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Republicans, Democrats Battle Over Budget, Medicare


I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, graduating from an Ivy League school is no easy feat. For one Sudanese student, the journey was nothing short of miraculous. We'll have his story in just a few minutes. But first, it's time to review the week's political news.

While President Obama has spent the week in Europe, politcals inside the beltway are buzzing over whether Tuesday's special election in New York is providing an early look at the 2012 elections. That election was the political equivalent of a one-trick pony. The single issue in play was Medicare. Democrat Kathy Hochul squeezed out a come-from-behind victory by campaigning against the House Republican plan to privatize Medicare.

The race is being cast as a referendum on the Republicans' budget priorities and their position on Medicare. And then there's the field of potential Republican presidential nominees. We wanted to make sense of this week's happenings, so we've called on two of our trusted politicos. Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution is here. Also with is us Mary Kate Cary. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

She has also served as a speech writer for former president George H.W. Bush. Ladies, welcome back.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having us.


KEYES: And happy Friday. So let's start with the special election in New York, where Democrat Kathy Hochul won. We had her on yesterday, actually, and she talked about her campaign strategy, which was to use the budget plan from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, including the Medicare overhaul, to her advantage. Let's take a listen.

KATHY HOCHUL: We certainly did use the Ryan budget as a opportunity to talk about Medicare. But also the other priorities in that budget such as the tax breaks that continue for the very wealthiest people in this country. So when my opponent said had she been in Congress she would have voted for it, again, it just gave us an opportunity to say, you know what, we wouldn't have done that and here's why.

KEYES: Cynthia, have the Democrats now found their winning issue for 2012?

TUCKER: Well, it's certainly going to be a winning issue for them, Allison. Democrats can't bank on using Medicare, the Paul Ryan Medicare plan alone to carry them through. But what this has done is level the playing field for the Democrats. Because of the economy and other issues, the playing field has been tilted heavily in favor of Republicans. Republicans had expected not only to keep the House in 2012, but possibly to take the Senate.

This gives Democrats not only a very good chance of keeping the Senate, but possibly, just possibly winning back the House because voters do not like the Paul Ryan Medicare plan. It essentially ends Medicare as we know it, and it's very unpopular.

KEYES: Mary Kate, are the Democrats being — reading way too much into this victory?

KATE CARY: Oh, yes. Gail Collins put it well yesterday in her column. She called it the Democrats' happy dance, and I think Cynthia's right in there doing the happy dance.


KATE CARY: But I think - I wrote a blog on this this morning. I think what the media is missing is what's going on - what else is going on in that race. First of all, the actual results, which were 47 percent for Hochul, 43 percent for Jane Corwin, the Republican candidate, and nine percent for Tea Party candidate Jack Davis...

TUCKER: The self-funded...

KATE CARY: The self-funded...

TUCKER: ...industrialist, wealthy.

KATE CARY: Correct. And...

KEYES: Whom the party is kind of saying threw a whole wrench into the dynamic there.

KATE CARY: I think that's right. And if you look at the math, if you add his nine percent to Corwin's 43 percent, you get to 52, which would have been a majority, which the Democrats did not win. They came in below 50 percent. And so I'm kind of amazed that the media didn't go for that story, that the Tea Party is splitting the Republican vote. Because I think they would have jumped on that very quickly. Instead, they all jumped on the Medicare bandwagon.

The other part of this is Michael Barone wrote a great piece in the Washington Examiner talking about the fact that under New York Law, the party leadership picks the candidates. And the last three special elections in New York, which Republicans have lost, the party leadership picked State Assembly members, which Jane Corwin was. The State Assembly apparently is not held in very high regard in New York.

KEYES: And she also had a few issues on that campaign trail as well.

KATE CARY: She didn't run a good - she waited too long to respond. She didn't run a good campaign.

KEYES: But Cynthia, the Medicare issue was just kind of part of the larger debate over the budget, and on Wednesday, House Budget chair Paul Ryan's proposal was defeated by a vote of 57 to 40, but the Senate also voted down President Obama's budget proposal from February by 97 to nothing. And beyond the question of are we just doing symbolic votes here, but are there no winners in this budget battle?

TUCKER: Well, we hope that eventually the taxpayers will be winners in the budget battle, because we hope what's happening here is that behind the scenes all of these various groups that are meeting there, it was the old bipartisan Gang of Six, a group of senators, now Gang of Five. They lost Tom Coburn, but they're still meeting. Vice President Joe Biden has a separate group meeting behind closed doors who are working very hard to come to some kind of budget deal.

And I think — I'm hoping that in the final analysis there will be a rational deal that does something about the massive deficit. But it's going to have to include a tax increase which so far Republicans have said absolutely no to. But before we leave the issue of the Hochul election, let me just say that I agree with Mary Kate, but I disagree in terms of emphasis.

It's absolutely true that without a Tea Party candidate the Republican would have won, but the last Republican who ran in that district won with 76 percent of the vote.


TUCKER: So saying that the Republican would have won with 52 percent, still represents a steep drop off in this because of Medicare.

KATE CARY: Correct. I agree with you.

KEYES: Speaking of budget negotiations, Mary Kate, I wonder, do you think that they're going to be able to come up with a deal?

KATE CARY: Well, you know, when Tom Coburn dropped out of the Gang of Six, making it the Gang of Five, he wrote this great op ed in the Post, and he made the point that whether you're talking about the Gang of Six, or the Biden negotiations, or even Bowles-Simpson, all of these working groups and commissions and blue ribbon panels really signal that the institution is not functioning if that's what you have to resort to.

And I think he made a great point about these - we were just referencing these — these show votes that are doomed to defeat, and I get this sense that most people feel like I do. It's time to stop campaigning and just start governing and get it done. There's a high level of frustration with all this. I'm very concerned whether there's gonna be a deal or not. They haven't proposed - I mean, they haven't passed a budget in two years.

KEYES: Let me jump in here just for a moment to say, if you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about politics. My guests are Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report. Speaking of the 2012 race, it looks like there are some new people jumping in next week.

Mitt Romney and Senator Rick Santorum are both set to announce their candidacies soon. And Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann says she's going to make what she calls an all-important announcement next month in Iowa. Cynthia, how much is that going to change the dynamic on the Republican field?

TUCKER: Well, it is already an unsettled field, and a field that Republican-based voters say that they are very dissatisfied with. I'm not sure that most Republican voters would be much happier with the names that we've heard so much about, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann. However, if Sarah Palin jumps in the race, which she might - pundits had thought for the last several months that Palin was not going to run.

She seemed to be happy on the lecture circuit, she's on Fox News, she's making a lot of money. She seemed to be happy to do that and not run for president. But she's launching this bus tour and making other moves that look as though she might be thinking about throwing her hat into the ring. That brings an entirely different dynamic, and I think would more seriously pit establishment Republicans against the Tea Party Republicans.

KEYES: And speaking of Palin, Romney actually had been seen by some pundits as a weak frontrunner candidate. If Palin jumps in, how does that affect that view of him?

TUCKER: I think it helps Romney because Palin would pretty much knock Michele Bachmann out of the race.

KATE CARY: Because they are fighting for the same pool of voters.

TUCKER: Fighting for the same crowd of social conservatives. I think she'd probably also take votes away from Pawlenty, who would do well with social conservatives in Iowa as well. And that would strengthen Romney as the alternative to that. The problem is, you know, Romney's not that popular with conservatives. And I think it would put more pressure on people outside the circle right now, such as Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, even Jeb Bush.

I heard a great line this week. Maybe Jeb Bush could get Liz Chaney to be his running mate, and they could save money on bumper stickers.

KEYES: Ouch.


KEYES: I've got to ask you, Mary Kate, Herman Cain has been polling pretty well, although his name recognition is lower than some of the other candidates. But he has a pretty high favorable rating among those who know who he is.


KEYES: So should I be launching some get rich quick scheme of selling Yes We Cain t-shirts?

KATE CARY: I like that. Yes We Cain. Well, the - I don't know if you saw him last week, either one of you, on the Sunday talk shows.

KEYES: I did.


KATE CARY: I thought he was really good, and I found myself agreeing with most of the things he was saying. I think there's room at the table for somebody who is outside of Washington, no prior elected experience, and a business executive. And I think there's a lot of appeal for that right now. People are sick of what's going on in Washington as we were just talking about. I do think he should change the Herminator label concerning what happened to the Terminator last week.

KEYES: Cynthia, what are you hearing on the streets?


KEYES: What do black people think about this? He's an African-American businessman, Godfather Pizza.

TUCKER: And from Atlanta.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

TUCKER: But he still doesn't attract a lot of black voters because blacks remain a loyal Democratic constituency, and Herman Cain is - his politics are very conservative. However, I have to say, if makes a decent showing in the GOP primaries, he will probably give black voters an occasion to take another look at the Republican Party, if Republican voters...

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

TUCKER: ...prove to be open to Herman Cain. Let me just say, though, the Yes We Cain t-shirt idea is just the start of many, many puns...


TUCKER: ...that we're going to hear based on his name, and pizza jokes. Because he made his money, of course, as the CEO for Godfather's Pizza.

KEYES: Which gives him some name recognition.


KEYES: But ladies, I'm sorry, we are going to have to leave it there. We'll see who else jumps in next week and who doesn't. Mary Kate is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She also served as a speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Both joined us right here in Washington, D.C.

Cynthia, Mary Kate, thank you so much and we'll be looking for those t-shirt orders.

KATE CARY: You got it.

TUCKER: Thanks, Allison.


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