Roundtable: Democrats Debate; Cheney's Speech at BYU

Guests discuss Thursday's debate between Democratic candidates for president; and Vice President Dick Cheney's commencement speech at Brigham Young University. Joining the panel: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, Democratic presidential candidates held their first debate last night. We'll see who stood out. And the high court reconsiders campaign finance. To discuss these topics and more, I'm joined by Dr. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Joe Davidson, an editor at the Washington Post, and Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University and a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. So hello, everybody. And let's…

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Hello.

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, Washington Post): Hello.

CHIDEYA: …talk about the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls who gathered at South Carolina State University yesterday. The first debate of the '08 season, even though it's still '07, and the earliest official campaign start in history. And, of course, South Carolina State is a historically black university. African-Americans are expected to make up half of the state's Democratic primary voters but it's also a conservative state.

And, you know, last night, the candidates seemed really caught in the crosswinds of politics. Let's start out with a little exchange between Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards, who both voted for the war in Iraq. Edwards has made a point of apologizing for his vote, Clinton has not. And last night, Edwards tried to turn that to his advantage.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): Better claim than anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they voted the right way; if so, they can so support their vote. If they believe they didn't, I think it's important to be straightforward and honest.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I take responsibility for my vote. Obviously, I did as good a job I could at the time. It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.

CHIDEYA: Is that good enough, Mary, is that statement that Senator Hillary Clinton has said again and again, that I voted the way that I had to vote given the evidence that I had at the time, or are some Democrats looking for more?

Prof. BERRY: Some Democrats are looking for more from her and from all the other candidates who were there last night, except Kucinich and Gravel. Some Democrats want everybody to say that it was a mistake, they apologize, and now let's withdraw and let's not fund the troops.

But I think for most people the answer is no worse than the answer that Edwards and the other candidates gave who did vote for the war, too, and at least it is consistent. And I think that most people in the United States knowing what we knew at the time, we might have been suspicious but we didn't know very much.

Obama comes off okay because he wasn't in the Senate at the time, so he can say I didn't support it. But he didn't have the same information the senators have. So I think it's good enough for the primary season. And if she should get the nomination - and I say if because anybody up there could get it - the nomination, it will I think serve her well during the general election.

CHIDEYA: Before I move on to everybody else we have, tell me a little bit, very briefly, about Representative Dennis Kucinich and former Senator Mike Gravel and how they portray themselves in the race.

Prof. BERRY: I thought that they were tenacious and funny. And I thought Gravel was a little bit on the fringe, not just on the stage but in the discussion. But I thought Kucinich was forceful. Of course he's not going anywhere in the campaign, but I thought that he was forceful. And they added a note of comparison. You could compare everybody else to them. So that was, I thought, important and useful.

CHIDEYA: So I heard both of you guys laugh. Joe, were you the one laughing first?

Mr. DAVIDSON: No, I was the one laughing second.

CHIDEYA: Okay. Well, then I'm going to have to go with Nat, who was laughing first. Please, tell me what you were laughing about.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Because I think what Mary, you know, when you think about the other two candidates - Kucinich and Grovel and you look at the…

Prof. BERRY: Did you say Grovel or Gravel?

Prof. IRVIN: Gravel, I - well, okay, Mary.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I thought it was Gravell(ph).

Prof. IRVIN: Gravell?

Prof. BERRY: Gravell? Oh, okay.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah. Well, anyway…

Mr. DAVIDSON: Apparently he's not the best known of all the candidates.

Prof. IRVIN: Right. But I thought, you know, it does add a certain amount of honesty. You know, there's always a part of a conversation that you really wish people could have when you're talking about something as serious as, you know, health care, national policy, debates about the war in Iraq, or whatever the matters might be.

There's always a part of our discussion that seems to be so formal, so off limits, but yet these two guys seemed to be able - at least last night they seemed to be free and clear and able to say what's really on a lot of America's mind. And to that extent, I thought it's always - I think it's good to have the, quote, "fringe candidates" who forced the mainstream candidates to have to respond in some way.

And I think that if you look at the questions that were asked from the people in the audience when that time came around it also was a sort of a refreshing part of a debate where, you know, it's not the prescribed answers that you get. You sort of get a chance to air the part of yourself, as I said, that you really wish people would talk about. But because people are trying to be safe as the mainstream candidates are, they wouldn't dare face some of the things that, perhaps, Kucinich would say. For example, with the impeachment issue of…

Prof. BERRY: Right.

Prof. IRVIN: …Cheney. Everybody probably thinks the same thing but they wouldn't dare say it.

CHIDEYA: Joe, let me actually go on and play a clip from another one of the big candidates, Senator Barack Obama. He referenced the fact that, earlier yesterday, the Senate passed an Iraq funding bill. It provides strict timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals. Here is a little bit of Barack Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We were one signature away or 16 votes away from ending this war, one signature away. Now if the president is not going to sign the bill that has been sent to him, then what we have to do is gather up 16 votes in order to override his veto.

CHIDEYA: All right. I want you to talk to me, Joe, about overriding the veto. First of all, is that realistic? But also, is this a good way for the senator to position himself as someone who is taking a stand and trying to make policy in Washington? Is this something that's going to resonate with Democratic voters?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, on the veto threat, I don't think the Democrats now expect to get those 16 votes to override the veto, and they certainly aren't going to get that one signature from the president. But I do think that this is way that Barack Obama, as well as the Democrats in general, can position themselves in opposition to the president's policy in Iraq.

And so by stressing how close they are, the 16 votes. It doesn't sound like much, even though they probably won't get it, the one signature, which they certainly won't get. It makes them seem that they are representing the vast majority of the American people. And in fact polling indicates that the majority of the American people do support the Democratic Party's position on this issue.

So I think it's a way, good way for Barack Obama to set himself up in opposition to the president and on the side of an issue that has the backing of most Americans.

CHIDEYA: All right. In case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I am Farai Chideya.

We are speaking with Joe Davidson, an editor at the Washington Post, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University and columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal, and Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nat, I'm going to turn back to you for a completely different topic, still in the realm of politics. The Supreme Court is considering campaign ad reforms. There's been all of this debate over the real implications of the McCain-Feingold Act.

And in 2003, the high court upheld the bulk of the act, which really was meant to sort of clean out politics, you know, the influence of money in politics. But there's also this question of whether funding issue ads is a form of free speech. And if unions and corporations want to fund these ads that don't come from a party, don't come from a candidate, but still definitely have a slant on them, what are the restrictions on that? Nat, how do you think this fight is going to play out?

Prof. IRVIN: Gosh, you know, Farai, I'm just thinking about what are my own views on this. All of sudden here I find myself, am I in the same - am I on the same position with the Bush administration on this? You know, this idea of…

Prof. BERRY: That's a scary thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Well, there's a lot of different…

Prof. IRVIN: But it's a very…

CHIDEYA: …fault lines.

Prof. IRVIN: (unintelligible) a fine line here. This whole, you know, the court is reviewing this because the way that it came up was the distinction between whether or not you mentioned a candidate's name in a primary, 30 days, 60 days - I guess with the general election, whether you mention a candidate's name in the ad versus whether or not a candidate's name is associated with a particular policy issue. That's, you know, that's such a distinction as to - you're dancing on the head of a pin here.

And I frankly don't know how the court is going to rule on this. And second, I don't know even after it is decided by the court and, you know, this attempt, you know, there's some thinking that Alito is going to cast a vote going to reverse this ruling.

But I frankly don't think even after that is done that we will have decided anything. We're in some new territory here, and I think we may be trying to legislate ourselves into - back ourselves into a corner where we really don't know what it is that we're actually going to do.

CHIDEYA: Well, just to give you an example. I mean, you hinted at this, some of the fault lines. So the Bush administration is defending the law, backed by some prominent former ACLU - American Civil Liberties Union - officials. This is according to a recent article by Jess Braven, "Court Weighs Campaign Ads." and then on the other side, the Republican National Committee and the ACLU itself. So it's like you have people who you would think would be on the same side that are really split on this.

Mary, are people going to sort of tear this issue apart in terms of - these are big, you know, 800-pound political gorillas that are weighing in on this…

Prof. BERRY: Right. Right.

CHIDEYA: And there's millions of dollars at stake here.

Prof. BERRY: Right. And actually the fault lines from the beginning were sort of strange because it's McCain-Feingold - that's legislation. Russ Feingold, who is about as far away from John McCain in terms of politics as anything else. And the facts involved Senator Feingold's reelection, which he won.

So on the one hand, I support, you know, and I think that we should support free expression, and I'm a purist when it comes to the First Amendment. And even money, having money and being able to use it is a freedom of expression. But there's this desire to try to minimize the influence of money in politics. I don't think it's ever going to happen. I don't think whatever legislation is passed it will be able to achieve that because it's like, you know, water going through cracks.

You'll find some cracks somewhere to get through. That's the way money goes. But on this specific case that's before the court, I think this idea of saying the context in which the ad was placed tells them that it had to be about Senator Feingold. I think that goes a little bit too far. And with the new justices on the court, I suspect what they're going to do is to say that that is too limiting.

CHIDEYA: Joe, it strikes me that so much of this debate is really about the millions of dollars in campaign financing that really flows towards television advertising. It really is the key issue here. And some people have suggested, and some states actually have, public financing. So is that a possible solution to this, more public financing of elections and more restrictions on private contributions?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think clearly that is a possible solution, and there have been people who have advocating that for quite sometime. And various states around the country have moved more in that direction than other places. I think, though, that this recent fundraising by the Democratic candidates, though, shows why many of the major candidates I don't think would be in favor of it.

I mean, when you have both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton raising over $20 million, you know, it's so early in the campaign, it's really, I mean it was record shattering. And then they can use this money however they see fit because they raised it. It doesn't come from public coffers. They don't have the same restrictions on them that they would if it came from public financing.

But clearly public financing would allow, I think, a broader spectrum of people to get involved in these races, and I think that's the argument that people who favor public financing push, because politics continues to be seen as something that only the rich or those who know rich people can do, no matter where you came from. I mean, if you come from John Edwards's humble background that he likes to talk about, if you came from a Barack Obama's interesting background. You know, no matter where you come from, in the end you have to get a lot of money. And so those who advocate public financing argue that public financing would level the playing field.

Prof. BERRY: But it has to be only public financing.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Right. Yeah.

Prof. BERRY: You can't have an opt out provision.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And we're doing that.

Prof. BERRY: If you have opt out, people will just opt out and go on.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Opt out.

Prof. BERRY: So you have to restrict everybody to using the money that's available.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And that's why it hasn't happened yet.

CHIDEYA: All right. Let's move on to one last topic. It is commencement season all around the country, folks lining up to give speeches and people looking for advice. Brigham Young University hosted the vice president at it's commencement speaker yesterday and the school presented him with an honorary doctorate of public service. Here is what he had to say.

Vice President RICHARD CHENEY: But you, too, may face some disappointing turns of your own, times when you fall short knowing you could have done better. And when that happens, don't give up or let your doubts get the best of you.

CHIDEYA: Those are some very candid and humble words from a man who is often seen as just stiff upper lip, takes no prisoners. Does that surprise you, Mary?

Prof. BERRY: No, he has a very good speechwriter. And it is commencement, and universities invite commencement speakers who they think will get them some public notice, which is what they got with Cheney, and people who they would like to say that these are models, role models for our students. And I guess this is what BYU thinks Cheney is.

So I think that his speech content, at least the part that we heard, doesn't have anything to do with the real Cheney. It has to do with what he thought you ought to say in a commencement speech to a bunch of students and convey the message, and that's being given all around. So I guess…

CHIDEYA: We have to…

Prof. BERRY: …BYU got what they intended to get.

CHIDEYA: All right. Very briefly, Joe and then Nat, lots of protests on the campus although it's a conservative campus, a lot of Mormon students for example. Was that a surprise? Joe? Nat?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I don't if what I would say it was lots. I think the figure I read was about a hundred protesters. It is significant though because BYU is in the reddest county in the reddest state, and so any level of protest I think was deemed significant.

CHIDEYA: Nat?

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah. I agree with you, Joe. And I think that probably at this point, people are tired of Cheney and, you know, you sort of just add more to what is, I think, a terrible legacy by just adding, as I think BYU would like the students wanted - I'd say they wanted this commencement to end as peacefully and as quietly and perhaps as unnoticed as possible.

CHIDEYA: Well, we noticed it. And on that note, no more time. Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University and columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Joe Davidson, an editor at the Washington Post. They were both at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. So thanks for your time, everybody.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: And as always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on the Roundtable, you can call us at 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330. Or you can send us an e-mail. Just log on to npr.org and click on Contact Us.

Next on NEWS & NOTES: Gearing up for the NFL draft, plus remembering two jazz greats.

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