Week In Politics Examined

This week, ailing automaker Chrysler declared bankruptcy, Supreme Court Justice David Souter said he was stepping down and Sen. Arlen Specter switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times discuss the week in politics.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

It's not every week that an American president sees a party pick up in the Senate, a Supreme Court retirement, and gets ready to sell an auto company second hand in Italy. First, that car sale. President Obama is now the government's shareholder-in-chief of Chrysler, not to mention a couple of mortgage giants. At his Wednesday news conference, he was asked what kind of stockholder he intends to be, and his answer was, in essence, a very reluctant one.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. I've got more than enough to do. So, the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be.

SIEGEL: Well, now some thoughts on that and the rest of the week in politics from our regular political observers, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi, welcome back.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Good to be here.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Thank you.

SIEGEL: E.J. first, well what do you make of the suddenly enormous presence of the government in the economy, which even extends to the president backing up auto warranties for US-made cars?

Mr. DIONNE: It is amazing. We thought socialism died a long time ago. You know, what strikes me is two things. One is you've got this Chrysler deal that didn't fully go through and had to go into bankruptcy court because the hedge funds, a few hedge funds didn't want to make the deal. That's kind of amusing. Steve Pearlstein, my colleague at The Washington Post wrote in the paper today, since when did any of these guys ever worry about fairness? They said it was unfair to have the government in this position.

But Obama sounds a little bit - every Democratic president needs a fight with some big business group. And John Kennedy had that big fight with the steel companies and forced them to rescind their price increase. And so this is Obama's.

Last quick point: Obama has achieved a dream of the left here, because when you look at the structure of ownership here, Fiat will own a lot, but the United Auto Workers Union is slated to own a lot of Chrysler and GM. And you're going to wonder, what will that do to the structure of these companies? It's a great experiment.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, can you imagine the Republican party - seems so much in the wilderness now - finding something to rally against, effectively, in the expansive role of government?

Mr. BROOKS: I sure hope so. If they can't do this, what do they exist for? This is the second worst thing that the Obama administration has done. I think bankrupting the country would be first. But, you know, putting politics in running the car companies is just a terrible idea. Obama went after some investors, fine, but the government should not be going after investors in sort of a demagogic way.

And the worst thing is that basically they favored their Democratic constituencies, the unions, who get a huge reward. They've pummeled their Republican constituencies, the bondholders. And finally, what makes us think the government or the UAW, who are going to be running these companies, are really in a position to save the auto companies? They're in terrible long term decline. What makes us think that they can turn it around?

I hope if Barack Obama can give a date certain for exiting out of Iraq, he can do it for out of Detroit. A date certain to get out of Detroit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: Although - he is - they're actually counting on Fiat to run Chrysler, and so I think Obama's been very clear that the government does not want to exercise management control. But it is going to be very interesting to see what happens to the way the unions behave toward the companies now that they own them.

SIEGEL: There's a line about government by Fiat in there that we could get at some point…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: …but I won't even try. Two big personnel moves this week in Washington. Arlen Specter is changing parties. And this news - first reported last night by NPR's Nina Totenberg and confirmed today by President Obama - Justice Souter is leaving the Supreme Court. The president made a surprise appearance at the daily White House briefing. He said he'd just spoken with Justice Souter by phone, thanked him for his service. Mr. Obama hinted at how he would select Justice Souter's replacement.

Pres. OBAMA: I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives, whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what does that sound like to you?

Mr. BROOKS: I wish he'd mention the Constitution. I think that has something to do with being on the Supreme Court. You know, I'm sort of down on Souter because he dumped all over Washington on his way out the door. And I think if you're tired of Washington, you're tired of life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: But he loves New England. I love him for loving New England. But, you know, he was a gentleman and a scholar in the Supreme Court. And the conventional thing to say is it won't change the balance of the court because it's more or less a liberal vote…

SIEGEL: He was with the liberals (unintelligible). Yeah.

Mr. BROOKS: But the two things to remember: First, Supreme Court justices tend to last 26 years. So it'll at least extend the liberal vote for another 26 years. And then the second thing I'm interested in is there's a conventional view that a lot of people want Obama to pick a liberal Scalia, someone with very clear views, very straightforward.

I'd be - I'd guess, this is a guess, that he'd more pick a justice, a liberal Roberts, someone with more conciliatory views, more of a coalition builder.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Part of it is how much of a fight he wants to add to all his other fights, in terms of who he picks. What's fascinating is how the Specter business affects this, because Arlen Specter would have been the leading Republican questioner on that committee, and now he is a Democrat. The next person in line is Jeff Sessions, himself a very conservative Republican, who had his own unsuccessful confirmation fight.

There's a lot - almost all the names you're seeing on the list so far are women, my - the person I know best, Elena Kagan, who just got named…

SIEGEL: Solicitor general.

Mr. DIONNE: …solicitor general, used to be the dean of the Harvard Law School, would be a fascinating choice for this. I suspect Obama will pick somebody ever so slightly to the left of Souter, but won't look like it, and will get through confirmation.

SIEGEL: Well, which brings us to the story of Senator Specter, who says very plainly he counted the registration totals in Pennsylvania. He did some polling, he went around the state, and he figured out he's a Democrat now. And I heard from the Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who was furious about this over the week. What does is say about the state of the Republican party, that Arlen Specter, after all these years, has decided to jump.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, we didn't know to update "Profiles in Courage" and add a new chapter for Arlen Specter. No, it says something terrible about the Republican Party. A lot of people who used to be Republicans, used to be emotionally Republican, are now either aloof from the party or Democrats. And I run into it all the time. I frankly feel it myself. I mean, it's like your team is in last place. You just don't go to the games. You just don't care.

And the Republican moderates have no home. The Republican moderates who exist, three or four of them, have not created a home. And therefore, the Northeast has become alien territory. It's the maximum problem for the party, and it's been going on for a couple years.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: That is totally right. I think that, you know, when Newt Gingrich won his big majority in '94, he still needed a lot of moderate Republicans to do it. He had eight folks from New England in that majority. There are none left. He had 10 seats in Pennsylvania. There are only seven now. A party needs a certain number of moderates outside its areas of strength to form a majority. The Republicans are in danger of becoming a Southern regional conservative party with a few other outposts.

And the very alibi they're using that Specter did this for self interested reasons, which he did, is just an admission of how much trouble the Republicans are in. The Republican party is too conservative for Specter to win a primary. Pennsylvania is so Democratic, that's where Specter wants to be.

SIEGEL: The president, though, when he was asked about this at his news conference, was quite philosophical. He said I think things are never as good as they seem for a party or as bad as they seem. He points out he was 30 points back in the polls not too long ago.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, well, that's nice of him to say, but I take the maximalist view on the problems of the Republican party. I think it'll take three elections to turn around, which is a long time.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks once again.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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