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Obama, AIG, And The Politics Of Anger

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Obama, AIG, And The Politics Of Anger

Politics

Obama, AIG, And The Politics Of Anger

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. AIG on the hot seat; South Carolina's Governor spurns stimulus money, some of it anyway; and the president calls out the troops to battle for the budget.

It's Wednesday, and time once again for the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. Secretary of State): Lipstick.

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

Governor HOWARD DEAN (Democrat, Massachusetts): (Screams)

CONAN: On Wednesdays, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to talk politics, which is all about AIG this week. David Gergen will join us to talk more about the politics of populism in a bit, but there's also a bellwether battle for a congressional seat in Upstate New York, former Vice President Dick Cheney's charge that we're not as safe as we were, RNC Chairman Michael Steele puts his other foot in his mouth, two unprecedented moves for a sitting president, onto the set with Jay Leno tomorrow night, and a call for volunteers to go door to door this weekend on behalf of the budget.

But we begin, as always, with a trivia question. Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal. Well, the story of the day, of course, or the week or the year is AIG, and Andrew Cuomo, who is the attorney general of New York, is trying to force AIG to release the names of all the employees who are receiving bonuses. I was going to say G. Gordon Liddy - probably G. Gordon Liddy is more popular now than Edward Liddy. But Edward Liddy today said that there were privacy issues there, and he talked about that. Anyway…

CONAN: Anyway, Barney Frank wants to subpoena them anyway.

RUDIN: Exactly. So Andrew Cuomo may - but actually, Andrew Cuomo may run for governor of New York against David Paterson in the primaries.

CONAN: But isn't he somebody's son?

RUDIN: Andrew Cuomo's actual father was Mario Cuomo, and the question is, who were the last three governors from the East Coast - and what I mean by the East, I mean the New England states and the mid-Atlantic region.

CONAN: Roughly the Northeast.

RUDIN: This is the most convoluted trivia question in history, but it's worth it because you get a T-shirt. Who were the last three governors whose sons also ran for governor?

CONAN: So if you think you know the names of the last three governors from the Northeastern part of the United States whose sons also ran for governor in that same state, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Ken, any hints here? Timeframe?

RUDIN: Well yes, it'll be post-World War II. I mean, obviously Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York, and his son ran twice for governor, as you well remember, in 1954 and 1966. But more recent than that. So post-World War, that they served as governor, and then their sons, of course, ran for governor.

CONAN: And let's get back to the story of the week, the month, the year, and that is the AIG, and there is - well, there are a lot of pitchforks and torches out on Capitol Hill today.

RUDIN: There is outrage out there, and it's legitimate, and it seems like the White House is trying to get in front of it, but belatedly so. I mean, the fact is that Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, apparently knew about these bonuses before the rest of the country did, and of course there's a big - it was a big outrage, and I think we've seen some of that, a lot of that, since the election and since the bailouts.

We saw that with Bernie Madoff. We saw that with the amount of - with the earmarks. We saw that with Tom Daschle, that the White House was slow to realize that there was a boiling resentment out there that somebody who, for whatever reason, did not fail to pay his taxes, failed to pay his taxes on time.

CONAN: And made $5 million after leaving Congress.

RUDIN: Right, while the rest of us, except for you and me, are paying our taxes. So there was an outrage out there. We saw that also years ago with the pay raise in Congress. Most of Washington, most of official Washington, pooh-poohed it, said it wasn't a big deal, but out there, out in the country, the real country, unlike Washington, there was resentment, and there is resentment now.

CONAN: Well, we're going to talk more about that with David Gergen in just a moment, but as you say, the White House is trying to get in front of this issue or back in front of this issue, get a hold of agenda again, and it's not going to be easy.

RUDIN: No, it's not, and of course there are a lot of people calling for Tim Geithner's scalp, and Barack Obama, who left today for a trip to California, it was interesting: As he left, he said I'm going to meet the voters, as if there's an election going on, and I guess there are elections going on every day, but before he left, he said that he still has complete confidence in Tim Geithner, that - he didn't mention again that this is a problem we inherited, which he has said about the economy in the past, but a point is, Tim Geithner did not do these contracts, did not write up these contracts. He was not responsible for the bonuses.

CONAN: But he may have to pay the price anyway.

RUDIN: Exactly.

CONAN: You mentioned the president leaving town. Obviously no sitting president has before appeared on a late-night comedy show. He's going to appear with Jay Leno tomorrow night, and whether it's a comedy or not remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, he also did something unprecedented for a sitting president this week, and that was issue a videotaped statement to his supporters, the people he rallied during the election, and here's an excerpt from it. This is all on behalf of his budget.

President BARACK OBAMA: We're already hearing the same worn arguments we've heard for years, and we'll surely hear more in the coming days. That's where you come in.

That's why I'm asking you to head outside this Saturday to knock on some doors, talk to some neighbors, and let people know how important this budget is to our future, and that's why I'm asking you to stay involved in the days ahead by writing letters and making phone calls and summoning that spirit that first gave us this chance for change.

Now is our moment to seize that chance, to secure our prosperity for our children and their children that lasts. With your help and your commitment, I know we can do it.

CONAN: So the president trying to use the same kind of campaign politics that got him put into the White House in the first place to support his policies.

RUDIN: That's pretty remarkable, the thought of people going door to door saying how much they love the administration's budget. It's pretty - I mean, I can't imagine that ever happening in the history on this planet.

But having said that, Barack Obama retains high popularity, high approval ratings. There is a sense in this country that everybody, except maybe Rush Limbaugh, wants him to succeed, and if that's the case, then he still has that political capital that we always hear about.

But having said that, if you go to the well once too often, it could backfire because there are going to be more bailouts, there is going to be more expenses like in health care and energy costs and things like that, and if there's such a backlash in the country about all this cost and all these bailouts and all this deficit, Republicans may say, look, I'm not getting on board this because it'll clubber me in 2010.

And so it's a problem for Barack Obama if he goes to the well once too often.

One more thing though about a sitting president. Richard Nixon did appear on "Laugh-In." He did a sock-it-to-me when he was running for office, saying sock it to me, but he also appeared with Rowan and Martin, I think in 1969, as president. But I guess this is the first late-night…

CONAN: Well, the first sitting president to sit down on the couch with - that was, of course, Nixon just did stand-up.

Let's see if we can get some callers in on the trivia question. Again, these are the last three governors of Northeastern states. Hint, hint, think really north, think really east, to have their sons also run for governor in those states, all since the Second World War.

800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Sonja's on the line from Boulder, Colorado.

SONJA (Caller): Hi there. Do I get to count Cuomo, or do I need give more than…

CONAN: No, we gave you Cuomo.

SONJA: All right. So how about Sununu, Griswald, and I don't know, Romney or Warren?

RUDIN: Well, I don't know most of what you talked about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But I do know that, of course, Mitt Romney's father was George Romney, but we're trying to keep everything in the East. So Mitt Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts, but Mitt Romney was governor of Michigan. That lets out Romney.

Now Sununu's father, John Sununu's father, was, ironically, John Sununu, and he was the governor of New Hampshire, but the younger Sununu only ran for the House and the Senate, did not run for governor.

CONAN: Yet.

RUDIN: Yet.

CONAN: All right. Nice try though.

SONJA: All right. How about Griswald though?

RUDIN: I - well, more recent than Griswald. Let's put it this way, more recent than Griswald.

CONAN: He did star in all those National Lampoon movies, "Summer vacation." But anyway, let's see if we can go next to - this is Christopher), Christopher with us from Malvern, Pennsylvania.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Yeah, hi. Now, the young lady before me already got it. I was going to guess Romney. You were right. You know, he was in Michigan.

CONAN: Okay. All right, thank you, Christopher.

RUDIN: A lot of our calls are brainwashed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Andre, Andre with us from South Haven in Michigan.

ANDRE (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. I was just listening, too, and I know I'm wrong. I was going to guess Rockefeller, Sununu and Romney.

CONAN: Rockefeller.

RUDIN: Well, no, there was only one Rockefeller who ran for governor, and that was Nelson, who ran.

CONAN: Ran in New York. Another one ran for governor in Arkansas.

RUDIN: Arkansas, was elected, true, but they weren't father and son. They were brothers. But no other…

CONAN: But now - and there's a Rockefeller in the Senate, but anyway, it all gets confusing.

RUDIN: That was a nephew.

CONAN: And that was West Virginia.

RUDIN: And he was a governor, but it was the nephew.

CONAN: Anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Are you confused enough, Andre? We have to acknowledge a Twitter, a tweet that we got last week, by the way, talking about that fabulous no-prize, the T-shirt that's being offered to the winners, and that - the tweet said, you know, if it's such a fabulous T-shirt, it must have been designed by somebody really fabulous too. And I have to admit, it was my daughter, Casey, who designed the T-shirt. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see. If you think you know the last three governors whose sons ran for governor in that same state, northeastern part of the country, since the Second World War, 800-989-8255. It was all on a Tuesday. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

In the meantime, upstate New York, the 20th district, the one vacated by the new senator from the state of New York, well, there's an interesting race to succeed her in that seat.

RUDIN: It's very interesting. The senator, of course, is Kirsten Gillibrand, who left, was appointed by David Paterson to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate, and now it's Jim Tedisco and Scott Murphy, the two, the Republican and Democrats respectively.

Now, this is a very Republican district. President Bush won it overwhelmingly. Well, I think he won 54-46 in 2004, but this district, Barack Obama is very popular. President Obama carried the district when he ran in 2004, and the Democrats are putting a lot of money in it.

So the Republicans are pretty unpopular in New York. There are 29 members of the House in New York. Only three are Republicans; shows how far the GOP has fallen in the state.

The election is March 31st. Jim Tedisco, the Republican, has had a lead for this whole time, but it's gotten much closer. So it's really anybody's guess.

Republicans would love to win it as a rebuttal to Barack Obama. Democrats, of course, if they keep it, it's one they've already had, but it will send a signal that the Republicans are in trouble in upstate New York.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another couple of trivia answers. Let's go quickly to - this is Bill, Bill with us from Cape Cod.

BILL (Caller): Hello. Gregg from New Hampshire, Hugh and Judd.

RUDIN: That's correct.

CONAN: You've got one, one out of three.

BILL: Bill Scranton, and I think his son may have run in Pennsylvania.

CONAN: Yes, that's right.

RUDIN: That's right, and I forgot about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: So there are four.

CONAN: You're halfway home.

BILL: Two-thirds. Tom Kean, and I think his son might have run in New Jersey.

RUDIN: No, Tom - well Tom Kean was governor, and his son was Abel. No, it wasn't Abel. Tom Kean, Jr. ran from the Senate against Bob Menendez.

BILL: He lost that, in any event. So two out of three.

RUDIN: So actually, two out of four, because I forgot about the…

CONAN: And because you stumped Ken, you're going to be declared this week's winner. You get the no-prize, Bill.

BILL: Very good.

CONAN: All right, we're going to put you on hold, and somebody will pick up and get your information and send you a fabulous T-shirt, designed by somebody truly fabulous.

BILL: I look forward to it. Thank you.

RUDIN: And for the record, the other two were Jim Longley, Sr. and Jr.; Longley, Sr. was elected governor of Maine in '74. His son ran for it, lost. Bob Casey, Sr. and Jr.; Senior was elected governor, Junior lost, although now he's a senator.

CONAN: Scranton, okay. Anyway.

RUDIN: I forgot about that.

CONAN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He gets most of the answers right.

RUDIN: That's so eerie.

CONAN: Our Political Junkie. Up next, the president's AIG problem. Today he said, quote, "the buck stops with me." We'll talk more about the politics of populist anger with David Gergen. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's Wednesday, Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us. He's NPR's political editor and our political blogger-in-chief. You can find him online at npr.org/junkie, and for the rest of this segment, we're going to focus on the populist backlash against AIG and the dilemma that poses for President Obama.

The president spoke with reporters outside the White House earlier this afternoon. He said his administration is working with Congress on new ways to oversee companies like AIG. He also said the AIG bonuses are just part of a bigger problem.

President OBAMA: People are rightly outraged about these particular bonuses, but just as outrageous is the culture that these bonuses are a symptom, that have existed for far too long, a situation where excess greed, excess compensation, excess risk-taking have all made us vulnerable and left us holding the bag.

CONAN: The buck, the president said, stops with me, mixing his metaphors a little bit. It's an understatement to say that people are outraged, though. How are the politics of this anger playing out where you live? Who's playing offense, who's playing defense?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site too. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is David Gergen, who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he's the director of the Center for Public Leadership.

He worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, and he joins us now from his office in Cambridge. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION, David.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Center for Public Leadership): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And in all those other administrations, I'm sure you never saw a crisis of this dimension.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERGEN: Well, we've seen a lot of sharp disputes in Washington, but I don't think we've ever been engulfed in a crisis as big as the one that we find ourselves in today, and that you have to feel some - whether you agree or disagree with the president, you have to feel some sympathy as he grapples with all this.

CONAN: The problem this poses for the White House especially - he's still in his first 100 days. He's still trying to set his agenda, and is being overwhelmed by the story over which he might have had better control, but the fact is, he doesn't have any control of it now.

Mr. GERGEN: He does not have much control, and he has a near-term dilemma and a longer term dilemma. The near term, he has to figure out how to get ahead of this AIG problem.

He does not - the options are not very good, but I think that the proposals that the administration has been floating over the last several days, first they said we'll just have to accept it, we have to respect the sanctity of contracts, saying - this being said at the same time when auto workers are having to renegotiate their contracts and accept much less. It's just not going down well with the country or with the Congress.

And then even today with the latest proposal Secretary Geithner has sort of just added to the bill, or cut the bonuses in half, it's just not going to fly. It's not sufficient. So he has to find a way to deal with this, and I think that the longer this goes on, the more it's weakening his hand and the bigger dilemma that's coming.

And that is at some point, as Tom Friedman pointed out in the New York Times today, he does need to go back to Congress and ask for substantially more money for the banks, and indeed he may need more money for AIG.

Given the state of play, that's going to be extremely difficult to get, and there is a growing sense that somehow he inherited the problem, but his administration has not been on top of it. They've been a little bit asleep at the switch.

They let this thing build. They were - I think they were a little tone-deaf on how much it was going to explode in the last couple of days, and it's starting to undermine confidence in their capacity to manage new, great big bailout programs.

The public was already, the Congress was already, resistant, but this is only going to strengthen that resistance.

CONAN: A frequent way to deflect attention is to blame somebody. The president has twice, in the space of a week, pronounced his complete confidence in his new secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner.

Maybe I watch too much sports, but two citations of complete confidence in somebody is usually the kiss of death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERGEN: It's sort of like having your picture on a cover of Sports Illustrated. Once it's on there, your team starts going to hell. There is that quality about this, and I am afraid that Tim Geithner, who was widely respected coming into this administration, you know, had the almost universal praise in New York and Wall Street and among government folks for his past service, has become the fall guy on this, I'm afraid.

And given his other problems and the lack of a real team over there, he's under growing pressure. One member of Congress, Connie Mack, who comes from a, you know, major Florida family, Republican, has the first out that I'm aware of who's called for his resignation.

I think we may see more of that. I think he's probably going to survive this okay. I mean, I think he's going to survive it. Let's put it that way. But there's no question now that President Obama is going to be under - there's going to be a quiet set of conversations going on in Washington about whether Tim Geithner is the right man for the job and whether he can, in fact, help to turn this economy around.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. We're talking, of course, with political junkie Ken Rudin and David Gergen about the politics of populism and outrage. 800-989-8255; e-mail talk@npr.org. David's with us from North Hampton in Massachusetts.

DAVID (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, David. Go ahead, please.

DAVID: Hey, thank you for letting me step in here. First of all, I am an Obama supporter. I'll start with that. Second of all, I think the populist outlook around here is that Tim Geithner is in way over his head.

When he gave his first speech, when President Obama says, well, I'm not going to steal Geithner's thunder, we'll let Tim tell you about the details, I thought he was absolutely awful.

I'm an attorney. I know the value of public speaking and communication. He looked literally like a deer in the headlights, just like David Letterman or one of those comedians said. He couldn't look anybody straight in the eye. He inspired no confidence whatsoever, and I thought that was a very poor way for him to start out, especially given the red carpet that Obama rolled out for him.

Finally, people say - and I think I echo the sentiments of a lot of, quote, "populist attitudes," is I am sick and tired of our elected leaders constantly coming in after the fact, after the spill, after the mess, and decrying what's gone on.

It happened with the war in Iraq. It happened with respect to the oversight of AIG and all these big banks. Now it's happening again with respect to the bonuses.

I mean, you know, where was our - where were our elected leaders when they threw all this money at these big corporations? Didn't anyone have the foresight to think that, well, we better just make sure that none of this money is going to land in the pockets of the executives?

I mean, frankly I'm outraged. I'm also a little sick and tired of hearing about it, and I'm beginning to feel like I'm powerless to even do anything about it.

CONAN: Okay, David. David Gergen, that kind of outrage is, well, that's pretty mild compared to a lot of things that people are saying.

Mr. GERGEN: It is pretty mild, but I think it captures some of the main sentiments, and that is that people, there is a lot of anger about this being after the fact. There is a lot of anger about the greed, and there's growing, you know, resentment or questioning about Secretary Geithner.

I think all of this is extremely unhelpful for President Obama because, as you well know, Neal, he's got so much work ahead of him. You know, a lot of new legislation has to be passed, and he's going to have to convince a very skeptical Congress.

CONAN: David, go ahead.

DAVID: I'll just say one more thing, I guess, and it's very sad because, you know, like I was an Obama supporter, and he did hold out the hope of, quote, "change" in a very optimistic campaign.

And I tend to be rather idealistic, and I am an optimist myself, but you know, in my heart, I'm really - my confidence in our government is slipping, and that saddens me.

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

DAVID: Okay.

CONAN: Let's go quickly now to - this is John, John with us from Des Moines.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, they're sure talking about it around here, including our senator, Chuck Grassley.

CONAN: Who's apparently a student of Japanese culture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: Yeah, and I echo your first caller there. It's all our fault for electing these officials that don't take care of business. I mean, Chuck Grassley is on the Finance and Banking Committee, you know? Who should've known about this stuff upfront…

CONAN: So you're suggesting that Senator…

JOHN: …and now they're all backtracking.

CONAN: You're suggesting Senator Grassley commit seppuku now?

JOHN: No. I don't advocate that for anybody. I advocate the apology and the resignations. I'll go for that. But…

CONAN: All right.

Prof. GERGEN: Who would you have resign?

JOHN: Well, let's start with the CEOs of these companies and their regime that goes along with them. Look, I was a very small cog in a very big organization at one time at Citibank as a customer service rep, and these people are ruthless.

Prof GERGEN: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: They suck up on people's poverty. They keep - they attach all these late fees to credit card payments and other payments.

CONAN: Uh…

JOHN: These people are just - have no conscience whatsoever.

CONAN: John…

JOHN: That's why we are in this…

CONAN: …let's just stick…

JOHN: …situation.

CONAN: Let's stick to politics for the moment, okay?

JOHN: Okay. Very good.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate it. Ken?

RUDIN: Well, there's also something else that went on. And when there was a House-Senate Conference Committee, the language that would delete or remove the bonuses from these executives was put back in. In other words, they tried - initially, they tried to get rid of the bonuses. And yet, Elijah Cummings was on the air - was on a TV talk show today.

CONAN: Congressman from Maryland.

RUDIN: Maryland, who was not on the conference committee, but he said that, initially, there were going to be no bonuses, and then somebody in Congress reinserted it into the bill.

CONAN: Well, let me ask also David Gergen, with all that experience you've had in the White House, it seems blindingly obvious in retrospect that this should've been - red flags all over the place, but - even when you're the communication's director, you get so swarmed under with the details of what you're trying to do, you can sometimes miss obvious stuff…

Prof. GERGEN: Yeah. And let me - because as you know, I have more than once missed things in the White House that I should've seen were going to be explosive and I didn't quite understand the full nature of it. But this is a clear additional example where the government should have seen this coming. Lots of people knew about this earlier on.

I'm amazed that Tim Geithner only learned last Tuesday that these bonuses are about to be paid given the fact that it was all, you know, in the records. And they were - it was his agency, after all, that was responsible for some of the oversight. I'm further amazed that nobody -he then didn't tell President Obama until Thursday, which we've learned in the last couple of days.

You know, this whole thing has been mishandled both at the congressional and the executive level, and it raises all sorts of questions about two things: One, whether the government can capably manage additional bailouts, which the country really doesn't want. And secondly, it re-raises this question, Neal, as you well know, about whether the president and this White House are trying to do too much, and whether they need to focus with laser-like intensity on the problems of the economy and get these straightened out first, and then get on with the other important reforms, or critical reforms - and healthcare, energy and the environment and the like - but whether for now, they have to put their major, major focus on economic issues.

CONAN: And, David, I know you've got to leave us, but quick question.

Prof. GERGEN: Sure.

CONAN: At this moment, the people in the White House are actively hoping that a UFO lands somewhere in Manhattan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: How do you go about changing the conversation here?

Prof. GERGEN: Well, you can take additional action on another front, but, you know, I - this one is so red hot right now. I mean, the populism in the country is just - I think this is sort of, for very many - a lot of Americans this is, sort of, like a last straw, you know? They've seen so many of these kind of things and so much greed and arrogance and laxity that they've been sort of fed up with it. And they know they're paying the bills for it. And now, this comes along, and they just get - I think it - we may be at a tipping point in this whole process.

In which case, it puts a huge cloud on the government - the executive branch - the capacity to address these deep issues that we still face. We've got to get the banking system cleaned up. If we're going to get our economy back on track, all this money we're spending on stimulus will go for naught unless we get the banking system straightened out. So that's what - and I think Tom Friedman was right about that this morning. I think this is coming at just a hugely bad moment for the president.

CONAN: David Gergen, thanks very much. He has to go teach a class. Go figure those priorities. Thank you very much.

Prof. GERGEN: Thank you so much. Bye.

CONAN: David Gergen teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he's director of the Center for Public Leadership. He joins us today from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ken, there's still a few other items of politics this week we need to catch up on, including one of the recipients of AIG largess, Christopher Dodd, the senator from Connecticut.

RUDIN: Well, Chris Dodd is up for a sixth term in 2010. He's - every time he's won, he's won overwhelmingly. It's a big Democratic state. And Chris Dodd has been popular. Of course, he wasn't elected president, but he has gotten more AIG money than any other member of Congress. And Rob Simmons, the former - he's a Republican, former congressman, who was ousted in 2006, has announced his candidacy.

A new poll has it 43, Simmons, 42, Dodd. I'm not sure what that means, you know, long time before 2010. But it shows that he also got - there are also whiffs of a sweetheart deal he got from Countrywide…

CONAN: Mortgage.

RUDIN: …Mortgage. So Dodd is under some pressure. It could be an upset in the making, but it's a race you have to watch out for.

CONAN: And the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, well, made some waves early on, saying, well, Republicans, well, why should anybody listen to us? We got it so wrong in the past. And then he's gone on to make another whole bunch funny statements.

RUDIN: Well, he was in an interview with GQ. He was asked about abortion. And I guess the question was, is it a woman's choice to have an abortion? And he said, absolutely - and, of course, the Republican Party being pro-life. And Michael Steele from the beginning has said he is pro-life, and yet there are a lot of people who said, wait a second. He should stop doing these interviews. Get off TV. Start raising money and building a staff and helping elect more Republicans, because, publicly, he's doing an awful job. He had that earlier problem with Rush Limbaugh, which was another distraction that the Republican Party didn't need.

CONAN: He also said homosexuality is not a choice but nature. And again, that flies in the face of much Republican Party dogma. Nevertheless, there was one former Republican official who did emerge from his undisclosed location earlier this week.

(Soundbite of CNN's "State of the Union")

Mr. JOHN KING (Anchor, "State of the Union"): I'd like to just simply ask you, yes or no, by taking those steps, do you believe the president of the United States has made Americans less safe?

Mr. DICK CHENEY (Former Vice President, United States): I do. I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. I think that's a great success story. It was done legally. It was done in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles.

President Obama campaigned against it all across the country. And now, he's making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack.

CONAN: Former Vice President Dick Cheney on CNN's - with John King over the weekend. And they're talking, of course, about policies to close Guantanamo Bay, to not call the prisoners there enemy combatants, to ban the use of torture. And these are all things that, of course, the vice president says worked so well during the last eight years.

RUDIN: Well, you can disagree about whether President Obama has the same viewpoint or at least the same strategy dealing with terrorism as President Bush did, but to say that he has made the country less safe -I think that was like one of those wincing comments where you kind of cringe when you hear it. It's like a - as if Al Gore on 9/11 said, well, you know, it's President Bush's fault that 9/11 happened. You don't do that. You can criticize an administration, but to say it made us less safe, I think, was going beyond the pale.

CONAN: Right. And you could almost see the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seizing on this and say, well, you know, nice to talk about the people we're used to talking about, and we're comfortable criticizing Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, as opposed to - let's not talk about AIG please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Thank God for Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh and all that, exactly.

CONAN: All right. Ken Rudin, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and our political junkie. You can read his blog at npr.org, where this conversation will continue in just a few minutes.

One of our producers, David Gura, will host a chat with Ken, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic and The Daily Dish, and Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics. That's at npr.org in five minutes. But, of course, you're not going to be there. You're going to stay with us, as we continue on with the conversation. We're going to continue our series of conversations on this economic moment.

Gustavo Arellano will talk about immigrants, the children of immigrants and the American dream. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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