FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
A new book has the president calling the 2008 election for the Republicans and a White House insider calls Barack Obama intellectually lazy.
For that story and more, we've got Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, and Robert Traynham, a GOP strategist. He teaches at George Washington University and runs his own political consulting firm.
Welcome to you both.
Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Associate Professor, Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Thanks. It's great to be here.
Professor ROBERT TRAYNHAM (Political Communication, George Washington University): Hi, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So Robert, there's this new book called "The Evangelical President," and it reportedly has President Bush making two big predictions about 2008. He says a Republican will take the executive office, beating Senator Hillary Clinton, and also forecast that Clinton will defeat Senator Barack Obama.
So what do you think of these predictions?
Prof. TRAYNHAM: I'm not surprised. Look, first and foremost, the president is the political campaigner in chief, and it is his job to be optimistic about Republican chances next year. And also, quite frankly, I tend to agree with him. Senator Obama is making a fantastic sprint to the finish line, but Senator Clinton will already be at the finish line given her intellectual prowess, given her fundraising prowess, and also obviously, given her famous last name.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, you already came on our air and said that you don't think Senator Clinton can win. What do you think - that was about the general election, though. Can she win, in your opinion, the primary?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I certainly think it's possible that Senator Clinton can win the nomination among the Democrats. And, you know, as I said on the program before, it is of great concern to me as someone who is watching very closely the Democratic side of this race that the Republicans are telling us in very clear language that they think that Hillary Clinton is going to win, and that they're excited about it because they're prepared to beat her.
I think that we - who are on the Democratic side, who are asking these questions about not only who we want to be president based on their policy positions, based on their character or based on their intellectual prowess, but we should also ask about their electability. And we should take very seriously the fact that Republicans are indicating early on that Hillary Clinton is the person they would like to have.
CHIDEYA: Now what about this whole intellectually lazy thing. So the Examiner newspaper in St. Louis quoted a senior White House official on Sunday, breaking down the Democratic field, calling the Illinois senator intellectually lazy, saying he's going to lose because of that, because he's over reliant on his charm. Is that echoing an old charge? Does it have a grain of truth? What do you think, Melissa?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, for me, it's not Barack Obama who's intellectually lazy. It's David Axelrod, his campaign manager, who made a very clear decision that he wanted to sell Barack Obama based on personality rather than on policy. It's interesting that President Bush is indicating that there's a kind of, you know, elitism to the way that Obama's running his campaign.
I think what Axelrod had hoped was exactly the opposite. That by being sort of approachable and charismatic, people would find Barack actually less intellectually dominating because he is exactly that. It's very difficult to be as engaged, as intelligent, as capable as Barack Obama and not in fact put off ordinary voters who seem to like more local guys like President Bush.
CHIDEYA: Robert, what about the way that race plays into these various ideas of character? If you smile, are you being friendly or ingratiating? If you are a combatant intellectually, are you being firm or dominating? How can Senator Obama navigate those different ways that people may perceive what he does, even if what he does is the same?
Prof. TRAYNHAM: Well, I must confess that Senator Obama is in a very unique playing field right now, almost the mere opposite of Senator Clinton but also in some ways very similar. Senator Clinton has an issue right now that if she is "too feminine," quote, unquote, she may be too soft politically as well as, obviously, from a war standpoint. Senator Obama, obviously, has that issue from a race standpoint.
So it's a very, very tough minefield, if you will, to navigate. Also keep in mind, too, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama both are the first in their fields, if you will, meaning as a woman and also as an African-American to reach this level of scrutiny at the presidential level, so it's very, very difficult.
But if I can go back for a second about the intellectual laziness thing for a moment. Back in 1980, Democrats said that Ronald Reagan or a person by the name of Ronald Reagan was intellectually lazy. Back in 2000, folks were saying that George Bush was intellectually lazy. Let's take a look at the facts. The facts are is that Senator Obama on the campaign trail has, unfortunately, said some misstatements about the death victims in Kansas, about Medicaid and about the electronic billing system.
So if you listen to what he says, he actually is very light on the facts. I mean, that's just the fact. And if you take a look at Senator Clinton, she's extremely substantive. Now, you may not agree with everything that she says, but she does back up her rhetoric with specific facts that Senator Obama, frankly, cannot do or hasn't done, rather.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, do you agree with that?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, what I agree with is that there does seem to be an awful lot of confusion in this country about the difference between, sort of, intellectual engagement on the one hand and being prepped well on the facts on another.
Now, I would agree again that I think that Barack Obama's handlers beginning at David Axelrod and down are doing a less high-quality job of making sure that their candidate can spit out the robotic facts, which then the press and opponents want to say it's indicative of sort of the capacity of mind.
My concern, for example, with Ronald Reagan, a George Bush and even with the Hillary Clinton isn't whether or not they know the facts, but what they do with those facts and the ways in which they, for example, perceive and understand engagement in international and domestic politics as having ramifications beyond sort of was it three people or 10 people. That concerns me much less than being able to ask: what happens to systems and structures when we start tinkering with them in terms of policy?
Prof. TRAYNHAM: Right.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I think that's what we should be looking for in a president.
Prof. TRAYNHAM: Farai, may I respond to that?
Prof. TRAYNHAM: I do think it's important from an intellectual standpoint whether or not you have the capacity to ask the tough questions, and I agree with Melissa in terms of what you do that information. But you also need to come, in my mind, to be the president of the United States, you also need to come from the mind frame as I need to ask the most intelligent, the most probing questions so that I can, thus, in the process make an informed intelligent decision.
But I think the concern is, is that Senator Obama, at least on the campaign trail, has not exhibited that. And I think that's one of the things that, frankly, a lot of people are saying, you know what, I like this gentleman. I think he's a great charismatic speaker. He represents hope. He - he has a lot of charm.
But when it comes down to whether or not he will get us out of Iraq, when it comes down to whether or not he will save and strengthen security, when it comes down to whether or not how he's going to deal with President Ahmadinejad, does he have the intellectual rigor? And even more importantly, does he have the intellectual capacity to ask the tough questions to get the job done?
CHIDEYA: I want to move on to the Republican side. A supporter of GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani is holding a fundraiser tonight called 9/11 for Rudy. And while you had the Oprah-Obama fundraiser $2,300 a head, this one cost just $9.11 to get in.
Now, there is some protest by the International Association of Firefighters, other groups accusing the fundraiser of exploiting the 9/11 attacks. Now, of course, the fundraiser is not the Giuliani campaign but friends of. This whole symbolism around 9/11, does it become tarnished and tainted, Melissa, as people use it to kind of market different events?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I mean, that's what symbols are. Symbols are things that we use and deploy. I mean, at least it's $9.11 rather than, I don't know, you know, $9,011 or something. There's a kind of deep populism to this and that you can get - I certainly can't get in to any of the fundraisers on the Democratic side for $9.11
Now that said, I think that what Giuliani and friends of Giuliani's campaign have to be very careful about is, to the extent that they are going to sell this particular candidate as kind of a strong international leader because of his capacity as a very local domestic leader in the days post 9/11. He, more than anyone else, needs to protect and honor that memory and be clear that he is not using it or allowing his friends and supporters to use it for political gains.
So I think it's the particularly tough place for Giuliani to be, but again, at least he's pretty populous. It's tough to get into a fundraiser for nine bucks these days.
CHIDEYA: Robert, what about this whole idea, these friends of who go out, they do things for a candidate. If the candidate has beef, what can the candidate really do about it?
Prof. TRAYNHAM: Very little. I mean, the only thing that the candidate really can do is obviously not accept the money. I mean, these, quote unquote, "friends" are like your distant cousins. I mean, you love them, they're related to you, but you really can't control exactly what they do. And in all fairness, the Giuliani campaign has said that they do not associate themselves with the, quote, "9/11 fundraiser," end quote, in terms of coming up with the marketing in a whole nine yards. So that's number one.
But also number two, and even more important, I agree with Melissa, you have to be very, very careful with symbols because they mean something. And especially with 9/11 where obviously, tens well - thousands of people where obviously died - almost 2000 people have died. Because of this, you have to be very, very careful about honoring the legacy, the memory of those individuals, but also to - and even more importantly, you need to make sure from public relations standpoint. But also - I think also from the moral standpoint that you're not raising money off the backs of victims and their families.
CHIDEYA: Give us a lay of the land of the Republican race at this point. You have Senator Fred Thompson in the game. You have - at this point, it's so early, but any thoughts as you look at the field, Robert?
Prof. TRAYNHAM: Well, it's - I quite frankly feel as though it's a roller coaster ride. You know, you laugh nervously all the way up the hill and then you scream like heck all the way down. You know, you have a Fred Thompson who was literally drafted to get in to this race to really shake things up. He was perceived to be the true conservative in this race, given the fact that Mayor Giuliani and Governor Romney - the two frontrunners - were not, if you will, bonafide conservatives.
Senator Thompson is jumping to the race and he really hasn't lit a unique fire, if you will, under this - the conservative base. You have James Dobson out there who just recently came out and said that I can't support this person. You now have Newt Gingrich who has said that if he was to race or pledge $30 million or if people were to pledge $30 million, he would jump into this race. This is still close to call on the Republican side.
And quite frankly, Farai, I would not rule out Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. He has nine lives. Remember that he won against George Bush in New Hampshire in 2000? No one thought that he would win that. So I - it's too close to call, no one really knows, but frankly, right now, the polls indicate that it's Mayor Giuliani's to lose.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, Dobson is someone who has been a stall work for evangelicals. Will that constituency play a role in whatever happens?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, of course I that constituency will play a role, but let me just say again on the Democratic side that what we know is that when you ask if there is - in the public opinion polls, if you ask any, you know, random Democrat against Giuliani, an unnamed Democrat beats Giuliani in the public opinion poll. But Giuliani beats Hillary Clinton.
So wherever you are standing on the Democratic side, just be clear that if Giuliani does, in fact, become the nominee, it's splits the vote in the state of New York in a very important way that could have incredibly difficult to overcome consequences for the electoral college. And…
CHIDEYA: All right. Melissa, we're going to have to end it there. Melissa, Robert, thanks so much.
Prof. TRAYNHAM: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: We've been talking to Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics in African-American studies at Princeton University, and Robert Traynham, GOP strategist who teaches at George Washington University.
Just ahead, NEWS & NOTES listeners and bloggers help shape the ongoing Jena Six investigation.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.