Little Harmony In The Debt Deal Dance

The deadline on a debt deal looms, with no compromise in sight. Many rank and file House Republicans trashed Speaker John Boehner's plan, and a proposal in the Senate has little support in the House. Host Neal Conan and political junkie Ken Rudin talk with political analyst David Gergen.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Boehner digs in, the CBO is two and O, and the president just wants a phone call. It's Wednesday and time for a...

President BARACK OBAMA: Very intense negotiations...

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

President GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

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CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. Looming catastrophe. Oregon Democrat David Wu will resign after the debt issue is resolved, following allegations of sexual misconduct. Financial Armageddon, the ballot set for the Iowa straw poll, interesting who's not on it. Countdown to crisis.

One more Blue Dog Democrat calls it quits: Mike Ross in Arkansas. Full faith and credit. Jon Huntsman's campaign manager calls it quits, and the campaign might slide off the moral high ground. Oh, and the debt ceiling.

In a few moments, we'll speak with former presidential advisor David Gergen about topic A, the lost art of compromise. And later in the program, we want to hear your stories about stays or visits to Walter Reed Army Hospital as it's set to close. You can email us now, talk@npr.org.

But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And we begin as we always do with a trivia question. Ken?

KEN RUDIN: Hi Neal. You forgot to mention the most important thing of the news, the news of the week.

CONAN: That's true. There's a ScuttleButton. It's back.

RUDIN: That's correct, on the TALK OF THE NATION website.

CONAN: Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

RUDIN: I will. I'll be right back. I'll see you later. Okay, but before I do that, as we discussed last week, Democrats in Massachusetts are trying to get Elizabeth Warren to run for the Senate, the Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown. We'll talk about some Senate races in a few minutes.

But I should point out also that Massachusetts has never elected a woman to the Senate or the governorship in Massachusetts. And that's true of many states. But of that list, which state has the greatest population?

CONAN: And so if you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the...

RUDIN: Can you remind me again what the...

CONAN: Most populous state never to elect a woman either governor or to the United States Senate. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Ken, didn't some people in Massachusetts think they were going to do that last year?

RUDIN: Well, they certainly did with Martha Coakley, and of course the Democrats took that seat for granted. Nobody ever heard of Scott Brown except for the people who write Cosmopolitan magazine. He was a pinup, you know, like 10 years before that. But he won Ted Kennedy's seat, the seat that Ted Kennedy had almost for 50 years, and the Democrats obviously will be prepared in 2012. The question is whether they can beat Scott Brown and his $10 million war chest.

CONAN: In the meantime, it looks like there will soon be another opening in the House of Representatives, this time in Oregon.

RUDIN: Wu's woes, exactly. David Wu, who's always been in trouble. I mean, he's always talked - they always kept talking about eccentric behavior. There was an issue that came up in the 2010 campaign. Nobody ever actually described what that eccentric behavior was.

CONAN: Except for the picture of him in the tiger suit.

RUDIN: Well, look, that's how I got my job at NPR. But the thing is with the Portland Oregonian released news this week that the 18-year-old daughter of a good friend of David Wu's and a campaign donor, she and 56-year-old Congressman Wu had a sexual - an unwanted sexual encounter.

CONAN: She called distraught.

RUDIN: Distraught, exactly. And so David Wu, once this came out, said okay, I'm not going to run for re-election in 2012, and the Democrats said uh-huh, that's not good enough. So he announced he's going to resign from Congress as soon as the debt crisis problem has been resolved, so that could be anywhere between four and five years from now.

CONAN: And that seat, however, if he leaves it, there will be a special election. That's a Democratic lock, isn't it?

RUDIN: It is. There have been some close races over the last couple years, but the last Republican to win that seat, as you well remember, was Wendell Wyatt, you wabbit, in 1972. So the Democrats look good or confident of holding that seat.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have - the list has been locked in of candidates for the Iowa straw poll coming up in just a couple of weeks now.

RUDIN: Right, August 13th, and everybody that you could think of is on it: Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman...

CONAN: Wait a minute. I can think of some more.

RUDIN: Well, exactly. There's one that you - well, I mean, Republicans, certainly. But you have Romney, you have Huntsman, you have Newt Gingrich. You have Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and of course Thad McCotter.

CONAN: Thad McCotter?

RUDIN: Yes, we'd be very sad if he wasn't on the list. But no Rick Perry and no Sarah Palin, not a surprise with Palin. Rick Perry, of course, is talking about running, but obviously he would not get in the race before August 13.

CONAN: The signs, the entrails have been pointing more towards Perry's entry into the race of late.

RUDIN: And you know something? He could make a big difference. We keep talking about how Michele Bachmann has clearly over-shown Tim Pawlenty, who was basing his whole campaign in Iowa and Michele Bachmann now seems to be the candidate to beat, at least in the Iowa straw poll.

But then it's very possible that Rick Perry, with his strong connections to Tea Party activists - I mean, he was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party basically, very strong with evangelical conservatives. You know, Rick Perry could be the flavor of the month whenever he does get in the race, which could be as early as September.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is again the most populous state never to have elected a woman to the United States Senate or to the governorship, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Gary's(ph) on the line, Gary with us from St. Louis.

GARY: Oh, I think I'm wrong.

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CONAN: What gives you that impression?

GARY: After I thought about it, I was getting ready to say California.

CONAN: California is the most populous state in the nation.

RUDIN: Except for the fact that they have two female senators right now, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

GARY: Right, right, right.

CONAN: Thanks very much. All right, let's see if we can go next to - this is Bob(ph), Bob with us from Roscoe, Illinois.

BOB: Gentlemen, my guess is Florida.

RUDIN: Well, Florida is an incorrect guess because Paula Hawkins, Republican, was elected to the Senate in 1980, served one term. So there was a female senator in Florida.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Dick(ph), and Dick's on the line from Tallahassee.

DICK: Yeah, I think it's Georgia.

RUDIN: Well, Georgia is a very good guess. There has been one female senator, who was not elected. But I'm looking for a state with more population than Georgia.

CONAN: Georgia would count because it was an unelected senator.

RUDIN: Right, no elected women to the Senate or the governorship but looking for more...

CONAN: More populous state. Okay, let's see if we can go next to - this is Paul(ph), Paul with us from Ann Arbor.

PAUL: Hi, yeah, my guess would be the state of Ohio.

RUDIN: Ohio is a very good guess because they've never elected a woman to the Senate or the governorship, but I'm looking for a state with actually more...

CONAN: Even more people than Ohio. It's hard to imagine more people than Ohio.

RUDIN: Ohio is a very good guess.

CONAN: Okay, let's see if we can go next to - this is Joe(ph), and Joe's with us from Norfolk.

JOE: Yes, hi. I think I'm right, by the way.

RUDIN: We'll see about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We'll be the judge of that.

JOE: I went through the big states, and I came down to Pennsylvania.

CONAN: The Keystone State.

RUDIN: That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding. Congratulations, Joe.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Stay on the line, and we will take down your particulars and send you off a political junkie no-prize T-shirt in exchange for your promise to take a digital picture of yourself so we can post it, in the T-shirt, of course, on the Wall of Shame.

JOE: Will do, thank you so much.

CONAN: Thanks very much, congratulations again.

RUDIN: Women have come close in Pennsylvania. Lynn Yeakel almost beat Arlen Specter in '92, the year of the woman, but Pennsylvania never elected a woman to the governorship or the Senate.

CONAN: In the meantime, we were talking about the candidates on the ballot for the Iowa straw poll, among them Jon Huntsman but Jon Huntsman having some difficulties with his campaign.

RUDIN: Well, you know, there was tremendous promise. They thought he would make a big difference once he got in. When he first announced his candidacy, he said he would be a candidate of civility. Well, he was so civil that nobody paid attention to him. He lost his campaign manager this week. He couldn't find her anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: How careless of him.

RUDIN: He didn't check under the bed. That's where I always find everything. She resigned. I think they want a new - they want to go in an absolute new direction. They want to be more aggressive, and you've seen Huntsman in the last couple of days be much more aggressive against, for example, Mitt Romney, comparing Huntsman's record as governor of Utah and comparing it to Romney's record in Massachusetts.

CONAN: And we promised to talk more about some Senate races. The conservative group Crossroads GPS has a new ad out that targets five Democratic senators. Here's the one, the version of this ad that's targeted against Florida's Bill Nelson.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're paying double for gas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: More for grocery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Our homes are worth less. More people are out of work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And we can't save for retirement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But instead of fixing our economy...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Politicians like Bill Nelson...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Voted for billions in new taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And racked up trillions in crushing debt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now President Obama wants to continue the reckless spending.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: And raise taxes even higher.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And that costs us more jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tell Senator Bill Nelson no more blank checks.

CONAN: And that name changes in the versions of the ads playing in Missouri and Montana and Ohio, and of course the full Nelsons because it's running in Nebraska, too.

RUDIN: Right, right, Ben Nelson, right, exactly. I don't know how vulnerable Bill Nelson is, but, you know, again, it also depends on what the political mood is in Florida. But like Florida, like Ohio, 2010 were humongous Republican years, Republicans winning almost everything in sight. The question is whether Republicans can get together and rally behind a candidate to beat Bill Nelson.

I suspect that other Democrats, perhaps Claire McCaskill, perhaps Jon Tester in Montana, may be more vulnerable than Bill Nelson.

CONAN: And in Ohio, Sherrod Brown, some people think he would be tough to beat.

RUDIN: Well, you know, I think he is going to be tough to beat. He won overwhelmingly in 2006 when he knocked out Mike DeWine, but Josh Mandel, the state treasurer, is raising a ton of money. You know, we talk about the Republicans running for president have not raised that much money. Republican Senate candidates have had that problem, too. But that's not the case with Josh Mandel in Ohio raising a lot of money.

And again, depending on the mood of the electorate, it could be a close race.

CONAN: In Virginia, interestingly, Tim Kaine, the Democrat, out-raising George Allen, the former governor and senator. In the meantime, we have another Blue Dog Democrat who's leaving to, well, maybe run for the governorship in Arkansas.

RUDIN: Right, that's Mike Ross. And what's interesting about Mike Ross is the fact that of the four members of the Congress in Arkansas, he's the only Democrat, and that's never happened before in their history. It's such an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Mike Ross announcing he won't run for re-election but is likely to run for governor in 2014.

CONAN: And in the meantime, we have two political figures of the past who we have to remember this week, Charles Manatt and Bruce Sundlun, the former two-time governor of Rhode Island.

RUDIN: Right, Charles Manatt very interesting guy. He was, after Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980, nobody wanted to be Democratic national chairman. Charles Manatt took it up. He raised a lot of money, got the party out of debt, and he got a lot of the Democrats elected to office in 1982.

And he was so successful that as DNC chair, Walter Mondale carried the state of Minnesota in the 1984 presidential race.

CONAN: So influential. Bruce Sundlun a more colorful character.

RUDIN: He was very colorful, married five times, a two-term governor of Rhode Island but a five-time to the altar. And one thing that was interesting about his past is that his daughter, conceived out of an extramarital affair, had to sue Bruce Sundlun to be recognized as his daughter.

CONAN: And he agreed to pay her way through college, and it all ended happily. We're talking with political junkie Ken Rudin. Up next, former presidential advisor David Gergen on the debt talks. We'll see if those end up happily. And the lost art of compromise. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, and political junkie Ken Rudin is with us, as usual, and ScuttleButton nears. If you've missed it, it's back, but you have to go to the TALK OF THE NATION website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION

In the meantime, six days and counting to the deadline for a deal to raise the debt ceiling. It must be close. The cable channels have their countdown clocks ticking away. Still no signs of movement or compromise from either side. Speaker John Boehner faces revolt within his own party in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, Harry Reid's plan in the Senate has little hope of going anywhere in the House. Compromise, it seems, is now a four-letter word. Joining us from a studio at Harvard University to talk about the lost art of compromise is David Gergen, an advisor to four presidents, Republicans and Democrats. He now directs the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and of course you get to see him from time to time on CNN. David Gergen, nice to have you with us.

DAVID GERGEN: Neal, it's good to talk to you again.

CONAN: And you saw the debt ceiling raised dozens of times when you were in the White House at various times. Have you ever seen anything like this?

GERGEN: No, it was barely - you know, it barely had a ripple in the White House. There were occasions when there was a concern to round up votes, and notably a Republican president like Ronald Reagan, a strong conservative, wrote letters to members of the Congress saying you have to do this for the good of the nation, and they did.

CONAN: And they did. That was - I think President Obama quoted President Reagan on that point. He also quoted President Reagan on the point of if you care about this, call your congressman and tell him so, and the phone lines burned up, and the Facebook pages shut down.

GERGEN: They did, and, you know, it's - in fairness, not all those calls were on the president's favor. Some were asking conservatives to hold the line. But the calls did go up, about double the number that were coming in.

And the president was trying to rally the country behind this. I frankly think we're increasingly at the point where this is going to require an inside negotiation. But - and I'm - I remain somewhat hopeful that we will avoid a default. I am more pessimistic about the prospects of a downgrade in our credit rating. We can come to that.

CONAN: All right, those two things are definitely connected because it's unlikely at this point that any plan - and it looks like it may end up being a short-term plan - is going to cut enough of the deficit to please Moody's and Standard and Poor's.

GERGEN: That's exactly right, especially Standard and Poor's. And there is - I was just in Washington earlier in the week, and there was a growing sense that whatever we do on the deficits, it won't be enough. And we may be - you know, frankly, I think the country has reason to be angry.

This could be the first generation of political leaders who have squandered our national credit rating.

CONAN: In the meantime, the rhetoric is just - well, it's heated. It's beyond heated. Here's Speaker John Boehner on "Fox News Sunday" who says the president's timing is, well, all about the president.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER: I know the president is worried about his next election, but my God, shouldn't we be worried about the country?

CONAN: Shouldn't we be worried about the country, as if John Boehner's not counting politics in this, too.

GERGEN: Well, sure, and, you know, if you talk to people in the White House, they'll say look, you know, Mitch McConnell made it very clear a few weeks ago that his number one goal as Senate majority leader was to bring down this president and to end his presidency. So there's strong feelings on both sides.

But I think from a national perspective, Neal, I cannot remember a time when the problems facing a country seemed as big, and the capacity of our politicians to solve them seemed so small. It is - it has been extremely distressing to watch this unfold, the disappearance of the middle in our politics, the disappearance of statesmen, people who saw themselves as statesmen.

You know, we're overwhelmed by people who are more interested in scoring political points on television, rhetorical points or - and have agendas that are rooted in, you know, a view of the world, but they're unwilling to see the other guy's point of view and to put themselves in the other person's shoes and to recognize this is a big, diverse, sprawling country with lots of different perspectives and lots of different needs, and the only way we ever more forward is together.

You know, Benjamin Franklin said, as you well remember, we are...

CONAN: We had him on the show last week.

GERGEN: We must move - we are going to all hang together, or we're going to all hang separately.

CONAN: What you were just talking about, different world views, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he can't make any friends up at the executive mansion.

Representative ERIC CANTOR: I've been through this before with the president when we were discussing the stimulus bill. The president doesn't like people who differ with him on policy grounds. I saw that in the White House. We just come from different worldviews.

CONAN: And there is also an aspect of this president, that sort of lecturing, professorial tone he took on Friday night, after he said I've been left at the altar, that drives people crazy.

GERGEN: That's especially true on the conservative side, but you find some moderates who agree with him on the policy but still find it grating. And, you know, I don't think this is the time to apportion blame so much as I - it's really time to sort of figure out okay, where do we go from here.

And the most important thing right now in the next few days is to calm ourselves, to stay steady and to not panic. As we get closer to this, there is - the chatter is becoming so intense that one worries we're not going to come out of it very well.

It's just - it's a little bit, Neal, I've been thinking about this, a little bit like being on a boat above Niagara Falls. The closer you get to the edge, the greater the danger is you'll be swept over.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: David, you worked with at least two presidents who believed in compromise, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and we saw that with many of their successes in their presidency. Let's say I'm a Tea Party candidate, Republican who was elected in 2010, tired of politics as usual, tired of the compromising that led to this tremendous deficit to begin with.

If I vowed to my constituents that I am not going to raise the debt limit without corresponding cuts in spending...

CONAN: And a balanced budget amendment.

RUDIN: And balanced budget, then how do I, how do I deal with that promise without violating, violating what I promised in 2010?

GERGEN: You know, there are times when the country comes before the individual. And if you're going to lost over that, you lose over that. George H.W. Bush, as you well recall, said read my lips, no new taxes at his convention. And he found that he had to break that promise. He had to sign on some taxes in order to get the deficits under better control.

RUDIN: And he paid for it.

GERGEN: He paid for it, but it was the right thing to do. It was the courageous thing to do, and, you know, it's - the mistake as his people recognized was in taking the pledge not in doing what he did on taxes.

I think most - if you'll talk to governors around the country, you talk to a Haley Barbour, a Republican governor, or a Chris Christie...

CONAN: He was on the show last week, yeah.

GERGEN: Right, and they'll tell you it's important to say here's what I'm against. I'm against new taxes. But if you come to me with a deal that says I'm going to cut three or four dollars of spending for every one dollar in taxes, that's a pretty darn good deal, and you take it.

Reagan faced that situation on numerous times. I was there with him when we went through the first major tax cut, and he vowed not to - you know, he said I'm really against taxes except as a last resort. And you know what? He accepted tax increases I think seven times thereafter.

Small, they were, but they - it - and Reagan - here's the conservative icon. You know, when he, when he was governor of California, he made a vow like this, and he went in front of the public and said that sound you hear is the concrete cracking under my feet. We have got to do this for the sake of California.

That's the kind of leader he was, and that's why he was so effective as a leader. And this notion that you take a pledge from Grover Norquist and that binds you forever and ever is nuts.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Yeah, I was going to say that it looked like - as you were saying, John Boehner looked very willing to accept a deal three times as many spending cuts as there was for revenue enhancement, and yet he had to be pulled away because his caucus pulled him away from it.

GERGEN: Well, yeah, but in fairness, you know, Boehner was facing a situation where, you know, as he was negotiating with President Obama, they thought they were very close to a deal. And then the Gang of Six came out with its recommendations, which the president immediately embraced.

But the problem was the Gang of Six had a lot higher taxes in it than did the Boehner agreement with the president. It accepted a lot higher taxes. So they were suddenly in a situation where Republicans on the Gang of Six had accepted much higher taxes than Boehner had.

That put the White House in a very awkward position. They had to come back and say we've got to add some taxes into this. You can't have - we can't have Republicans out there, after all, out-flanking us on something we believe in.

And history may record, when we know the full story, that Boehner and the president might have gotten a deal had it not been for the Gang of Six. It's a very interesting - I always thought that the Gang of Six was playing a very constructive role. I praised them a lot. But it may have been that their timing - we may learn over time, if we really get the inside story, that it may well have been we were very close to a deal that slipped away from us.

CONAN: Mechanically, how is this going to happen in the time available? Something has to go through the United States Senate, and you have been frustrated, I'm sure, many times by the amount of time something can take to get through the Senate. And any one person can hold this up.

GERGEN: Well, they can. Ken, I'm not sure where you come out on this. I'd love to hear. Neal, I'm - the reason I'm a little optimistic is, look, I think that we've got two plans obviously that are now on the floor. One is from the Republican plan from Boehner. The other is the Democratic plan from Reid.

The prospects of getting the Boehner plan through the House seemed very dim yesterday. Today they seem to be improving, although it's going to be a close call. So - but even so, neither plan is going to survive both houses. Everybody recognizes that.

So the question becomes after we consume several days this week around these two plans that aren't going anywhere ultimately, what's the negotiation for the next compromise, for Plan B, or maybe it's C or D or F. Who's counting? But the next plan.

And I'm encouraged that there are quiet conversations among the leaders on Capitol Hill. They're talking to each other a lot more than they're talking to the president. I'm encouraged that there are these quiet talks going on and the search of that plan, I'm encouraged that the Boehner and the Reid plans are actually closer together than many people think.

It might be possible to blend them in some fashion. And finally, I'm encouraged that there may be a little more time available than we first thought, partly because the government has more revenue that's come in unexpected. You've been hearing these reports that they might have five or six more days beyond August 2nd. Partly because I think if they do get into a serious negotiation over the backup plan, I think the White House may be more open than anybody thinks to an extension of some sort, maybe even a couple of weeks, to allow those negotiations to be completed and go through the parliamentary rigmarole that you have to go through to get a bill.

CONAN: The - neither plan, the Boehner plan nor the Reid plan contains any new revenues in it. It is all spending cuts. It may vary somewhat on the timing and how much they cut, but you are going to hear howls from Democrats on the left, the progressive Democrats, saying where is the fairness here?

GERGEN: I agree with that totally. And I keep wondering because the president's speech the other night kept talking about tax increases when neither one of these plans, as you just said, Neal, contains tax increases. And I kept wondering: I wonder if in the back of his mind, the president thinks if maybe we can go back to Boehner and resurrect that deal that they were talking about before, you know, people starting changing the stakes and started changing the goalpost.

What if they went back to - is that his ultimate game plan, to go back to Boehner? Everything else has failed, John. Why don't we go back and try the grand bargain that you and I were originally talking about, and I'll drop my extra demands for extra taxes and all the rest of it. But Boehner was signing off after $800 billion of new tax revenues.

CONAN: Except, as Ken pointed out, he was having problems with his own caucus at that point...

GERGEN: He will.

CONAN: ...and that...

GERGEN: He will.

CONAN: And that would be a bill he would have to put through with maybe a majority, maybe a majority of the Republicans in the House and a lot of Democrats.

GERGEN: Well, if you've got $800 billion in that bill, it would be - well, a heck of a lot easier for Nancy Pelosi to bring along a lot of Democrats, and then, you wouldn't have to get a majority of the Republicans. You can do it with a smaller number and get it through the House. I'm not saying it's going to happen. I'm just saying that there are some alternatives out there.

I - again, I think the situation is not as awful on the default. I sort of think we're going to get there. I think the odds are like 55-45 now that we'll get there and avoid a default. I - what I worry about a lot is, I think the odds are going very high that our debt is going to be downgraded because whatever emerges is going to be too small for Standard & Poor's.

CONAN: We're talking with David Gergen, former adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, and senior analyst for CNN. Of course, political junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, David, the Republican presidential candidates are not assisting any slide towards compromise.

GERGEN: Isn't that - boy, isn't that the case? You know, you'd think this would be moment for statesmanship because what the 2012 election is going to revolve around now to a higher - to a much higher degree than we anticipated is, OK, we haven't solved all this debt problem. Which of these two candidates, President Obama or the Republican nominee, do you want in the White House over the next four years as we fight through the really tough issues over entitlements and over taxes?

And if the Republicans paint themselves as candidates, the people searching for that Republican nomination way over to the right on this is going to give the president, despite all his flaws and all the misgivings people have about him, it's going to give him a very definite leg up. So I've been particularly surprised that Governor Romney has played - has been so much on the sidelines, has not lent his weight to trying to find a constructive solution because he is the frontrunner on the Republican side.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: David, if this thing is resolved by August 2nd or in the immediate days afterwards and goes away as an issue - does it go away as an issue? Does it - do the voters forget about this, or does this have lasting political consequences?

GERGEN: Oh, I think this has real scars, don't you?

RUDIN: Yeah.

GERGEN: I don't know how you feel about it, but I - the disgust level in the country is very high...

RUDIN: It is.

GERGEN: ...and people are sort of, you know, a pox on both your houses. I - and I - we were just hearing the latest numbers on the economy. The manufacturing was down five times more than Congress thought. We've just heard here on TALK OF THE NATION the job situation is very darn serious. I talked to someone who was a big CEO and is a huge, huge figure in this whole competitiveness issue for the country.

And he said I'm really worried that we're just going to be - we're in a L-shaped job recession. We went down, and we're going to flat-line. It's going to be really, really hard to get jobs to come back. All of that you roll to go to this debt, you know, stuff, the sense of political crisis, the potential loss of our credit rating, jobs being - not coming back, low growth. You roll all that together, and this is going to be a very unhappy electorate, and they're going to take it out on somebody. I don't know who.

CONAN: And just all of that bad news rolled in with skittishness over the debt ceiling. Dow Jones Industrial Average down 147 points today, not the freefall that a lot of people are predicting would happen if this debt ceiling - if we break through it and there's no deal. But, David Gergen, as you talk about that anger in the country, still, I think most people are talking that the issue in most people's minds is still jobs.

GERGEN: It's still jobs. It's - as it should be. I mean, that's where people are really suffering. We've had, you know, the - what's happened to the middle class in terms of loss of jobs and stagnation in incomes is, you know, it's the worst we've seen in our lifetimes. And we - since - we had a job machine in this country that was turning out 20 million new jobs in the 1980s, another 20 million new jobs in the 1990s. Reagan years, Clinton years, take your president, but they're - one side or the other. Both there, 20 million new jobs.

And now, the last 10 years, zero growth in new jobs. Under President Obama, the only new jobs now that we've created have been part-time jobs and, you know, what they pay? They pay on average $19,000 a year. That is a serious situation for most Americans, and no wonder they're concerned about it, as they should be. Europe is in trouble on this issue. We - this is a - these are very serious times, and we need grownups. We need adults who are real statesmen and remember the traditions when - and all of us have lived to see that.

We're not so old. We haven't - we forget that when a Reagan and a Tip O'Neill were in Washington, one was a strong conservative, and the other a strong Democrat. They can still work together and get deals done, and there was an affection between the two of them.

CONAN: At a time we need grownups, what do we have? Ken Rudin.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERGEN: Ken Rudin, terrific.

CONAN: David Gergen, thank you very much for your time today.

GERGEN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: David Gergen, former presidential adviser, now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Our favorite grownup Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday as usual. Oh, that ScuttleButton...

RUDIN: A grownups ScuttleButton.

CONAN: A grownups ScuttleButton puzzle at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Coming up, we're going to be talking about the history of Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, which is closing formally as of today. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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