Week In Politics Examined

Senate Democrats hoped to have enough votes this week to pass a health care bill, Obama Cabinet officials faced hostile lawmakers on Capitol Hill and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's much-awaited book hit bookstores. Political analysts E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post, and David Brooks, of The New York Times, offer their insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with politics and our regular political observers: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institutions and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see both of you again.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Good to see you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: In a moment, I want to ask you both about some pretty contentious appearances in Congress this week by two senior cabinet secretaries. But first, the main event in Washington this weekend, if not this year, E.J., is a vote to debate health care in the Senate. Do the Democrats have 60 votes and is there any new observation about health care you would like to share with us?

Mr. DIONNE: I'm sure the answer is they don't now, but I think they will tomorrow. First of all, this is a vote to proceed with debate and the Republicans have been pursuing a kind of beltway-at-rush-hour strategy to grind legislation to a halt. And, I think, the leadership is going to say - the Democratic leadership is going to say to its members, look, you cannot be complicit with their strategy. We've got to move forward on health care or we look like fools.

The interesting thing when you look at this Senate bill is that if we had all have fallen asleep in about May and had missed August and all that craziness and had missed Obama's speech, things are about two months later than they should be exactly where you would have thought they were. You've got two bills, House and Senate, much closer than where they started out with substantial subsidies, a mandate, a public plan that's still in contention. You're getting the health care bill that more or less Obama wanted at the beginning, and I still think he is going to get in the end.

SIEGEL: David, you agree with that assessment?

Mr. BROOKS: Within the beltway, yeah. But what's different is the karma outside the gestalt, the whole existential nature of the enterprise, which is that it's become less popular. The health bill is now marginally - more people oppose it than support it. President Obama's ratings are now, in the latest Gallup poll, dipping below 50 for the first time. And so, if you're Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, some of the red state Democrats, it's a much more fraught vote than it would have been four or five months ago. So, I agree with E.J., the substance is pretty much on track. And I still have to think that Democrats are not going to walk away and not pass something but it's become a much tougher political fight that it was a month ago.

SIEGEL: Onto some other matters: This week Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Attorney General Eric Holder both testified on Capitol Hill and they both got verbal beatings. Holder got a grilling for his plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York federal court, and when Geithner was on the Hill yesterday, Republican Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas told him to resign.

Representative KEVIN BRADY (Republican, Texas): The public has lost all confidence in your ability to do the job.

Secretary TIMOTHY GEITHNER (Department of Treasury): Congressman, if you look at any measure of confidence in the financial system, it is substantially stronger today than when the president of the United States took office.

Unidentified Woman: Gentlemen, time has expired. Mr. Hinchey's (unintelligible) for five minutes.

Rep. BRADY: At some point, you have to take responsibility for your decisions. That's the American�

Sec. GEITHNER: I take responsibility for anything I am part of doing. I would be happy for that. But I can't take responsibility is - is for the legacy of crisis you've bequeathed this country.

Rep. BRADY: This is your budget. This is your bailout.

Sec. GEITHNER: I take�

Rep. BRADY: This is your stimulus. This is your act. It is time to take responsibility.

Sec. GEITHNER: I take full responsibility for those with great honor and (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: Gentlemen, time has expired.

SIEGEL: David, pretty contentious exchange there with Secretary Geithner, whom you wrote a very glowing column about, today.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I'm on Geithner's side on this. Listen, this economy was in freefall when they took over. Geithner had an economic plan, which basically has not solved the economic problems, if that's what you're hoping for. One guy can't do that. But the financial sector is in a lot better shape than it was. But what we're seeing here is actually deeper than that. What we're seeing is the rise of an angry populism, on left and right, which is not only about attacking Tim Geithner, it's about attacking the fed. There is a Ron Paul bill that has 300 co-sponsors which would severely weakened the independence of the fed. This is the recession creating a populist upsurge of left and right, which is just going to keep rolling and rolling and rolling.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I thought it was both amusing and revealing on today's New York Times op-ed page that you had David, the moderate conservative, praising Tim Geithner, and you had Paul Krugman, the progressive, criticizing him. And I thought there were two truths on each side of the op-ed page today. David's surely right that hanging the entire economic mess on Tim Geithner, as some in Congress are trying to do, is ridiculous and that we were faced with freefall and then the administration deserves some credit for pulling us back from the brink.

On the other hand, I think Krugman has a point when he says that, for example, when Geithner was at the fed they could have extracted more concessions from AIG. They could be tougher on Wall Street, that they are the administration's Treasury department a little too marinated in the Wall Street culture. You don't have to be either a paranoid or a populist to be upset that the government bailed out a lot of very wealthy people. And a lot of other people out there are hurting. And I think the administration has not been very good at dealing with that fact.

Mr. BROOKS: Listen, I wished they'd gotten a tougher on AIG but there's going to be messiness in a muddling policy. The alternative was to nationalize the banks, which would have cost at least $600 billion, would have scared the crap out of everybody. It had been much worse option. So, basically what they have done is a muddling ugly policy, which has gotten us some progress. The danger is that we now have this free floating anger, a lack of civility, a lack of thoughtfulness, which is spilling over into hatred, not only of Geithner, the fed, all sorts of institutions. And that's - that's what somebody is going to eventually tap into in an ugly way.

SIEGEL: I want to hear from both of you, briefly at least, on Attorney General Holder's decision which - he came in for a lot of criticism on, on the Hill, which is that the Guantanamo detainees, or some of them including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, should be tried as criminal defendants in New York in that case. E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah, there's a very good piece in the Washington Post by Jim Comey and Jack Goldsmith, both serving in the Bush administration, where they said, wait a minute, you're trying these guys in military tribunals would not have been a slam dunk. And they actually defended Holder for making a reasonable decision here. I think that this is going to go away. I think the administration is in one peculiar place, though, which is they're really saying we guarantee an outcome of this trial and so is the president�

SIEGEL: And president said I expect them to be convicted in (unintelligible).

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah, and that's - but the fact is everyone does expect them to be convicted.

Mr. BROOKS: Why bother holding the trial then if he is going to be convicted on the slam dunk?

Mr. DIONNE: Look�

Mr. BROOKS: Listen, the guy wanted to plead guilty in a military tribunal. He wanted to do it that way. So, why are we giving him extra, especially, when future terrorists will know they're going to get this big trial, propaganda play, and our people fighting the terror war know that now they have to play by a different and more complicated set of rules.

Mr. DIONNE: Actually, I think, they're better off to know that certain things are inadmissible as evidenced and they are going to have to be more careful. And I don't think that's a bad thing and I don't think that's going to hurt us.

SIEGEL: One other topic: Here's a memorable soundbite from this week. Sarah Palin answering a question about running for president in 2012.

(Soundbite of �The Oprah Winfrey Show�)

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Author, �Going Rouge�; Politician): It's not on my radar screen right now because I�

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host, �The Oprah Winfrey Show�) Was it - was it ever?

Ms. PALIN: As I am dealing with so many issues that are important. And Oprah, what I am finding clearer and clearer everyday - what I'm seeing is you don't need a title to make a difference.

SIEGEL: I think she means title as in governor. The book - her book which�

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: �she was promoting has a title. And, I guess, my question for you is which one of those two women will be - we will be talking about more in 2012, Oprah Winfrey or Sarah Palin?

Mr. DIONNE: I think Oprah Winfrey but you just mentioned Sarah Palin, which increased the ratings of this show by 50 percent. You mention Palin, Web site traffic goes up. So that's why she is getting so much attention.

Mr. BROOKS: Oprah is giving her a show, that's the - that was the secret conspiracy. She is retiring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Sarah will take over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: That's her destiny. She does not care that much about policy. A lot of people don't. She shouldn't pretend she does.

SIEGEL: You don't think we're listening to a future Republican presidential candidate?

Mr. BROOKS: I will eat E.J.'s hat if goes that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: I don't wear hats. So, David is lucky but he won't have to.

SIEGEL: I bet you're going to start wearing one now. Thanks to E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you guys.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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