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Political Chat: What A Difference 5 Years Makes


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Well, every day is special, but today is extra special for us because TELL ME MORE is turning five today. We looked it up and, interestingly enough, on the day we first went on the air five years ago, the Dow Jones Industrial average was pretty much exactly where it was this morning.

But the ride from there to here has been anything but uneventful. We've seen politicians rise and regimes fall around the world. We've been amazed by technologies creating new opportunities we could not have imagined even five years ago, and we've seen ourselves grapple with old challenges - or perhaps I should say perennial challenges, like race and gender, Mother Nature, war and peace and money with the recession in recovery. There's also been plenty of time for fun, as well, and we decided we're going to get into all of that throughout the program today and throughout the week.

But we wanted to start today by focusing on one of the topics we look at closely here on TELL ME MORE, and that's politics. It's been a fiercely divided world here in Washington and across the country over the past five years. A divided Congress, a divided Supreme Court and polls show a pretty divided public when it comes to the upcoming presidential election.

So, we wondered, is anything going to change? Can we all just get along? We're going to try right now, since it's our birthday. We've invited two guests from opposite ends of the political spectrum to our party. Joining us is Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. She is a sought-after commentator, a syndicated columnist and founder of the consulting firm, Brazile and Associates, LLC.

Also with us, Republican strategist Ron Christie. He is the founder of the independent consulting firm, Christie Strategies, a former assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and an author. And, Donna, Ron, welcome to our little birthday shindig. Thank you both for coming.

DONNA BRAZILE: Happy Anniversary and it's good to hear Ron Christie's voice. Ron, hello.

RON CHRISTIE: Hello, two of my favorite ladies. Happy Anniversary, Happy Birthday and let's get it going.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thanks. So, I'll start with Donna. Ladies first. In the past five years, what's been the biggest political story in your view?

BRAZILE: Well, there have been several. I think, first of all, let's not forget that in 2007, we saw the elevation of a woman as speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. That was a moment to celebrate for women in this country. It took us over 225 years, but we finally was able to break through.

Other political milestones, no question, the historic election of 2008 featuring Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I never thought I would see in my lifetime two exceptional human beings run for the presidency. And as a super delegate, I can tell you that the race could have went either way because it was so close. But Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee and won that election, of course.

We also saw John McCain pick Sarah Palin as his running mate. The only - second time in our history we had a woman as the vice presidential nominee. And, of course, we've seen the rise of the Tea Party Movement, the lingering impact of 9/11, Katrina, the two wars and the Great Recession.

MARTIN: Ron, I think she got some of yours.


MARTIN: I think she looked at - peeked at your list. But what about you? What's been the biggest political moment for you over the past five years?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Donna's absolutely right. I think, if you look back to 2007, 2008, you saw the shattering of ceilings that we never thought we'd see before, perhaps in our lifetimes. Donna absolutely touched on this, not only with the elevation of Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be the Speaker of the House, but I was enthralled - as were, I think, many Americans - looking at Hillary Clinton running in her own right, running in her own steed to become president of the United States against a relatively unknown freshman senator from Illinois who, in my lifetime, I can guarantee you I never thought we'd see the first African-American president. And I think President Obama really charmed so many people with his eloquence, with his beautiful family and a very unique story.

So, I think, looking back five years, we've shattered some ceilings and some barriers that we thought we might never see. The question is, looking now and looking five years ahead, what does that all mean?

MARTIN: Well, you know, that's important. That's a good place to pick up because the recession, according to whatever metric people use to describe that, officially ended in 2009. But the economy is still very much an important story, and many people consider it to be the defining story of this election.

Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney seems to think so and this is a running theme in his campaign. I'll just play a short clip from something he's said recently and, in fact, is saying a lot these days. Here it is.

MITT ROMNEY: I sure hope it keeps getting better and the president's going to stand up and say he deserves credit for that. No. If it gets better, it's not because of him. It's in spite of him.

MARTIN: So, Ron, I'm going to start with you on this one. The economy is certainly an issue in this election, but I'm asking you to sort of project ahead. Do you think, over the next five years, we'll still be talking about this? You think that we'll still kind of be in a similar place? I noted at the beginning of that, five years ago, the Dow is exactly where it is today, oddly enough. Or not exactly, but within range.

CHRISTIE: Pretty darn close. No. I think, if you look at historical averages when the United States has been in a recession, it does not take five years to get out of one. And despite the claims that we're out of the recession, you know, we had a very anemic first quarter this year at 2.2 percent of economic growth.

I do think, five years from now, the economy will be roaring again. I think Americans or those who are trying to get back to work will have the opportunity to do so, but it's going to be a tough fight. It's going to be a long road ahead. And I think that we need to steel ourselves to recognize that, while the historical averages have sort of taught us that we will pull out of it, we're going to need to pull together, Republicans and Democrats, to effectively govern this country.

And I think that's one of the breakdowns we've also seen in the last five years is the rank partisanship that has really left so many Americans wondering, is my government really responsive to me?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

It's been five years since our first program and we decided to look back over the last five years and look ahead to the next five, hopefully, with Ron Christie, Republican strategist. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us in studio, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. Donna, what about you? Five years from now, the economy?

BRAZILE: Well, let's be honest. Men and women across the country are still feeling the pain of the worst recession since the Great Depression. However, we've seen 25 straight months of private sector job growth resulting in 4.1 million jobs. Of course, the jobs are not coming back fast enough. The foreclosures in many metropolitan areas are still alarming.

We have a lot of work to do and this is not just the work of the Democrats. We need Republicans also at the table, not cheerleading bad news, but highlighting the good news so that we can do more to help the American people get out of this crucial moment.

But this is a very important election year. And one thing that, five years from now, we're going to look back and look at the impact of the so-called Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. You know, I ran Al Gore's campaign with about $150 million. D and C spent perhaps another, you know, 45, $50 million. And I don't understand why we have to spend a billion dollars to elect a president and then have a dysfunctional Congress that won't make any decisions until the lame duck session.

And I guess one big fact that I'm going to look at is the impact of the Citizens United case, not only on this election cycle, but election cycles to come. Will it take millions of dollars to run for office, and then you get to Congress or you get to the statehouse and then, essentially, you just maintain the status quo and keep the polarization going. So, this is - I think this is a defining moment for us. And if we find ourselves at the end of the day after five years of more hyper-partisanship, looking back saying: You know what, We could have changed this is 2012. I do believe this is a very crucial election. We can change the trajectory of things to come.

MARTIN: Well, I want to spend the last couple of minutes that we have there talking about that. You mentioned polarization. In fact, there's a new book out by two respected scholars saying it's actually worse than we - than many Americans may think in terms of kind of the level of political dysfunction. I want to ask each of you in the couple of minutes that we have left. Is there something we do agree on? Is there some - is there a place in which there is a consensus or not? I don't know. Donna, will you start?

BRAZILE: I think we can find common sense solutions. I think we have the leaders. We just don't have the political trust and the political will for people to come together. Compromise is not a dirty word. It's time to elevate our politics and our understanding of the issues so that we can continue to move forward and not backslide and continue to re-litigate issues that we thought we settled, like race and gender, immigration and so forth.

MARTIN: Ron, is there a place that we agree? Is there something that there is a kind of a gathering consensus? Is there a sense of unity around anything?

CHRISTIE: Yes, I do. I think that we have a sense of love of our country and I think that's a very important fundamental starting point for us to really reignite the conversation. You know, when I first started working on Capitol Hill in 1991, most of the people I socialized with were Democrats. Most of the folks I hung out with were Democrats. And the climate on Capitol Hill right now is - you don't even have Republican members of Congress talking to Democratic members. You don't have Republican staff talking to Democratic staff.

And I think we need to move away from some of the labels and the partisan affiliations and recognize that we're all individuals and that's why my good friend Donna Brazile and I get along so well is we can agree to disagree about politics, but you like the person and the essence of who they are as an individual.

MARTIN: Well, is there any place in which that is happening? I hear you both saying that you wish this were the case and you would hope that people would conduct themselves in that way. Is there any place in which that is happening? Donna, is there?

BRAZILE: It's happening in the viral world. It's happening on the Internet. It's happening in social media - in the context of social media where people are finding things that they agree with. It's happening among voters who are now not aligned with both major political parties. But it goes back to what Ron said. Back, you know, too long ago, we could actually sit down, break bread and talk about politics without pointing fingers. Nowadays, you're penalized if you sit down and talk to someone from the other side.

MARTIN: Ron, I gave Donna the first word. I'm going to give you the last word. Final thought from you. Is there any place where the kind of national unity that many people hope for is actually occurring?

CHRISTIE: I do. I think our coming together as a country - we are going to actually celebrate the one year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I think that was a moment that really united us together as a country in our needing to bring closure from the terrible events of 9/11. That could be just such an event this year. We need to come together. We need to stop the bickering because so many folks are hurting and folks need help.

MARTIN: Ron Christie is a Republican strategist. He's an author and founder of the independent consulting firm, Christie Strategies. He's a former assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He was here with us in our New York Studios. Also with us today, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. She is a syndicated columnist, founder of the consulting firm, Brazile and Associates, LLC. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. And thank you both so much for joining us today.

BRAZILE: Thank you and Happy Anniversary.

CHRISTIE: Happy Anniversary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.