Week In Politics: Boehner's Debt Limit Decision And Democratic Retreat

Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of . They discuss House Speaker John Boehner's role in raising the debt ceiling, this week's Democratic retreat and a federal judge's decision to strike down Virginia's gay marriage ban.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And joining us now are our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks. As I learned to say from a New York Times item this week, they both practice columnizing - David, at the Times; and E.J., at The Washington Post when he's not at the Brookings Institution. It's good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

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

SIEGEL: So first - and let's start with you, David - how important was John Boehner's surprising turn on the debt ceiling this week?

BROOKS: Well, if you're looking for peace and harmony to reign in Washington, rots of ruck(ph) with that; it's not going to work. This was a one-time thing. John Boehner is guilty of practicing strategy. Some Tea Party people seem to want to put pedal to the metal on every single issue, run into brick walls until their head caves in. But John Boehner is not an idiot, and there was no way they were going to get a majority on this. There was no way they were going to get popular support. If they fought an unwinnable fight, they would lose popular support. They were not going to win. There was nothing to gain. And therefore, the idea was just get it behind them. And that's what he did. It was perfectly obvious politics, and why everybody can't see that is a mystery to me.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think that John Boehner saying, are you kidding me? And then his singing zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay after he announced that he was doing what he was doing - to basically, facing reality - are the most eloquent expressions we have of John Boehner's frustration. His problem is that he has a Republican caucus where probably a quarter of its members - 60-plus - really prefer to blow up governing than governing, at least as long as Barack Obama is president; but a very substantial group who know this isn't the right thing, but are petrified of primaries.

Carl Holtz, in The New York Times, noted that there were so many Republicans who voted no but hoped yes - they knew this had to pass; they felt they had to vote no. That's not a sustainable position for the long haul. And then you saw the drama play out in the Senate, which we could talk about; where so many Republicans were forced into a position of having to vote yes because Ted Cruz insisted on 60 votes. I think he may be the least popular senator among Republicans right now.

SIEGEL: He made them vote for cloture. Here is something that Speaker Boehner said on the morning before the vote on the debt-ceiling bill.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: This is a lost opportunity. We could have sat down and worked together on a bipartisan manner, to find cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit.

SIEGEL: David, I love that. He was saying this wouldn't have been obstruction. It would have been an opportunity. It's like the prize for when you have lemons, call them lemonade.

BROOKS: Well, there still is the reality that, you know, the Congressional Budget Office had a report last week describing our debt situation. Deficits are down year by year over the next couple years. But it is still true - and it is actually more alarmingly true than ever - that the country's in a deep fiscal hole; that within a very few years, the amount we owe will be skyrocketing. The amount of money that will be left over for discretionary programs will be shrinking because it's all going to go to Medicare and other entitlement programs.

And so the basic argument that we should be dealing with that now is still a sound argument. That doesn't mean you have to do it on the debt-ceiling fight. It doesn't mean you have to threaten to throw the country over the edge. That was always a stupid move. And so Boehner's learned from experience, but the elemental problem is still there.

DIONNE: But I think you saw the incoherence of his majority because he was trying to put together all sorts of things with the debt ceiling so he could at least say we got something else. But every time he put something up, members of his conference said, well, we can't vote for that. A good example - Rep. Tom Cotton, who's running for the Senate in Arkansas against Sen. Mark Pryor, an Army veteran, said he couldn't vote if Boehner put together an extension of the debt ceiling with getting rid of the small pension cut that was in the budget deal earlier this year because he couldn't vote for the debt ceiling. But he wanted to vote for getting rid of the pension cuts.

SIEGEL: He'd be in a position of voting against a cut that he wanted to restore.

DIONNE: Yes, and so he had to satisfy so many constituents. He's thinking very much in political terms, in a way that doesn't move them forward.

SIEGEL: Let's talk a little bit about the Democrats. They've had their retreat, or they're having it. With the balance of the Senate in doubt this November and the Republicans looking pretty strong to hold the House, do the Democrats look like a party that's going to run on the president's record, or run away from the president's record?

BROOKS: Well, it depends where you are. You know, the president's unpopular. And the best way to predict how a midterm is going to be is look at the president's approval rating, and it's not great. So, you know, the Democrats are looking at an uphill fight. But you will - what you see - I think the position they've found themselves around in, they don't really - a lot of these especially red states, people that live in areas that the Republicans have carried, they do not want to defend Obamacare. They don't want to go out and call for its repeal. So they're calling for fixing it, which seems to be the third-way position, where they can voice unhappiness with it without totally betraying the cause.

SIEGEL: E.J., The Washington Post led the paper today with the story that signups for Obamacare are up. Are the Democrats anywhere near seeing that as an advantage to them in November, as opposed to a liability?

DIONNE: I think they're starting to see advantages they can get out of it, even Democrats in - who are running in red states, where the president's very unpopular, because what they are saying is look, there are things here that need to be fixed. But do you want to take the benefits away from people who have already benefitted from Obamacare?

Do - and I think they see opportunities, and you're seeing it in some of the ads. Do you really want kids to be thrown off their parents' health plans if they're under 26? Do you want to throw all those people off Medicaid who have been able to sign up for health care? So I think they see some opportunities.

And today at the Democrats' retreat, the president focused on two things, which I think are helpful issues for the Democrats. One is increasing the minimum wage, which is a 60 to 70 percent issue; and the other is immigration reform. And I still think that there is a possibility of immigration reform in this Congress. I know I'm in a majority in thinking that - a minority.

SIEGEL: A minority...

BROOKS: A very small minority.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I think even in this room, you're in the minority.

DIONNE: I think that's probably right.

SIEGEL: One other topic - David, let's hear from you first. And that is gay marriage. A federal judge knocked out Virginia's ban on gay marriage. And the courts are doing a lot of the work here, and I'm wondering what you - how you feel about that. Are they getting ahead of the public? Are we finding another issue where it's not just the issue in substance but also, is it being advanced democratically enough?

BROOKS: Yeah. There are some times when you look at the swings of court decisions, and you wonder why these people bother going to law school because so often, the judicial opinions just mirror elite public opinion. And that's often the case in immigration, and it's certainly been the case recently with gay marriage. And as elite educated opinion has shifted so sharply, the judicial decisions have followed.

SIEGEL: Out of sync with mass public opinion?

BROOKS: Well, in this case, mass public opinion has also shifted. But I do think the judges sometimes do represent the opinions of the sort of people who went to law school; who went to Harvard, Yale and other law schools. And so I do think it's not the most democratic thing. If you believe in aristocratic rule by an educated elite, then I suppose you should be for this.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think about this?

DIONNE: At this point, so many of our judges appointed in earlier administrations are from the conservative Federalist Society. I think there are case - sometimes when the courts lead, and a lot of times when they follow the election returns. And in this case, I think they're actually following the election returns; that public opinion has shifted radically in favor of gay marriage. You're seeing, now, majorities in the country, and it's just going to keep - those are going to keep growing.

And so I think - so there are times when I do think that there is such a thing as judicial activism, there are issues that should be settled by the voters. In this case, this might have been that issue once upon a time. But given where the majority is moving, I don't think you're going to see resistance to the courts on this, as you would have five years ago.

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

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Good to be with you.

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