Week In Politics: Deficit; GOP Presidential Field

Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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SIEGEL: With the debt ceiling debate at an impasse and lawmakers flirting with financial disaster, who's for real, who's posturing - and who might actually blink? Some good questions for our regular political observers, David Brooks of the New York Times, and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post and Brookings Institution): Good to see you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: First, David Brooks, you were the pessimist here last week. You said that you would expect significant defaults, crack-ups and a semi-government shutdown - I'm quoting right now. E.J., you expected they'd actually make a deal some time before early August.

So first, each of you - David first. With an added week of wisdom, does it still look the same way to you and who, if anybody, is stronger than somebody else in this argument?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I didn't even mention the explosion of planet Earth. Yeah, no, I'm still a long-term pessimist. I think there's a significant chance we'll have some default, we'll have a government shutdown, we'll have a real crisis within the next few months. I'm a short-term optimist, though. I don't think what happened this week was particularly bad.

SIEGEL: The walkout by congressman...

Mr. Brooks: The walkout...

SIEGEL: Cantor...

Mr. Brooks: ...was a necessary gesture. What the Republican needed -they needed Obama to get involved. They needed him to issue a public plan that he would publicly endorse because otherwise, the Republicans are afraid that they will make some tough votes, and then he'll walk out and leave them hanging.

So they needed him to take a step, and this gesture was really about making them take a step. The longer-term reason for pessimism is about taxes. Will Republicans accept any revenue increases? And that, I think, they still don't know the answer to.

SIEGEL: Is that a tough vote, or an absolutely impossible vote, for Republicans to make this year?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think for a third of the Republicans in the Senate and probably 60 percent in the House, it's an impossible vote. But there are a lot of Republicans in both bodies for whom it's a tough and terrible vote, but one they're willing to take.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, you're trying to be optimistic this week.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I do think there's posturing within posturing, and it's hard to sort out how many layers of costumes there are here. I think, this week, the Republicans walking out at this point was pretty irresponsible. They were actually making progress in identifying cuts. And it's very strange but actually, a pattern here - which is, Obama makes a lot of concessions to the Republicans. They pocket them and say bipartisanship is whatever we say it is.

Now, in the long run, I guess I'm optimistic only because I really don't think John Boehner wants to crack up the economy by missing the debt- ceiling deadline. And somehow, they're going to pull it out. But what happened this week doesn't make it easier. And I think the president is going to have to come out and start making a case for what it is he wants out of this deal. And really, he's going to have to

SIEGEL: Should he stand by tax increases? It's got to be a firm line that he supports?

Mr. DIONNE: Yes. I think he's got to say, you cannot do this without some increase in revenue and - because that's true. And it is the only way, I think, he's going to rally Democrats. Democrats in the Congress are very worried that he'll just agree to a slew of cuts without any tax increases at all.

Mr. BROOKS: He's got to do something. You know, I talked to Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, today. Whether you like what he did or not, he was governor; he said, I'm out front. I'm going to have a huge education campaign, town hall meetings, charts - here's my plan, and this is what I stand for. That is leading from the front.

The president has been remarkably passive on this issue for a long time, and I think it's hurt both parties.

SIEGEL: It's hard to project what the political consequences would be of a federal government default, if it came to that, because we have no experience of this. But does either side shape up to be the - especially - the winner, or the loser, if it comes to that?

Mr. BROOKS: One of the fascinating things about this whole deal is both parties think the political landscape is tilted in their favor. The Republicans believe, hey, the public does not want to raise the debt ceiling. This is our moment of leverage.

The Democrats believe, this is our moment of leverage. What we're going to do come August is, we're going to pay off our creditors but we'll send out letters to all PELL Grant recipients and Social Security recipients, saying: Sorry, we can't afford to pay you; it's those Republicans' fault.

So they think they have the advantage. I think the Democrats are actually a little more right on this.

Mr. DIONNE: I do think, however, that economic catastrophe - it happens under President Obama and therefore, he is likely to get more of the blame. And what you're seeing is a lot of nervous Democrats saying, why aren't we doing more to goose the economy? Economic pessimism is going up - not down, as they need it to before the election.

So you actually had Democrats in the Senate this week, essentially, accusing Republicans of trying to sabotage the economy. The Democrats want to have a payroll tax cut, want to extend the payroll tax cut. Republicans are resisting it. And Senator Chuck Schumer, in New York, actually went out there and said: It almost makes you wonder if they aren't trying to slow down the recovery for political gain.

I think you're going to see a lot more of that kind of argument.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, that's more or less an accusation of treason. You know, I don't think that's responsible. I was for a payroll cut when we needed a stimulus. Now, I think you'd have to have some long-term deficit reduction, or a promise of deficit reduction, to get a short-term payroll.

Mr. DIONNE: That's what they're trying to do. They're trying to get the payroll tax into a budget deal.

SIEGEL: In the minute remaining, I want to ask you about the presidential political field changing this week, the entry of Jon Huntsman. Is Jon Huntsman the fresh face the GOP has been waiting for? Or is he just - how you say, Fred Thompson 2012?

Mr. BROOKS: No, he's better than Fred Thompson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Fred Thompson didn't want to run for president.

SIEGEL: Everybody thought Fred Thompson was going to save the Republican Party.

Mr. DIONNE: They thought Fred Thompson was better than Fred Thompson.

Mr. BROOKS: You've got to have somebody who wants to run for president, not somebody whose wife wants him to run for president.

You know, Huntsman, I think, is going to surprise people because John McCain won, there are lots of independents, there are still a lot of moderates in the Republican Party. There's a path - maybe not for the nomination, but he will surprise people.

Mr. DIONNE: In New Hampshire, independents can vote in the Republican primary. In 2008, the independents were key to John McCain's victory, even though a lot of independents vote in the Democratic primary...

SIEGEL: Because there is the Democratic primary.

Mr. DIONNE: This time, there is no Democratic primary and so Huntsman, I think, can run a campaign that largely ignores the right wing of the party. Let everybody else fight for them. And he has, at least, an outside shot.

But I think David and I may be about two of the only people in Washington who think Huntsman has a chance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, we didn't have time this week to talk about Afghanistan. But we have another year to do so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: Or 'til 2014.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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