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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Winter Storms Impact Holiday Travel; Testing China's Airspace Claims; GOP Gains Ground Going into Midterms; "The War on Thanksgiving"

Aired November 26, 2013 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: So, it's not really that bad out there -- if you're one of the guys from "The Deadliest Catch."

I'm John Berman. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead. The timing, it could not be worse, the killer storm, one that's already claimed the lives of a dozen people, rumbling up the East Coast just as tens of millions of people are traveling for Black Friday eve, which used to be called Thanksgiving.

The world lead. You can go ahead and seize a bigger air defense zone if you want, China, but that doesn't mean the U.S. is going to respect it. A pair of American B-52 bombers flies through China's newly claimed airspace and tests whether China means what it says today.

And the buried lead. Green bean casserole, sure, cranberry sauce, obviously, but you won't find any turkey on the plate of one of our former vice presidents. Is Al Gore taking diet tips from his former boss?

Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper today.

And have you made a list of things you're thankful for this year? You might want to keep them in mind over the next 30 hours or so, because if you are traveling, your thoughts may need that happy place to go -- 43 million people are expected to travel by roads, rail and sky this Thanksgiving, but a killer storm is on the move and it could ruin the holiday in ways that your uncle with halitosis never could.

Most of you, if you're traveling, are driving, and this is what you will run into in the Southeast right now. It is mostly rain in cities like Atlanta, but the sun is about to go down on the East Coast and that means the roads could start to ice. As you get farther north, the weather is changing into snow. Look at that in Pennsylvania.

Many major cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston not expected to get too hard, but we have already seen some major travel snarls that will likely only get worse.

Now, we know how aggravating this kind of holiday weather is, so here's a list of phrases you will not hear over the next hour. We will not refer to snow as the white stuff at any point. There will be no mention of Jack Frost or his fixation with your nose. At no point will we use the phrase winter wonderland. It's not even winter. And under no circumstances will we tell travelers to pack your patience, because, honestly, the overhead bins are already full.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BERMAN: As we mentioned, 43 million people are expected to travel this Thanksgiving, and an overwhelming number of them, nearly 39 million, will be driving.

If your path takes you through Pennsylvania, you better have snow tires. It will be a very long night for road crews there.

Our own Shannon Travis is standing by live outside Pittsburgh right now.

Shannon, you have been watching the snow fall there all day, haven't you?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, all day, John.

We are off of Interstate 76 right now, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We're safe, we're OK, but I wish we could say we're safe and dry. You have been talking about those 40 million, estimated 40 million drivers who are going to be taking to the road, and Chad has been talking about a lot of the roads in Pennsylvania alone that are going to be clamored with drivers and snow.

We have been seeing all of it right here, snow, rain, a steady mix of it. Earlier today, it was a steady downpour of snow. Right now, we are seeing rain. And I just want to show you the difference between those two. If you just look down here, we have been watching the snow accumulate, John, on this side and other grassy parts of the area where we're standing, but right now, literally at my feet, you see almost like a mini-river of water.

What we're seeing is some of this rain that's been falling since the snow kind of stopped melt away some of this snow, causing some of this water to run off. Obviously, a lot of the people in this area are hoping that continues. I'm sure they could probably live with the rain more than the snow.

Here in Irwin, we are about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. We have been seeing this, in Pittsburgh, obviously, snow as well. I spoke with a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official earlier. They said tonight they are going to have a full force, all of their crews, about 80-plus trucks, out in full force, John, about 135 people, mechanics, plowers, salt trucks working in 12-hour shifts well into tomorrow.

Obviously, safety is of a prime concern. They tell me that not only should you be careful on the roads tonight if you're out here driving, but also please let the salt trucks, give them room to do their work -- John.

BERMAN: Public service announcement from Shannon Travis. I hope you brought a change of socks, Shannon. Thank you so much outside Pittsburgh right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: So if you have ever been on a flight in the U.S., there's a good chance you have been through Atlanta. It has the world's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson, where many a layover has become a reluctant stay-over in years past.

Our own Martin Savidge has been watching the arrival and departure board all day.

What's the cancellation situation, Martin?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, it's starting to look not as nice as it did earlier in the day. We have got about 1.8 million people that are going to go through this airport over this holiday period.

BERMAN: We just lost Martin.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: All right, we have lost Martin Savidge in Atlanta right now.

What he was about to tell you is that the air situation in that airport not great. Starting to see some cancellations there, certainly delays. Before, he was saying he has seen delays of 30 to 40 minutes, which seemed to be getting longer as the days go on. We will get an update from all these people over the next few hours, the travel situation not at all good right now.

Turning now to the world lead, China has tried to claim almost a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean known as the East China Sea and over the weekend, it declared much of that is inside its air defense zone. And here's how much the U.S. military respects that, apparently. Earlier, it flew two B-52 bombers right through that new air zone without complying with Chinese demands for a heads-up.

I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, explain what's going on here.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, basically, this is a dispute between China and Japan about who owns some islands in the East China Sea, but China stepped up the tensions over the weekend when it declared this new air zone and said any military aircraft flying through it had to declare their flight plan, their transponder, give all kinds of information basically to report in to Beijing.

And the U.S. military made clear, thank you very much, we won't be doing that. So take a look at this map. This is a vast area and what the U.S. did last night is it flew two B-52 aircraft from Guam, which is further to the east, of course, all the way over to the East China Sea, flew through this zone for about an hour, turned around and flew back and did not report in to Beijing because the Pentagon doesn't recognize this and isn't about to start reporting to China about its movements in international airspace.

No incidents were reported, nothing happened, but, you know, look, the Chinese have basically been put on notice by the U.S. that this is raising tensions in the region at a time when it's not needed. The Asia Pacific, an economic powerhouse, this is not the part of the world that anybody wants to see any kind of uncertainty or destabilization when it comes to aircraft operating in international airspace.

So the U.S. making clear it's just not going to obey Beijing's rules -- John.

BERMAN: Is this a crucial area for U.S. jets to fly through? Is this an exercise that's likely to be repeated or did the U.S. really just want to make a point here, Barbara?

STARR: Well, a little bit of both.

But you're touching on something very crucial here. The U.S. military routinely flies through this region on these training missions, and that's what this was, a training mission that the Pentagon says had been on the books for some time. Be that as it may, this is crucial airspace out in the Pacific. It's a very heavily trafficked area between Japan's air traffic, Taiwan's and mainland China.

So this is an area that's very busy with both commercial flights and military flights and nobody wants to see any problems. Nobody wants to play chicken, if you will, at 30,000 feet.

BERMAN: No. Good idea. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

STARR: Sure.

BERMAN: I want to go back right now to one of the least soothing and relaxing places on earth. That's Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, where we find Martin Savidge.

Martin, we were talking about delays and cancellations. What is the situation there?

SAVIDGE: OK. Well, the good news is, we have no cancellations, at least nothing due to weather. But if you want delays, unfortunately, we do have some of those.

Probably now about half the flights here are going off with some kind of delay, not major. Some are 10 minutes, some are 15 minutes, and some are longer. We are getting up to 30- and 45-minute delays, some even longer than that. But it's started off very good this morning.

It's just the combination of volume, the combination of weather and then the impact of people coming from other airports, their planes delayed moving through Atlanta to their next destination. It's all starting to dare I say snowball. I hope that wasn't one of the words that was banned.

But that's the situation. The good news is, the 5:50 to Cancun still on time if you're headed that way.

BERMAN: Yes, I'm sure. This is your last hit with CNN for the day, Martin, I am sure. Good luck making the 5:50 to Cancun.

That's Martin Savidge reporting from the busiest airport in the world.

CNN has a fascinating look inside Hartsfield-Jackson International Atlanta. We sent more than a dozen, three dozen journalists inside for 24 hours. And you can check this out at CNN.com/ATL24.

Coming up for us on THE LEAD: an award-winning war correspondent forced to take a leave of absence after a discredited "60 Minutes" report -- ahead, more on the internal investigation that led to Lara Logan's suspension.

But, first, one craft store taking on President Obama for religious reasons, and now the Supreme Court is getting involved.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The politics lead. Remember after the government shutdown, when everyone was talking about the dire consequences Republicans would face come the midterm elections?

Well, what a difference a flubbed Obamacare rollout makes. CNN's latest poll numbers show a dramatic turnaround since just last month. Take a look at this. Gone is the Democrats' lead among registered voters' choice for Congress in 2014, and now, it's the Republicans who are showing a slight lead going into the critical midterms.

So let's bring in our panel to talk about this.

CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona, CNN political commentator and columnist for "The New York Times" Ross Douthat, and politics editor for "Roll Call", Shira Center.

And, Shira, I want to start with you because this is really your bread and butter at "Roll Call."

A month ago, we were talking about do the Democrats really have a chance to take over the house and now today -- sorry about the Peter Brady thing -- now, today we're sitting here thinking do Republicans have a chance of taking over the Senate? How big of a shift are we dealing with here?

SHIRA CENTER, POLITICS EDITOR, ROLL CALL: Yes, there's certainly been a large shift. But let's remember, there is still almost a year to go until the election and if poll numbers can flip this quickly in a month, they can flip even more quickly many times between now and November 2014.

That said, yes, there certainly has been a shift, especially in the Senate, where Republicans need to pick up a net of six seats to gain control of that chamber, and seven senators very vulnerable Democratic senators are up for re-election in states that Obama lost in 2012. That is not good math, especially if the national landscape is shifting towards Republicans.

BERMAN: Maria, you run in these Democratic circles. If this does cost the Democrats six seats in the Senate, will Democrats look at this and say it was worth it?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Oh, John, that's a huge "if", so I'm not going to concede that for you right now a year before the elections.

But I will say this. There's no question that the flubbed rollout has been a huge political cost for the Democrats. The president said himself, said that himself a couple weeks ago during his press conference.

But here's what Democrats need to do. It's a year out from the elections. Democrats need to make this about a choice, a choice between two parties. One party that wants to continue to make this law work for 40 million Americans who don't have health care coverage, for middle class families whose health care coverage is too expensive, and a party who is willing to shut down the government, hurt our economy and frankly, has not taken shutting down the government again off the table.

That is a big contrast that I think when you make it about that choice, protecting middle class families versus doing whatever they can to make Obama fail and therefore, this government and the economy hurt, I think that is an argument that the Democrats can win.

BERMAN: Ross, you want to indulge me more than, Maria, was willing to on this subject?

ROSS DOUTHAT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, obviously, the Republicans are going to pick up 17 seats. It's a mathematical certainty.

No, I mean, I think that, look, obviously we're a long way out. I think the big danger for the Democrats is less the specific political landscape right at this moment and more the possibility that every month or every couple of months, you're going to have a new wave of stories, of controversy and so on, about some aspect of the health care law that Americans hadn't been aware of that maybe didn't receive the coverage it should have had when the law was being debated.

And, so, you know, over the past couple months, we've had people realizing that actually, a lot of people's insurance plans are going to be canceled because of the health care law. Over the next few months, you'll have more people buying new coverage and realizing that their medical networks have constricted, that they don't have access to the same doctors and so on, then you will probably start to have the law have more of an impact in the employer market, too, as various provisions kick in.

So, that's -- I think the big danger for the Democrats, I mean, obviously they need to get the website fixed and running and so on, but even -- but even beyond that, there's just a scenario where you just have a sort of rolling kind of disaster of coverage that continues to the point where it actually will start to make a real difference in political outcomes.

CARDONA: Or you can have a scenario where you continue to focus on the good news which frankly CNN has been doing more and more, where those people who couldn't afford coverage before are actually getting it.

BERMAN: Shira, you know, you are in the difficult middle of this debate. I'm wondering --

(CROSSTALK)

DOUTHAT: The objective middle.

CENTER: Thank you.

BERMAN: The objective middle, that tiny little space that's about this big. I'm wondering at "Roll Call" if you see Obamacare being an issue that lasts all the way to November 2014.

CENTER: Yes. And unfortunately for my reporters, too, who are so sick about writing about this story line, because we have done it for the last three cycle, I do see it as being the primary issue for elections in 2014, no doubt about it. Especially given what Ross detailed about how the deadlines, new parts of the law are going to come to light every few months or so, we are going to be talking about this and seeing it on campaign ads between now and November.

BERMAN: I want you guys to weigh in quickly on the other big story of the day, and that's the Supreme Court telling us that it will take up the issue of Obamacare again, at least one part of it. The justices agreed to take up the issue of the law that requires employers of a certain size to offer insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.

So, Maria, how big of a deal do you think this is?

CARDONA: I think this is actually a huge opportunity again, John, for Democrats to make this choice that I was talking about earlier. The focus on Obamacare when it comes to women's health, I think is huge, because Democrats have clearly won on that issue in the past, and a lot of Republicans -- and we'll see if it happens this year -- a lot of Republican candidates can't help themselves when they put their feet in their mouth talking about this issue.

But it's an opportunity for Democrats, again, to talk about the choice about a party who wants to make being a woman a pre-existing condition, who wants to take away the health care coverage and security of seniors with the donut hole, again with the focus on Republicans want to repeal Obamacare when right now, the majority of Americans actually want to see it work.

BERMAN: Ross, we were surprised, some people were surprised by John Roberts in the first big Obamacare decision, likely to be a surprise this time?

DOUTHAT: Well, I think as so often with these cases, it's more likely to come down to Anthony Kennedy's vote. What's interesting with Kennedy is that he's swung increasingly over time in a kind of libertarian direction on a range of issues, which explains why he's simultaneously been the most pro-gay rights justice but also the justice who actually agreed that Obamacare was unconstitutional because of the individual mandate.

And in this case, you have a collision of liberties. You have the free exercise of religion which a lot of religious institutions and in this case, a corporation owned by and founded on by a very religious family see as intention and then obviously, the argument that Maria was making about reproductive rights and so on.

So, I think the tension in the heart of Anthony Kennedy will be put to the test, I guess.

BERMAN: The tension.

All right, guys. Maria Cardona, Ross Douthat, Shira Center, thank you so much for being with me today. Really appreciate it.

CARDONA: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: All right. Coming up for us next on THE LEAD: the blurred line between Thanksgiving and Black Friday. More Americans are fighting to keep stores closed on Thursday but are any retailers listening?

Plus, I think it's safe to say the pope will not be doing any Thanksgiving shopping after his latest remarks and what he calls the new tyranny of unbridled capitalism.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

The money lead. On some parts of cable television, it feels like the most covered war on Earth. I'm talking of course about the so-called war on Christmas, the abandonment of the spiritual meaning of the holiday for the incessant advertising and earthly delights of presents stacked tall beneath the tree.

Now, according to my next guest, there is a new holiday war being waged on Thanksgiving. And are American families, the casualties?

Dean Obeidallah, a frequent contributor for CNN.com and "The Daily Beast" joins me now, along with Jim Tankersley, economic policy correspondent for "The Washington Post."

And, Dean, a lot of what you write is comedy. You're a funny guy. Let's acknowledge that. But you have this piece in "The Daily Beast" which is very serious and very sincere. It's titled "The War on Thanksgiving". And you say you want to put the thanks back in Thanksgiving.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH, THE DAILY BEAST: Absolutely. Everyone talks about the war on Christmas. People write books about the war on Christmas, to make money off Christmas.

This is actually a holiday -- this war on a holiday has an impact on people's lives. On Thanksgiving, when people are enjoying their dinner, about a million workers will have to report to work at retail chains this year, it's a record opening of chain stores, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target. I guess (INAUDIBLE) because people desperately need the plain pocket khaki pants. They have to get in there.

I think it's truly unfair, it's inconsiderate. And I think it's -- the vice president of Costco, a chain that's not opening, said it best. He said, "Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season and we simply believe they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families."

And that's what it's about, letting people spend this great quintessential American holiday with your family.

BERMAN: And more and more stores do seem to be opening between the Macy's of the world and Wal-Mart.

So, Jim, I guess my question to you is, he mentioned Costco, Dean mentioned Costco.

But can big chains really resist opening on Thanksgiving, if there's money to be had out there, aren't these stores going to get in on the game eventually?

JIM TANKERSLEY, ECONOMIC POLICY CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON POST: Well, it's a rational decision in a market economy where so much of what these chains depend on for sales, like up to 20 percent a year, 19 percent last year, come from holidays. So, they're looking for any advantage to capture more of that finite holiday spending pot.

So, they are going to be open when they think they can get customers. Pretty easy way for people like Dean who want to strike back to do that, just don't be customers.

BERMAN: Dean, I have to confess, I have never gone shopping on Thanksgiving.

OBEIDALLAH: It's true.

BERMAN: But I have worked many a thanksgiving and there are a lot of people in this business, in other businesses, who actually want to work on Thanksgiving because you can make a little extra money.

OBEIDALLAH: I think the stars were stacked by people who are voluntary there, if Wal-Mart had all their employees saying I want to work, I want that free corndog Thanksgiving meal they're offering, that's fine but it's not. You see reports in the media, people complaining, Alabama, Nebraska, New York City, saying I don't want to work. There was a petition from Target employees last year over 100,000 people signed, saying we don't want to work on Thanksgiving.

You know what it takes us, it takes people who are watching this not to shop on Thanksgiving because you're part of the problem. You don't need that greatly reduced ugly Christmas sweater on Thanksgiving. There are 27, 28 other days. You can shop with your family around the computer if you really feel that urge, I got to shop on Thanksgiving.

BERMAN: More football, less shopping.