Week In Politics

NPR's Robert Siegel speaks to Reihan Salam, a blogger at National Review and policy adviser at Economics 21; and Cynthia Tucker, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The lame-duck Congress has adjourned after its last-minute discovery of bipartisanship. President Obama is on vacation and so are E.J. Dionne and David Brooks.

So, here to reflect on not just the past week in politics, but on an extremely eventful political year, are Reihan Salam, who blogs at National Review and is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He's in our New York bureau.

Thank you for joining us once again.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Writer, "National Review"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And here in Washington, Cynthia Tucker, columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Good to see you here.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, "Atlanta Journal-Constitution"): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And journalism is often described as the first draft of history, and by the time we settle on judgments of what really mattered, there's a lot of erasing and amending and re-evaluating to do.

But if both of you had to sum up from this imperfect, immediate vantage point, what actually happened? What happened of meaning in 2010? Starting with you, Cynthia Tucker, what happened this past year?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, right here at the end of the year, Robert, many pundits have focused on portraying President Obama as the comeback kid. But if we had to look at the entire year, I'd have to focus on the Democrats' losses and say it was a year in which Democrats were doomed by a grim economy.

SIEGEL: Doomed by the economy.

Ms. TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: Stubborn unemployment rate, up in the high nines.

Ms. TUCKER: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Reihan Salam, how would you describe the year 2010?

Mr. SALAM: I'd say there's been a very encouraging revival among conservatives. When you consider the Bowles-Simpson proposals that came out at the tail-end of the year, there was a really impressive maturity on the part of a lot of folks - both from the Democratic center and also on the Republican right - about the scale of the fiscal challenges our country faces. So I do think of it as a very healthy and constructive turn.

SIEGEL: Cynthia Tucker, a lot of liberals looked at the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction proposals and didn't see maturity. They just saw a sharp turn to the right in those proposals.

Ms. TUCKER: Yes, they did. There was a lot of concern among liberals over two things. First, that there were so many cutbacks aimed at entitlement programs, such as Social Security. But the second thing was that many good Keynesians thought that with the economy as bad as it is, you don't focus on deficit reduction now. You focus on stimulating the economy, which may mean the government needs to spend more money not less.

But let me disagree with Reihan on the maturity of conservatives. There were certainly many conservatives out of office, who don't hold elective office, who had some very sensible proposals on cutting the deficit.

But Republicans in Congress don't seem that concerned about the deficit at all. If they were, I'm not sure they would have gone to the mat to preserve those massive tax cuts for the rich. There was nothing in Congress that showed me they were serious about cutting the deficit.

SIEGEL: Reihan, what did conservatives or Republicans make of the deficit in this odd year?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think it varies pretty dramatically. For example, you had guys like Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo - both rock-ribbed conservatives in the U.S. Senate - you know, coming to an agreement with people like Dick Durbin on the other side of the aisle.

You had Alice Rivlin, President Clinton's former budget director, working hand in hand with Paul Ryan, a conservative darling and also the forthcoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, on a plan to really revamp the way that Medicare works, to make that program more sustainable over the long term.

So while it's certainly true that not all conservatives see eye-to-eye on the deficit question, I think that there are a lot of people who are saying, wait a second, you have to go beyond just talking about tax cuts to thinking about how to make government work better, more efficiently, more effectively. And also, how to make these fiscal programs that a lot of vulnerable Americans depend on more sustainable, so that they don't have to be slashed and burned at some point in the medium-term future.

SIEGEL: Reihan Salam, I just want to put to you also what Cynthia Tucker said is the main story of the November elections, which was Barack Obama ran into a terrible economy and therefore the Democrats lost a lot. Was that the story to you or was there was anything bigger than public - economic pain, throwing the bums out in Washington? Was there something deeper happening on the right side of the ledger?

Mr. SALAM: I think that that was a definitely a big part of the story. But what's interesting is that this was a really comprehensive political shift. For example, when you look at state legislatures, Republicans won 680 seats. That is one of the biggest shifts in state legislatures that we've seen - it is the biggest, in fact.

The last big shift happened during the Watergate era, when Democrats made almost that many gains. And I think that that means that the Republican Party is going to be a different political party. It's going to have a bigger farm team. And when you're looking at the issues that states and local governments are facing, those are areas where a lot of future conservative policy makers are going to be cutting their teeth.

SIEGEL: Cynthia Tucker, you think that what looked to some like a Democratic era that began a couple of years ago indeed is going to be what Reihan Salam is now describing?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think that pundits ought to stop predicting any era, a liberal era, Democratic era, Republican era, because what I think we're going to see is a lot more instability. I think voters are a lot quicker to throw the bums out, whether they are on the right or on the left, Democrats or Republicans. So what we've seen is two or three historic wave elections in a row. And who knows, in a couple of years, we may see another wave election that throws out a lot of the Republicans who were just elected.

But on Reihan's point about state legislatures, it is true that Republicans made massive gains, which will be important to them because this is the year that the census was taken. And so, Republican governors and state legislatures will be in charge for redistricting in many states. But voters in those states were also responding to the economy. State budgets were being cut back. Teachers were losing their jobs. Unemployment rates were high. And so, the same thing that affected Democrats in Congress affected Democrats in state legislatures.

SIEGEL: You raise one other question. Theodore White, who wrote all of those Making of The President books years ago, inside looks at presidential politics, used to say that in the midterm elections the hands were dealt for the next presidential race and then you could start talking about it. So, Reihan Salam, who got the good hands for 2012 this last November?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that the economy is likely to recover. I certainly hope that it does. And I think that that is going to strengthen Barack Obama's hand. And it does seem as though - you know, he's always been a savvy politician and he might be able to play effectively off of a Republican Congress, but there are a number of Republican governors who've proved very effective.

One in particular, Mitch Daniels, is someone who has been making waves on a wide variety of issues, for example, recently calling for a criminal sentencing reform. He recently won a big majority for Republicans in his state house and he's planning on launching big initiatives on school reform that are planning to work with teachers rather than against them to make the system work much better.

He's really re-crafted that state, a kind of classic Midwestern swing state, the kind of state that Republicans have to win, in his own image, in his own very pragmatic image. And I imagine that, you know, while most of the media attention has been focused on folks like Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle or Sarah Palin, that Republican primary voters might be looking to a candidate who has demonstrated his executive experience and effectiveness in a state where he's had to win over a lot of Democrats.

SIEGEL: Cynthia Tucker, what do you think about who's been dealt a good hand for the next presidential year?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, no less a conservative leading light than Charles Krauthammer has written that he thinks that President Obama is in very good shape for 2012. I think that's probably true. The biggest diffic— President Obama has two things he has to look out for. If the economy doesn't improve, of course, he will be in trouble in 2012. But he is unlikely to get a challenge from the Democrats. His biggest threat might come from a man who was a Republican very briefly, Michael Bloomberg, were he to choose to run as an independent, but I don't think he will.

SIEGEL: Cynthia Tucker and Reihan Salam, thanks to both of you for talking about politics with us today.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

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