN: Rich Lowry, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time.

Mr. LOWRY: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, a regular commentator on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He joined us today from our bureau in New York. And let's see if we can get some more callers on the line, and let's go to, this is Tyrone(ph), Tyrone calling us from Queens, New York.

TYRONE (Caller): Yes, how are you doing?

CONAN: Okay.

TYRONE: And who does he think, right - who do you favor? And who's rubbing shoulders with Hillary if she gets elected, as vice president?

CONAN: As vice president. Ken Rudin, it's a little long between now and…

TYRONE: A long shot…

CONAN: …the convention, but who is Hillary Clinton thinking about for vice president?

RUDIN: Well, where the Democrats seem to doing the best lately is in the Midwest. I mean, they certainly have the West and East Coasts. You can give up on the South, so even when you had John Edwards on the ticket in 2004, it didn't pick up a single Southern state.

So if you're looking at the Midwest, maybe you're looking at maybe Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa. I'm looking - I'm thinking of actually other presidential candidates. Or if you want to - you know, Bill Richardson in New Mexico, who is Hispanic and the only guy from the West. He brings something to the ticket that other candidates don't bring, but again, we're already assuming Hillary Clinton, and a lot of Democrats say don't assume that yet.

CONAN: Tyrone, thanks.

TYRONE: All right.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Pat(ph) in Cary, North Carolina. I'm a fellow political junkie. I'm keeping up with all the new candidates, their positions, events, etc., but even I am not sure I can sustain this level of interest for 21 months. Do you foresee coverage and interest going down for a while, or will it be at the same fever pitch for the next year?

RUDIN: This is most depressing e-mail I've ever heard in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: I certainly hope the attention remains. But look, you know, you have the first time since 1928 you don't have an incumbent president or a vice president running. You have more and more candidates coming out of the woodwork. It's very interesting - you have like at least, you know, 15 from the Senate alone, and yet in history, only two sitting senators have ever been elected president. But obviously they feel there's an opening on both parties. You don't have an incumbent running. You have a very unpopular war, and you can have a serious debate in this country about the future.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, as always, thanks very much for being with us.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, and you can access his weekly political junkie column and his Podcast called It's All Politics at our Web site, at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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