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Libyan Rebels Gain Ground, Perry Leads U.S. Polls


I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, as the Eastern United States confronts a severe tropical storm, possibly hurricane, East Africa is still facing drought and famine. We'll get an update on the crisis that has already caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in the Horn of Africa. NPR's West Africa correspondent is on the scene and she'll tell us more but first it's time for our political chat.

You've probably heard by now that the official dedication ceremony of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial which was to have been lead by President Obama this Sunday has been postponed due to concerns about the severe weather. But that change has not ended conversation sparked by the memorial, conversations about the state of political and human rights for all people and about King's struggle to fight poverty. Also in political news this week what does the downfall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime say about President Obama's foreign policy? Could this affect the 2012 presidential campaign?

We'll also talk about how Texas Governor Rick Perry is transforming the picture for the Republican presidential candidates. To talk about all this, we've called upon two seasoned political professionals. Cornell Belcher served as a pollster for President Obama and the Democratic National Committee. He is president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, a national polling firm. He's here with me in Washington, DC. Welcome thanks for joining us once again.

CORNELL BELCHER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us once again Ron Christie. He served as deputy assistant for domestic policies to Vice President Cheney and also an aide to President George W. Bush. He's president of Christie's Strategies, a government relations communications and diversity consulting firm. He's also the author of a memoir. Ron, welcome back to you as well. Thank you for joining us once again.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: And of course we're going to get to the politics but I did want to ask - and I hope you don't mind my mentioning it. You're both very accomplished African-American men working in politics. And I do want to ask if even though the ceremony has been postponed, whether the dedication of this memorial on the National Mall means something to you? Cornell, I'll ask you first?

BELCHER: Yeah, it means a lot. I was actually looking forward to going. It's long overdue. And I think it's just a reminder and I think this would be a great reminder to a new generation of younger not only African-Americans but Americans that the struggle continues. I mean, you were going to talk about poverty but when you look at sort of how the rates of poverty have increased, particularly children living in poverty, it is shameful for our nation and I think it is the kind of thing that Martin Luther King would be out there leading and organizing around. And I think that sort of transcends the politics which I know we'll talk about shortly.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Ron, what about you?

CHRISTIE: Totally agree with Cornell and it's something that maybe a lot of folks don't realize but the Dr. King memorial is the only memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that's not either dedicated to a war that the United States has been involved with or a male - a white male. So, we have diversity in the National Mall, diversity for someone whose whole life was dedicated to making sure that we'd be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

I'm bummed that the hurricane is really going to put a damper on the festivities this weekend but it's a long time overcoming for Dr. King finally to have his place in the National Mall.

MARTIN: You know though it is sparking conversations though about what is the struggle now and what this monument means in the light of whatever the concerns are of the people of the moment. You know, obviously Dr. King's particular struggle and just the legally entrenched, you know, socially enforced, you know, degradation of a whole group of people is no more.

But you know, we've (unintelligible) the Princeton scholar, Cornell West, who's been, you know, who has emerged as a critic of the president, a severe and kind of personal critic of the president, wrote a piece saying that the age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King's prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers, and poor people in the form of mortgage relief and so forth, he says the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street, and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable. So, Cornell how do you respond to that?

BELCHER: Well, in a couple of ways. One, I think that's really unfair and so to argue that Barack Obama has given us bailouts and record profits for Wall Street. If you look at the situation that he inherited coming in, look, we didn't tear down the peace and prosperity that we shared, that we had in the '90s overnight and we won't be able to back overnight.

However, if you look at sort of what he's been doing and laying in place and Wall Street reform, actually taking on Wall Street against the bankers, I think it's kind of hard to argue that he is, you know, the reason why Wall Street is profiting the way it's profiting right now. He is in a slug fest right now with a Congress that wants to go in a dramatically different sort of direction. He's in a slug fest culturally with a group of people in the Tea Party that culturally want to take the country in a different direction or want to stop the direction that the country is going in.

MARTIN: Ron, I'm going to ask you this because even though obviously you come from a very different worldview than Cornell West or either Cornell Belcher for that matter, you are a conservative, but what are you - I'm interested in your response to Cornell West's point that poor people have gotten lost in our political dialogue right now. And I would argue the conservatives have just as much responsibility to address the needs of the poor as anybody else does. So, what do you think about that?

CHRISTIE: There's no question and I mean when you look at the fact that one in five men in America are receiving some sort of government assistance, when you look at the unemployment rate of being 9.1 percent, when you look that we have more people on Medicaid and that more people are taking food stamps than ever in American history, clearly there are millions of people around this country who are hurting and it's not a Republican or Democratic issue.

We need to ensure that the safety net is there for those who need assistance, but at the same time we also need to make sure that we don't put government policies in place that perpetuate unemployment. For example, the 99 weeks that we have for people who are unemployed, studies have shown that people who are these so-called 99ers often end up getting a job with one or two weeks left in their government assistance. So we have to provide a safety net but at the same time I don't think that we should have policies that perpetuate a system where people continue to take money from the government.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Cornell.

BELCHER: Let me jump in and, you know, one thing I would push back on there is this ideal that people are gaming the system. I think there's so many people out there hurting that force the ideal, sort of, we are making policy so that people won't - for that fraction of people that might be gaming the system, when you look at the, sort of, the unemployment in this country right now I think is a cynical view.

But, you know, not even being partisan, I mean, I will push it even further to say when have poor people ever been a center to the part of this political discussion in this country? Arguably not since LBJ and, you know, how we had a real serious, at-the-top-level conversation about eradicating poverty in this country. And part of it is, and this is - you know, I'm sorry but I'm an animal of Washington - unless you are organized and you have you can bring votes and power and money it is hard to have a voice in Washington.

MARTIN: Ron, would you mind if I ask you just briefly - forgive me if I'm putting you on the spot. Do you personally know anybody who's unemployed and do you think they're gaming the system?

CHRISTIE: I do know people who are unemployed and I do have some suspicions about people who are taking money that they shouldn't be taking from the government, absolutely.

MARTIN: OK, if you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having our weekly political chat. With me are Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher and Republican political consultant Ron Christie. We're only down to four minutes and there's such an important - there's two big stories that we want to talk about. We want to talk about Libya and we also want to talk about the - how the - Rick Perry has changed the presidential race and so, I just I guess I don't know what to do with that.

BELCHER: I want to talk about poverty more.

MARTIN: OK, you want to talk about poverty? Why don't we talk about Rick Perry briefly, Ron, and then if we have time we'll talk about Libya because I - so Ron, tell me why Rick Perry has sort of surged to the front of the pack it seems?

CHRISTIE: Well, there's no doubt that I'm a partisan for Governor Mitt Romney. But I think that what Governor Perry has done is he's really shaken up the landscape of the political establishment for Republicans. He's conservative he has a conservative record and I think that there has been a dearth out there on the landscape for these social conservatives for those who they wanted to put their hat behind.

MARTIN: But you know what, but you'd think that this would be Mitt Romney's moment precisely because the economy is in difficult shape and he's got this very long track record as a business executive and so forth, you'd think that that would be his calling card but it doesn't seem to be working. Why is that?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's still Romney's to lose. I think Governor Perry might be the flavor of the week. He surged in the polls. People think, oh, bright, shiny object. But when you take a harder look at his record and you take a look at, frankly, what his vision is for the country, I still think that it's going to be Governor Romney's to lose.

MARTIN: Yeah. Cornell?

BELCHER: I don't actually have a horse in that race. Ha, ha. However, you know, not having my partisan hat on, just having my political strategist hat on, being someone who went through this process in primaries, you know, I don't honestly get too much from Perry's surge in the national polls because, after all, it's not a national election, it is a state-by-state election. And, you know, the candidate who organizes and builds in these early states and gets that momentum is going to go far. So I always laugh when I see national polls about sort of where a candidate is because I think more telling is where a candidate is right now in New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina.

But clearly, Perry does speak to something and I thought Michele Bachmann spoke to it, as well. If you look at the power and the influence that the Tea Party had on the primaries and caucuses and the midterm where they took out incumbents, you cannot ignore them.

MARTIN: And finally, we can't ignore Libya. Thank you for that segue.

Cornell, tell us how you think that what's happening in Libya now is affecting our conversation into our view about President Obama. Or is it just not present enough for Americans, for people to really focus on this as something that concerns their lives?

BELCHER: Well, I kind of laugh at it because, frankly, we'll make a big hay of what's going on in Libya and I'm going to put my company hat on and say, look, what the president's done in Libya is succeeding and we're not - without troops on the ground and without spending a ton of money there.

However, in the end, Americans aren't going to be focused on what's going on in the Middle East. They're going to be focused on what's going on on Main Street and that's what's going to determine our election.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, how do you assess the administration's performance in Libya? There are some who are arguing - Democratic columnists, that has to be said - who say it doesn't - you know, Obama could succeed brilliantly and everybody could win Powerball and people still wouldn't give him credit.

CHRISTIE: Oh, I don't know about that, but I don't know how you define success here. I think the president first committed our men and women in uniform to aircraft sorties and then he said, oh, we're going to let NATO take the lead in this. We don't need to go to Congress under the War Powers Resolution since we're not at war, but yet now the administration is saying, oh, look at the credit we should take for the great success that we have.

So I don't know what success will look like. I don't know what is going on the ground in Libya in the next couple of weeks, let alone next couple of months, whether it will be stable or whether it'll be analogous to a civil war.

But this is where I think I agree with Cornell. I think Americans are more concerned about what's going on in Tripoli, Iowa, than they are in Tripoli, Libya. And I think what's going on here domestically with our economy and jobs is going to really be the centerpiece of whether the president gets reelected or not.

MARTIN: All right. Well, stay dry, gentlemen. Thank you.

CHRISTIE: Right back at you.

MARTIN: Thank you. Ron Christie is president of Christie Strategies, a government relations, communications and diversity consulting firm. He was kind enough to join us, once again, from our bureau in New York. Here with me in Washington, D.C., Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, a polling firm.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

BELCHER: Thank you.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.