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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now it's time for the Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of past political speeches)

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.

Gov. HOWARD DEAN (Democrat, Vermont): Byaah.

CONAN: Republican Senator Richard Lugar's calls for a troop withdrawal in Iraq shake things up here in Washington. Some are calling it a watershed moment. It's deja vu on immigration. The Senate agreed to pick up where they left off on the bill three weeks ago. The question now is can the President get it to his desk? And two Democrats roll out new ad campaigns. And the Draft Al Gore Committee takes their message to the airwaves in Iowa.

CONAN: Meanwhile, Elizabeth Edwards and Ann Coulter go toe-to-toe on live TV. Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. If you have questions for the Political Junkie about any of that or about tomorrow's Democratic debate here in Washington D.C., we'll talk with one of the panelists on that event. What question do you want to hear? 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org. You can also post your comments at our blog npr.org/blogofthenation. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and our Political Junkie. You can check out his weekly column at our Web site npr.org. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And let's start with Senator Lugar's remarks on Iraq. This the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, longtime chairman of that committee, one of the most respected, hardly a bomb thrower. And in a speech that came as a surprise to the White House, at least, late on Monday night, he made a very important address on Iraq.

RUDIN: I think that's the key. The fact is, is that he is not a grandstander. He's not somebody like Chuck Schumer who let everybody know they have a speech planned the next five minutes. He's somebody who obviously thought about this long and hard. He's had reservations about the Bush war policy for sometime but has kept that, those - that skepticism private.

But this time, I guess, he felt that, you know, it's just time to speak out. He just says that he doesn't see a winnable conclusion. He says that some troops should come back. And very well, you know, you talked about a possible watershed moment, this could give other Republicans a cover to come out and oppose their President on the war.

CONAN: And he also said we're running out of time here. We're going to get caught up in the partisan politics of the presidential campaign by September at the latest - that, of course, is when General Petraeus is expected to make his update report to Congress, the moment that the administration has mentioned all along - let's wait until September.

RUDIN: Right. And most people feel that there's not going to be much of a change in the outlook, the ultimate outlook of the war by September. So I think, Lugar is trying to head off that so-called deadline and make the case now.

CONAN: And we did - I don't know if it was connected to Senator Lugar's speech or not - but another Republican senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, sent the White House a letter saying, look, this isn't working the way you said it was.

RUDIN: And again, what I'm more impressed with Lugar is the fact that he's a very respected person on foreign affairs. But unlike some Republicans, you could say, well, maybe they are nervous about 2008 reelection campaigns. So you mention people like John Sununu of New Hampshire and Susan Collins in Maine and Norm Coleman in Minnesota who have been speaking out against the war.

RUDIN: Some people will say, well, is it a coincidence that their reelection terms are up? But Lugar was reelected last - two years ago, last year with no opposition. I mean, the guy, the first time in history a Republican senator in Indiana had no opposition. Extremely popular, he doesn't have to worry about any kind of fallout back home.

CONAN: Well, let's go to the other side of popularity and to the Immigration Bill, which seems to be highly unpopular yet revived in the Senate. Is second time the charm?

RUDIN: I don't think so. I really think that yes, they agreed to bring it back. I think the Bush administration clearly wants it. We talk about legacy, the Bush administration will love this as a final legacy. But there's tremendous opposition to this bill, and certainly among Republicans in the House.

RUDIN: There was a vote yesterday, I think it was 114-23. House Republicans voted against it, whatever the Senate version is. And there are still - even though that, you know, 64 senators voted yesterday to let the debate go on -there are still many Republicans who say, no, we're not going to let this go through, and we're going to do everything we can to kill it.

CONAN: Tomorrow night at Howard University here in Washington D.C. we'll have the first of two presidential four, this time with the Democrats. The Republicans take their turn in the fall. One of the panelists asking questions tomorrow is NPR's Michelle Martin. She joins - she hosts our TELL ME MORE program and joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Michelle.

MICHELLE MARTIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Any idea? You're in this great position and this terrible position. Yeah, I assume you've been scribbling and scratching out questions all week.

MARTIN: Months. Weeks. Which is why I'm here. I'm - it's a Tom Sawyer moment. I'm inviting you all to help me paint the fence.

CONAN: And…

MARTIN: Because it's going to be fun.

CONAN: It's going to be fun.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CONAN: And, of course, so we want you listeners to come up with that…

MARTIN: Absolutely.

CONAN: …hard hitting questions on foreign affairs or exposing. How do you ask 10 people a question?

MARTIN: Quickly. Well, part of the idea was just to - and, you know, and I understand that some people are a little frustrated with the whole debate thing right now because we talked about this on my program today that some people think it's just too early. I can't focus right now. But there have already been five of these - I think three on the Democratic side, two on the Republican side. And a lot of the focus has been on foreign policy, obviously on Iraq. So part of it, we're trying to do is open up some of the other issues, which are very important to the American public, which have not been as much discussed.

And so I can, sort of, offer that up. And, you know what, I'll tell you what's been interesting; it's a surprise to me. This is my first time doing this. I was a questioner in a forum last cycle, but it's very different - anyway, very early in the cycle. So, people have been calling me already with questions and sending questions into the blog.

CONAN: But what's the best one you've had so far?

MARTIN: Well, a lot of people are very interested in education, because they don't feel it's been adequately discussed so far. Some people are interested in immigration, but I think people - I don't know that people really even have questions about immigration at this point. It seems like everybody already knows what they think. And the questions I'm getting so far are, don't you think or why don't they, which kind of tells you it's not really a question. So education is a big topic, also the question of job growth - are they paying enough attention to the economy? Those are things people - very much on people's minds.

CONAN: 800-989-8255 if you have a question you'd like Michel Martin to ask tomorrow night. And let's begin with Jesse(ph). Jesse calling us from Detroit in Michigan.

JESSE(ph) (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JESSE: I have a question for your guest about sort of the format of the debate. We've had, I think, more candidates this year than ever before, sort of - with those inclusive policy. I'm curious to what extent that it's a success or if we'll ever see this again?

MARTIN: Well, it's not really a question. I don't know if you're directing it up to me or to Ken or to Neal, but I don't think it's - I think it's historical circumstances. I mean, it's the first election cycle and what, Ken, help me, like 20-some years where you haven't had either a sitting president running for re-election or a vice president running to succeed the president.

RUDIN: More than a half a century of that.

MARTIN: So half a century. So I think it's historical circumstances. It's also the fact that the issues are so pressing that it has drawn people into the field. Some of these people clearly don't expect to win, but they want to make a statement about, you know, the war or about the state of politics today.

I don't know. People have different opinions about this. Some people think the more the merrier. These debates are formed for discussing ideas. Some people think it's ridiculous. My - you know, our thing is all comers are welcome. We did not set a threshold for who would be invited to this debate in terms of the polls. How would you do that at this stage?

CONAN: Right. At this stage it just seems too early to do that. And that, Ken, it ends up being this cavalry charges where, you know, you have eight or ten different people there at the debate. Has - answer Jesse's question, has it been successful?

RUDIN: Well, I think it has only because we, at least - the people who are paying attention do have some kind of a sense of who these candidates are. But the problem is for those who are not paying attention now, this will be over before you know it, because by early February, you're going to have 25, 30 primaries and caucuses, and half the field we see now will no longer be there. So I would suggest - certainly at least in the earlier states, which will make such a big difference like Iowa and New Hampshire - now is the time, absolutely, to pay attention to these forums, these debates, because you're really learning who the next president of the United States could very well be.

CONAN: Hmm. Jesse, thanks for the call.

JESSE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay. Michel, I wonder, as your - I can't help but feel sometimes, you see some candidates not getting any questions, you know. You know, if it happened, would you throw Ron Paul a bone? Would you go over to, you know, Dennis Kucinich and say, you haven't had a chance to talk yet, what do you think of this?

MARTIN: Maybe.

CONAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Maybe.

CONAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't know.

CONAN: Because you're a mother. You're - you worry about people.

MARTIN: I'm so (unintelligible). I'm so (unintelligible). Yes. Exactly. No, I think, but - I think it speaks to, you know, what your philosophy is about what debates are for. I kind of am in the free exchange of ideas. Because I think that you can affect a public discussion just by the quality of your discussion.

I mean, like Al Sharpton in the last election. Everybody knew Al Sharpton was not going to be president, but he was an interesting presence in the debates and had interesting things to say that I think, you know, affected public discourse in some ways, helped to frame the society. So I don't know. I think it depends. But it depends on whether I think that the - I think the other issue for us is follow-ups. I think part of what's frustrating about having so many candidates is that if a question isn't fully answered, how is that pursued? I think that's something that we're going to be focusing on.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Taruc(ph) on the line. Taruc's calling us from San Antonio in Texas.

TARUC(ph) (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

TARUC: I have a question for your guest. I just wanted to know if she thinks ever - will candidates, will they ever answer questions directly or will they always divert questions on some topics they already pre-planned to talk about?

CONAN: You know they're pretty slick. Michel. You know, that's a fascinating question, Michel Martin. You know, but the really interesting thing is, and then they go on to say what they planned to say any way.

MARTIN: But that's what - you're free to evaluate as a listener. That's what I want you to do. That's what - I want you to be on your game. I want you - that's what I want you to be paying attention to. Do you think they're paying attention to your question? Do you feel that they…

TARUC: Thank you.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. All right. Taruc, thanks very much.

RUDIN: You know what I notice that's something also - a frustration on debates is that the media, sometimes the host, seem to play the frontrunner game. So if we think that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama are the frontrunners, perhaps John Edwards, then they focus their questions on them and then if they'll throw Kucinich or Gravel a bone. But there are serious candidates also - like Joe Biden, like Chris Dodd in the Senate a combined total of over 50 years - and say, wait, why are we not getting the attention we need and I wonder what pressures, Michel, there may be on you to make sure that everybody is heard even know they are nominal frontrunners in this race?

MARTIN: Well, thankfully, I'm one of the questioners. So, three questioners, DeWayne Wickham, Rubin Navarette - who's also a regular on my show - and me, and the moderator, Tavis Smiley, who is the name that - which will be familiar to the many NPR listeners.

CONAN: It'll be familiar to me. Yeah.

MARTIN: So, you know, that's - Tavis is the moderator. I think that's - he's got the hard job.

CONAN: That's his job.

MARTIN: Yes. It's his job. I'm passing the buck.

CONAN: Well, we wish you a good night sleep.

RUDIN: And good luck with that, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Michel Martin, NPR's TELL ME MORE. She's the host of that program and one of the panelists on tomorrow night's presidential candidate forum, which will air on PBS. We're talking with Ken Rudin, our political junkie. Again, you can go to our Web site to read his political junkie column. That's at npr.org. And you're listening to the Political Junkie on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get on a caller on the line. This is Andrew(ph). Andrew with us from Chaska in Minnesota.

ANDREW (Caller): Hello there.

CONAN: Hi there.

ANDREW: Hi. I'm calling to question about Vice President Cheney.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ANDREW: A few days ago, he made a statement declaring that, in effect, his office was no longer a part of the executive branch. Now, this goes against what we've been taught in high school. But I'm calling to find out that if this becomes true, if it becomes accepted in Washington, what ramifications this would have for the political system and for Dick Cheney as a person?

CONAN: Well, Ken Rudin, the Constitution does give him a legislative role, does it not?

RUDIN: That's right. He's the president of the Senate and he can vote in case of a tie. But Democrats are not too happy about this and now they're - there's a move in Congress, I think, as early as today, that there are going to be some effort to strip Cheney's vice presidential office from some funding, considering the fact that he has nothing to do with the executive branch. The Democrats are not taking this smilingly.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Andrew.

ANDREW: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk about some of the new ads that are out. Some of the candidates are just beginning to begin their ads. This from the John Edwards campaign in New Hampshire.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential candidate): Will we make America the country of the 21st century? That depends on all of us. It's not that we don't what needs to be done. To lift families out of poverty, to strengthen the middle class in this country. We know what needs to be done. The strength in America is not just in the Oval Office; the strength in America is in this room right now. It's the American people and it's time for the president of the United States to ask Americans to be patriotic about something other than war.

I'm John Edwards and I approve of this message.

CONAN: And a message from the Edwards campaign that's begun broadcasting in New Hampshire. And Ken, not really the standard opening biographical ad, much more a message ad.

RUDIN: Well, certainly, we don't need a biography for somebody who's well known to the American public having run for president and vice president in the last cycle. But I thought the most interesting thing of that whole statement was that you mentioned the words New Hampshire. And the reason I say that is because many people think that John Edwards has been running to be president of Iowa.

He has been living there basically since his vice presidential run in 2004. He's been spending a ton of money there. The feeling is that, if he doesn't win there, then he's through. And he obviously wants to change that perception. He obviously wants to appeal to more people than just the folks in Iowa. And so he's running this ad in New Hampshire. And of course, a week later, it's his home state, his birth state of South Carolina, so he's going to extend his ad by - to that state as well.

CONAN: And now, there's also an ad out for the non-candidate. Let's listen to this.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Female #1: Yoo-hoo, Mr. Gore.

Unidentified Female #2: Hello.

Unidentified Male #1: Hey, Al. Excuse me, sir, Mr. Gore.

Unidentified Male #2: Hello?

Unidentified Male #3: Hey, Al. Mr. Vice President.

Unidentified Male #4: Mr. Gore, we need you for president.

Unidentified Female #1: We deserve a president we can respect.

Unidentified Male #2: We deserve a president we can respect who has the experience…

Unidentified Female #1: And compassion.

Unidentified Female #2: Who is the most qualified.

Unidentified Male #2: Who is a proven leader.

Unidentified Female #2: Al Gore, right on Iraq. Right on global warming, right for the 21st century.

Unidentified Male #1: Join us at DraftGore.com in supporting Al Gore for the Democratic nomination for president.

Unidentified Female #1: Sign the petition at DraftGore.com.

Unidentified Male #1: Paid for by the Committee to Draft Gore. He won once. He can win again.

CONAN: And have they sent this message to Al Gore?

RUDIN: Well, he's been hearing the message ever since 2000, of course. And, you know, you see this Reelect Gore President bumper stickers everywhere. But it also sounded like the same as it was taped in a dorm room somewhere. But you know something, if you look at national polls and if Al Gore's name was included, you know, he's up there. He's, you know - really a lot of people feel that, again, you know, there was a travesty about 2000. He feels - they feel that he was right on the war from the beginning unlike Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, all the other folks who voted for the war on 2002. So there is a sentiment there.

But most polls show that Democratic voters, by and large, are more happier - or happier is it - with the current Democratic field than Republicans. And that's why you also a Fred Thompson, a big boom there for Fred Thompson on the Republican side.

CONAN: And finally, I want to play a piece of tape. This, from the conversation, if you can call it that, Ann Coulter, at the center of a new controversy involving John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth Edwards.

Elizabeth Edwards took issue with comments that Ann Coulter made on MSNBC. She called in to Chris Matthews's program, "Hardball," to let Coulter know that.

(Soundbite of the show "Hardball with Chris Matthews")

Ms. ELISABETH EDWARDS (Wife of John Edwards): On positions, we certainly disagree with nearly everything she said on your show today. But it's quite another matter to - for this personal attacks. The things that she has said over the years, not just about John, but about other candidates, it lowers our political dialogue precisely at the time that we need to raise it. So I want to use the opportunity, which I don't get much because Ann and I don't hang out with the same people…

Ms. ANN COULTER (Political Commentator; Conservative Columnist): I don't have enough money.

Ms. EDWARDS: …to ask her politely to stop the personal attacks.

Ms. COULTER: Okay, so I made a joke, let's see, six months ago and as you point out, they've been raising money off of it for six months since then.

Mr. CHRIS MATTHEWS (Host, "Hardball"): This is yesterday morning, what you said about him.

Ms. COULTER: I didn't say anything about him actually either time.

Ms. EDWARDS: But Ann knows - you know that's not true. And what's more, this has been going on for sometime.

Ms. COULTER: And I don't mind you trying to raise money. I mean, it's better than this than giving fifty-thousand-dollar speeches to the poor.

Ms. EDWARDS: I'm asking you…

CONAN: And shortly after that, another new plea from the Edwards campaign based on the conversation with Ann Coulter.

RUDIN: Well, a while ago, Ann Coulter made an anti-gay slur at John Edwards. And the more recent ones, I think, in effect, she said, I take back the anti-gay slur but I hope he dies in a terrorist attack. I think this is beyond the pale. And the fact why people still have Ann Coulter on the air is just beyond - besides me.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, thanks very much. Why we have Ken, that's another question. Ken is NPR's political editor. He joins us every Wednesday for our Political Junkie segment. Again, you can read his latest column online at npr.org.

Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: See you, Neal.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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