NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and joining us again today is Liane Hansen from "Weekend Edition Sunday."
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Congress is on Thanksgiving break and Capitol Hill is much quieter today than it was a few days ago when Representative John Murtha called for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq within six months. His emotional speech last Thursday stoked the debate between the Republicans and Democrats over the war, but it also put the spotlight squarely on the Democratic Party and the deep, complicated divisions among its members.
CONAN: Last week on this program, we looked at dissentions among Republicans; today, we'll talk about Democrats and Iraq.
HANSEN: All Democrats praise Murtha's courage, but not necessarily the message. Some worry that talk of withdrawal will backfire and allow the Republicans to paint the Democrats as weak on national security. Others argue on the timing, and a few say the American public is way ahead of the Democrats, that it's time to bring the troops home. We'll talk with Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida, one of three Democrats to vote for immediate withdrawal last week, and with former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
CONAN: What do you want your congressman or senator to do about Iraq? We'd especially like to hear from Democrats today. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
Later in the show, a Massachusetts congressman brokers his own deal with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez for discounted home heating oil, and Jose Padilla is now a former enemy combatant. He faces terrorism charges in federal court in Florida.
But first, the Democratic divide on Iraq. And to set the stage we begin with Ken Rudin, who's NPR's political editor, and he joins us here in Studio 3A.
KEN RUDIN reporting:
Hi, Neal. And remember, Tom Daschle was also Senate majority leader, as well, just to be fair.
HANSEN: Oh, my mistake.
CONAN: Oh. Democrats can all agree that President Bush's policies are wrong. Is there any consensus on what they propose instead, Ken?
RUDIN: No, there isn't. I think that Jack Murtha's speech last Thursday was--could be a watershed in a sense because it had a lot of Democrats talking about the war, thinking about the war, and a lot of Republicans thinking about the war itself. But you know, the old Will Rogers thing that, `I don't belong to an organized party; I'm a Democrat,' that's true about the Democrats and Iraq. They're all over the map, from people who want to pull out, you know, yesterday, and those who say that the pullout would just cause anarchy and make a bad situation even worse.
CONAN: And doesn't that reinforce Republican charges that, `Well, they know what they're against but nobody knows what they're for'?
RUDIN: Right, and that's the dilemma Democrats face. It's easy to say that the Bush conduct of the war was wrong, that there's no exit strategy, but again, when the Republicans turn the spotlight on the Democrats--which is what happened with the Murtha speech--Democrats seemed to be pretty uncomfortable, too.
CONAN: Are Democrats worried that another anti-war or pacifist platform, like George McGovern's when he ran for president back in 1972, will mean political ruin, that they're gonna be painted again for another generation as weak on national security?
RUDIN: Well, you know, perhaps that's part of the reasoning what happened in 2002, when the vote to go to war in Iraq, to authorize the war in Iraq, was right before the 2002 elections. I'd be very interested to see what the vote would have been like had that vote come after the November elections. But having said that, the Republicans are very adept at, you know, turning--looking the Dem--painting the Democratic Party as soft on terror, soft on defense. It goes back, you know, to McGovern, and even before that. So obviously, politics plays a big part of it.
But again, you know, did Jack Murtha play politics in this? I don't think so. But at the same time, I don't think John McCain is playing politics, too, when he says that we should stay and finish the course. So the two sides are obviously at loggerheads with each other and there's no obvious end in sight.
HANSEN: Who are some of the more vulnerable or conflicted Democrats these days, Ken?
RUDIN: Well, I would think the Democrats who are looking at 2008 presidential election and that's you know, Hillary Clinton, for example. I mean, for the longest time, she was saying that, you know, we had to have more troops in Iraq, you know, maybe perhaps 100,000 more troops. Now she's backed off that a little lately, but she still said yesterday, in regard to Jack Murtha's proposal, she said, `No, you know. Every Democrat says that. We love Jack Murtha. We value his, you know, record and everything like this, but...'
CONAN: And he's certainly no coward.
RUDIN: And he's no--right, exactly. And that's where the Democrats are united. But again, the alternative or backing Jack Murtha plan, people like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, others like that--you know, we saw Democrats in 2002 again--you know, Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran, a dec--you know, wounded, seriously wounded Vietnam veteran, was painted soft on terror because he voted against the nation--you know, Homeland Security Department. So there are political considerations in everything they do.
HANSEN: What do you think the Democrats who have gone home for the Thanksgiving holiday are gonna hear from their constituents?
RUDIN: Well, that's a good question. I mean, obviously, we just passed--we--Ken Rudin, member of Congress here. Congress has just passed a budget plan where a lot of Republicans, I think, are going home and are put on the defensive over certain spending cuts, and they'll have to accommodate their views with the views of the constituents. But again, the Democratic Party has never had a solid position on the war. As a matter of fact, Nancy Pelosi says when they come back after the December--after the Thanksgiving break, they will try to come to some kind of an agreement. But again, when you have the anti-war lefties and you have the Blue Dog Democrats in the South, this is very hard to come to any kind of an agreement, a unified position, on the war.
HANSEN: Well, where's the leadership? Where's the Democratic leadership?
RUDIN: Well, just look at the House. You have Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, who's a longtime anti-war proponent. As a matter of fact, she said she couldn't even back the--she couldn't back the Murtha resolution even though she is so strongly anti-war. And her whip is Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who voted for the resolution to go to war in 2002. So the leadership is split, not only the membership.
HANSEN: Let's bring a Democrat into our conversation. We turn now to Tom Daschle, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota and also the former Senate majority leader.
Former Senator TOM DASCHLE (Democrat, South Dakota): Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: And--you're welcome. And he's here in Studio 3A.
Welcome to talk of the nation, and it's nice to meet you.
Mr. DASCHLE: Great to be back.
HANSEN: Tell us, what can the Democrats do about this quandary?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I think that the Democrats are a lot more unified than what some have portrayed, because I think what you see in recent weeks in particular is a demand upon the administration that they produce a plan, first of all. There isn't a plan. We don't know what the administration's intentions are or how we're going to extricate ourselves from this. So I think there is a great deal of unity with regard to expressing the disappointment and the determination to force this administration to come forth with a plan. Secondly...
CONAN: A lot of Republicans voted for that proposal as well in the Senate.
Mr. DASCHLE: That's right, absolutely. Only after the Democrats put forth the resolution. And it was only after putting them on the defensive, I think, that many Republicans finally decided they had to do something.
But then secondly, I think that there is a greater and greater consensus about the degree to which we need to pull out and focus on the larger challenges we face internationally. I don't know that anybody necessarily would say that we'll be--speak with one voice or with unanimity with regard to the timetable, but there is very little dissent any longer about an expectation that US troops will be slowly extracted from Iraq and dedicated, rededicated to other locations, to other purposes, to the strategic redeployment of troops to Afghanistan, to the war on terror, to other needs that we have around the world.
HANSEN: At what point, though, does the Iraq War get driven by Iraqi politics? I mean, we've had this meeting in Cairo where the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds have all agreed as to, you know, getting some kind of proposal for a withdrawal--I mean, instead of American politics driving the Iraq War.
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I think that's a good question, Liane. I think that the concern, of course, everybody has is that the December 15th elections will not be totally dispositive, will not ultimately create the kind of environment wherein we have the certainty that everybody's looking for. The insurgencies will continue. The lack of the infrastructure and the problems that that creates will continue to exacerbate the situation. So we are very concerned about where do we go after the 15th of December. People are looking at that as sort of a threshold date. I'm not sure that it's going to be as much of a threshold as many of us would like to think it could be.
CONAN: We want to hear your thoughts on this debate. Join us. We're especially interested in hearing from Democrats today. (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's begin with Peter, and Peter's calling us from Cincinnati, Ohio.
PETER (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Peter. You're on the air.
PETER: Great show. I live in Jean Schmidt's district. She was the lady that accused Tom Murtha of being a coward, basically; just completely off base. But I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I just wish the Democrats would take more of a leadership role and really have courage and trust the American electorate that we're smarter than that and that they--it's OK to just, say, provide a direction and take the risk of being really honest with the American public and stepping out there. Does that make sense?
CONAN: And stepping out there and say what?
PETER: And say, `Look, here's a plan. Here's what we should do.' That means that the leaders have to get together and really focus on this now, because there's an absence of leadership in the Republican Party. The `Hold the line' thing is not really very helpful anymore.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ken Rudin, Peter was talking about that congressional district--there was a special election there not so long ago. Indeed, that was a district that had been won by Rob Portman, a Republican, handily...
CONAN: ...for many years in a row. And, well, an anti-war Democrat, a veteran, gave Ms. Smith everything she could handle in that election.
RUDIN: Right. And that anti-war Democrat is also running for the Senate in Ohio against Mike DeWine. There are a lot of Republicans who heretofore would be thought to be pretty much safe going into 2006, but a combination of the war and the Bush problems on other things--on taxes, on Katrina relief, on gasoline prices, things like that--have put a lot of Republicans very nervous. And Senator Daschle is exactly right, that the Democrats are united in the sense that they think that there needs to be a direction in the war that does not exist, and Republicans are more and more nervous about it.
CONAN: Senator Daschle, I wanted to ask you about that, as well. Did Democrats look at that election and say, `Well, you know, maybe we should be the anti-war party come 2006'?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I don't think you look at an election or polling results and decide what kind of a party you're going to be. You hope that you can provide the kind of direction to the country and that the American people will lead, but I think it was encouraging that the message that our candidate had, Paul Hackett had resonated in a Republican district as much as it did. I think that that, along with Jack Murtha's statements and others would indicate that around the country, regardless of the politics of a particular region of the country, you're seeing a greater and greater anxiety and frustration and determination on the part of the American people to see a change in the course of direction.
HANSEN: Senator, do you think it's possible for politicians to actually speak their conscience when they are worried about being elected or re-elected?
Mr. DASCHLE: I don't think there's any question about that. I can give you so many vivid examples of that; Jack Murtha, I think, just this week. But Paul Wellstone and so many others who, over a period of time, said what they thought and let the consequences be what they may.
CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the phone call.
PETER: You're welcome.
CONAN: We're talking about the situation in Iraq and the dilemma it causes for Democrats in Washington. Coming up after the break, Congressman Robert Wexler will join us to tell us why he voted last week to bring the troops home immediately.
I'm Neal Conan.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen, and it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen.
We're talking today about the debate over Iraq and how it's playing out in the Democratic Party. We're joined by Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, and Tom Daschle, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota.
CONAN: You're invited to join us, of course. What do you want your congressman or woman or senator to do about Iraq? Push for speedy withdrawal? Stay the course? Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Mike, Mike calling from Amarillo, Texas.
MIKE (Caller): Well, I believe that the Democratic Party should not be monolithic like the Republicans. That's not what they're about; they're about freedom, you know, like that. And they are somewhat independent within their party, and I think that's the way it should be.
CONAN: Notoriously independent, Ken Rudin.
RUDIN: That's true.
MIKE: Perhaps. Nonetheless, it's really about freedom and open dialogue and thought. The Republicans, on the other hand, are monolithic and close-minded. I think Will Rogers had it right when he said he wasn't a member of any organized political party; he was a Democrat.
CONAN: Hmm. But, Senator Daschle, doesn't that leave, again, Democrats open to the charge of, `Well, you're just sitting on the sidelines saying everything we do is wrong when you guys aren't putting forward your own plan. What would you do about it?'
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I don't think that's a fair criticism, Neal. I think that there's a great deal of work going on with regard to what we ought to do about it. Joe Biden gave a terrific speech in New York yesterday.
Mr. DASCHLE: Many of us at the Center for American Progress have worked on this strategic redeployment plan, where we take out half the troops next year and deploy about 20,000 to Afghanistan and bring home our National Guard so they can work in the areas of the country where they're so desperately needed. Those kinds of things, I think, are projects and proposals that already enjoy broad-based Democratic support, and obviously,from what we can see around the country, support from others, as well. So I think that it's really the Democrats that are leading on the issues of `Where do we go from here? What are the alternatives, and what should we be thinking about?'
HANSEN: Is there something that they can do other than criticize the White House, something concrete?
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, that's what I said. I mean, I think when you've got Jack Murtha, who came up with his proposal the other day, Joe Biden, who's had his plan, many of us who've talked about the strategic redeployment plan that we unveiled several weeks ago. So there are a number of specific ways with which to begin to change the course and the direction we're taking in Iraq. I think the Democrats have, not with unanimity--and as Mike the caller has just said, I don't know that that's necessarily all that important how unanimous we are. I think what is important is that vocal leaders are speaking out, expressing ways with which to take a different course and keeping the heat on the administration to examine its own record and its own circumstances and pressing them to come up with something different.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Mike, thanks very much for the call.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go now to Lorraine. Lorraine is with us from Centennial, Ohio.
LORRAINE (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Lorraine. You're on the air.
LORRAINE: Hi. Thank you. I am what I would describe as a frustrated Democrat living in a radical Republican district, and was never in favor of the war, but now that we're in it--if the Democrats would come up with a coherent policy that they could explain to me: Is it most ethical and most efficient at this point to stay and take care of things, or has it just gone too far and the best course is to cut our losses and run? Either way, I would support it if someone could take some leadership and explain it to me, the pros and cons, of either way.
CONAN: Ken Rudin, I suspect Lorraine is not alone.
RUDIN: Well, I think the only time you'll see a unified Democratic position is when you have a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. And as Senator Daschle just said, there are several different plans--the Murtha plan and, you know, the Biden plan; they're all over the map. And at least, for the first time in my memory, that there are proposals coming out as opposed to just saying, `The Bush administration is wrong, the conduct was wrong and we have to changed it,' and the fact that there are now specific suggestions. But not until you have a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008--that will be ultimately the change from the Bush policy, not individual congressional proposals.
CONAN: And, Senator Daschle, I wonder, doesn't this pose a special quandary for those Democrats so many of whom voted to support the war back a few years ago?
Mr. DASCHLE: I don't think it presents that much of a quandary at all, Neal. I think Ken is right. You're not going to have a single plan identified as the Democratic plan until one person who has the authority to speak for the Democratic Party alone will give his or her view of what the proposal ought to be.
But I think a lot of us who voted for the resolution feel that that's--what's past is past. However it is we got here, the question now is: What do we do? And I think the caller is right. I think we have an obligation not only to criticize, but to come forth with plans that we are very much in support of, and many of us have done that.
LORRAINE: That's right. And as it sounds like now, I'm going to be waiting another three years.
CONAN: Another three years.
Mr. DASCHLE: No, not at all. In fact, as I say, I think--I strongly believe that we ought to be strategically redeploying our troops. That is examining just what is our foreign policy challenge today, and I think it's much larger than Iraq. I think it's fighting the war on terror, I think it's restoring our image abroad. And to do that, I think it's critical that we redeploy a lot of our troops, that we bring home our National Guard, that we retrain and put a greater focus on the training of Iraqi security forces and that we ultimately recognize that our challenges are not just Iraq, but far larger than that, and that's where I think most Democrats would like to take this debate.
LORRAINE: Well, you got my vote.
CONAN: OK, Lorraine. Thanks very much.
LORRAINE: Thank you.
HANSEN: We want to bring another person into the discussion now. We want to bring in Robert Wexler, Democratic congressman from Florida. He's also a member of the House International Relations and Judiciary committees. And only three Democrats in the House voted for the resolution to withdraw the troops from Iraq, and he is one of them. And he's with us now. He joins us from his office in Washington.
Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, sir.
Representative ROBERT WEXLER (Democrat, Florida): Thank you for having me.
HANSEN: So explain why did you vote for the resolution?
Rep. WEXLER: I voted for the resolution because for me, that vote was a referendum on President Bush's policy in Iraq. It was a vote of no confidence, and that's the way I wanted to be recorded.
Your previous caller, though, I think hits it on the head. Democrats, I think, ought to object like I did on Friday night, but we have to offer an alternative policy. And what I would respectfully suggest is that when you review the facts, being that we are now losing roughly 100 of our American men and women every month now in terms of our service people, we're spending more than $5 1/2 billion a month in Iraq, we are also training now--we're at about 200,000 Iraqi security and military forces. By the middle of next year, the experts say we could be at 300,000, although how good they are remains to be seen.
It is important to note today that the Iraqi president, Mr. Talabani, in the Arab Summit League in Egypt, called for an American timetable for the withdrawal of troops.
CONAN: He did say that ought to be based on the quality of Iraqi forces and other factors, and not necessarily just strictly a timetable.
Rep. WEXLER: That's correct. And what I think we are now seeing is the emerging of a consensus, or at least a significant view, that the only way we are going to get the Iraqis themselves to take a greater degree of responsibility in terms of both security and political compromise is if they know there is an end to American involvement, in terms of military forces on the ground. And that's where people like Jack Murtha and me differ dramatically with the president.
HANSEN: Well, do you think House Democrats can actually reach some kind of consensus over the Iraq War?
Rep. WEXLER: Well, I think ultimately in the next few weeks, there will be a majority of Democrats that come very close to Jack Murtha's position because it's a position of common sense, it's actually a position of strength, I would argue, it's a position that states the obvious, that the American military achieved its military goal of defeating the Iraqi army and capturing Saddam Hussein, and now acknowledging that the obstacles that we face are both security and political. And the American military is not going to resolve the political problems. That will require a compromise by the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, and that in terms of security, the only answer is the Iraqi security forces, and they must be given an opportunity--along with a deadline from an American perspective, I believe--to take responsibility.
CONAN: It's interesting that Congressman Murtha did not join you in voting for that immediate withdrawal resolution. And if indeed it was a referendum on President Bush's policies, it was a thundering victory for him.
Rep. WEXLER: Well, that's what the Republicans are arguing today--you're exactly correct--that there was a vote of confidence, the Republicans argue, for President Bush. But in fairness to my Democratic colleagues, their view was that the process that the Republicans utilized in the House of Representatives was so disingenuous, the fact that they brought up a resolution that was designed to fail on a question of such great national importance like the war in Iraq, that Democrats, in effect, refused to participate in what they perceived to be a bankrupt process.
I viewed it differently. I viewed that it was important for me to make a statement about the fact that I disagree fundamentally with President Bush's stay-the-course position.
HANSEN: What kind of response are you getting from your constituents?
Rep. WEXLER: Overwhelmingly positive. I've gotten it both in the forms of phone calls and e-mails. Most people I've spoken to do not understand the nuance of whether a resolution says immediate withdrawal or then goes into the seven or eight different predicates and different provisos.
What--Jack Murtha hit a chord with the American people last week. And if you ask people what did Jack Murtha say that was so compelling is they say, `Well, you had this 37-year Marine who's got military credentials left and right say it was time to leave Iraq.' Americans understand that America would never leave Iraq irresponsibly. They understand that to remove the tens of thousands of troops--158,000 we have there now--would take months to do. No one believes that we do it in three weeks or four. It will take six, seven months to begin that process. And what I believe Jack Murtha said was, `It's time to begin that process.'
CONAN: And if after that time the situation devolves into civil war, or if Mr. Zarqawi or his allies are then able to carve out a little terrorist territory in the Sunni areas of western Iraq, what do you do then?
Rep. WEXLER: Well, first of all, we need to acknowledge that, in effect, to a degree there's a civil war occurring there today, unfortunately, American soldiers are in the middle of it. What we will see, I hope, is that over the next six months, we'll see new elections, a new government take place in January, a four-month constitutional revision process, where the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds would be more likely to compromise if they knew that American troops were being drawn down--if at the end of the process, in fact, there is an escalation of violence--well, I'm not advocating for that, but if that's what it takes in order to get the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds to make the political compromises necessary to form a stronger federal government, then that may be what is inevitable. But the presence of American troops, unfortunately, will not stop that.
CONAN: We're talking about the debate over Iraq within the Democratic Party. We're speaking with Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida and also with former Democratic senator from South Dakota Tom Daschle. NPR's political editor Ken Rudin is also with us.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another listener involved in the conversation, and David is on the line with us from Liberty, Missouri.
DAVID (Caller): Well, thanks very kindly for taking my call. I guess I want if--I don't have Democratic representation where I am. My senators and representative are all Republicans. But if they were, what I'd want them to do is two things. The first thing is, is quit playing the game on the Republicans' field. We can't argue what happened and who voted for what in the past. If you want to come out and say you made a mistake when you voted for the war, that's fine. I really don't care. What I want you to talk about is what's going to happen in the future and make that plan. And that plan should include saying, `Hey, the Republican plan has not changed, but the terms of everything around it has. Iraq has changed, and the United States has changed. And we need to move forward with a new plan, and the Republicans also have not provided a new plan.' That would be the first thing I'd say.
And the second thing I'd say is that after we got off their playing field, we need to start going back to things that everyone knows is happening right now but keeps being pushed off by whatever's happening in Iraq. And that is a lack of health care--that's the Medicaid cuts they've just made. Our governor here in Missouri, Matt Blunt, has made cuts in Medicare. And really, the poor is suffering, and that's what should be brought to the forefront is those Democratic ideals of what happened in Katrina and what happened with the Medicaid cuts in health care need to stop. And that's what we should be talking about.
CONAN: Well, getting back to David's first point, Congressman Wexler, Senator Daschle, I believe both of you voted to support the president's--support the war.
Mr. DASCHLE: Well, that's right, Neal. But I think the caller's exactly right. You can't turn back the hands of time; you've got to look at what our circumstances are right now and offer as many constructive ways with which to deal with these circumstances as possible. I think he's very right in that we have another agenda there, and that's part of what the Democrats are also talking about: the deep cuts in Medicaid, the extraordinary cuts that they're making across the board in the budget to accommodate tax cuts that this country can't afford and further thwart the inequities that are in our system today. So I think that the caller is right, and I think you're going to see Democrats focus on those two points extensively.
CONAN: Congressman Wexler.
Rep. WEXLER: Oh, I would concur with the caller and Senator Daschle. I would add simply that I believe it's incumbent upon Democrats to not be afraid to distinguish ourselves from the president on the Iraq War. The American people, I believe, are thirsty for a constructive, legitimate debate on how we best serve our national interests from here on. And I think it's also valid that we need to put the costs of the war in Iraq in its broader context in exactly the way the caller described. For instance, this past week, the House of Representatives voted, in effect, a $50 billion cut in social services, health-care services as a result of the expenditures in Iraq and as a result in the expenditures in helping people on the Gulf Coast and other hurricane victim areas.
But the truth is it also relates to tax policy. It relates to the significant tax cuts that were created that benefited largely the wealthiest Americans, and in two weeks, the House is going to come back into session and vote $70 billion more in tax cuts. So we are taking from the poorest among us, and in two weeks, we will give more to the wealthiest among us. It wouldn't seem equitable, I believe, to most Americans.
HANSEN: David, thanks a lot for your call.
DAVID: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And, Congressman Wexler, thanks very much for joining us today.
Rep. WEXLER: Thank you.
CONAN: Robert Wexler is a Democrat from Florida, member of the House International Relations and Judiciary committees. He joined us from his office on Capitol Hill.
We're going to continue this conversation after a short break. And after that, we'll find out why a deal to keep Massachusetts residents warm this winter could raise temperatures in the White House, and also find out about Jose Padilla, the onetime enemy combatant and so-called dirty bomber.
It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
HANSEN: Right now we want to return to our discussion about Iraq policy and the politics of the current debate. Still with us are Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, and Tom Daschle, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota.
Ken, I want to turn it to you. Do you think this debate over Iraq, Iraq policy, is hamstringing the Senate and Congress and keeping them from perhaps focusing on other issues that are of importance to the American people and other issues of governance?
RUDIN: Well, that's saying that the war and the daily death toll is not important. And I'm thinking that's not what you're saying, but I think...
RUDIN: ...but that's what America--I mean, you know, Jack Murtha said something interesting, and we've referred to it in the show earlier, that the American public is way ahead of Congress on this issue. So, yes, there are other issues that obviously have to be taken care of, but hearing--if you listen to what the Democratic members of Congress have to say, and more and more Republicans, the folks back home are very, very concerned about this war with no end in sight, and something has to be done about it.
HANSEN: The repercussions of this war, as well as the war itself--in other words, the effects that this policy is going to have on our own domestic policy; prices of oil, prices for gas, that kind of thing.
RUDIN: Exactly. And we saw that with--why are we spending so much money for Katrina victims and why are we cutting the budget on health care and food stamps and student loans? Because so much of the money is going to the war. Some of the National Guardsmen, who instead of helping people with Katrina and issues like that, are out of the country fighting the war. So obviously, there are repercussions in everything regarding the war.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. And this is Bruce, Bruce calling us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.
BRUCE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
BRUCE: You know, one of the things that I'm really concerned about is that the Republicans are winning the war of rhetoric. It seems to me that there are so many issues that the Democrats could be killing the Republicans on, but they don't seem to be taking the lead. There's not that constant attack that I think there really needs to be. In the last presidential election, John Kerry had so many issues that he could have really fought on, but he didn't; he tried to be a nice guy. It seems to me like the Republicans are a bunch of yapping little dogs who get a lot of attention, and the Democrats are just letting them get away with it.
CONAN: Senator Daschle, is it time for the--we'll leave yapping dogs--we'll let yapping dogs lie...
HANSEN: Yapping dogs lie, yeah.
CONAN: ...but with the rest of that--I mean, the Senate resolution, the debate on that was sober, civil. Last week in the House, that was a nasty piece of business.
Mr. DASCHLE: It was. It was conformational. But I guess I would--with all respect, I would disagree with the caller, Neal. I think--look at the numbers. I mean, there was a CNN poll taken not long ago that showed an unnamed Democrat (technical difficulties) on foreign policy, and we've got almost a 20-point lead right now. You've got very significant indications that the American people are with the Democrats and very concerned about the direction the Republicans are taking, so something must be working.
I think when I look back just over the last couple of weeks, you had Harry Reid going to the chamber and calling for that special executive session to demand more information and a better understanding of what happened with regard to the intelligence data. You had them forcing the vote last week on the resolution on Iraq. So you've got Democrats, I think, taking charge, showing direction. You've got Jack Murtha, Joe Biden, as we said earlier, a number of people out there with very specific proposals on what we ought to do with regard to Iraq in the future. So I don't know how much more the Democrats can do, number one, and, number two, what we are doing appears to be working given the numbers that I've seen in recent polls.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ken Rudin, those numbers can be read a number of different ways. Loss of support for the war, loss of support for Republicans, does not necessarily translate into more support for Democrats.
RUDIN: That's a very good point. Two things. First of all, regarding this unnamed Democrat who would trounce President Bush today--well, I think once you name that Democrat, that's when the Democrats have problems. It's very easy to say that generically Democrats would trounce the Republicans in battles for Congress, but when you do actual candidates, that doesn't happen.
But it's true. I mean, if you look at the latest Gallup Polls, the Bush numbers are down, support for Republicans in Congress down, but Democrats don't seem to be benefiting, at least at this point.
CONAN: Bruce, thanks very much for joining us. I think Bruce has already left us to listen to himself on the radio.
And we'd like to thank both of our guests for being with us today. Tom Daschle, former minority and majority leader of the United States Senate, former senator from South Dakota. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. DASCHLE: Thanks, Neal. Thanks, Liane.
CONAN: And Ken Rudin, who's NPR's political editor...
RUDIN: Majority political editor.
CONAN: ...majority political editor, and also the author of the Political Junkie column, which you can read at npr.org.
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