Week In Politics: Libya, Syria, Economy

Robert Siegel speaks with Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now to talk about politics are our regular weekly guest, columnist David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome, David.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And sitting in for E.J. Dionne this week, Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hi again.

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

SIEGEL: I'd like to start with Libya, where, as we just heard, John McCain made a visit today. The U.S. is now supplying drones, pilotless aircraft, that is, to the Libyan rebels, ostensibly to better protect civilian lives there. Is Washington guided by some clear policy in the Libyan crisis or just improvising?

And if there are policies guiding us, do they apply elsewhere? Say, Libya - to Syria. David Brooks, what do you think?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I think there's a policy. It doesn't have to do with the rebels so much. My conversations with the people in the administration are less - emphasize less what they call the defeat track, that the opposition would actually win, then the defection track - that people around Gadhafi would actually begin to defect.

And that's where I think the drones are interesting. They're a tough call because on the one hand, using drones in Libya, drones are really hated in the region. They're seen as a sign of imperial U.S. arrogance.

On the other hand, if you can threaten people around Gadhafi with the threat of, really, assassination, which is really what it's all about, maybe you can weaken the regime. Maybe they do act to depose Gadhafi. So I think the defection track is the more likely. And I do think there is a strategy. We don't know if it'll work, of course.

SIEGEL: And you're saying the point about the drones is they can be targeted at a very, very specific, narrow target.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. So if you're a Gadhafi lieutenant, you have to worry.

SIEGEL: Cynthia, what do you think about this?

Ms. TUCKER: I worry about mission creep. I worry that the drones do represent just what David said, a symbol of U.S. arrogance, which is the last thing we need more of in the Arab world. I worry about the money that we're spending at a time when many Americans are being told that there's not enough money for Medicaid, not enough money for unemployment benefits for the unemployed. Not enough money to preserve Head Start classes.

And I worry about the end game here, because I think that there will be constant pressure on the Obama administration to avoid what is being called a stalemate. You heard John McCain saying we need more American involvement. If Gadhafi doesn't leave quickly in the next couple of months, then what? I think that there will be constant pressure on the Obama administration to put more materiel, certainly, and more advisers on the ground as well.

SIEGEL: The McCain message there was pretty clear. These guys are my heroes. We should recognize them right away as the Libyan government.

Ms. TUCKER: I thought that that was - it was certainly well received among the rebel fighters, but the fact of the matter is we don't know who these forces are. I don't have any great fear that there are necessarily a whole lot of al-Qaida sympathizers. But they are disorganized. There's a lot of infighting here at the top, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is a bunch of Jeffersonian democrats.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to the economy. Now, The New York Times reports finding, in the latest Times/CBS News public opinion poll, and I quote, "what appears to be an abrupt change in attitude, the number of Americans who think the economy is getting worse has jumped 13 percentage points in just one month." David Brooks, what's happening?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. And I think that followed a couple months previously of a sharp drop. So, in the last three or four months, I think we've seen a drop in economic confidence. A lot of it has to do with gas prices. Gas prices are very powerful predictors. Other things have to do with just the lagging economy. And I think there's a political element here. I think the fact that people look at politics as the S&P analyst did this week and said, we really don't see a way out of this, that - I think that deepens the gloom, especially at a time, and I think this is underlying all our politics, when roughly 65 percent of Americans think we're in decline. So there's just a layer upon layer of gloom.

SIEGEL: A message for Washington, Cynthia Tucker?

Ms. TUCKER: There is a message for Washington. I agree with David that gas prices have a lot to do with the current feeling that the economy is getting worse. But I also do think that Americans see a dysfunctional Washington incapable of coming together to solve big problems. And politicians who talk about issues that are not the issues that people are talking about over their kitchen tables, necessarily.

SIEGEL: You mean like gas prices, for example.

Ms. TUCKER: Gas prices being an excellent example, but also deficit reduction. People understand that we have a major problem 10, 20 years out. But while we're worried about that, there are Americans saying, well, you know, the country could go bankrupt in 20 years. I could go bankrupt next week.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I also think they sense the structure of the debate hasn't changed. Democrats are sounding very much like Democrats, Republicans very much like Republicans. The debate is in its stagnant World War I trench warfare mode. And I think the president really wanted to and maybe could have really changed the underlying structure of the debate and that hasn't happened.

SIEGEL: And the decline in approval is not just for the president, it was dipped a little bit in the past few weeks, but Republicans in Congress as well, according to this poll.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. All institutions are really suffering. The president is sort of hovering. It's interesting, his economic policies are really unpopular. He's a little more popular than they are. Republicans are about - in Congress -Congress has always been terrible and it remains terrible.

And so, people don't have a sense that we have something. You know, I was in New York after the crime rate fell and people had a sense, oh yeah, the city is actually governable. I don't think people have that sense nationally right now.

SIEGEL: Here is a finding in that New York Times/CBS News poll. People were asked about raising taxes on those who make over $250,000 a year. That is, ending the Bush tax cuts for the well-to-do. The number who said, yeah, you should do that to help ease the deficit is 72 percent. That is not an insignificant number, but can Republicans in Washington just ignore that?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, so far it seems that they are. And while there's plenty of blame to go around here, one of the reasons that the deficit debate hasn't moved at all is because most Republicans have absolutely taken increasing taxes off the table.

It is hard to see how we move from where we are, how we get the deficit under control if you say no taxes are raised ever on anyone. And it is another sign of dysfunction, I think.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, though I would blame the American people a little here. I mean, they want to see other people pay to balance the budget. The poll today underlines, once again, they don't want it to have any pain for themselves. And so cutting defense is popular, raising taxes on the rich is popular. Everything else is unpopular. And unfortunately we really can't make much headway without doing that other stuff.

SIEGEL: And changing Medicare is sort of popular, sort of unpopular?

Mr. BROOKS: No, I think pretty unpopular. I mean that's - there is no education process that's been done by people in Washington or anywhere else to educate the American people about what needs to be done.

SIEGEL: OK. Well, have a good weekend, both of you.

Mr. BROOKS: You too.

Ms. TUCKER: You too.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and Cynthia Tucker.

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