Week In Politics: Dennis Blair, Financial Bill, Elections

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Robert Siegel speaks with regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the resignation of Dennis Blair, President Obama's director of National Intelligence; Senate passage of a financial regulation bill; and the 2010 midterm elections.


Our political observers are here now: David Brooks of the New York Times, and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hi.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Hello.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Brookings Institution): Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And before we get onto other matters, the departure of Dennis Blair. David Brooks, any thoughts?

Mr. BROOKS: I'm in the it's-a-dumb-job camp, and the idea that a president's going to back a DNI over the CIA, just never going to happen. One of the rules in Washington is never get in a fight with the CIA. They keep every document. They leak like crazy. They're really good at it. So, I think they should name Leon Panetta, if they can do it in the statute, to the DNI job, so he can have both jobs and essentially get rid of the DNI job.


Mr. DIONNE: I agree with David. I mean, the worst kind of job to have is a job with lots of responsibility and very little power. He's not a director of national intelligence. He's, at best, a coordinator. When he got into turf fights with Leon Panetta, Panetta won. When he got into turf fights with the White House counterterrorism coordinator, John Brennan, John Brennan won.

I do not envy whoever is going to take this job. James Clapper, the undersecretary of Defense, is being talked about. At least he'll have some clout, as an ally of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But I think we need to reform the reform of intelligence.

SIEGEL: OK. Big news last night: The Senate passed the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010. David, do you feel restored and stable?

Mr. BROOKS: I feel a third restored, so that's pretty good. I think they've established a regime where they can help wind down failing banks and sort of bring the derivatives markets into the open. What they have not done, I think, is really change the incentives, which really still encourage risky behavior. And most importantly, they haven't changed the problem of knowledge, that people still are going to work at banks where they really don't understand what they're doing. The executives don't understand what's going on under them. And the regulators are just never going to be able to understand what's going on in the very deep shallows of the derivatives markets.

So, we're still going to have huge areas where really, nobody understands what's going on, and a lot of risky behavior is going to be in there.


Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think this is a great victory for good sense. I mean, at least we have a structure that begins to match the strange new financial world that we have out there. And we had a long period where we said these markets could regulate themselves. That was a bad idea.

And I think what's striking in the politics of this is, the normal view in Washington is the House passes something very liberal, and the Senate makes it a little more conservative. In this case, this reform got tougher, if you will, more progressive in the Senate, and I think that reflects how much has changed on this issue over the course of the year.

Wall Street became more and more unpopular. They renamed it Wall Street reform. Fabulous Fab at Goldman Sachs probably did them some good, that whole period of - that unfortunate testimony, from their point of view, of Goldman Sachs. So, I think this is a big step forward.

SIEGEL: Put it together with the health-care bill - it's been a pretty busy year for the administration and Congress.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. No, they've done a lot. They've expanded a lot of Washington power. That's why people are upset. I find, when I talk to hedge-fund guys, is they're not totally worried about this. They don't think it'll change things very dramatically. In fact, I've spoken to a number who wished the derivatives regulation was a little more thorough. They're afraid it's going to chase a lot of the stuff through holes, underground, make it more dangerous.

SIEGEL: Okay. All this brings us to this past Tuesday, some Senate primaries, a special House race in Pennsylvania. E.J., you described it, in your column, as No Tea Party.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. I mean, you had one big Tea Party victory, which I think a lot of Republicans - I didn't know tea gave you a hangover, but I think Rand Paul's victory in Kentucky has already given Republicans...

SIEGEL: He won the Senate nomination.

Mr. DIONNE: ...he won the Senate nomination. And already, his rather pure strains of libertarianism is causing Republicans trouble. He seems to be against the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination at lunch counters and hotels and the like. So, that's going to be an interesting race to watch.

The one partisan race on the ballot: The Democrats held the seat of John Murtha in the only district that switched from John Kerry in 2004 to John McCain. So, that's a seat Republicans should've won. Granted, it's a pretty Democratic seat. And Democrat Mark Critz won by 9 points. He ran to the right on a bunch of issues. His slogan was: Pro-life, Pro-Gun, Pro-Jobs. So, you couldn't mistake him for a liberal.

SIEGEL: And anti-health care.

Mr. DIONNE: And anti-health care - but also a populist message on economics. And so the Republicans are still trying to explain what happened. They're blaming it on the Democratic primary, where Arlen Specter lost, and saying well, a lot of Democrats came out to vote.

SIEGEL: David, what did you make of Tuesday night?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I think the overall message for me was the voters have decided there's just too much cooperation, bipartisanship in Washington, and they want to stamp it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Because they got rid of Arlen Specter, endangered Blanche Lincoln, and we just saw Robert Bennett lose in Utah. So anybody who might have thought they might want to work across the lines - for good reasons or bad - they're either out or may be going out.

And so in each case, they've been replaced by - in the Senate - by somebody more extreme.

SIEGEL: Did you hear what E.J.'s talking about, that Republicans are worried about - say, the result in Pennsylvania?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, that should definitely be a warning, because they tried to think, oh, we can run against Nancy Pelosi everywhere. But the Democrats really localized that district and really ran a candidate that fit that district -very conservative - and they won it.

Mr. DIONNE: And I think the important thing is that a bunch of the folks the Democrats are going to be defending this fall are fairly conservative people in fairly conservative districts. And the fact that a nationalized message didn't work against them, that somebody could give themselves inoculation, I think calls into question this notion that it's already in the cards that Republicans are going to take over the House. I think we're way short of that at the moment.

Mr. BROOKS: You just can't run for re-election supporting Obamacare, in a swing district.

SIEGEL: But it's a big difference between having an entirely localized election, when it's the only House race in the country on one night, and when there are 400 House races in the country. It's easier to nationalize in November, isn't it?

Mr. DIONNE: In principle it should be, but you've seen different patterns. In some House elections when Tom Davis was very smart, head of the Republican Campaign Committee for the House, he managed to run a lot of very effective local campaigns. Other times, like '06, the national wave takes over everything.

SIEGEL: OK. Well, thanks to both of you. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and also Georgetown University, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

Mr. BROOKS: Good to be with you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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