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Inside The Tea Party's Rising Influence
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The battle over the debt ceiling may be over, but Congress remains
deeply divided. My guest, Robert Draper, has been reporting on the debt
ceiling battle for the book he's writing about the House of
Representatives. Last month he profiled the Republican whip in a New
York Times magazine article titled "How Kevin McCarthy Wrangles the Tea
Party in Washington."
Draper points out that the 87 new Republican members of the House
constitute more than a third of the 239-member Republican caucus and are
the reason the GOP is now in control of the House.
Nearly 40 percent of them are self-styled, quote, "citizen politicians"
who have never held office and rode into Washington on the Tea Party
wave. Draper says they and their Tea Party backers constitute the most
formidable power block on Capitol Hill. Draper is a contributing writer
for the New York Times Magazine and is the author of the 2007 book "Dead
Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush."
Robert Draper, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. ROBERT DRAPER (Author): Thanks for having me.
GROSS: So John Boehner says he's happy in that Republicans got 98
percent of what they wanted. How would you describe the mood on the
Democratic side and the Republican side of the House now?
Mr. DRAPER: Well, let's start with what I think would be the victors'
side, which would be the House Republicans. And they are taking, I
think, a well-deserved victory lap while the Democrats are in a state of
near total dejection.
I think what's clear - Boehner may be exaggerating for effect to say
that they got 98 percent of what they wanted. They got a lot of cuts.
They managed to keep revenues off the table in this debt ceiling deal.
But most of all, I think what they've done is dramatically shift the
ethos in Washington.
You know, you'll recall that in January of this year, President Obama's
State of the Union address talked about reinvesting in America so as to
quote-unquote win the future. That's where we were at the - at least
where the Democrats wanted us to be at the end of January. Six months
later, all that's been talked about is how much and where to slash
So that's a victory for the Republicans, but to paraphrase Benjamin
Franklin, it's a victory if you can keep it. And we can get to that in a
But as for the Democrats, I think the sense of anger and betrayal and
dejection was best personified by the chairman of the Congressional
Black Caucus, Emanuel Cleaver, who tweeted a couple of days ago that
this debt deal was, in his view, a sugar-coated Satan sandwich.
Now, what you need to know about Cleaver is that he is this extremely
mild-mannered guy who almost never speaks up at Democratic caucuses,
very much sort of keeps his cards close to his vest, and who's a
minister and in fact gives invocations in Democratic caucuses.
But he's also represented the Congressional Black Caucus in meetings
with the president and clearly feels like his coalition, his
constituents, were sold down the river by a president who - and I think
this sentiment is viewed across the boards by Democrats - a president
who was outfoxed at the negotiating table.
So it's not just a feeling that we lost. It's a feeling that we're not
sure if we can trust the titular head of our party.
GROSS: So a lot of distrust now between Democrats and the president.
Mr. DRAPER: And President Obama, yes.
GROSS: So you said - you used the quote this is a victory if you can
keep it â with the Republicans. What are you referring to about not
Mr. DRAPER: Well, what I'm referring to is whether or not they can
recognize a victory when it's in their grasp. There were in fact a
number of defections in the Republican ranks from this bill, and about
half of the people who voted against the bill who are Republicans were
Now, many of them did vote for it but were not satisfied with it, and
the context in which we need to view what took place with the debt
ceiling deal is what happened several months beforehand, when the House
was coming up with a continuing resolution that would fund the
government through the middle of September.
And House Republicans were pushing for $100 billion in cuts from what
President Obama had proposed. They didn't get that, and they felt that
ultimately, ultimately it was a very fatiguing ordeal. It lasted months,
and they wanted to get it past them and move on to bigger issues such as
But they felt that they had not been well-served at the negotiating
table by Speaker Boehner. So it remains to be seen whether this chapter
ends with particularly the freshmen Republicans having more confidence
in Speaker Boehner or if there's going to continue to be this tension
within the Republican conference between the more senior members in
leadership and freshmen who - many of whom came to town not really
caring whether they got re-elected, feeling that if they did not do the
people's will, they would deservedly be thrown out and replaced by
someone who would, who feel a sense of mission and feel quite impatient.
GROSS: One thing that kind of baffled me was that I understand, like,
FreedomWorks and other groups like that were pressuring the Tea Party
Republican freshmen to hold firm and not compromise. But at the same
time, we have groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed a lot
of Republicans, and other business groups that have traditionally backed
Republicans who it seems to me would have a vested interest in saving
the economy, in preventing America from defaulting, in preventing
America's credit rating from being lowered because that would - seems -
it seems that would be very bad for business.
So at the last minute, the Chamber of Commerce started making public
statements and exerting pressure, but I was surprised that there weren't
more business groups like that earlier making public statements and
publicly pressuring Republicans to prevent America from defaulting.
Mr. DRAPER: As best as I can tell, Terry, it's because - they didn't do
it earlier because they didn't think it would be necessary earlier. I
mean, there - it is true that a lot of these freshmen campaigned vowing
not to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, but I think that
a lot of these business groups assumed that once they got into office,
once they were educated by House leadership, that they would come around
very quickly on that.
That proved not to be the case, and a rather dramatic thing happened
about 10, 11 days ago, something like that. A week and a half before the
vote on the Boehner plan, then following that, what ultimately became
the debt ceiling deal, in the House Republican conference they brought
in an economist, a Republican economist named Jay Powell(ph), who is a
specialist on debt ceiling issues.
And he gave a presentation to show everyone in the Republican conference
just what would happen with the money after August 2nd. He basically did
a step-by-step on how - demonstrating quite graphically how money would
run out, how there were not only no guarantees that, say, the troops
would be paid, but a great likelihood that they would not. And that this
guy, Jay Powell, was brought in when he was is a measure of how
concerned the Republican leadership was that a lot of the more
conservative members, certainly including the freshmen, weren't buying
the notion that a default was going to be a grave thing, and they
certainly weren't buying the Tim Geithner August 2nd deadline.
And I think that part of what crept into this was a view that if the
White House says it, it must be untrue, and if anyone else echoes the
White House, then they're essentially, you know, in cahoots with the
And indeed this guy Jay Powell got a harsh reception from some
Republicans in that conference who thought that his figures were biased.
He's a Bush Republican. And so, yeah, I think it took a very long time
for a lot of these guys to come on board, and it was not so much that
they were default deniers, that they believed that nothing would happen,
but they believed that whatever would happen would not be nearly as
egregious as the White House was painting it.
GROSS: Well, that leads to something I've been wondering all along. Did
the Republicans play an incredible game of brinksmanship, or were there
enough members in, like, say, the Republican House who really didn't
care about the possibility of not raising the debt ceiling, who really
didn't care about America defaulting on our debt, who really didn't care
about a lowering of the credit rating?
Mr. DRAPER: Well, I think that the vast majority of House Republicans
did care. They did see the consequences of failing to raise the debt
ceiling, whether those consequences would come into effect on August 2nd
or two weeks later or a month later.
Nonetheless, they had twinned the devastation of failing to raise the
debt ceiling with the devastation that they believed would arise if
significant financial reforms did not take place, significant reforms in
the way government goes about its business spending-wise.
And you heard that in a lot of these Republican conferences, where every
time - and this was done partly as a negotiating tool. I mean, it's -
though John Boehner had very early on described failure to raise the
debt ceiling, he described this in a conference as the equivalent of
Armageddon, and Paul Ryan believed this as well, the budget committee
chairman, Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip, and the majority leader,
Eric Cantor, they all believed this. But they also believed that to
start out by saying, well, look, obviously we have to raise the debt
ceiling would be tantamount to forfeiting their negotiating position.
All along, they seemed to realize that President Obama was not going to
allow the United States of America, on his watch, to lose its AAA
rating. He would not allow America to default on its obligations. And
that essentially became the brinksmanship, as you've described it.
I think there was a lot of sweating near the end, but I think all along
there was a belief on the part of the Republicans that President Obama
would play ball at the very end because he would have no choice.
GROSS: Do you think that President Obama had more negotiating room than
he took advantage of?
Mr. DRAPER: It's hard to say. I mean, when you go back to, for example,
the Biden talks, which were sort of - there were, as you know, several
iterations of talks, and beginning in early May a group would meet in
the Blair House across the street from the White House, headed by Vice
President Joe Biden, and it had some representatives from House
Republicans and Senate Republicans, as well as the same for Democrats.
And in these negotiations they would talk theoretically about revenues,
but the Republicans would never specify. And when Eric Cantor was asked,
okay, so we have talked about, you know, corporate subsidies or
subsidies for oil companies and closing loopholes, which of these are
you least unwilling to go forward with, which of them do you hate the
least, Cantor would never commit. While at the same time, the Democrats
were discussing some things that at least in theory they'd be willing to
face up to regarding Medicare, not Medicare benefits but other aspects
of Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security.
And so the Republicans never showed their cards. I should say, by the
way, that the Democrats showed a little bit of their cards sort of at
the insistence of Vice President Biden, who wanted to keep the
negotiations going, was sort of - and was hoping that this would
encourage the Republicans.
Now, as to whether or not President Obama could have leveraged a
stronger deal for the Democrats that would have put revenues on the
table, it's hard to say. All we know is that at least the House
Republicans didn't seem to be giving an inch on that.
GROSS: You're writing a book about the House. So I'm wondering if
watching how the House dealt with, you know, passage of this debt
ceiling deal, if a lot of members of the House now admire President
Obama for his willingness to compromise with them or if they just see
him as weak and easy to take advantage of.
Mr. DRAPER: I haven't seen any sign of admiration for President Obama in
the Republican camps. If anything, there is a belief that President
Obama was not always good on his word at the negotiating table.
There was this suggestion that another $400 billion in revenue should be
considered that President Obama sort of sprung on Speaker Boehner, which
he felt was untenable, given how - the difficulties he was having in his
Republican conference to convince them to accept any kind of revenue
No, I don't see that any of them have viewed Obama's willingness to
compromise as a virtue. I think that they recognize it, but they don't
see this as something to be admired or even to be emulated. I think that
if anything they've calculated it as a kind of weakness.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper, and he's a
contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. He's writing a book
about the House of Representatives. He recently profiled in the New York
Times Magazine the House majority whip, Kevin McCarthy.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about the
House and the debt ceiling deal. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper, and he's writing a book about the
House of Representatives. He's been reporting on what happened in the
House during the debt ceiling deal. He's a contributing writer to the
New York Times Magazine and in July profiled Kevin McCarthy, the House
majority whip. The article in the New York Times magazine was titled
"How Kevin McCarthy Wrangles the Tea Party in Washington."
I'm interested in the split, if there is one, between the leadership in
the House, the Republican leadership in the House, and the people at the
far end of the Tea Party, the people at the Tea Party who voted against
this deal, who are totally unwilling to compromise.
I mean, the people who won't compromise, some of them are people who
don't see themselves as career politicians. They see themselves as here
to take a stand and never compromise.
Boehner, who is the speaker of the House, I mean he's not only a career
politician, he had tears in his eyes when he became the House speaker
because it was such a kind of lifelong goal for him.
So do you have any sense of what it's been like for him, a career
politician, to deal with people in his party, under his leadership, who
refuse to compromise?
Mr. DRAPER: Well, it's been a challenge, but he's also viewed it as an
opportunity. You know, for example, a few months ago, well before the
debt ceiling debate began in let's say May, previous to that, Boehner
was telling colleagues who are close to him that he viewed the impending
debt ceiling debate as an historic opportunity to force dramatic
concessions from a Democratic White House.
So he from the outset saw the Tea Party freshmen as something that he
could leverage. Now, that does not mean that they have not given him
heartburn from time to time, and there was a moment during the
continuing resolution debate when a number of the short-term continuing
resolutions were being voted against by a lot of freshmen that he stood
up in a conference and he said he felt like he had been abandoned,
causing one of the freshman, Raul Labrador from Idaho, to say excuse me,
I feel like we are the ones being abandoned.
And so there has been this â there has been this tension. It has inured
to Boehner's benefit from time to time, and I think also Boehner's
temperament has very much aided him. You know, he's not a hothead. He
tends to be very, very patient. Actually, temperamentally, he has much
more in common with Barack Obama than either of them would care to
And - but at the same time, he is aware that if he doesn't pay attention
to the Tea Party freshmen, that he's not going to be speaker for very
long. He, after all, was around - Boehner was elected in 1990, among the
so-called Gang of Seven, these sort of seven rabble-rousers, reformers,
and Boehner himself fashioned himself a reformer back then, anti-
earmark, et cetera.
In 1994, Gingrich came into power, the sort of so-called Gingrich
revolution. The Republicans took control of the House for the first time
in 40 years. And Boehner became one of the House leaders. He saw just a
few years after that how the back-bench members of the House, of the
Republican House, revolted against Gingrich and effectively forced him
out of the speakership.
Boehner is aware that that sort of thing can happen, and he has to be
concerned about it.
You know, on the other side you have these freshmen who, as you've said,
Terry, are not of the mood to compromise on things. They - in fact, I
was at a town hall with one of them, a Texas congressman named Blake
Farenthold, and Farenthold mentioned the word compromise, and
immediately someone stood up, while others were sort of yelling, someone
stood up and said we didn't send you there to compromise.
And you know, that kind of sentiment has really resonated, you know,
throughout the freshman class. They feel like compromise is a dirty
word, that there's no real - you know, that doesn't necessarily mean
that they view the Democrats as the enemy, but I think they do view sort
of backroom deals as anathema to what brought them to Washington to
GROSS: Do you think some of them are changing now that they've been in
office for a few months and actually seeing how politics get done, how
bills get passed?
Mr. DRAPER: Sure. Some of them - they're evolving in different
directions. It's interesting. Of course, you know, some of these
congressmen, freshman congressmen, have districts that are along the
Mississippi River. The Mississippi River has undergone, you know,
terrible flooding over the last several months.
And so now those congressmen have become very reliant on federal aid and
federal agencies such as FEMA in ways they would have never imagined
You also have, for example, Sean Duffy, who - from Wisconsin, a former
county prosecutor and former lumberjack and former star of the proto-
reality TV show "The Real World." Duffy occupies this - a congressional
seat in Wisconsin that for 40 years was held by Democratic
appropriations chairman David Obey.
Duffy won with huge Tea Party support in 2010, but he has since come to
realize that his district is still a Democratic district. It may be kind
of a blue-dog Democratic district, meaning more fiscally conservative
and - but still, you know, with a strong labor component to it.
And so he has had to - he has had to traverse this political minefield
when it comes to things like the funding of health care, public radio
for that matter, and other benefits.
You also see someone like Renee Ellmers from North Carolina, who came to
Washington, D.C. as a total outsider. I mean, even the Republicans
didn't know what to do with her. The national Republican - she's a
nurse, a former intensive care nurse, who decided to run. The National
Republican Congressional Committee didn't give her any money, didn't
help her out, and so she came in without any connections at all.
But she has - and won largely on the, you know, on the strength of Tea
Party support, but she has since then fallen in line with leadership,
has become a favorite of leadership, is a ubiquitous Fox TV presence,
and you know, stands a good chance of becoming the Debbie Wasserman-
Schultz of the Republican Party, which no one would have predicted.
But you also see - you know, I mentioned Blake Farenthold before.
Farenthold came in with a willingness to compromise, and now, you know,
he feels like that when he comes back after the summer, that he'll be
doing far less of compromising.
And it's a very - this group of 87 freshmen is anything but monolithic.
And they all have their peculiarities owing to their particular
GROSS: Robert Draper will be back in the second half of the show. He's a
contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and is writing a
book about the House of Representatives. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Draper, who
has been covering the debt ceiling battle for the book he's writing on
the House of Representatives. Draper profiled the House majority whip in
a New York Times Magazine article last month the titled "How Kevin
McCarthy Wrangles the Tea Party in Washington." Draper is a contributing
writer for the magazine. He's also the author of the 2007 book "Dead
Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush."
In your profile of Kevin McCarthy, you wrote that on the night of
President Obama's inauguration, McCarthy told Republicans let's not act
like the minority. Let's challenge them on every single bill and on
every single campaign. Did that kind of lay down part of the strategy
that was used in the debt ceiling deal?
Mr. DRAPER: Yes it did. I mean they - it was strength in numbers and the
refusal to give any ground. And where we saw it first was just a few
days after Kevin McCarthy uttered that, which was - he said that on the
night of Obama's inauguration. And it wasn't long after that the vote on
the stimulus took place and all Republicans in the House voted against
it and they stood very strong in opposition to it and they believed that
was a statement.
Thereafter, McCarthy is this interesting guy. He's only been in the
House for a couple of terms himself and he has a very sunny disposition,
kind of a quintessential Californian stereotype, but he's an extremely
competitive guy. And he has - he along with Eric Cantor, have really,
really held the line in the opposition. They've been very aware of how
indisposed the freshmen are to any kind of compromise and they've
decided to use that as leverage.
And so, yes, I think that the predicate was laid very, very early on
that this was going to be a winning, that this was going to be a winning
GROSS: In your profile of McCarthy you wrote that he tried to convince
the Tea Party members of the House to go from a position of no on the
debt ceiling to a position of yes if. If what? And what was McCarthy's
strategy of convincing the Tea Party people who were refusing to
Mr. DRAPER: Well, the whip does not possess the tools that previous
whips did. In the past you could induce someone to vote a particular way
by awarding them an earmark or something for their district. I don't
think any - not only are earmarks banned now so that can't be done, but
I also don't think that even doing something like saying we'll give you
a new committee assignment or something would pass muster because there
are vigilant, you know, bloggers who would immediately say this guy sold
out his vote for - in exchange for X, Y, Z.
So instead what McCarthy has had to do is to bring them into the process
early. And he's had these listening sessions where they bring in experts
and they sort of brainstorm and he basically invests them in the
During freshman orientation in the middle of November, just a couple of
weeks after all these guys were elected, McCarthy did an informal poll
and all but I think one or two were willing to raise the debt ceiling
under any conditions, so he knew he had his work cut out for him. And so
then it became conditions based.
And they began to - the one condition that came up over and over was a
balanced budget amendment and that seemed to be an unlikely one, given
that it would need to not only pass both the House and the Senate, but
it would also have to be passed by a majority of, a super majority of
the United States.
But he ultimately decided to turn that into a virtue. He insisted on and
got a balanced budget amendment brought to the floor in the form of this
cut, cap and balance. And that basically staked out a Republican
position that this is really what we want. And, you know, though in the
end the deal that was cut was cut with - Boehner signed on late but it
was hatched basically by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader
I don't think that they would've gotten to that point had the
Republicans in the House not staked out such an un-equivocating position
in the far right. And that was something that McCarthy very much
GROSS: So if McCarthy was the chief recruiter for the midterm elections,
are many of the freshmen beholden to him?
Mr. DRAPER: Beholden is not the right word. But they do have a bond with
him, Terry, to the degree that they do not with Boehner. And it isn't
limited to just what took place on the campaign trail. The whip's job is
to sort of, you know, grow the vote by constantly having your,
constantly touching members as the verbiage goes. And so it's McCarthy
who has more day-to-day contact with the members and what they're
thinking, what they're up to, what their needs are than anybody else.
And McCarthy thinks more like they do because he's a little bit younger.
He's not a Capitol Hill fixture like John Boehner. He also actually
lives in - he sleeps in his office like a lot of those guys do, and they
all in the afternoon and evening time hangout in the majority whip's
office in the Capitol. And to the point where, as I mentioned in the
story, the panorama almost looks like a frequent flyer lounge of all
these guys in their sort of, you know, disheveled coats and ties sipping
on glasses of wine and looking at Fox News and reading briefing papers.
And so McCarthy has become the nexus of all activity for them. And that
proved to be crucial in the debt ceiling debate because he really did
have to work a lot of these guys over. But working them over no longer
is the form of coercion or even inducement but instead talking them
through what their needs were an in turn explaining, you know, how badly
they were needed for this particular vote.
GROSS: So Kevin McCarthy, who you profiled in the New York Times
Mr. DRAPER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and is the Republican whip in the House, he lives in his
office. What does that represent to him, the importance of living in his
office? And there's a bunch of freshmen living in their office now. So
how has that changed the climate in the House to have all these...
Mr. DRAPER: Well, a lot of freshmen are doing it because they don't want
to be, you know, attached to, you know, Washington. They don't want to
own a piece of real estate and become Washington. Others are doing it
because, frankly, they don't have much money.
Kevin McCarthy does it really out of practicality. He works all the time
in the whip's office and it's where a lot of the freshmen are. And so
essentially he just sort of crashes, you know, where he is.
I think that what it has meant is that there is this kind of squadron of
freshmen who all cling together in the evening time because they see
each other in the House gym in the morning when they're taking their
showers and exercising. They see each other basically before they go to
sleep and coalitions have formed as a result of that. And so it's been
helpful to McCarthy also to be very, very close to that action and to be
able to influence, you know, whatever those coalitions are up to.
GROSS: Do the offices have a dorm-like atmosphere now?
Mr. DRAPER: Not exactly. I mean you do see these guys pad out of their
dorms, you know, early in the morning, you know, holding their
toothbrushes. But it's not like there are, you know, food fights or loud
music or anything like that.
GROSS: In talking about the Republican whip, Kevin McCarthy, and how he
uses his persuasive abilities to get people in line, before the Boehner
bill, the bill that failed, McCarthy showed a clip from the Ben Affleck
film "The Town," which is about bank robbers and Jeremy Renner is the
co-star. In the scene that he played, Affleck says to Renner, I need
your help. I can't tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it
later and we're going to hurt some people. And then Renner says whose
car are we going to take?
So, you know, that got played on like late-night comedy shows and people
were really picking up on the we are going to hurt some people line. So
do you have any sense of how that played among Republicans and how the
clip played and what McCarthy intended to communicate by playing it?
Mr. DRAPER: Yeah. Well, sure. For starters, they loved it. They loved
the clip though it did not ultimately bring a gale force of affirmation
toward the Boehner deal at that point in fact. At that stage what was
being called the Boehner deal was, barely had more than 100 Republican
votes and it didn't get much more as a result of that. For entertainment
value and sort of saliency about teamwork it got a lot of applause.
McCarthy does this a lot. Not so much the clip, though the NRCC
sometimes puts in clips like from the "Gladiator" and others to begin
Republican conferences. But McCarthy's ongoing theme has been about
teamwork. And he constantly uses, you know, he'll sort of trades one
metaphor for another. When he runs out of them then he falls back on the
movie "Braveheart." But basically McCarthy's whole deal has been to sort
of promote team unity, and particularly, again, amongst freshmen who've
come to town with no particular allegiances to the speaker or even to
the Republican Party as a whole.
But no, there was no, you know, consternation, no handwringing in House
Republican circles that oh, this notion that someone might get hurt is a
bad thing to say. I mean they got the joke if others didn't.
GROSS: And the joke was?
Mr. DRAPER: Well, the joke was that, you know, we're going to deal a
hurt to the Democrats. We're going to, you know, we're going to be -
that this is a package that's going to be really, really tough on what
Democrats want but we're going to hold firm and we're going to stick
GROSS: So how do you think the debt ceiling deal the way it played out
affected the relationship between House Speaker John Boehner and
Republican leader Eric Cantor in the House?
Mr. DRAPER: Their relationship has been tenuous to begin with because
Cantor clearly wants to be speaker of the House some day. And Cantor
also has been far more aggressive in - even though for example, Cantor
had asked for earmarks in the past and Boehner has always been against
earmarks. It was Cantor who insisted on an earmark moratorium back in
the fall of 2010 when Boehner himself was only talking about revisiting
the subject of banning earmarks.
So Boehner is ever aware of Cantor's ambitions. And those ambitions, of
course, extend beyond the majority leader himself to his entire staff
who would also like to see him at the top, and so there's always been
tension between them. But they worked this deal pretty well together.
There were some moments along the way where for example, Eric Cantor
learned while he was involved in Biden talks that Boehner was having
meetings at the White House. That apparently got him upset.
And there were also times where Cantor was in active dialogue with the
Republican Study Committee, which is the sort of in-house conservative
organ for the Republicans and which was very much opposed to the Boehner
deal that was being struck in these past weeks because they didn't feel
like it went far enough. Cantor was in constant dialogue with them and
that had some of Boehner's allies quite nervous about what Cantor's
intentions might be.
But I think they came out of this okay. I mean they again, there's
plenty for the Republican leadership to feel good about. I mean they
don't have wrapped around their collar the consequences of failing to
raise the debt ceiling. They don't have a default deal. But instead they
have this package of deep cuts, which frankly are not as deep as first
appear and the conservatives who voted against it are certainly mindful
of that. But still basically, as I said at the beginning, they now have
- they're now very much the definers of what the ethos in Washington is
and so there's plenty to celebrate all the way around.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper and he is a
contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. He recently had an
article about how Kevin McCarthy wrangles the Tea Party in Washington.
McCarthy is the Republican whip in the House. Draper is also the author
of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush." He's now writing a
book about the House of Representatives.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper. He's a
contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. He recently profiled
Kevin McCarthy, who is the Republican whip in the House. He's also the
author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush."
Let's talk a little bit about Grover Norquist, who is the head of
Americans for Tax Reform. This is a group that is basically opposed to
any form of taxation. And Grover Norquist is famous among other things
for the no tax pledge that he's gotten most Republicans in office to
sign. All but six of the 240 Republican members of the House, and all
but seven of the 47 Republican senators have signed the pledge. Norquist
came up with the no tax pledge in 1986. And I'm wondering how much of
the no compromise, we're against taxes position of Republicans has to do
with having signed this pledge and how much the pledge is kind of
coincidental to the fact that they believe in not raising taxes and
Mr. DRAPER: I think you phrased it right in the last part of what you
said, Terry, that is to say I think that it's coincidental to it. But I
have heard almost no one reference Grover Norquist among a House
Republicans except when they're saying that they frankly don't care
whether they sign the pledge or not, that their decisions have no basis
and theyâve said that convincingly.
I think that, you know, far more of worry to them is that if they do
anything that would be perceived as heading towards the center or God
for bid, the left, that they will face a primary opponent. And there are
already some members of the so-called Tuesday Group, the moderate
Republicans in the House, who are facing such challenges. And those
again, are not triggered by a sudden disavowal of Grover Norquist tax
I mean I do think that the ethos that Norquist is part of is influential
on the Hill. But I don't think, I think that breaking Grover Norquist's
pledge is the least of their worries.
GROSS: What kind of postmortems have you heard Democrats in the House
Mr. DRAPER: Well, I think that I actually spent yesterday on the Hill
talking to a lot of Democrats. And I think they're trying to find
something positive to say about this deal but basically they feel a real
disappointment in it and more profoundly with President Obama. What they
want, if there's any victory for them is that they've managed to keep as
a result of this deal the politically winning issue of Medicare. That
this deal does not involve tinkering with Medicare entitlements, at
least it doesn't seem to.
Now there's this so-called trigger in it that if this supercommittee set
up as a result of this deal fails to produce a certain number of $1.2
trillion in reductions then there is an across-the-board slashing of
funds for everything from defense programs to entitlements. But the
Democrats for now at least can feel sanguine that the issue that they
believed is the reason why they picked up an extra district in New York,
Medicare is something that they can ride possibly to victory.
And what we're hearing and seeing, I mean you saw it in the news
conference yesterday after President Obama talked about this deal that
had just been passed in the Senate in which he was just signing, that
right after that there was a pivot to a press conference that Nancy
Pelosi had, the Democratic minority leader. And all she did was talk
about jobs. And that's what Obama will talk about now too. And so the
problem, of course, for Democrats is there's really nothing they can do
in the way that they want to do it relating to jobs. They can't pass a
mini stimulus. There is no other sort of federal project that could
possibly pass muster in the House. And so all they can really do is sort
of talk about initiatives and highlight the Republicans failure to act
on those initiatives.
Now to some degree I think that's going to work pretty well for them
since basically the Republican's view is that the best way to create
jobs is for the government to stay the hell out of the way and to create
basically a climate that's amenable to job creation. That's a lot less
tangible and it's a lot harder to point to positive results than it
would be to establish, you know, a federal works project, for example.
So the Democrats will be working the Republicans over pretty heavily
over this. But how well theyâll be able to pivot after this defeat
remains to be seen.
GROSS: Now you are in the process of writing a book about the House of
Representatives. Why is that your new subject?
Mr. DRAPER: Well, I've decided when I saw the midterm elections that the
House was now going to become relevant. That it was going to be the
point of the spear for the Republican Party against the Obama
administration. And even more to the point, that with these 87 freshmen
who are coming in, many of whom did not possess legislative experience,
many of whom felt they were on a sense of mission and really didn't care
whether they got reelected or not, that there was going to be even less
compromise. That this was going to be sort of divided government on
And so that we would be seeing, you know, the House has historically
been - it was set up to be the institution that best captured the
passions of the American public. And we've seen that now, you know, to
the Nth degree as sort of there's been one wave election after the next.
And it may be that the period that we saw most recently until 1994,
where the Democrats held onto power for 40 years will never happen
anymore; that there will be this constant switching between Democrats
and Republicans as the emotional spasms of the American public are
exacerbated by the blogosphere and, you know, what they see on cable
television. And that the changing of hands in the House of
Representatives will be Exhibit A of that. And so I thought it was an
interesting moment to sort of capture that. And frankly, I thought also
that, you know, for entertainment value the House, which has always been
a lot more bawdy, a lot more raucous than the Senate would now even more
closely resemble the World Wrestling Federation.
GROSS: Well, give us an example from the past few weeks that you think
more closely resembles the World Wrestling Federation.
Mr. DRAPER: Actually, to me one of the more remarkable distinctions
between the House and the Senate took place about a week and a half ago
when a number of Tea Party freshman decided when to Cut, Cap And Balance
Bill was passed in the House in a strictly party line vote and then
moved over to the Senate. These Tea Party freshman, about 15 of them or
so, decided they were going to march over to the Senate and look the
Senate in the eye and defeats senators, to talk to senators and say, you
know, you need to vote for this balanced budget amendment, it's
Now, of course, the Senate is controlled by Democrats and so that was
unlikely to take place. But to see like these Republicans who came over
from the House floor which has an atmosphere that is more like a high
school cafeteria, you know, during lunchtime, to go over then to the
Senate that is almost like a priesthood, incredibly quiet where everyone
is sort of murmuring. And these freshmen Republicans, who seemed almost
like these, you know, uncouths who had walked, who managed to barge into
a country club, then, you know, stood there, you know, in the back and
some of them approached some of the senators but it was clear that they
were far from their element.
In the other way though, the House, which is always, you know, been much
noisier and all of that, you hear all of this chanting and booing and
hissing. It's always been that way since 1789 when the House decided to
throw its doors open to the public, something that the Senate didn't do
for many years but is that much more so now and the contrast was
particularly evident a week and a half ago.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper. He's writing a book about the House of
Representatives and recently profiled the House Majority Whip, Kevin
McCarthy, in The New York Times Magazine.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper, a contributing writer for The New York
Times Magazine. He's been reporting on the debt ceiling battle for his
forthcoming book about the House of Representatives. He's the author of
the 2007 book "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush."
So in the end, in the whole process of the debt ceiling deal, who held
the most power? Was it the Tea Party?
Mr. DRAPER: Yes. Yeah. They didn't get all that they wanted and so the
victory they got is maybe one that they won't keep. But they managed - I
mean there's an awful lot of quote/unquote "sensible," you know,
"people," Republicans, conservatives, independents, all sorts of
economists who said that any sustainable course that we take,
economically speaking, is going to have to involve revenues. The Tea
Party wouldn't hear of it. The House conservatives wouldn't hear of it.
And low and behold revenues, which I think the House leadership might
have but for the strong presence of the Tea Party and the Tea Party
freshman consider lo and behold that stayed off the table from the
beginning all the way to the end. So with that as a benchmark then
certainly that's a result of the Tea Party's influence.
GROSS: You use that World Wrestling Federation analogy - that sometimes
the House looks more like a World Wrestling Federation. Sometimes it
seems like the House is so divided and then America is so divided. I
wouldn't call it a civil war but that there are divisions that are
getting deeper and deeper and that America is getting more and more
divided, and that is just so look so evident in how the debt ceiling
deal finally got done.
So having spent a lot of time, you know, watching the House for the book
that you're writing about the House, how deep do you think the divisions
are in America now?
Mr. DRAPER: Well, I think they're very deep and getting deeper every
time a congressional map is redrawn, Terry. Because what redistricting
has done, and this is sort of the big untold story - I mean people write
about redistricting, but basically it has turned America into two
Americans, Democratic Party America and Republican Party America; that
every time there is a census and then on the basis of that congressional
districts are revisited, that whoever happens to be in power in
particular states draws these districts that are most favorable to them.
And in this case most of, in most cases the states are controlled by
Republicans. And so they will redden the districts, all the districts
they can. And then in part by doing that, what Democratic votes are left
over they dump into a district that was already Democratic to begin with
and make it that much more blue. So what we're seeing in part with these
Tea Party freshman and with others who for that matter, safe district
members from the Congressional Black Caucus, are those people who are
calcified or their worldview is codified by the district that they
inhabit. And so basically what that does is leave no appetite for
compromise because you have politicians who come to Washington who come
from districts that are much more ideologically rigid as a result of
redistricting than would've been in the past. So I think going forward,
no, I don't see any increased appetite for compromise. If anything I see
a formula that's going to further polarize America.
GROSS: Robert, do you have any idea when your book about the House is
going to be published?
Mr. DRAPER: Yes. It'll be out in May of next year.
GROSS: Well, I look forward to reading it. Thank you so much for talking
Mr. DRAPER: My pleasure.
GROSS: Robert Draper is a contributing writer The New York Times
Magazine. You can find a link to his magazine article on House Majority
Whip Kevin McCarthy on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also
download podcasts of our show.
I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with the song from Tony Bennett who is 85 today. We wish him
a happy birthday.
(Soundbite of song, "The Touch of Your Lips")
Mr. TONY BENNETT (Singer): (Singing) The touch of your lips upon my
brow. Your lips that are cool and sweet, such tenderness lies in their
soft caress. My heart forgets to beat.
The touch of your hands upon my head. The love in your eyes a-shine. And
now, at last...
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Andy Serkis describes playing an ape in
âRise of the Planet of the Apes." He did it with the help of computer-
generated technology, like he did in the "Lord of the Rings" films
playing Gollum, whose tortured voice was inspired by Serkis' cat
coughing up fur balls.
Mr. ANDY SERKIS (Actor): You see this fur about to being chucked up and
then they sort of go...
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
GROSS: Join us.
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