Politics Wrap-Up: All Eyes on Hillary Ron Christie and Mary Frances Berry discuss last night's Democratic presidential debate and the increasing controversy surrounding Michael Mukasey's nomination for U.S. Attorney General.
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Politics Wrap-Up: All Eyes on Hillary

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Politics Wrap-Up: All Eyes on Hillary

Politics Wrap-Up: All Eyes on Hillary

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

The dukes were up at Drexel, another slugfest between the Democratic White House hopefuls, and almost every other candidate at the debate seemed to have one goal in mind - attack frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

For more on this and the week's other political news, we've got Ron Christie. He's vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, and Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Welcome to you both.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, thank you for having us.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, D.C. Navigators; Former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush): Happy Halloween.

CHIDEYA: Yes. Happy Halloween to you. Here's what former Senator John Edwards had to say about Senator Clinton's views on Iraq.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): And I think it's fair in that regard to look at what people have said. Senator Clinton says that she believes she can be the candidate for change, but she defends a broken system that's corrupt in Washington, D.C. She says she will end the war, but she continues to say she'll keep combat troops in Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq. To me, that's not ending the war, that's a continuation of the war.

She says she'll stand up to George Bush on Iran. She just said it again. And, in fact, she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving, militarily, on Iran, and he's taken it.

CHIDEYA: Mary, that is just one short part…

Prof. BERRY: Yes. Right.

CHIDEYA: …of a very long…

Prof. BERRY: Right. Right. I have…


Prof. BERRY: …some very distinct views about it quickly.

CHIDEYA: No, please.

Prof. BERRY: First of all, it was a bad night for the Democratic Party. I thought that the first point is it was all let us guys go pile up and attack Hillary. And let's even say to each other, all right, Obama, you want to pile on a little bit. And so it was all let's beat up on Hillary, hoping we can take a few points off her so that we can edge up. And that was bad for the party because it was negative. And they forgot Ronald Reagan's rule about not speaking ill about any other Republican.

They fell into the hands of the Republicans. They let the media, you know, direct them into this - a ditch. And the second point is none of them made themselves look any better, except Biden, than they did the day before. In fact, by and doing this, Edwards was like a little terrier, nipping at everybody's heel - yip, yip, yip, yip, yip. And Obama didn't make himself appear to have any more gravitas than he had had the day before.

So they tore down their front-running candidate. I don't think they'll gain anything, so bad for the party, bad for them. They didn't gain anything. Biden was the winner. Richardson had one bright and shining moment when he, in fact, pointed out that it wasn't a matter of thrusting the frontrunner and talked about carrots and sticks. Otherwise, he didn't have a good night either.

I also think that Hillary was not at the top of her game, but she did stand up. And I was wondering if she was going to fall down with all these guys jumping all over her. And in the end, she was still standing.

So they didn't do - make themselves any good. They didn't do the party any good. And it'll be interesting to see what the effect is on the race.

CHIDEYA: Ron, in addition to discussing some of that, I want to also figure out what's your perspective on the gender issue. Because in some campaigns, thinking of Ann Richards for governor of Texas, there were moments when the electorates seemed to think, oh, no, you can't attack a woman like that. Did that play out at all last night? And then, again, what about this idea of bad for the party that Mary brings up?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Wait, you can never hear someone nod in radio, but when Professor Berry was talking, I was nodding with just about everything that she had to say.

I think it was a bad night for the Democratic Party. There's no question about it. I think that rather than having an opportunity - they haven't had a debate in more than a month - and rather than put forth their pro strategies, rather than - and talk about how they were going to move the country forward, they, instead, sat around in a circle and opened fire on each other.

And I think that Mary is absolutely right. Ronald Reagan had the 11th commandment: Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican. At this stage of the game, I think that they would do far more to have a constructive debate on the real issues that confront this country rather than shooting each other.

And as it relates to the gender issue, I don't think so. I think Senator Clinton is a pretty tough character. I think she handles herself well in general. I agree with Mary. She did not do a good job last night. She didn't seem sharp. She didn't seem on the top of her game. And as the Republicans now sit back and reflect and watch the Democrats shoot in a circle at each other, it gives the Republicans yet another opportunity to try to look like statesmen while the Democrats are shooting arrows at each other.

CHIDEYA: Let's just take a quick hit from each of you on the situation with debates in general. There are just so many of them.

Prof. BERRY: All right.

CHIDEYA: Is it necessary at this point, although, Mary, you don't seem to be a fan of these attacks. Is it necessary to try to distinguish yourself somehow, especially since these debates just keep coming and coming and coming?

Prof. BERRY: Well, this one was hyped because there have been so many, and they hope somebody would watch it. And that's why it was all, you know, the attacks are coming, the attacks are coming. And finally, they came.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BERRY: But I think that - and Obama felt desperately apparently that he had somehow distinguished himself and move ahead and show that he could attack her and undermine her, and so did Edwards. It was a sign, in my view, of the desperation of both of those campaigns that they went on the offensive in this way.

I think that they have to find some other way. I don't know what that other way is. Sometimes, we say that negative doesn't work in political campaigns. Going negative doesn't work. But some people have done analyses that show that it does work with the public. Somehow it works and we say it doesn't work, and then they say it does. So we'll have to see. And if - depending on what the poll numbers are after this, if it worked, and going negative got a few points for Obama, a few points for Edwards and knocked a few points off Hillary. They'll probably do it again.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BERRY: But if it didn't work, maybe they'll pull back. So we'll just have to see.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Hey, Farai, let me throw one last thing in.


Mr. CHRISTIE: The one person who looks like a statesman in this, believe it or not, was Chris Dodd last night. There was the question that came up about governor of New York Eliot Spitzer - had his proposal to put driver's license in the hands of illegal aliens, and Tim Russert asked Senator Clinton several times, are you in favor of this, are you not. And she said, I support the plan, but she would never talk about whether or not she supported the initiative.

And Senator Dodd came back and said, driving is a privilege and I don't see the logic and I don't see the wisdom in putting driver's license in the hands of illegal citizens, of people who have broken the law to come here.

And I thought, that's exactly what the Democrats need to do. They need to distinguish themselves by talking about what they're for as opposed to shooting at each other and talking about what they're against.

Prof. BERRY: And that's a very tough issue though, the driver's license one. I mean, on the one hand, I agree with Ron, but then on the other hand, you do have all these people driving around and wandering around and you don't know who they are. So it's very hard to come down like that.

But I agree that Chris Dodd looked like a sensible person last night, so - and Joe Biden was funny and seemed like a person who had some experience and gravitas, but the other, you know, the other guys, you know, yipping and yapping, they would've been better off to attack the Republicans, which is what the Republicans do or to target one - I mean, Giuliani is the frontrunner among the Republicans, why don't they target him and spend all their time hitting up him instead of hitting up Hillary?

CHIDEYA: Let's move to another debate that's going on. This one, a debate between people about torture. The nomination of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general is becoming increasingly controversial and like AG Alberto Gonzales, Mukasey has recently declined to call a technique called waterboarding torture, to the chagrin of many Democrats and many in the international community. So waterboarding simulates drowning. Is there a difference, Ron, between waterboarding and torture?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well I think what Judge Mukasey said in a four-page letter going back to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy from Vermont was that he's a judge. He is asked to look at specific facts in a specific case in a specific instance. And he said that while his personal view is that this is inhumane and this is a disgusting treatment, the specific law that was passed by the Congress two years ago forbade the United States Military from participating in this specific activity, but it did not forbid the CIA from doing so.

And Judge Mukasey said, I am not privileged to classified information that relates to the specific program as it relates to the CIA. Does he personally believe it's torture? Yes. I think that he said that he did. But he said he was not going to speculate on specific set of facts and on specific hypothetical about knowing the truth. And I think the Democrats are overreaching their hand here to suggest that Judge Mukasey is somehow in favor of torture when looking at a statement and looking at the record, he has clearly indicated from a personal perspective that he does not agree with this form or this specific procedure.

Prof. BERRY: Well, the problem with Mukasey is that he was about to have a very easy confirmation until all this came up because Chuck Schumer had in fact suggested it.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Supported it, yeah.

Prof. BERRY: …and was supporting him. But the problem here that even though president's nominees come to the Senate with the presumption of correctness -after Gonzales and after all the things that have happened, it's just like with the whole administration, you have this trust issue and do you believe anything, what anybody says, and you worry about it. And he is a judge - has been a judge, but he's now going to be attorney general, which is a whole new category. And given the relationships between the Congress and the attorney general and the refusals to give information and Judge Mukasey's expansive view, as he has stated, of the power of the executive to take action without the Congress, I think that they are right to be afraid.

And on waterboarding, in a way, it's a no-brainier. I mean, McCain is against it, Lindsey Graham is against it, you've got Republicans against it. So he ought to be able to come up with a clearer answer somehow without slicing and dicing for four pages about it. And so I think the nomination is in trouble for all of those reasons.

Mr. CHRISTIE: The trouble - go ahead, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Ron, let me ask you about strategy. Regardless of whether or not there is a basis to say, okay, waterboarding is not torture or we're going to put it in a separate category, was it good strategy for the administration to put someone up who is going to walk down this road that the administration had already walked down before not so successfully?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, the administration was looking to put forward a candidate to be attorney general of the United States. Someone who, as Mary suggested, would put behind some of the problems of Alberto Gonzales, that would be one who would be trusted on Capitol Hill, one who could work very easily on either into Pennsylvania Avenue. I think this is one divisive flashpoint. I think when you look at the judge's overall record, for goodness' sakes, as Mary said, Senator Schumer from New York endorsed Judge Mukasey and thought that he would be a fine attorney general.

The question now is, the judge has returned numerous interrogatories back to the Senate Judiciary Committee, ranging on issues of social justice, civil rights and what not. And I do believe at the end of the day that he will get his upper-down vote in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor.

So I do believe the administration picked the right individual. I do think that there are some in the Congress who are trying to play politics to deny President Bush any sort of victory just for the sake of denying the president any sort of victory.

CHIDEYA: Mary, very briefly, how much reverb…

Prof. BERRY: Well…

CHIDEYA: …does this have?

Prof. BERRY: I just think that he may not get approval. What he needs to do is write a simple one-paragraph letter saying, I think waterboarding is torture. That's my view and I should've said that in the first place. Thank you very much. And - but I don't think he's going to do that.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Mary, Ron, thanks so much.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Happy Halloween.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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 and a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. They spoke with us from NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

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