Week In Politics Reviewed

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings, President Obama's newly announced community college initiative and the debate over health care dominated the week in politics. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institutions, and David Brooks of The New York Times offer their insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now, our two regular political observers: columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Georgetown University, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Professor, Georgetown University): Thank you.

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

SIEGEL: We'll get to this week's main event, the Sotomayor hearings, in a moment. But first, both of you wrote columns this week about President Obama's initiative on community colleges. E.J., I think you wrote for me what was the takeaway fact of the week, that the U.S., which I've always associated with sending a huge number of kids to college, now ranks, by at least one measure, number 10 in the world for secondary degrees.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. And it was really shocking, and I think if we face that fact then we, the story we like to tell about ourselves that was once true and should be true again, just isn't true now. And it really came to me watching Judge Sotomayor talk about her going to college, and also her mother training to become a registered nurse. So you had people climbing up the mobility ladder. Given the - how much Pell Grants have dropped in value, it's much harder for lower income kids to go to college, and we need to do whole lot more also for folks who could go into middle-scale jobs with just six months or a year at community colleges. So, I think what David and I agree on is that this Obama initiative is definitely a step in the right direction.

SIEGEL: You were writing of, David, about the community college really as the fulcrum of all kinds of educational energy in the country.

Mr. BROOKS: Right, Well, enrollment in community college has tripled, has gone up three times as fast as enrollment in four-year colleges. It's gone up especially this year because of the recession, in community college after community college 10 to 20 percent increases. But over the past 20 years or 30 years, they've basically gotten the crumbs. They've gotten very little money because frankly a lot of us who are in the media and government went to four-year colleges and so it's sort of a blind spot. So, what the Obama administration does is A, give $12 billion over 10 years to try to beef this thing up. But two, and most importantly, is to create a lot of innovation. We do a great job in this country of getting people into college. We do a terrible job of getting them to complete college, to give them the remedial instruction, the emotional engagement they need to complete. And this is designed to create innovation to do that.

SIEGEL: For you, a difference between your take on this and E.J's, you said cutting aid to students is not - is not critical. That's not the reason why students don't finish...

Mr. BROOKS: I'm all for giving more aid and more Pell Grants, I think they work. I just don't think they're major reason. Why do kids not complete college? The number one reason is they're not academically prepared when they get there. The second reason is because they are emotionally disengaged from campus. The third reason is bad stuff is going on home, the fourth reason is they're not self-disciplined. Those are all things you can change, but it's not primarily fundamental. According to the studies I've read, roughly eight percent of the kids who drop out do for so for financial reasons.

Mr. DIONNE: When Sonia Sotomayor graduated from Princeton, that year Pell Grants covered over 70 percent of the cost of your typical state university. In the mid 2000's they were down to 38 percent of that cost. Money clearly matters in this, but it is absolutely true that community colleges are A, the stepchildren of the higher education system - I think that was an Obama phrase -and B, they're being flooded with kids who can't afford to go to four-year colleges and lots of people looking for retraining in the recession. So it's important to help them.

SIEGEL: Well, the initiative on two-year colleges could be the most lasting thing that's happened in this week, but we all were looking at the hearings, the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor. David did we learn anything important about her or about the Senate or about us?

Mr. BROOKS: Shockingly little. I - you know, the thing - there's now like a routine that the nominees, a series of phrases they all say, whether they're John Roberts on the right or Sonia Sotomayor on the left, to get themselves confirmed. And they should just go - we should have a formula, they should say okay, I'm going to say phrase A, B, and C, and all the senators would nod sagely. It has nothing to do what they actually think and how they'll actually decide. So, it's no longer an honest discussion of judicial philosophy, it's just saying those phrases to get confirmed.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Jonathan Turley, a law professor in town, said that there is so much rote about describing past cases, it was like - be like a surgeon general nominee getting up and saying veins carry blood around the body. Well, yes, but what are you going to do as a surgeon general? So, I think these have become set pieces because no rational nominee is going to engage in a serious discussion. But one thing that did come through is, I think to a distressing degree for liberals, the frame was set much more by the questioning of the conservative senators. And I think people who are liberals need their own narrative about what they want to do and should be willing to talk about it.

SIEGEL: You're saying it was clear - what do you think about this, David? - it's clearer what the Republicans didn't want in the way of a justice than what the Democrats did want in the way of a justice.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. I think lot of liberals - and I've spoken to a few who wanted her to make the case for certain issues. And her job was not to make the case, her job is to get confirmed. And so to do that it was more masquerading, more as a moderate or more as a conservative. As frankly John Roberts, when he was getting confirmed, he masqueraded as a liberal in order to get confirmed.

SIEGEL: I wonder how many women in America have been called a wise Latina over the past - over the past week, I think that phrase is a...

Mr. BROOKS: I think her refusal to get into detailed issues proved that she was a wise Latina because there's only one way to get through these things and that's to be vague and nice.

SIEGEL: We have a minute left, and okay, we have to talk about health care because the Democrats actually came - the House Democrats came up with a bill, in a nutshell, something new that you haven't said already about health care reform.

Mr. BROOKS: Well to me the important thing that's happened this week is the moderate Democrats are plotzing, as we say in my faith community.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: They are extremely nervous because they're being taken very little left on a bill they really don't think they can support.

SIEGEL: E.J., you agree with that?

Mr. DIONNE: I think that A, Pelosi will pass the bill, I think that they're going to put in more cost controls that these blue dog Democrats want. The problem is people love to talk about cost controls, but they don't actually want to ask anything of anyone. And I think that if the minute you say well, we want to take away this service or we want to limit doctors' payments that way, some of the same members of Congress who say we've got to control costs say well you can't take it away from my hospital or my doctor. It's very difficult.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to both of you once again.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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