Week In Politics: Debt Ceiling

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: The confrontation over the debt ceiling and the federal deficit has been dominating the political talk of Washington this week. And I assume it will dominate our talk now with our political regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post, Brookings Institute): Hi.

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

SIEGEL: Start with E.J. and I'd like to hear from you as well, David. Do you see any prospect here of a budget deal, big or small? And failing that, is the failure to raise the debt ceiling actually conceivable?

MR. DIONNE: I still think they'll raise the debt ceiling. I think this week was about the democrats trying to turn Eric Cantor into Lord Voldemort. They failed in throwing an invisibility cloak over new revenues and President Obama's not doing a bad job at Harry Potter.

I think the Republicans are going to deeply regret the decision to walk away from the deal Speaker Boehner was trying to make because that would have been a huge cut in the deficit and it would have created all sorts of problems for President Obama with the Democratic base.

Now, I think that, you know, Cantor, the majority leader and his allies have to get something out of this, but I don't see what they can get out of it. I think a lot of Republicans now want to get out of this useless fight.

SIEGEL: David, what do you make of this?

MR. BROOKS: I sort of agree with E.J. If you had told me that a Democratic president would propose some Medicare cuts, some adjustment of Social Security - cost of living adjustment - and $1.4 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, I would've said, you're crazy, no Democrat will ever propose that. And then, if you had told me that Republicans would turn it down, I would've been amazed and yet, that's more or less what's happened.

Obama has gone straight to the center. He's done some serious cutting, asked for a little in return and Republicans haven't seized it. And I think they will regret it.

SIEGEL: They're saying all or nothing. We get everything we want or we (unintelligible).

Mr. DIONNE: Well, they've adopted a posture that has to be 100 percent spending cuts and zero percent tax increases, whereas the public is pretty clear. And Obama was right about this in the press conference today. The public is pretty happy with 85 percent spending cuts and 15 percent tax increases and that should be a great deal for Republicans. Again, I'm not sure why they don't take that deal.

Mr. BROOKS: And the public actually has been very sympathetic to 50/50 proposals with a lot more revenue. And I think the real problem the Republicans created for themselves is they really sent a signal that the only thing they care about are tax cuts, preserving tax cuts for very high income people and corporations. And this is not going to play well in the long run for them.

SIEGEL: David, to what extent is this impasse, do you think, about let's say tactical politics of who does how well in the 2012 election and who does how well in the polls, and to what extent is it actually about fundamental ideas about government and what the parties stand for?

Mr. BROOKS: It's about some fundamental ideas. One of the fundamental ideas is just lack of trust. One of the reasons the Republicans aren't willing to make a deal is they don't trust any of the spending cuts. They don't think they're real and they have some justification for that.

But fundamentally, it's about an unaffordable welfare state where we have aging populations, medical technologies driving - in Greece, in Western Europe, in Japan - driving all of these countries toward bankruptcy. How do we deal with that?

SIEGEL: And they, E.J., the Republicans, want the Democrats to put something on the table that addresses that problem, as they see it.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, the thing is, this is not an unaffordable welfare state. I was talking today to a European diplomat who's fairly conservative in his politics who said, you know, in Portugal, in Italy, in Greece, we have really big problems and very little room to maneuver. Here, our revenues are so low historically right now, our taxes are so low that there's room to increase taxes a fair amount, like half of a budget deal, without really hitting anyone very hard.

And yes, you do definitely need to contain health care costs, which, by the way, was the president's healthcare proposal was about. But I agree...

SIEGEL: And it doesn't seem to have been received that way.

Mr. DIONNE: No. And the Republicans ran against it in the last election. It is fundamental. It is about the role of government and whether we're gonna have a tax system that is a little bit more progressive.

SIEGEL: David, is anyone in this drama distinguishing himself or herself, either for better or worse, some star or some obvious demon here in this?

Mr. BROOKS: No stars. You know, the president, I think, has made at least in theory some concessions, but he hasn't produced a plan. And frankly, the center of gravity has moved away from the White House toward Congress. Essentially, I think, the American people are rightly taking a look at this and saying, they can't govern, these people can't govern. And that applies to Obama, it applies to Congress and so if they don't do it, there will be a strong - even stronger anti-incumbent movement.

SIEGEL: And one reality check: Can you conceive of a vote approving something here, a debt ceiling increase which in the House is mix of Democrats and Republicans with freshman Republicans voting no?

Mr. BROOKS: It's possible. Though, I think the most likely thing is they'll get what they call the Mitch McConnell deal, which commits nobody to anything. It's sort of a B-minus solution that kicks the can down the road.

SIEGEL: E.J.

Mr. DIONNE: See, I think the president in the last week really done an amazing job, having hung back for a while, in occupying the high ground. Because what he's got now are middle-of-the-road deficit hawks who are mad at him for not proposing cuts, saying, well, at least he was willing to do the big deal. And you have progressive Democrats able to defend him because they don't have to defend any specifics, because Boehner walked away from the deal.

And then I think you're going to have Mitch McConnell winning an award for an old-fashion canny politician who will try to gain some political advantage without solving the big problem.

SIEGEL: So, if not in these stars, maybe some strong supporting role performances, E.J.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah, exactly right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Okay. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Good to be here.

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