Week In Politics: State Of The Union, Chuck Hagel

Robert Siegel speaks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and syndicated columnist Mona Charen. The discuss the State of the Union, and Chuck Hagel's nomination for defense secretary.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The voting commission was just one of President Obama's State of the Union proposals. For more on the State of the Union and its aftermath, not to mention the state of the Chuck Hagel nomination, joining me are columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you again.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And sitting in for David Brooks this week, syndicated columnist Mona Charen. Hello, Mona.

MONA CHAREN: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the State of the Union, which you've both written about and, not surprisingly, you reviewed very differently. Mona, you wrote a column that said this, the lesson from the State of the Union address is this: Barack Obama has no second term agenda. What was a strikingly bad proposal in your view in that State of the Union?

CHAREN: Oh, there were a couple. There was the minimum wage, raising the minimum wage is something pulled out of a 1970's bag of ideas. We know from the surveys and the research that though it may seem like you're doing the poor a favor by raising the minimum wage, in point of fact, only fewer than 1 percent of people who get the minimum wage are actually full-time workers.

It's mostly for teenagers and every time you raise the minimum wage, a certain percentage of people will lose their jobs altogether. And these are entry level jobs that are the first rung on the ladder for the poor. And so it really - it seems to be something good for the poor, but it's actually not.

SIEGEL: And E.J., very differently, you wrote that you heard in the State of the Union Address, and I'm quoting, "an ease and specificity that were lacking in earlier speeches. It was," you wrote, "his most Democratic State of the Union."

DIONNE: Yes. That was with a big D. I just think the studies on the minimum wage, by the way, do not show on the whole that it increases unemployment. It does increase wages. I would have actually set it about a dollar higher than he proposed to set it. But, yes, I thought he was a kind of liberated Obama. He looked at ease. He came out and said things that he'd been reluctant to say.

I mean, his case for why we should worry about global warming was as strong as you could have. His case for asking Congress for a vote on his gun proposals was probably the best peroration he's had in a State of the Union Address. I think he took on supply side economics directly. He's clearly trying to change the political direction of the country.

He views himself as the anti-Reagan, not anti in opposing Reagan's methods. He's actually trying to use Reagan-like methods to move the country toward the center-left.

SIEGEL: Mona, E.J. seems to have heard an energetic second term agenda in the State of the Union. You heard zippo.

CHAREN: Well, no, the delivery was very energetic, I'll give him that. But the actual proposals, even that very moving, you know, peroration about gun control, I mean, the actual proposals are not going to make any difference in terms of the kinds of violence that we have seen. You know, most gun violence is done with hand guns, the overwhelming majority of it.

None of the proposals that the president put forth would touch hand guns. And, you know, the rest, a lot of it is cosmetics. And he didn't get to what I think is the real nub of - one of the nubs of the problem, namely mental health and changing the laws about involuntary commitment, which really might make a difference in dealing with those kinds of tragedies.

SIEGEL: Wouldn't background checks, though, apply to purchasing a hand gun, as well as purchasing an assault weapon?

CHAREN: Background checks are fine, but those are going to be mostly - in terms of the violence that we see in America, a lot of it happens with illegally purchased guns, not with legally purchased guns.

SIEGEL: E.J., what about this idea that whatever virtue there was in the speech, we don't expect much of it to actually become law any time soon or to change lives much?

DIONNE: Well, I actually disagree with that, too, because I think that - Mona said that the background checks might be helpful. It would be a very big deal if we passed background checks. I think that will get through the Congress. I think that a law against gun trafficking will get through. They might even ban the big magazines.

Immigration reform has, I believe, a very good chance of passing Congress. There is a lot of Republican support for that. I think that could happen. I also think his proposal on Pre-K, this is an idea that a lot of Republicans, universal Pre-K, a lot of Republican governors are very enthusiastic about this. That is not a trivial thing.

And then, I think some of his manufacturing initiatives, though not enormous, I readily concede that, I think were, again, an attempt to come to terms with rising inequality and some problems that we've faced for a long time.

SIEGEL: Mona, on the State of the Union, you have the last sur-rebuttal here.

CHAREN: All right. I'll give you immigration. That very well may happen and that would be a good thing. But universal pre-K, not so much. We have spent roughly $180 billion in America over the last number of decades on a program called Head Start. It has not worked. If we knew how to intervene with pre-K kids and help them, I'd say let's do it, but the evidence is we don't know how to do that, at least the federal government doesn't know how to do it.

DIONNE: I think the studies are actually pretty good on pre-K, but I'll leave it at that.

SIEGEL: One other issue. Here's one of the most twisted Senate plots I can think of. Senate Democrats, knowing they didn't have 60 votes for cloture, that is to end debate on the Chuck Hagel nomination to be defense secretary, called for a vote and lost yesterday. Some Senate Republicans then said when it's brought back, they'll vote for cloture, then they'll vote against Hagel, knowing that he will be confirmed. What's going on here? E.J., you take it first.

DIONNE: Well, first, they didn't lose the vote, they won the vote. It's just because of this strange mis-abuse of the filibuster means that you can get 59 votes and not win. And so I think that we've never seen a defense secretary filibustered before. And the Republicans are pretending this is not a filibuster. When you say we're not going to let it come forward without 60 votes, it's a filibuster.

And I think it's really appalling, and I hope Harry Reid listens to Jeff Merkley, the senator from Oregon who's been pushing filibuster reform. If you're going to have abuse like this, you need stronger measures than Reid agreed to initially.

SIEGEL: Mona, what do you make of it, hell hath no fury like a buddy scorned?

CHAREN: Well, first of all it's not unprecedented. I mean, there have been many other situations - John Bolton most recently - but many others, Mike Levitz(ph), Steve Johnson(ph), many others who were held up. And this is not a formal filibuster, it's a block so that they can have more time to get documentation.

But, you know, my take on it is basically this, that when Harriet Myers was nominated by George Bush, conservatives opposed her. Where are the Democrats to oppose Chuck Hagel?

SIEGEL: On that note, Mona Charen, E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CHAREN: Thanks.

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