Political Wrap: Capital Spending, Illinois Preview NPR's Ken Rudin examines the president's political capital and the Illinois primary. And Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) talks about his decision to retire after nearly a quarter-century serving in the House of Representatives.
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Political Wrap: Capital Spending, Illinois Preview

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Political Wrap: Capital Spending, Illinois Preview

Political Wrap: Capital Spending, Illinois Preview

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Buoyed by his reelection victory in 2004 George W. Bush declared an ambitious agenda for his second term as President.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style, that's what happened in, after the 2000 election, I earned some capital. I've earned capital in this election, and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is, you've heard the agenda, Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.

CONAN: Yesterday, at a White House news conference, the president was asked if he could claim that same mandate today.

President BUSH: I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war.

CONAN: In other policy news, primary elections yesterday in Illinois, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in combat won the Democratic nomination for a House seat, former presidential candidate Al Gore said another run does not seem likely for him, and in a few minutes, New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert joins us to talk about his decision to retire after nearly a quarter century in the House of Representatives. If you have questions about either end of Pennsylvania Avenue or big races where you live, give us a call, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And joining us here in our Studio 3A for our weekly Wednesday feature is our political junky, NPR's political editor Ken Rudin, always nice to have you on the program.

KEN RUDIN, reporting:

Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Much different tone to President Bush's remarks yesterday compared to just a year and half ago.

RUDIN: A year and a half ago was a lifetime ago, given the fact that the war has not gone well, and with his third anniversary of combat, President Bush has been going around the country trying to drum up support. Now in the past, when the president does speak, there is some, a little bit of a spike in his approval ratings, or at least approval ratings for the war, but more and more people are not hearing anything new, and the headlines that really came out of yesterday's speech was really that the troops are not getting out anytime soon. He says it's up to future presidents to decide when the troops will be gone, so there will be no October surprise for the 2006 elections or the 2008 elections. Looks like troops will be there through 2009, and I don't think that's what Republicans wanted to hear.

CONAN: And that agenda that the president touted after he was reelected, Social Security was the one he was asked particularly about yesterday, and he agreed, it's not going anywhere.

RUDIN: No it is not going anywhere, but also Republicans in Congress say it's not going anywhere, so he has control of Congress by his own party and they're not on board either, so it's been a really rough year, certainly since the election of 2004.

CONAN: Well, speaking of elections, there was a primary yesterday in the state of Illinois and a very prominent Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois, most recently Chairman of the...

RUDIN: International Relations...

CONAN: ...International Relations Committee, before that the Judiciary Committee, you might remember during the impeachment hearings. He is retiring and a Democrat named Tammy Duckworth won the Democratic nomination to run in that district.

RUDIN: Now that's the headline. The headlines is Tammy Duckworth and she has a really compelling story. She was a Iraqi war veteran, she was a helicopter pilot, she lost both her legs in a grenade attack, and Democrats felt that she was the perfect candidate to run for Congress. There were a lot of Iraqi veterans, lot of war veterans, Democrats have been recruiting this year, in part to show that they are not the party of defeatism and, you know, weakness. They want to stand up to the Republicans on defense and national security issues, but Tammy Duckworth got a ton of money, got endorsements from Barack Obama who was featured prominently in her ads, Dick Durbin the other Senator from Illinois, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, all endorsed Tammy Duckworth.

The problem is before she gets to the November election, there's another Democrat running, a woman by the name of Christine Cegelis. Cegelis was the Democratic nominee against Henry Hyde two years ago. She held Henry Hyde to 55 percent which was the lowest that Hyde, the worst showing that Hyde has had, and Cegelis said, look, one, I deserve this nomination, I mean, I put up the fight two years ago and nobody thought I had a chance, I did well and I deserve it again, and two, not only is Tammy Duckworth not from the district, but she's not sufficiently anti-war. When you ask Tammy Duckworth about the war she says, well, I don't like the way it's going, but I, you know, but there's some good things. She was kind of like, not as strong as some Democratic activists would have liked. Where Cegelis was, this war is atrocious, it's abominablem and we should pull out. So, lo and behold, even though Duckworth had all the endorsements, all the celebrity, all the money, she won by only 1,080 votes. It was a 44% to 40% victory yesterday in the primary. And to me, the message is really that it's wonderful to have celebrity, it's wonderful to be an Iraq veteran, but you have to have something to say, and that could be the problem for some of these candidates in November.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I think there are nine Iraqi war veterans running, eight of them democrats in various places around the country. Speaking of Illinois, the incumbent governor, Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, won reelection handily yesterday. He will be facing, come November, Judy Baar Topinka. The Republican Party is in some trouble, state-wide at least, in the state of Illinois.

RUDIN: Oh, God, yes. I mean, first of all, it started with George Ryan, the previous governor. The Republicans had the governorship for 30 years. They, the last time the democrats had won it was 1972. But, given the fact that George Ryan was embroiled in this scandal, he's been indicted, given the fact that their Republican nominee for the Senate two years ago, against Obama, was a guy named Jim Ryan, who was involved in this lurid sex allegations with his ex-wife. And then they had Alan Keyes coming in as their nominee. The Republicans are really in big trouble in Illinois. The good news for the Democrats is that you don't have to write in Rod Blagojevich's name, because it's hard to spell, or pronounce. But you know, he's had a tough race too. He appointed a disciple of Louis Farrakhan to a discrimination hate-crimes commission, which caused a lot of Jews to quit the commission, and there's been a lot of back and forth and angry outburst between blacks and Jews in Illinois, which is not a good thing for the Democratic Party if they want to win an election in November.

CONAN: Well, let's introduce now our guest, long-time Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert announced that he will retire at the end of this congressional session. And Congressman Boehlert joins us now from his district office in Utica, New York. And Congressman Boehlert, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Representative SHERWOOD BOEHLERT (Republican, New York): Well, it's good to be with you.

CONAN: And what prompted your decision to leave at the end of this term?

Rep. BOEHLERT: Well, you know, every two years I go through the reassessment. Should I reapply for my job? And this time I said, no, I'm not going to do it. It's time. There comes a time in every season, and I'm going to be 70 in September, I've been at this a long, long time, and I thought it was just about the right time to go out, riding on the crest of a wave, if you will. I've had a very productive last couple of years, and I'm proud of those years, and I look forward to having some free time, time when I can do whatever I want to.

CONAN: Hmm. That will be a luxury indeed. The president though, didn't the President ask you to reconsider and think about running again?

Rep. BOEHLERT: Yeah, well, we had a conversation on Air Force One, I don't mean to name drop, but we were flying back to Washington from upstate New York. He had a forum on the new Medicare Plan D program, and I was at the forum, and had the privilege of riding back on Air Force One. And high above, 30,000 feet up or so, I said to the president, I've decided not to seek reelection. And he said, I wish you'd run again. And I said I appreciate that, but I know what everyone's concern is, are we going to retain the seat in Republican hands. And I was able to assure him that we are.

RUDIN: Congressman, Ken Rudin here. You were one of the leading environmental Republicans at the, usually you don't say environment and Republican in the same sentence, but you are certainly one of the leaders in Congress. I have two questions to you, quickly. One, what's the mood of the Republicans going into the mid-term elections? What do you sense, how anxious do they seem? And how would you compare the Republican in the House to, now, to compare to what it was when you were first elected in 1982?

Rep. BOEHLERT: Well, first of all, when I was first elected in 1982, we were in the minority. And we were sort of, seemed satisfied to be in the minority. It's, we discovered, I've had twelve years in the minority, twelve years in the majority. It's a lot easier being in the minority, and its a lot more fun. It's a lot harder and a lot more rewarding being in the majority. So, it's changed dramatically from '82, when I first came, to present times. And I think one of the reasons I feel confident that the Republicans are going to maintain the majority in the coming election, not just win my seat when I vacate it with a fellow Republican, but stay in the minority, is that I think we're proving that we're the party of ideas. We have some disagreements, as your program has frequently pointed out within our own ranks. But guess what? We're talking about Republican ideas. I have yet to see the first creative idea come out of the Democrat organization in recent months. All they are doing is concentrating and saying, elect us because we're better than them. They haven't proven their case. And elect us because we'll do better. Well, that's easy to promise when you're in the minority. Quite frankly, I think the majority is doing quite well.

RUDIN: But you're no doubt familiar with polls that show generic Democrats really, you know, doing far better than generic Republicans in trial match-ups.

Rep. BOEHLERT: Yeah, but guess what? Nobody votes for generic anything. You vote for an individual, a person, a face, a message. You don't vote for something generic. And when all is said and done, the votes are going to be cast in 435 individual districts. They're going to look at the candidates, they're going to measure what they say, and then they're going to decide. And I think we have got in-house the majority of the majority is running for reelection, and I feel very confident that they're comfortable in their own districts, and will take the case to the people, and the people will reward them, as they have time after time, with reelection.

Oh, there are going to be a few losses on both sides of the aisle. A few surprises. But when all is said and done, once again, I heard a word that was introduced to my vocabulary by reading a cover story in a New York Times Sunday Magazine several months ago. This high-priced guru was speaking to the Democrats, who were having this get-together to reframe their message to make it more appealing to the public. And this guy said to the Democrats, now they paid him to come tell them, you know, how to do things, he said, you're guilty of hypo-cognition. And I said to myself, what's hypo-cognition?

CONAN: That's a good question.

Rep. BOEHLERT: Well, lack of ideas.

CONAN: Congressman Boehlert, I wanted to thank you, if we don't get another opportunity, for being so gracious with us over your years in Congress. It's always been a pleasure to talk with you, this time as always. And I also understand that one of the things you're going to have time to do from now on is watch a little bit more baseball.

Rep. BOEHLERT: Oh, yeah. I'm a real baseball nut. And as a matter of fact, I wrote my own resignation, not resignation, declination speech, if you will, and I quoted two people. Two very prominent Americans. Colin Powell, and Roger Clemens. Now Colin Powell, last year in January of '05, when it was rumored that Colin Powell might step down, I wrote him a note, I exchange notes with him two or three times a year.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. BOEHLERT: I said, Dear Mr. Secretary, please, please, please resist the temptation. Stay. We need you now more than ever." And about two weeks later, I got his reply. He wrote, It's time. And I used that theme for my speech. And then the second one, I was reading a story some place about Roger Clemens, who I think is one of the all-time greats in the game. And they were asking him about, are you going to retire this time? And he sort of finessed the answer. But then he added, When I shut it down, I'll walk away with a smile, because I feel I've done it the right way. And that's just the way I feel. I've done it the right way, and it's time.

CONAN: Sherwood Boehlert, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Rep. BOEHLERT: Thank you.

CONAN: Congressman Sherwood Boehlert speaking with us from his office in Utica, New York. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION and Political Junkie, from NPR News. Ken Rudin is still with us. Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. This is Paul. Paul's calling from Silverton, Oregon.

PAUL (Caller): Hi guys, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAUL: You know, one of your last guests made a statement and it kind of ticked me off and I want to make a real quick comment and ask a question. But he mentioned that the cost per pupil has doubled in 30 years. I was kind of wondering if he'd expect to buy a new car for a 1976 price.

CONAN: No, he said adjusted for inflation, as well.

PAUL: Oh, I understand. But the whole scope of education has changed so much.

CONAN: Well, he's not here to defend himself.

PAUL: Okay, but anyhow, my question is, you know, if we look at the budgeting and the tax issues that the current administration is proposing, I'm just wondering how many people there are out there who really think the Republican party can manage our country and clean things up. You know, now I owe $30,000 dollars to cover the deficit, and so does everybody else...

CONAN: You and everybody else...

PAUL: I was just wondering what people think of that.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, this is, despite what we heard about unity, largely amongst Republicans from Congressman Boehlert, this is an area of disagreement.

RUDIN: Absolutely. I mean, and we talked about this last week on this very program, the fact that Republicans historically have been elected on promising to have fiscal sanity. And yet, here in the six years of President Bush in office, the national debt has jumped, you know, tremendously, and the debt for every American has also been increasing gigantically.

PAUL: I'm a life-long Republican and I'm a little concerned.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call, Paul. And here's an email question, this from Pamela. In yesterday's news conference, the president radically mischaracterized the basis for Senator Feingold's censure proposal, i.e., that he wants to end surveillance rather than simply wanting to do it within the law. Is there a simple, effective way to counter that characterization to those of us who are not political junkies?

RUDIN: Well the president, look, the president basically began the 2006 campaign in his press conference yesterday, he stood up and said if the Democrats want to run against, you know, monitoring terrorists, that's fine with me. Bring it on. And of course that's not what Democrats are saying. Democrats are very concerned about privacy rights and Constitutional rights. And that's exactly why Harry Rudin, a Democrat, held up the Patriot Act for as long as they did, until those rights were guaranteed. But the president clearly wants to portray this as, we're tough on the terrorists, we're tough on the, you know, the criminals, and the Democrats are not. And that's the thing that hurt the Democrats in 2002, 2004, and they're up against in 2006.

CONAN: Quickly back to New York State politics. The mayor of New York, Mr. Bloomberg, suggested the other day, that he might actually endorse two Democrats in the upcoming election, Hillary Clinton and the gubernatorial candidate, Eliot Spitzer. RUDIN: Well, Michael Bloomberg, of course, was always a democrat until he ran for Mayor. That's when he became a Republican. But, we just talked about Illinois, New York is a perfect example of what's wrong with the Republican Party. George Pataki could have run again for a fourth term, but of course he would've gotten creamed. The Republicans are looking in the phone book, basically, to find a challenger for Hillary Clinton. First they had Ed Cox, who was Richard Nixon's son-in-law. Then he was pushed out for Jeanine Pirro, who's a Westchester County District Attorney, who during her announcement speech couldn't find page nine, and was bumbling and fumbling. And of course democrats were obliging, they found page nine for her. And then they have John Spencer, the former Mayor of Yonkers, who has a history of marital infidelity. Now they have this K.T. McFarland.

I think Neal Conan should be the Republican nominee for... if you can't find a Republican to run against Hillary Clinton in New York, I mean, then where can you find a Republican?

CONAN: NPR's political editor Ken Rudin can be heard every Wednesday here on TALK OF THE NATION. You can read his column, Political Junkie, at npr.org. Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, and I'm not running, in Washington.

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