MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Much of the East Coast is digging out from ice and snow including Washington, D.C. But members of Congress beat the bad weather out of town and are back in their districts for a two week recess, this after a vote to raise the debt ceiling - a vote that came unusual for these times without an ugly showdown.
So we thought this would be a good time to check in on some politics as well as to take a look at a couple of local leaders who are facing their own storms. Joining us once again are Christopher Ave. He is political editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with us from St. Louis. Christopher, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER AVE: Great to be here, Michel. Thank you.
MARTIN: Also with us, Corey Dade. He's a contributing editor to The Root, and he braved the elements to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Corey, thanks for making the trek.
COREY DADE: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: So the big headline was that they passed - that Congress passed a clean - a so-called clean debt ceiling increase just before they left for recess as it were. So, Christopher Ave, do you see this as a sign of things to come?
AVE: Well, I hate to wimp out on you, Michel, but I think it really is too early to say. I think what we're seeing here is there is this titanic struggle within the Republican Party. They have got to figure out a strategy that they all, just within their party, can get behind. I think this, again, showed a huge rift when you had Cruz and McConnell sort of a show down there.
And it remains to be seen, I think, whether they can figure out, you know, what they're for, what they want to actually accomplish. I do think, though, that the widespread condemnation that followed the government shutdown last time forced most Republicans, or at least enough Republicans, to say, hey, we got to avoid that again.
MARTIN: You know, Corey Dade, people - I know people in Washington often like to talk about wins and losses. And I know that's, like, annoying to people who feel that it trivializes some important issues. But there is capital in a victory, and I wonder, in your view, who gets the capital? Who gets the political capital with this accomplishment?
DADE: Well, I think in the chattering class, Obama and the Democrats get the win because this builds on Obama's unwillingness to negotiate any longer on the issue of the debt ceiling. We saw last fall how ruinous it was not only to the economy but to federal workers, contractors, but also to the Republican brand. The Republicans took heat, and they took knocks on their poll numbers coming off of the shutout in the fall. So they realized that there is no political traction in that.
But the victory for the Democrats is short lived because, you know, really Obamacare is really the cloud hanging over them. With the Republicans, make no mistake, they're not trying to be a go along, they get along. They realize that the mileage for them right now is in pushing criticism of Obamacare coming into the mid-term elections. They know that the debt ceiling and the threat of a government shutdown is a nonstarter for their voters. So they don't want to touch that. They don't want to upset anything that could endanger their chances of gaining seats in the House and taking the Senate.
MARTIN: Christopher, how do you see it? Who do you think gains the political capital from this? Or, perhaps - you know, perhaps, nobody - I mean, perhaps, it was just that this was just - it was just too perilous to consider another, you know, taking the economy to the brink, you know, yet again.
AVE: I do think that's it. I think Corey hit it on the head that the Republicans had to avoid, figure a way to avoid a government shutdown because the response was so negative. Yeah, sure, there's some Republican purists who felt like, well, fine. Let the government shutdown. What's the big deal? But that's not the majority of the country. The majority of the country, I think, sitting here in the middle of the country was discussed at the failure to figure it out and get the government working.
At some point, I believe there is a majority of the people that just want them to figure it out and work it out and get it done. And so the Republicans had to avoid that. But I agree with what you said, Michel, that there isn't really a clear victory here. Yes, Obama stuck to his guns this time and did - refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling increase. And so you have to give him credit for that. But I think the battle over Obamacare does continue. And I don't think that there's a warm and fuzzy Valentine's feeling in Washington.
MARTIN: What about - but what about where you are? I mean, you're hearing that Democrats in upcoming competitive districts are still running away from the president. And in fact, it's been kind of the - you know, these political dinners that, as Corey pointed out, the chattering class attends at this time of year.
And they're expected to tell jokes, usually at their own expense. I mean, that has been kind of the through line of a lot of the conversation is how few people are running with the president and how many people are actively avoiding him and don't even want him to come to their districts. Not true of Michelle Obama, by the way, who's got a heavy travel schedule, not true of some of the Democratic leaders. So, Christopher, where you are, are people running with the president or are they running away from him? How is that playing out?
AVE: No. No one's - no one I know is running with the president right now in Missouri. In fact, our own Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill recently, basically, admitted what she declined to admit when she was running, but she admitted that if she were running today, she wouldn't invite the president to campaign with her. She knows that he - although she is a supporter - she knows that he's just not that popular in Missouri. Now Missouri has shaded more red in recent years.
It used to be known as the bellwether state, you know, so goes - how goes Missouri, so goes the nation. And that's not really true anymore. Missouri is a bit more conservative than it was. So here at least, from where I sit, no. The president coming I don't think would help most Democrats. I can't think of a Democrat in a general election race that would be helped by a presidential appearance. And Claire McCaskill admitted this as much.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking politics with Christopher Ave, political editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Corey Dade, contributing editor to The Root. But, you know, Corey, you were talking about the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare earlier. There was some good news this week. The administration reported that the number of Americans signed up through these exchanges rose to 3.3 million...
MARTIN: ...At the end of January - kind of they're back on track after that earlier blip. Is that changing the conversation about this issue?
DADE: It is good news for Obama and the Democrats. It appears now that with this increase in enrollment, the administration could reach its goal of seeing 7 million people enrolled by March. The CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, previously lowered that estimate to 6 million. So it looks like we're going to hit 6 million by March at minimum. And we could hit 7 million. But you're not going to see the Democrats and Obama crowing about this. For starters, only about a quarter of the enrollees are young people.
And of course, we need the young people who are healthier and lower cost, as far as insurance, to enroll, to spread that risk and control the cost of health care for, especially for the older, sicker Americans. But here's the thing, the administration needs 40 percent of that enrollment to be young people. So they haven't hit that mark yet.
So there's a question of whether or not that 15 percent gap could actually lead to higher costs. But beyond that, this is not - the Obamacare is not going to turn around and be positive for the Democrats or Obama until we start seeing more tangible evidence of improvements in health care costs for the average person. That's when it becomes a political benefit for the Dems, but not until then.
MARTIN: Just briefly in the time that we have left, I wanted to talk about two political figures outside of Washington who are both, you know, in the news. Corey Dade, somebody you spent a lot of time reporting on, the former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was found guilty this week of 20 out of 21 corruption charges against him. He was convicted of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. It just - what is your impression of this? I think a lot of people just are shaking their heads because it just seems so stupid and transparent and just...
MARTIN: ...And I just wanted to ask your impressions of this.
DADE: Yeah, I met Ray Nagin in 2005 when I was covering Hurricane Katrina. I spent a lot of time with him. I'd interviewed him multiple times, and I watched him struggle to sort of get the city's recovery off the ground. And the irony here is that he came into office as this reformer, as someone coming out of the - who was the - succeeded the Morial administration, which had been hovering under a cloud of corruption, even though nobody was corrupted - or convicted in his administration.
You know, he was all about ending the sort of culture of corruption and payola in politics in New Orleans. And, you know, this is a guy who called himself an equal-opportunity toe crusher. That was one of his favorite phrases. And he had no problem, you know, turning this back on old patronage. And yet, he turns around and does this. It was amazing to me that he was doing this in such a brazen way because the feds were all over New Orleans and Louisiana post-Katrina because they were looking for any evidence that there was graft involving the billions of recovery dollars coming to the city.
MARTIN: What - did he have any defense? I mean, that's one of the arguments. So many of the people who...
DADE: his defense was that everybody's lying. You know, that...
MARTIN: Everybody's lying but him.
DADE: Yeah. Everybody's lying but him. The businessmen who testified against him, his defense attorney argued that they are all just simply turning on Nagin to get reductions in their sentences because they had been corrupted - or convicted also.
MARTIN: You were telling us is closes kind of a chapter...
DADE: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: ...Kind of a chapter of kind of drama for the city.
DADE: I think the city is exhausted from Katrina, of course. But they're really exhausted from Mayor Nagin's tenure. I mean, I don't know a person who doesn't look at it as, basically, a lost opportunity to actually have sped up the recovery.
MARTIN: And very briefly, Christopher Ave, Chris Christie's back out in the public eye this week in Chicago raising money as the chair of the Republican Governors Association. He's still feeling the heat over this whole question of whether his political, you know, operatives closed a bridge, a major bridge into New Jersey to punish someone who wouldn't endorse him, who wasn't even from his own party. Do you think that - is Chris Christie still effective out there, Christopher?
AVE: Well, he's trying. He's trying to put it behind him. He's trying to move ahead as if it wasn't happening. And he - my view is that he has been so adamant in saying that he knew nothing of this and had nothing to do with it, he's been crystal clear in his denunciation and his refusal to acknowledge any role in it. So here's the thing, if it's proven that he had some role in that bridge closure, I think he's done. I just can't see him...
DADE: I agree.
AVE: ...Getting past that in this cycle. So, you know, it remains to be seen. He's going to keep moving ahead. And he's pledged not to let Bridgegate to derail him from his agenda. Fine. But if it turns out that he had something to do with it, then that train is off the rails.
MARTIN: Christopher Ave's political editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. Thanks to both of you for coming.
AVE: And thank you, Michel.
DADE: Thank you.
AVE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.