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Shutdown Nightmare's Over, Is Capitol Hill Still Dreaming?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later this hour, our Friday features, the Barbershop guys will be here and we'll meet a mother who says she and her husband did everything their conservative church asked of them, including campaign against same-sex marriage, until they realized their own son is gay. And she'll tell us how she's now trying to reconcile her love of her church with her love of her son. That's Faith Matters and that's coming up.

But first, let's go to politics. The mood in Washington seems to be improving with the government open again; even the weather is better today after days of rain. But the debate over who was at fault, what the impact has been and what the ramifications will be going forward are continuing. So we wanted to get perspective on this from two of our regular analysts. They're both former White House aides, but from different sides of the aisle. Ron Christie was an assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, now president of Christie Strategies, a consulting group. Welcome back, Ron. Thanks for joining us.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: And Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor to the Obama administration. He's now senior vice president at VOX Global, a communications firm. Corey, back to you - welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

COREY EALONS: Always good to be here.

MARTIN: So, Ron, let's start with you because the polls are out and just about all analysts seem to say that this whole episode was a political loss for the Republicans. I mean, even Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is quoted as saying, the situation was a nightmare for Speaker Boehner. Do you agree? Do the Republicans get the short end of the stick on this?

CHRISTIE: They get the short end of the stick in the short term. I think there's no question that all the media coverage has been negative towards the Republicans, negative towards their emphasis on reducing the amount of spending and really trying to address the entitlement crisis that we face in America today. But I think in the long term, Americans are going to take a more broader perspective of this and say, what were the Republicans trying to do?

The Republicans were trying to say that we have a new healthcare entitlement that's not working, that has been a disaster in its rollout. We have not had a budget that has passed the Congress in four years and growing. And we have a dysfunctional government that seems to careen on by crisis, after crisis, after crisis. So in the short term, yes, I think the polls are indicative of a souring mood of the American people. But, again, in that longer perspective I think people are going to say at least the Republicans were trying to stand up and make a cognitive stance and say, Washington is broken and we're trying to fix it.

MARTIN: Corey?

EALONS: I got to say, that's a really interesting perspective because right now Republicans are digging from a tremendous deficit. Three-fourths of the American people basically said they didn't agree with the shutdown strategy that was orchestrated by the Republicans. And at the end of the day, this was a tremendously costly lesson that Speaker Boehner had to - had to take on for 30 to 40 members of the Tea Party in his caucus - $24 billion in lost GDP for the country, 80,000 people and government workers out of work for three weeks; they're going to get paid on the back end, but in the meantime, real work wasn't getting done on behalf of the American people. And so, going forward, the hope is that as we begin this conference committee - beginning to look at the budget and trying to come to some resolution - that we can put petty partisan politics aside and we can start to get real work done.

MARTIN: Well, OK, let's talk about the Democratic side of it. And I don't want to sort of reduce this to the who won, who lost, you know, argument because that's really trivializing something that's really very profound and serious for just about everybody affected by it. But the fact is there were serious glitches with the healthcare rollout, which it seems to me that the government shutdown actually obscured, because the conversation over the shutdown actually obscured all the flaws with the rollout of the exchange, you know, program. And then there's a question about whether President Obama handled this - and is he in a position to now reboot his own leadership or to take advantage of this and to get some headway in his priorities as a consequence? I just want to play a short clip from his comments to the nation yesterday. Just an excerpt from his remarks that he delivered after the whole thing was over.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And now that the government is reopened and this threat to our economy is removed, all of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do. And that's grow this economy. Create good jobs. Strengthen the middle class. Educate our kids. Lay the foundation for broad-based prosperity and get our fiscal house in order for the long haul.

MARTIN: So Corey, do you think he set the right tone here?

EALONS: Well, I'll tell you this, I'll take the first part of your notion first, which is, you know, talking about healthcare and the rollout. Let's first be clear, healthcare itself, the more people learn about healthcare, the more they appreciate it. So for people who are taking advantage of being under 26 and still on their parents' insurance, for people who are no longer discriminated against because they have a pre-existing condition or because they're a woman, they are seeing the immediate effects of healthcare. Certainly this rollout has been problematic and those things need to be fixed. But let's be clear, the program itself is solid and getting more popular. It's even more popular now in the aftermath of the shutdown than it was prior to the shutdown. And you're right, there was - the challenges with the rollout online was obscured by the shutdown, which is ironic in itself.

As for the president, the tone that he should take as we go into these next few months before the beginning of the next half of this Congress is one where what he does best, which is bipartisan, bringing people together and lifting the country up. That's what people expect from the presidency itself. He has certainly demonstrated the capacity to do that. I think the tone he struck yesterday was borderline, but he made it known what his priorities are going forward. And it's a big agenda - wanting to get immigration done, wanting to get the farm bill done, in addition to wanting to get the budget done. That's a big chunk to get done in a relatively short period of time. So he's going to have to display some real leadership going forward.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our regular political conversation with two former White House aides. Democrat Corey Ealons and Republican Ron Christie. So, Ron Christie, asking you if you think the president struck the right tone. Recognizing that you, as a Republican, are not necessarily going to agree with all of the president's priorities, but from the standpoint of his statement that the American people want the government to get back to work and that, you know, responsible people from both parties need to be sure that that happens. Do you think he's setting the right tone for what he says he wants to accomplish going forward?

CHRISTIE: No. But the one thing I did enjoy was listening to the president say pundits on the radio, and I immediately thought of myself and Corey. And I thought, gosh, he must be taking a shot at us.


MARTIN: He wasn't talking about you.

CHRISTIE: He wasn't talking about us.

EALONS: He wasn't talking about me either.

CHRISTIE: But seriously. I think, when the president talked about Democrats and sensible Republicans coming together...

MARTIN: I think he said responsible. Responsible Republicans is the term he used.

CHRISTIE: Yeah, responsible. And, you know, he continues to employ the term extremists. I just wish that this president in his fifth year of his presidency would recognize that he's not the president of the Democratic party. He's the president of the United States, and that there are about half of the citizens of this country who didn't support him and didn't support his policies. And he could have struck a more conciliatory tone yesterday that he didn't.

But the fact of the matter is the healthcare rollout has been a disaster. And I say that, not as a Republican, but perhaps as a lawyer who looks more at the facts and tries to see whether or not what was promised and what was delivered has actually occurred. In the state of Delaware, you have one person who has enrolled in the Obamacare. The state of Wisconsin, zero. The state of Alaska, zero. They spent between 400 and 634 million dollars to devise a website for the exchanges that not only doesn't work, but even folks from the private sector who recognize how these things are supposed to be implemented have said they didn't beta-test this. They didn't design it properly. And the greatest, I think, peril that is going to come from this is that the traffic on the website for has gone down dramatically. If they can't get their act together and get this thing to work properly in the short term, how can it be that the government can penalize you for not having healthcare if that government can't even provide a portal for you to sign up to be able to obtain healthcare?

MARTIN: OK. So in the time that we have left, I mean, there are obviously a number of things that we could talk about, including the possibility of another government shutdown in the weeks ahead, and the whole question of the debt ceiling being raised and if we're heading for another crisis in that regard. But I'd rather talk about tone, which is one of the things that we've been talking a lot about here. And, Ron, I'll start with you on this. Both of you are veterans of politics and of government and of serving at these high levels, and things can get pretty heated. But I wanted to ask you, is the tone that's being set here - Ron, I'll start with you - is this fixable? And, if so, what has to happen so that people feel that we do have a functional government? Is this a structural problem that's just going to have to wait until the next election, or is there something that can happen in the near term or in the months ahead that would give people confidence that their government is actually functioning, that their political leaders are functioning and working together?

CHRISTIE: Well, you know, I think Corey and I are both old-school. And old-school is in the sense that you have to learn to respect people as individuals rather than I win and you lose. And I think that the tone in Washington right now is I have to win and you have to lose, rather than what's in the best interests of the country. And, oh, by the way, the person I'm negotiating with is not just a Democrat, but is also my friend and is also an individual. And I think the only way to step back from the brink of where we are right now is that people need to recognize that they are elected to a very responsible position to reflect the will of the nation and their constituents, and to take the personal nature out of it and do what's best for the country. And yes, I think we can walk back from this.

MARTIN: And just very briefly, we talked about the president's comments yesterday. I think it's only fair to play the comments from Representative - from Senator Ted Cruz. He was speaking with Jon Karl of ABC News, talking about how he will continue his fight to stop the Affordable Care Act even if it means another government shutdown.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: I would do anything and I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare. And in particular, look, the test that matters, Jon, is are we doing anything for all the people that are getting hurt from Obamacare? Washington focuses on the politics all day long. That's what this town does.

MARTIN: OK. It goes on. Corey, final thought from you?

EALONS: Well, I'll tell you this. I think we do have an opportunity to improve the tone in Washington right now, because this was one of those times in our city where we just have an - an opportunity to exorcise a lot of demons and to get a lot of things out. And I think that's what John Boehner was attempting to do, if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, with the 30 to 40 members of the Tea Party Caucus that are basically new to the process and didn't know that this was an unwinnable fight that they were waging. Now that that's done, and now that the president has this victory and the Democrats in particular, John Boehner has had his victories in the past because we're now operating at budget levels with the CR - with the continuing resolution - that are closer to their numbers than Democratic numbers. Now that we've had some wins on both sides, hopefully we can see the value of coming together, having a valuable conversation that is to the benefit of the American people.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons is a senior vice president for VOX Global. He's a former director of media for the Obama administration. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist. He's a former assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, now president of Christie Strategies. Corey was here with me in Washington, D.C. Ron was in New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: Good Friday to you both.

EALONS: Take care now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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