Week In Politics

Host Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to U.S. politics, and we begin with the continuing protests in Wisconsin. Republicans in the state assembly in Madison passed the budget-cutting bill that has drawn thousands of protesters to the state capitol building. Democratic state senators are still on the lam, preventing action on it in that chamber.

The most contentious provision of the bill reduces collective bargaining rights for some state employees. Here to talk about that and other matters are our political commentators, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to see you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: E.J., last week you called this, what's happening in Wisconsin, a hugely important fight. It's a week later, who's winning?

Mr. DIONNE: I think that the power is still with the governor and the Republicans. But I think the unions have done far better than they expected in public opinion. I think that it's proven to be much harder to demonize unionized public employees than conservatives expected.

I've thought about this. I love my kids' teachers in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. They're teachers for me, not unionized public employees. And I don't think they've been able to turn public employees into hate objects. They're cops and firefighters, teachers and nurses.

I think the other thing is they've succeeded in linking this to the general difficulties facing the middle class. I was talking to a pro-union person today who said, look, the other side says, oh, we love private sector unions. Well, but private sector unions have largely, if not been destroyed, been diminished to about seven percent of the workforce, so that average workers don't get the health care and the pension benefits they used to.

And now the conservatives are saying, well, the unionized public employees get these benefits, that's not fair, let's cut everybody's benefits. And so I think there's been some political success. It's still hard to see a path to the unions winning the fight in the legislature.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what do you think about that? Have the unions actually scored points with public opinion in this showdown?

Mr. BROOKS: There's anxiety on both sides, I guess I would say. I don't think it's a question of hating the teachers or firemen, I don't think anybody hates that. But it is a simple fact that some of the benefit packages - not so much the wages, the wages are pretty much in line - but the benefits packages are extremely generous and more importantly, unsustainable. And so it is simply a fact that the state-union relationship got out of whack, a little imbalanced and led to these unsustainable benefit packages.

So it has to be scaled back. And I think as this goes on, I hear a lot of Republican governors, not so much from Wisconsin, but elsewhere thinking, you know, why did they take this all-or-nothing approach? On the other hand, from the union side, I hear a lot of people are in cheer, that they're rallying, there's a sense of emotional support. On the other hand, a lot of people are deeply anxious they could still lose this thing.

SIEGEL: The Wisconsin thing doesn't appear headed for an obvious compromise. I mean, these people, everyone's very serious and not showing any budge here.

Mr. BROOKS: That's the elemental thing. This is not an all-or-nothing fight. It's a question of there's a relationship between the state and the unions and that probably needs to be adjusted. But why did it have to become all or nothing? And how do you move from an all-or-nothing mentality, which is now consuming both sides, to a deal?

Mr. DIONNE: But it's not consuming both sides. And I think that's why the governor is in some trouble. The unions basically gave up on all of the core economic demands. They said, all right, we got a budget crisis, we'll give in on the medical benefits. We'll give in on the pensions. Just take this other issue about our collective bargaining rights off the table. And the governor doesn't want to budge.

And so I think politically that's why he is in a difficult position because I think a lot of people agree with you, why don't they settle this?

Mr. BROOKS: Right. Well, I do agree with that. I do think Walker made a mistake in making it seem political and sort of evading punishing any of his own people. We do have this long process. We're going to have to cut for probably decades. And the central rule has to be we're all in it together, we all sacrifice together. He didn't really go that route.

SIEGEL: Well, is what's happening in Wisconsin the off-Broadway tryout for the big show that's coming to Washington sometime in March? Are we going to have a contentious shutdown here? What do you think, David?

Mr. BROOKS: I think not. I'm still of a mind we're not going to have a shutdown, in part because John Boehner is not Scott Walker. And Boehner is a dealmaker, the speaker of the House, and he is negotiating. He set this two-stage process where they're probably going to propose this continual resolution for a couple weeks filled with cuts that the president already more or less buys onto. And then the question will be, how much can he move the Obama administration, how much can he move his freshmen?

And from the freshmen I've spoken to, they really do want to cut the size of government quite a lot. But they're, when you get down to details, they're much more pragmatic than one might think. So I'm reasonably hopeful we'll avoid Armageddon.

SIEGEL: E.J., is that your read?

Mr. DIONNE: I think there's still a chance, you know, people will - as an economist friend of mine said today, people - World War I started even though both sides - all sides didn't really want to start it. And I was talking to a House Democrat at the center of this who said, yeah, everybody says nobody wants to shut down the government, but it's very hard to see a budget deal that could command a majority of Republicans in the House - and I don't think Boehner wants to pass this with a lot of Democratic votes - and a majority of the Senate.

I think you're seeing Senate Democrats move toward cuts, but it's not clear yet whether they can possibly agree to as many cuts as some of these freshmen actually want.

SIEGEL: David, yes?

Mr. BROOKS: No, there are some issues where it's either/or - funding Planned Parenthood, that's either/or. And the question will be, can there be some sort of psychological victory for the freshmen? And I guess I would just say the big difference between now and '95 is that Speaker Boehner is very different from Speaker Gingrich. Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, the leadership, they're very negotiation and deal-oriented.

SIEGEL: Although Planned Parenthood is not going to save billions for the government.

Mr. BROOKS: No, no. All these cuts are immaterial. They're all symbolic.

Mr. DIONNE: But I think Boehner is definitely deal-oriented. I think the rest of the leadership is a little tougher or more sympathetic to these younger members and I think the big mystery is, are these younger members really going to insist on a whole lot of cuts or can they see their way to compromise?

SIEGEL: Well, perhaps by next week we'll know more of the answer to that mystery and see what's unfolding in these Washington budget talks.

Thanks to E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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