Democrats Debate in the Windy City Democratic hopefuls gathered in Chicago on Tuesday for a debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO. Mary Frances Berry, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ron Christie, with the lobbying firm DC Navigators, talk about the debate.
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Democrats Debate in the Windy City

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Democrats Debate in the Windy City

Democrats Debate in the Windy City

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Last night, Chicago's Soldier Field, home to the fiercest defense in professional football, hosted a different sort of slugfest. The Democratic contenders for the White House fought for the support of one of the pillars of their party - Organized Labor.

Plus, last Sunday Republicans went head-to-head in Iowa. For these stories and more, we've got two of our favorite political minds, Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators. He's also a former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Hey folks, we just got so much politics. How are you doing?

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Doing fine, Farai.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, D.C. Navigators; Former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush): Hi, Farai. Good to hear you both.

CHIDEYA: Yes. So let's start with the Dems(ph). Who attended this debate? And why is labor support so crucial, Ron?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Oh, I think, historically, the Democratic Party has received a number of support from the labor movement. My grandfather was a 50-year member of the unions and he was a proud Democrat. And, I think it's only natural that the Democrats, as they seek their party's nomination for president of the United States, go to one of the oldest pillars of support known to the Democratic Party and that's the labor union. So it didn't surprise me and, in fact, I think it was a free-spirited debate last night.

CHIDEYA: So what happened that caught your fancy, Mary?

Dr. BERRY: Well, what caught my fancy is that the frontrunners came out about where they were before the debate - John Edwards suffered. This should have been his crowd as labor. Those are his issues, but he didn't gain any ground at all. And Hillary Clinton remained standing - I think, she and Obama as frontrunners. Clinton got attacked. And the old little chick in her armor was the issue of the lobbyists. And I think she should have had a better - could have had a better answer. The best answer was that she stood up to lobbyists on the health plan that she presented in the Clinton - first Clinton administration, and lost. That's why she lost because the lobbyists put all those "Thelma & Louise" ads out at her.

And maybe if she's gone along with him, she would have gotten the plan even if it was bad. But that, I think, they'll keep hitting her with that in the next debates because that was the only place where they seem to have any opportunity to get any attraction. Otherwise, I think she came out on this gay event. Obama did really well.

CHIDEYA: Ron, do you agree that Edwards is sinking?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I do. I think that Senator Edwards - again, this should have been his opportunity to shine. He was uniquely positioned when the Democrats first started the down the trail of running for president. He amassed a fair amount of money. He's still very well known doing a lot of work at the University in North Carolina with poverty.

And yet his campaign has struggled. Elizabeth Edwards candidly seems to generate a lot more attention and a lot more favorable press than he does. And, for whatever reason, his message isn't resonating with many in the Democratic Party for the important front-running states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. And, at this point, I agree with Mary. It is a two-person horse race with Senator Obama and Senator Clinton going down the stretch.

CHIDEYA: Is it a horse race or a fight? Now, you'll remember a foreign policy fistfight erupted after the YouTube debate between Senators Clinton and Obama. When the other candidates chimed in this time with their criticism of Obama, the Illinois senator fired back.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism.

CHIDEYA: Mary, wippity-woppity, did he win on that one?

Dr. BERRY: Well, I'm not sure - it was a hometown, you know, crowd. He was in Illinois. And it's - but from the sounds, if that's all you went by in Illinois and what you saw and heard, yeah, he won. But the issue isn't going to go away.

Senator Dodd, Senator Biden, who's chairman of foreign relations in the Senate, both attacked him. And, I think, they will continue to - Hillary Clinton then really have to do it because she made a couple of comments. But, I think, he is right to keep fighting on this issue because, otherwise, he will - had be claim that he is inexperienced and that he doesn't know what he's doing will go down. He's got to fight on this and he is right to continue to do it.

CHIDEYA: All right. One last thing before we move on to the Republicans. Ron, when you hear about all these debates, we've had an African-American focus debate, labor debate coming up on the gay debate. Are you getting sick of the debates?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yes. I mean, for goodness sakes, I would think that of all the presidential elections that we've seen in recent history, this, by far, has to be the one that has started the earliest and will undoubtedly go down as being one of the most expensive.

I think the American public, while interested in who the next leader of the United States will be, so much of this is just so early. And every time, you turned on the TV, I'm trying to flip away from a debate because it seems like that every time we turn on the television is either the Republicans or Democrats on some different form talking about something.

This, I think, is something that a lot of people are going to key in to after Labor Day. For goodness sakes, let us enjoy our summer.

CHIDEYA: So, Mary, moving on to the Republicans, you had a debate in Iowa, which, of course, has been one of the key states in the political season. Senator John McCain, former frontrunner, blown through a lot of money and a lot of campaign staff. How did he come off to you?

Dr. BERRY: He looked sad. I guess that's the best way to put it. And I'm almost at the point of feeling sorry for him. Here, he's a guy - he's been defending war. They all defended the war in the debate, but he's been defending it the longest and the hardest of anybody. And yet, he sort of plodding along, and they're sort of moving ahead. And he seemed so unrealistic when he talks about things. I mean, it's really a sad - it's sort of tragic to watch him as Mitt Romney shines and Giuliani shines, and there he is, just sort of plodding along.

CHIDEYA: I want to go to the - another aspect of the war, you've got dark horse candidate Ron Paul. He really turned heads when he said this about the war in Iraq.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): We went in there illegally. We did not declare war. It's lasting way too long. We didn't declare war in Korea or Vietnam. The wars were never really ended. We lose those wars. We're losing this one. We shouldn't be there. We ought to just come home because it's…

CHIDEYA: So he's gotten his applause. Is he going to shake up the GOP, Ron?

Mr. CHRISTIE: No. No, he's not. Ron Paul is long been regarded as somewhat of a lone ranger in the House of Representatives and the Republican caucus. And I think his assessment of what he said about this war was wrong. I think the president and many individuals in Congress believed that right or wrong, the battlefield on the war on terrorism is in Iraq right now. That's where the enemy is fighting us. That's where the enemy continues to fight us.

And when you hear the Democrats say the wrong battlefield at the wrong time, I think that's the wrong answer. And, similarly, Ron Paul's rather chaotic reference of what he just mentioned in that debate, was equally wrong. The Republicans have remained fairly uniformed in coming out with trying to find a way to win the war on terrorism.

And as Mary said this has been the longest issue that Senator McCain has campaigned on, and sadly, well, Giuliani and Romney, two of the frontrunners, appeared to gain strength from this. Senator McCain almost seems to be a losing strength the more he talks about it.

Ms. BERRY: Well, I think that Ron Paul stated correctly what most of the American people believe. Most of the American people believe we went into the war with the wrong rationale - that's what all the polls show. And most of them think that the war on terror is finding Osama bin Laden and the war on Afghanistan. And they don't believe what the Republican candidates keep saying. And they don't believe what John McCain says.

It is true that the Republicans are solid in their support of this approach and keep saying that the war on terror is in Iraq. They have to say that as long as we are there. But it's going to be interesting to see how it turns out. But Ron Paul is fascinating. If he got more time - airtime and everything else, who knows what he would do in the end. But I think that he is shaking things up.

CHIDEYA: I want to take a quick tour of one last issue. The U.S. government has greater authority to eavesdrop here at home - thanks to a bill signed by President Bush on Sunday. Under this new law, the government can tap into phone calls and e-mails going to a U.S. citizen from abroad without a warrant. This has been debated for a long time, Ron, and the White House did the lion's share of drafting the bill. What did Congress do or not do in order - pushing this forward?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, the FISA statute hasn't been revised since 1978, back when President Carter was still in office. And this is a cognizant recognition that technology has changed, and the enemy that it seeks to hurt and kill Americans are also changing their tactics in the way that they fight against us.

In this particular piece of legislation that the president signed into law, it allows the United States government, in its focus, upon looking at foreign individuals in foreign lands, who seek to communicate, and allows our intelligence agencies to listen in, in these communications.

The provision that you just mentioned, this is not designed to listen to American citizens. This is not designed to put Americans under surveillance without a warrant. This is specifically targeted at foreign individuals in foreign lands. And, yes, it might be that that communication comes into America, to an American, but it is not designed to listen to Americans without a warrant.

Prof. BERRY: And now, Farai…

CHIDEYA: Let me just throw this into a personal context. I have - half my family lives overseas.

Prof. BERRY: Right.

CHIDEYA: Could I be, essentially, could my communications from them be inspected without any particular cause or is this really targeted?

Prof. BERRY: Absolutely. No targeting is in the bill. I've read it probably more times than the people who passed it read it in the last day or so. And quite clearly, there is no targeting. Any and all communications can be listened to, looked at, collected. Your communications with people out of the country can be - and that's what's so interesting about it, how the Democrats were in a position where they thought they had to vote for this, the ones who did. And they did.

And so it is not targeted. The telecommunications industry is a little bit upset. There's a provision there that everything that they have can be taken and looked at by the government now without any targeting. And they're a little afraid that they're going to get sued if they do that.

But I don't why the people, who had supported this bill, keep characterizing it as not a change - not - or a minor glitch when in fact it is an enormous change. And I don't think it was really explained that it was justified when it was passed quickly in sort of the last guest before they went on recess in the Congress.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Mary, I have to take exception with that. For having read the bill probably as many times as you have, the bill is targeted and it's specifically looking at people who are reasonably believed to be overseas first of all.

Secondly, it's not just an indiscriminate search of people's communications. It is, after consultation and certification by the Attorney General of the United States as well as the director…

Prof. BERRY: Oh, my goodness, Gonzales.

CHIDEYA: Well, guys, we have to wrap up…

Prof. BERRY: Don't mention Gonzales, please

Mr. CHRISTIE: …is - I will. But let me…

CHIDEYA: All right. I got to rein everybody in. I will point out that FISA has been amended by the president at least eight times since 2001 for what its worth. But you know what? We're going to carry this conversation over to our blogs because we got to let people weigh in on it.

Mary and Ron, thank you so much.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you, Farai.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Pleasure, as always.

CHIDEYA: Mary Frances Berry is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. And Ron Christie is vice president of the lobbying firm DC Navigators. He's also a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and spoke with us from NPR's Washington D.C. headquarter.

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