Week In Politics: Newtown, Fiscal Cliff, John Kerry

Robert Siegel speaks with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon. They discuss the Newtown, Conn., shootings, the fiscal cliff, and Sen. John Kerry's nomination to Secretary of State.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We have much to talk about in politics today and that's just what we're going to do now with E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and sitting in for the vacationing David Brooks, Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the story we just heard and not just the NRA announcement, but a week of talk about ways to prevent the kind of violence witnessed in Connecticut. E.J., one reading of Wayne LaPierre's comments and those of some other gun right defenders is that we're very unlikely to see any tough gun legislation passed by this Congress. What do you think?

DIONNE: I haven't given up yet. Maybe this is a little strong on my part, but I honestly think the NRA may have imploded today. That was one of the most tone deaf statements I've ever heard by a public figure after a major event. His biggest concern seemed to be how the media dealt with the NRA and an organization opposed to federal power wants to avoid doing anything about assault weapons by having the federal government mandate police in every school.

I mean, I am a pretty fierce opponent of the NRA, but I don't think that statement went down at all well with middle of the road Americans and I think that this time really is different. You've had pro-gun Democrats, certainly, say, wait a minute, we have to think again. You've had President Obama, who didn't want to move on this at all, making a series of very strong statements. I think there is an opening for a ban on assault weapons and the big magazines and background checks and some other measures that could make a real difference.

SIEGEL: Matt Continetti, do you think the killings of the kindergarteners were a watershed on the right and that the idea of, say, more guns in schools in the hands of good guys is an idea with traction among conservatives?

CONTINETTI: Well, I think the idea of having armed guards in schools is something that not only has traction with conservatives, it may actually end up having traction with PTA boards. You never know how people are going to react to the situation like we saw in Newtown. And you may just actually see people, parents themselves with students, calling for more armed people in public schools.

I would say it's not just E.J. who responded negatively to the press conference, but I think there are many gun owners in America who did not see that statement by the NRA as something that they were hoping for. We shouldn't forget that I think for most of this week, the NRA had responded relatively intelligently to the attacks. They were restrained. They didn't make any bombastic pronouncements.

They were kind of leaning back, waiting to see how the situation developed and their first public response was kind of this full on assault on the so-called political class and liberal media. I think there would be some backfire not only from liberals, but also from within the NRA board, for example, about the tenor of this speech.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about something else, the fiscal cliff and John Boehner. This week, it looked like Boehner and President Obama were within shouting distance of a deal to reduce the deficit, a deal of a couple of trillion dollars over a decade. Then the speaker proposed his Plan B, essentially preserving the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone who makes less than a million dollars.

He said it would pass. Majority Leader Eric Cantor said they had the votes. And then it was pulled. Matt Continetti, what's the political lead of that story? What just happened last night?

CONTINETTI: Well, I think what's happening is something that's very similar to what happened in 2008 with the passage of the TARP Bill. It's the same thing that happened last spring with the debate over the continuing resolution to fund the government, the same thing that happened last summer, summer of 2011, about the debt ceiling fight.

Conservative Republicans are not going to agree to any tax increases until some type of cost is exacted on them. In each of those three situations I mentioned, the conservatives and some kind of mainstream Republicans were intransigent until the markets turned against the United States, until we lost our credit rating, for example, and then finally some type of deal was cobbled together. We'll see the same thing after.

SIEGEL: John Boehner thought he had it, though. Is he finished, essentially, right now as speaker of the House?

CONTINETTI: I don't believe he's finished. I mean, he won most of his caucus.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think that this raised profound questions about whether the Republicans in the House are serious about governing because you have seen this over and over again. But even conservatives, I have been reading over the last 12 hours, have said that if the conservatives aren't willing to deal with revenue in any way, they are really taking themselves out of the negotiations.

Obama's deal was a good deal for Boehner. A lot of liberals didn't like significant elements of that deal. He gave in some on taxes. He had - he changed the indexing of Social Security. Boehner could have declared that a victory, and he might have gotten some help in doing that from liberals who were unhappy. Instead, they threw...

SIEGEL: But can he afford to take a bill to the House that is passed by a minority of Republicans and a lot of Democrats?

DIONNE: I think that's the only way out of this. I think what this showed - and I think it's the right question - I think what this showed is that the only way we're going to govern ourselves is with a coalition of Democrats and those Republicans who aren't in the Tea Party who actually understand that in divided government, you need compromise.

CONTINETTI: Yeah, I would only say, I mean, the other option is just simply going over the cliff. And then, of course, it makes the position of conservative Republicans much easier, as well, because any vote then they take will be a vote to cut taxes.

SIEGEL: Everything's a tax cut at that point.

CONTINETTI: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Finally, Senator John Kerry was nominated for secretary of state, and former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is evidently considered a possible defense secretary, appears to be in Susan Rice land. He's under attack for past comments, in this case about the Israel lobby and gays, even though he hasn't been nominated for anything.

Are we in a new era of nominations, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I won't steal it because Matt has invented a new word for this, but the - well, I'll credit him with the word. He's talking about people getting Riced.

SIEGEL: Riced.

DIONNE: In that, you know, you float the name out there, it gets shot at, in Rice's case I think on so many grounds unfairly. Then the nomination is withdrawn and you go to somebody else. It shouldn't take away from Kerry. Kerry is very qualified for this job. But the process is pretty ugly right now.

SIEGEL: But Matt, being Riced includes having commercials against you on cable television, at least in the Washington area.

CONTINETTI: In the case of Chuck Hagel, that's certainly true. I mean, this is a failure of the Obama administration to handle this process. You know, when you nominate someone, you need to be affirmative about it, you need to get out there now because of the 24-hour news cycle, and you need to have a defense prepared right away.

SIEGEL: A pre-defense. Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Beacon, sitting in for David Brooks; E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CONTINETTI: Thank you.

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