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Gitmo’s Closing, Financial Regulation Top Hill’s Agenda

May 20, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Lawmakers have been pushing through a busy agenda in recent days, debating issues from the closing of the Guantanamo prison facility to the legalities of carrying loaded guns into national parks. Political analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Amy Walter offer insight.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, we had planned to bring you a debate between two senators on the Guantanamo issue, but floor debate has prevented them from coming to our camera position on the Capitol, so we’re going to move right to some political analysis of the day’s congressional developments, as also planned.

That comes from Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Well, let’s start with the Guantanamo closing. What caused the Democrats to suddenly say, “We’re not going to fund this”? Or was it suddenly? If so, what caused it?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, it sure seemed suddenly, because this seemed to kind of pop out of nowhere. But there still seems, among Democrats, this sort of reflexive nervousness any time the issue of security, terrorism, crime comes up that they’re going to be painted by Republicans as being soft on these issues and that we’re going to get back to the days when Democrats were just completely on the defensive.

You also started to see — and I’m sure Stu gets these in his e-mail box, too, from Republican campaign committees — e-mails sending out to local papers of candidates saying, “Where does Democrat Candidate X stand on Guantanamo?” Basically saying, “We’re going to make this an issue in campaigns, so get ready for it.”

Guantanamo issue 'redefined'

Stuart Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
Democrats flipped because of one word: fear, political fear.

JIM LEHRER: So, Stuart, lay out what exactly the issue is? What's caused everybody to suddenly get upset about this?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Well, the answer is, Democrats flipped because of one word: fear, political fear. And it's because this issue has been redefined.

Initially, the administration talked about Guantanamo in terms of the U.S. image abroad, torture, how we treat people, how fair we are, the conditions that they're living in, the guarantees that they have, the kind of legal guarantees.

And of late, the issue has been redefined. It's not about that. Now it's about, are there going to be terrorists living down the street, terrorists who may break out of these prisons, who may attract other terrorists who will try to free them? And, therefore, is my safety as an average citizen now at risk? And so that's a fundamental redefinition of the issue.

JIM LEHRER: And, essentially, in order to take that position, you have to assume that it's easy to break out of a federal prison in the United States? Is that the deal?

AMY WALTER: That's right, or that they're going to be on the streets. I think Harry Reid literally made a comment about, "There will not be terrorists on our streets," which I don't think anybody was suggesting that terrorists were going to be allowed to roam the streets.

But it does -- I think Stu is exactly right. And we've seen this move on torture, too. When it becomes less of an academic exercise on the campaign trail and talking about changing the perception of the U.S., when it comes down to, "We have terrorists. What are we going to do with them?" And we've seen, obviously, a lot of blowback on Obama from liberal groups on that issue, saying, "He's not following through on it," but the political reality...

STUART ROTHENBERG: You know, this is reminiscent of the way another issue was turned around by different parties in terms of the Yucca Mountain debate. I don't know. Do you remember that? Nuclear waste was going to be stored at Yucca Mountain. And initially it was...

JIM LEHRER: In Nevada.

STUART ROTHENBERG: In Nevada. Initially, it was nuclear energy is important, and this is a question of energy, and cost, and access, and not having to rely on foreign oil.

But then the Democrats got a hold of this and said, "Wait a minute. They're going to have to take spent nuclear fuel rods, and put them on a train, and run them from who knows where to Yucca Mountain."

And then the Democrats distributed a map and said, "Look how close this train is going to be to your state or to your neighborhood." And suddenly it became a question of personal safety and redefining the issue away from the larger question of energy.

AMY WALTER: Well, and the other irony, too, is I think any day that Democrats are talking about this, or talking about terrorism, or Nancy Pelosi is talking about the CIA, it moves Democrats off the issues that they really want to be and should be talking about: jobs, the economy, health care.

So, in some ways, they want to get away from this as quickly as possible, but now they've sort of dragged this issue out, right? We had the votes, and then we have the president tomorrow night making a whole statement about it.

Obama to convince own party

Amy Walter
The Hotline
[President Obama] is asking for a lot from congressional Democrats, many of whom live in these red states, who are looking at re-election in 2010.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Stuart, the whole issue has been framed now as a revolt of the Democrats against President Obama. Is that a correct framing?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, it's a changing of the Democratic position from where the president was, but this is a different issue now. You have to understand, it's a different issue the way Democrats...

JIM LEHRER: It isn't "Are we going to close Guantanamo?" which is what he ran on.

STUART ROTHENBERG: That's right. And the president would like to get back to that. In fact, he has reiterated his desire to close Guantanamo.

It's just that sometimes politicians lose control of an issue. They think they have defined it one way, and then it's redefined. So it's that, yes, Democrats are now taking a different position, congressional Democrats, than the leader of their party, but that's because Republicans successfully redefined the issue.

JIM LEHRER: And now it's up to President Obama. He's going to have to now convince his own party that he has a plan and that they're not going to have terrorists running loose on the streets in America, right?

AMY WALTER: That's right, and see how much effort Democrats want to put forward on this. I mean, he is asking for a lot from congressional Democrats, many of whom live in these red states, who are looking at re-election in 2010.

They say, "We've voted for a stimulus bill. We've voted for a budget. We're getting attacked on both of those things. We know health care is right around the corner, potentially talking about tax increases. This is a lot to ask from this party."

And so, on issues like Guantanamo, if it's an easy one that we can just get off the table, it's an ad that is ready-made for a campaign, let's try not to talk about it.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And I think this is a really good reminder. We've been talking about how weak the Republican Party is, how weak the Republican brand are, they're irrelevant in the House and the Senate, but they still can redefine an issue, and they still can talk about an issue in a different way that suddenly gives them an advantage.

Look, this isn't a giant adrenaline shot to the Republican Party. This doesn't change their problems. But it points out that even a very weak party that's in a distinct minority in both chambers can every once in a while change the political discussion.

Credit reform passed easily

Stuart Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
Talk about kitchen-table issues or pocketbook issues, you know, people get their bills all the time from the credit cards.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, on the other hand, as Gwen was just discussing, we have the credit card bill that passed -- everybody was standing in line to say "yes" to that.


JIM LEHRER: Explain the difference. Or why -- you don't have to do that -- why was this was so unanimously supported?

AMY WALTER: Well, you know, terrorists are very -- is one issue, but taking on the banks, that's another issue, too, which, you know, for a lot of people -- I've been sort of joking about, what would be more dangerous to run as this year as a candidate, as a career politician or as a Wall Street banker?

And I think being a Wall Street banker is actually probably the worst moniker you can have. So beating up the banks, not a tough thing to do.

Plus, these guys are looking for something tangible they're going to give their constituents about how they're helping the economy. They can't do anything about unemployment. They can't do anything about the stock market. But if they say that they're taking on the banks and looking out for consumers, that's helpful.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Talk about kitchen-table issues or pocketbook issues, you know, people get their bills all the time from the credit cards. They look at them. They get upset.

This is, again, good guys and bad guys. And in this case, it's pretty easy to see who the bad guys are, at least from the politicians' point of view and from many voters' points of view.

And while there are going to be people out there that say, "Wait a minute. The banks aren't bad guys. They do a lot of good things. It's important that people have credit cards. What if there were no credit cards?" That's not -- that's not the way politicians see it.

Strong support for gun law

Amy Walter
The Hotline
There were 105 Democrats in the House who voted for this gun amendment, 105. That's a pretty significant number.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, explain to us now, please, why, in that credit card bill, an amendment that allows concealed weapons to be carried on national parks got stuck in there by a huge vote?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, well, this is the way the system works. Sometimes riders are attached to bills that have nothing to do with the initial bill, and then the people pushing the original legislation have to decide whether they can stomach it.

And in this case, what we are seeing -- it's very clear -- is the total and complete domination by the National Rifle Association in defining this issue.

The gun issue, there was a time when we had a fair fight between the pro-gun people and the gun control people. That's no longer a fair fight. Overwhelmingly, Democrats have been elected...

JIM LEHRER: You mean fair in terms of numbers?

STUART ROTHENBERG: In terms -- right, when I say "fair," I mean an even fight.

JIM LEHRER: Right, yes, right.

STUART ROTHENBERG: But it's not that way anymore. A whole bunch of Democrats have been elected over the last couple of cycles from rural districts, southern districts. They've changed how even the Democratic Party views guns and gun control.

And they haven't changed the attitudes of Nancy Pelosi and members from the delegation from New York City or Chicago, but they've changed the Democratic Party enough so that there is now a bipartisan coalition here opposing gun control.

And there are polls as recently -- in April, there was an ABC-Washington Post poll showing that, for the first time now, a clear majority, 57 percent of Americans, don't believe that stricter gun control would cut violent crime.

JIM LEHRER: But concealed weapons in national parks? Why?

AMY WALTER: The actual issue doesn't matter. It's that they get -- it's scored on an NRA scorecard or get portrayed somehow as being against gun-owners' rights.

I went down the list. There were 105 Democrats in the House who voted for this gun amendment, 105. That's a pretty significant number.

JIM LEHRER: Out of how many? Out of how many Democrats?

AMY WALTER: Out of -- so this is out of 245 Democrats. So they were, yes, from very rural -- they were from rural areas, but some of them were from suburban areas, as well.

Again, the good news about having a very big majority is, you have a lot of people. The bad news is, it's much more diverse, and you have to balance those.

All along, we've been talking throughout the year about the issue for Barack Obama being Democrats that he has to worry about, when we're talking about bipartisan outreach. It's really within his own party, and this is a good example of that.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think what's happened on this gun issue is, the NRA and gun-owners' rights people have won the slippery slope argument, which is any time anybody proposes more gun control...

JIM LEHRER: It will lead to something else?

STUART ROTHENBERG: ... it will lead to -- and ultimately, they'll take away your guns. And once they've won that kind of an argument, they're going to be very hard to defeat.

JIM LEHRER: Stu, Amy, thank you both very much.