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Ten minutes into the CNN debate, Senator Sexton wondered how he could have been worried at all. Marjorie Tench was grossly overestimated as an opponent. Despite the senior adviser’s reputation for ruthless sagacity, she was turning out to be more of a sacrificial lamb than a worthy opponent.

Granted, early in the conversation Tench had grabbed the upper hand by hammering the senator’s prolife platform as biased against women, but then, just as it seemed Tench was tightening her grip, she’d made a careless mistake. While questioning how the senator expected to fund educational improvements without raising taxes, Tench made a snide allusion to Sexton’s constant scapegoating of NASA.

Although NASA was a topic Sexton definitely intended to address toward the end of the discussion, Marjorie Tench had opened the door early. Idiot!

“Speaking of NASA,” Sexton segued casually. “Can you comment on the rumors I keep hearing that NASA has suffered another recent failure?”

Marjorie Tench did not flinch. “I’m afraid I have not heard that rumor.” Her cigarette voice was like sandpaper.

“So, no comment?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Sexton gloated. In the world of media sound bites, “no comment” translated loosely to “guilty as charged.”

“I see,” Sexton said. “And how about the rumors of a secret, emergency meeting between the President and the administrator of NASA?”

This time Tench looked surprised. “I’m not sure what meeting you’re referring to. The President takes many meetings.”

“Of course, he does.” Sexton decided to go straight at her. “Ms. Tench, you are a great supporter of the space agency, is that right?”

Tench sighed, sounding tired of Sexton’s pet issue. “I believe in the importance of preserving America’s technological edge‑be that military, industry, intelligence, telecommunications. NASA is certainly part of that vision. Yes.”

In the production booth, Sexton could see Gabrielle’s eyes telling him to back off, but Sexton could taste blood. “I’m curious, ma’am, is it your influence behind the President’s continued support of this obviously ailing agency?”

Tench shook her head. “No. The President is also a staunch believer in NASA. He makes his own decisions.”

Sexton could not believe his ears. He had just given Marjorie Tench a chance to partially exonerate the President by personally accepting some of the blame for NASA funding. Instead, Tench had thrown it right back at the President. The President makes his own decisions. It seemed Tench was already trying to distance herself from a campaign in trouble. No big surprise. After all, when the dust settled, Marjorie Tench would be looking for a job.

Over the next few minutes, Sexton and Tench parried. Tench made some weak attempts to change the subject, while Sexton kept pressing her on the NASA budget.

“Senator,” Tench argued, “you want to cut NASA’s budget, but do you have any idea how many high‑tech jobs will be lost?”

Sexton almost laughed in the woman’s face. This gal is considered the smartest mind in Washington? Tench obviously had something to learn about the demographics of this country. High‑tech jobs were inconsequential in comparison to the huge numbers of hardworking blue‑collar Americans.

Sexton pounced. “We’re talking about billions in savings here, Marjorie, and if the result is that a bunch of NASA scientists have to get in their BMWs and take their marketable skills elsewhere, then so be it. I’m committed to being tough on spending.”

Marjorie Tench fell silent, as if reeling from that last punch.

The CNN host prompted, “Ms. Tench? A reaction?”

The woman finally cleared her throat and spoke. “I guess I’m just surprised to hear that Mr. Sexton is willing to establish himself as so staunchly anti‑NASA.”

Sexton’s eyes narrowed. Nice try, lady. “I am not anti‑NASA, and I resent the accusation. I am simply saying that NASA’s budget is indicative of the kind of runaway spending that your President endorses. NASA said they could build the shuttle for five billion; it cost twelve billion. They said they could build the space station for eight billion; now it’s one hundred billion.”

“Americans are leaders,” Tench countered, “because we set lofty goals and stick to them through the tough times.”

“That national pride speech doesn’t work on me, Marge. NASA has overspent its allowance three times in the past two years and crawled back to the President with its tail between its legs and asked for more money to fix its mistakes. Is that national pride? If you want to talk about national pride, talk about strong schools. Talk about universal health care. Talk about smart kids growing up in a country of opportunity. That’s national pride!”

Tench glared. “May I ask you a direct question, senator?”

Sexton did not respond. He simply waited.

The woman’s words came out deliberately, with a sudden infusion of grit. “Senator, if I told you that we could not explore space for less than NASA is currently spending, would you act to abolish the space agency altogether?”

The question felt like a boulder landing in Sexton’s lap. Maybe Tench wasn’t so stupid after all. She had just blindsided Sexton with a “fence‑buster"‑a carefully crafted yes/no question designed to force a fence‑straddling opponent to choose clear sides and clarify his position once and for all.

Instinctively Sexton tried sidestepping. “I have no doubt that with proper management NASA can explore space for a lot less than we are currently‑”

“Senator Sexton, answer the question. Exploring space is a dangerous and costly business. It’s much like building a passenger jet. We should either do it right‑or not at all. The risks are too great. My question remains: If you become president, and you are faced with the decision to continue NASA funding at its current level or entirely scrap the U.S. space program, which would you choose?”

Shit. Sexton glanced up at Gabrielle through the glass. Her expression echoed what Sexton already knew. You’re committed. Be direct. No waffling. Sexton held his chin high. “Yes. I would transfer NASA’s current budget directly into our school systems if faced with that decision. I would vote for our children over space.”

The look on Marjorie Tench’s face was one of absolute shock. “I’m stunned. Did I hear you correctly? As president, you would act to abolish this nation’s space program?”

Sexton felt an anger simmering. Now Tench was putting words in his mouth. He tried to counter, but Tench was already talking.

“So you’re saying, senator, for the record, that you would do away with the agency that put men on the moon?”

“I am saying that the space race is over! Times have changed. NASA no longer plays a critical role in the lives of everyday Americans and yet we continue to fund them as though they do.”

“So you don’t think space is the future?”

“Obviously space is the future, but NASA is a dinosaur! Let the private sector explore space. American taxpayers shouldn’t have to open their wallets every time some Washington engineer wants to take a billion‑dollar photograph of Jupiter. Americans are tired of selling out their children’s future to fund an outdated agency that provides so little in return for its gargantuan costs!”

Tench sighed dramatically. “So little in return? With the exception perhaps of the SETI program, NASA has had enormous returns.”

Sexton was shocked that the mention of SETI had even escaped Tench’s lips. Major blunder. Thanks for reminding me. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was NASA’s most abysmal money pit ever. Although NASA had tried to give the project a facelift by renaming it “Origins” and shuffling some of its objectives, it was still the same losing gamble.

“Marjorie,” Sexton said, taking his opening, “I’ll address SETI only because you mention it.”

Oddly, Tench looked almost eager to hear this.

Sexton cleared his throat. “Most people are not aware that NASA has been looking for ET for thirty‑five years now. And it’s a pricey treasure hunt‑satellite dish arrays, huge transceivers, millions in salaries to scientists who sit in the dark and listen to blank tape. It’s an embarrassing waste of resources.”

“You’re saying there’s nothing up there?”

“I’m saying that if any other government agency had spent forty‑five million over thirty‑five years and had not produced one single result, they would have been axed a long time ago.” Sexton paused to let the gravity of the statement settle in. “After thirty‑five years, I think it’s pretty obvious we’re not going to find extraterrestrial life.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

Sexton rolled his eyes. “Oh, for heavens sake, Ms. Tench, if I’m wrong I’ll eat my hat.”

Marjorie Tench locked her jaundiced eyes on Senator Sexton. “I’ll remember you said that, senator.” She smiled for the first time. “I think we all will.”

Six miles away, inside the Oval Office, President Zach Herney turned off the television and poured himself a drink. As Marjorie Tench had promised, Senator Sexton had taken the bait‑hook, line, and sinker.