Roundtable: Iraq and Anti-War Protests in D.C. Ed Gordon and his guests talk about the latest developments regarding Iraq and the mass anti-war protests this weekend in the nation's capital. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Julianne Malveaux, economist and author; and Robert George, editorial writer at the New York Post.

Roundtable: Iraq and Anti-War Protests in D.C.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, President Bush praises the mothers of slain soldiers on the same day that thousands protest the Iraq War. And a teen-ager is expelled from a private school because her parents are gay. We'll talk about all of that on our Roundtable. Joining us from our New York bureau, Robert George, editorial writer for the New York Post. Economist and author Julianne Malveaux joins us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, DC. And George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us today from Maryland. Thanks first--thanks, folks--folks, thanks for joining us. There we go.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist and Author): Good to be here.

GORDON: Now let's talk a little bit about what we saw in the streets of Washington, DC; many people reminiscing, those old enough, to the days of the protests that hit the nation's capital during the Vietnam War. We saw thousands in the street led by Cindy Sheehan, a mother that has made a name for herself by protesting the war and being very vehement about her thoughts against the president and this war. Robert George, when you look at this, how much of this do you believe will start to put the war back on the front burner?

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (New York Post): I think it could be significant, Ed. This was--as you said, it was one of the largest marches they've had in Washington in quite some time. And ironically, even though it was Hurricane Katrina that has sort of helped push Bush's numbers down, they were starting to fall beforehand because a sizeable number of Americans seem to be turning against the war. And I think that the types of people--it wasn't just--yes, you definitely had your usual kind of left activists who march for whatever reason, but, I mean, I think there were a lot of middle-class folks in there that I think are going to sort of force the administration to look at this seriously. I'm not sure that they're necessarily going to change tactics, but I think it's something that they have to take into account.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, Ed, I'm amused by Robert's sleight of hand, the backhand--at `left activists' who so-called `march for whatever reason.' It's not for whatever reason. People come out to the streets because they're compelled by things that our government does not deal with. There were over 300,000 people in the streets of Washington, not for whatever reason. And the people who come to the Millions More Movement on October 15th won't be there for whatever reason. As one of those left activists who marches, we have good reason for turning out into the streets when we have a president who seems tone-deaf about the thousands of deaths we've had in Iraq.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, I...

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): I think it's important here that this march was quite significant, and I think the common nation of this kind of a sentiment, and the real feeling--people feel that they were duped by going to Iraq, is going to really put more pressure on Bush. I mean, all of the polls are showing that people are basically saying, `Yeah, we want to deal with Katrina, and if it means leaving Iraq, then so be it.'

Mr. GEORGE: It's always good to have a good friend, Julianne, you know, attack the one point I made in terms of people coming out to march, where--and ignore the fact that I said that I thought that this particular march could be significant, because I think you...

Ms. MALVEAUX: But the left doesn't deserve these kind of sleight of hands, Robert. I mean...

Mr. GEORGE: Oh, Julianne...

Ms. MALVEAUX: I mean, we all know that you--we all know that they planted you in the conservative patch, but the left does not deserve...

GORDON: All right. Let me ask this, as relates to the president. The president does have some supporters, we should note. That in fact, he was saluting mothers of the war dead, some would cynically say that this was, in juxtaposing it to Cindy Sheehan, his hope of a better PR move with mothers who have, in fact, lost sons. George Curry, it should not be lost that all of America is not against this, that he has a fairly substantial number of people--we don't know what that number exactly, but one can believe it's fairly substantial--that are still behind him.

Mr. CURRY: At the risk of making Robert George fall out of his chair, I'm going to say that it's not really a fair criticism of Bush in the sense that since 1936, they've been having Gold Star Mother's Day.

Mr. GEORGE: Exactly. Exactly.

Mr. CURRY: And so this was a tribute to that. It's--you know, it does a resolution. And every president, Democrat and Republican, has done it, and so the timing, I don't think, is coincidental in terms of the protests, but this is not something he dug up. This is something he does traditionally every year.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, I think he may have been happy that the timing coincided with the march, but this is indeed something that--and it always falls on, I guess it--I think it's the last Saturday in September. So it...

GORDON: Yet, Robert, does this president have to come out and talk to the American people? One can say it poses to be believed that we are seeing a growing number of people, a substantial spike, in fact, that are against the direction of this war, in fact, are against the war in general. Will the president have to come out once again, address the nation and tell us why it is, in fact, so important to stay?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, you know, if I can be forbidden now a responsive fall-over moment for George and Julianne here, the fact is, I don't know what more he can do right now, because the only thing that's going to change things now is changes on the ground. I mean, he--in fact, he even had a speech in the middle of the day, like Wednesday or Thursday of last week, and it was very much the same statements he's been saying before, you know: `We have to stay here because if we leave early, the terrorists will win,' and so forth. I don't think at this point--unless you start to see some kind of a sense that the Iraqis themselves are getting the insurgency under control, I don't really think that there's going to be anything that the president himself can say.

Ms. MALVEAUX: But you know what he could do?

Mr. CURRY: The reality is that he...

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know what he could do? Just a minute, George, please, because there's one thing we haven't addressed in this, and this is the dollars. The one thing that he's got to do--he's been extremely irresponsible in essentially talking about $250 billion relief for Katrina combined with the 300-plus billion dollars we've spent in Iraq. But I think even people who support the president--I don't know any of them--but even that 30 percent, I guess, his approval rating is--want to know how he's going to pay for this stuff. So he needs to come clean with dollars.

Mr. GEORGE: You're absolutely right about that, Julianne, if I can clear my throat when I say that. But that's exactly the case. In fact, he is starting to get--he's getting a lot more pressure from conservatives in Congress who are looking at this and when they see the deficit starting to inch up to 5 percent of the GDP and saying, `You can't keep this guns-and-butter strategy continuing.'

Mr. CURRY: But the reality is...

GORDON: Julianne, let me ask you, before...

Mr. CURRY: The reality was that the deficit was already a problem, was projected before Katrina landed, and we're going to have quite a deficit already because of the policy. The fact is that just simply repealing those tax cuts just one year would pay for all of Katrina. The Republicans are going to have to make some sound fiscal decisions, and I think that Bush is seeing erosion in his own party because, one, the unpopularity of the war and, two is, these other people are up for re-election. And ...(unintelligible) about that.

GORDON: Julianne, let me ask you this: Put your economist hat on for me, if you will. George talks about repealing one of the tax cuts, but if the war continues to go on and if the war goes on in the projections that we've heard over the course of a couple of years, two or three, you're going to have to do a little bit more than just repealing those tax cuts. Can this president, in fact, pay for Katrina--and a reminder that we're still very early on in the hurricane season--pay for the war without, in fact, raising taxes, in your opinion?

Ms. MALVEAUX: It's fiscally irresponsible not to raise taxes. George is right about the middle-class tax cut, but repealing that for just one year is not going to be enough. What--you know, but the Republican strategy has always been to starve the beast; in other words, to spend money so that you're forced to cut the size of government programs. We saw in the states in the last couple of years, you know, higher education tuitions, double-digit increases, Medicare costs spiraling out and people being disqualified. 2006 is an election year, and both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to deal with this issue of budgets. The American people care about it more and more. It wasn't a big issue in 2004 because the president was able to keep the war front and center. But it's going to be a huge issue in 2006, and tax increases are in order.

GORDON: Well, one of the things that we are seeing...

Mr. CURRY: But they can't pay for it...

GORDON: Hang on a second, George.

Mr. CURRY: All right.

GORDON: One of the things that we're seeing is the idea that there are some overtures being made by our government in an attempt to, some suggest, influence and reach out to moderates in Iraq, including the Sunni minority, and that is, we've seen, 1,000 detainees released from Abu Ghraib prison in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which, we should note, begins next week. If, in fact, we're starting to see this, George Curry--and then pick up on your point as well--is this an indication that this administration is getting the idea that there has to be some compromise if, in fact, solutions are going to be found?

Mr. CURRY: Well, this is being portrayed as a humanitarian gesture to Ramadan, but let's be real. The whole purpose of this is to broaden the support for the October 15th national referendum on the constitution. This is a crass political move, and it should be seen as that. But it's being packaged as though, `Oh, we're really sensitive about the Muslim holidays.'

Ms. MALVEAUX: But, George, customarily, they let the...

Mr. GEORGE: Well ...(unintelligible).

Ms. MALVEAUX: Customarily, they release not this many, certainly, but there are releases--humanitarian releases of prisoners during the month of Ramadan. So I agree with you fully, but let's be clear, this has happened...

Mr. CURRY: A thousand?

Ms. MALVEAUX: No, I said this was a lot, and this is--but this has happened before, and quite frankly, I think it backfires because they let go 1,000, they still got 10,000 more people they're detaining and only a fraction of them ...(unintelligible).

Mr. GEORGE: The fact is, you know, whether it's a political move or, you know, a grace move in reflection of Ramadan, I mean, I think it's--I mean, it's, in certain ways, kind of irrelevant because, I mean, I think the broader message that the administration wants to try and show here is that the Iraqi government, the interim government that's there now is exerting a greater control on what's going on, and if they send that signal by releasing some of the detainees, I don't think that's a bad signal. Because remember, look, even though we can all disagree about whether it was a bad idea or a good idea to start going to Iraq, the fact is, we have to figure out a resolution right now that is not going to create basically the seeds for another civil war. And if getting the constitution passed does that, I think that's ultimately a good thing.

Mr. CURRY: Robert, thank you for further making my point. It is political...

Mr. GEORGE: Always here to help you, Mr. Curry. Always here to help.

Mr. CURRY: You did a great job. The point is, these people have not been charged, so they shouldn't be there in the first place, particularly the length of time they've been there. So it's not like some humanitarian gesture to let people go who shouldn't be held there in the first place. So let's keep that in perspective.

GORDON: Well, let me ask this: Of all of what we're seeing, questions about movement of the Bush administration as it relates to the war, the continuing concern about the Katrina response and the like, we've been talking about whether or not Democrats will now be able to use this as a collective issue as we move toward elections. We're just coming out of the Congressional Black Caucus weekend, George Curry. Talk to me about whether or not Democrats, in your opinion, with the many that you talk to--and I suspect you talked to some over this weekend--are starting to form a game plan in hopes of gaining seats here.

Mr. CURRY: You know, they have a game plan every time there's an election. They trot out all the color-coded maps and tell you how they're going to unseat the Republicans. And it just simply has not been happening. I still don't get a sense that the Republicans can't find--I mean, the Democrats can find their behind with both hands and a map. I mean, they have no clear agenda.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, George, I don't know if you went to the town hall where Harry Belafonte literally excoriated Democrats. He was livid and talked about the fact that--basically he said Democrats had no spine. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in the room where he--you know, Harry can be very scathing, and he really was. But the fact is that, you know, you look at several things. You look at this Roberts nomination; only five on the Judiciary Committee voting against it. You look at Katrina. Louisiana and Mississippi senators have been vocal and present, but this poverty issue, as Sheila Jackson Lee said earlier, did not start with Katrina. So one might ask, where were the Democrats, where were the Congressional Black Caucus members before that? There was a post-prayer breakfast meeting where minister Louis Farrakhan spoke, and several members of the CBC were present, especially Elijah Cummings and Chairman Mel Watts, and he--you know, he is attempting to galvanize people around the Millions More Movement, but he scolded Democrats as well and African-American Democrats and said, `Look, why would you run scurrying to the White House when you won't walk with me?' You know, some...

Mr. GEORGE: Well, act...

Ms. MALVEAUX: And so it's a real--you know, as George says, the Democrats do not have a game plan.

Mr. GEORGE: Far be it from me to offer advice to Democrats; however, I will say this: For one thing, there's a structural problem in the context of redistricting, which basically makes it very, very difficult for there to be any large number of House seats, for example, up during the midterm. So, I mean, I think that's just something that the Democrats--that's a structural problem. However, it seems to me that--I don't think that the Democrats are necessarily going to win great numbers if they just get with, say, an anti-poverty agenda. That might be part of the mix that they put in. I would say--I mean, I think--and a lot of--I think a lot of--and I say this seriously. A lot of Republicans fear that they are vulnerable because of some of the issues we were talking about before, the fact that the deficit has completely exploded under the combination of a Republican president and a Republican Congress. And if Democrats start putting together a message saying at the very least that the public needs a check on this, they need to have somebody, you know, put some kind of balance in here to demand some fiscal responsibility, that may very well be a message that Republicans are vulnerable on.

GORDON: Julianne, how much do you believe that all of these factors will wake up the sleeping giant, if you will, the faction of the Democratic Party that historically has been its most powerful, and that is the far left of the party? As I mentioned last week on the show, I was with Congresswoman Maxine Waters who suggested that--and she being one of the leading voices of that end--suggested that they had been too quiet and it was time to renew a vow to get out there and make noise.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, they've certainly been very criticized for their silence, and I think that the march this weekend, any number of other things will energize the left. The fact that Howard Dean chairs the Democratic Party, I mean, he was hopping all over the Congressional Black Caucus prayer breakfast; I think someone finally had to ask him to sit down. But you literally--you know, I think the left is awakening and not only awakening; I think that the pressure that's been placed on the left--what--you know, the political equation is--I understand how they feel and, you know, sometimes Republicans don't even give them the legislation before they have to vote on it.

But it was amazing to me at--last week, one of the relief pieces of legislation passed 422 to zip, and the thing about it is, all the provisions were really beneficial to the middle and upper middle class but not working people. You know, where was a Barbara Lee or a Maxine Waters to rail against that, as we've seen them do in the past?

Mr. GEORGE: And--and...

Mr. CURRY: I think the largest problem for the Democratic Party is, they don't know how to be the opposition party. I mean, Republicans certainly knew how to do that. They may have problems knowing how to lead, but they certainly knew how to be an opposition party. And the Democrats, particularly when you look at the Roberts nomination, you see there's this buckling.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, it's also interesting, too, that the LA Times had a story on Friday where...

GORDON: Quick for me, Robert.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah--of all people, my former boss, Newt Gingrich, actually was the one criti--was criticizing one of the packages that the administration was trying to do in terms of putting people who have been evacuated in trailer homes...


Mr. GEORGE: opposed to just giving them rent vouchers, and I mean, I think that's an area where, frankly, the left should be leading on.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Absolutely.

GORDON: All right. Robert George, Julianne Malveaux and George Curry, I thank you all for a very spirited Roundtable today. Appreciate it.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Ed.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you, Ed.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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