The Week In Politics: Shutdown Edition

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Melissa Block talks with regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks with The New York Times. They discuss the federal government shutdown, why it happened, what's happening now and what happens next.


And for thoughts on the shutdown and what's to come, we turn to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hi to you both.

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

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: And David, let's put this in some context. We're on day four of the government shutdown. The last time the government shut down back in '95-96, it went on for 21 days. Should we expect the same?

BROOKS: We're a much more productive country. We can get our political messes over with quicker. So I think it - I probably think it probably won't go on too much longer. I think the debt ceiling is going to have some chastening effect on people. I'm struck by how meta it's all become. We're not even arguing about government philosophy anymore. We're arguing about who can vote on the right thing at the right measure.

And it's really become about government functionalism, can the people basically function as mature adults? And so far, little sign in either way.

BLOCK: E.J., David there saying that the upcoming debt ceiling vote will be a chastening moment, possibly make a deal more likely. Do you see that? Does it create space for deal-making or does it make agreement less likely?

DIONNE: Well, I think first it creates space for a longer shutdown because what it's looking like is we're not going to settle the shutdown until we settle the debt ceiling. And - but I think that what you have now are Republicans who have basically forgotten why they shut down the government in the first place. You know, they started out, we need to repeal Obamacare. That's kind of an extraconstitutional way to do it, using the threat of all these bad things happening to get something that they can't get through two houses.

And now, they're walking around and saying, as the congressmen said, well, they want something out of this and I don't know what it is. And Rand Paul, of all people, who's supposed to be the highly principled guy, saying that, well, now our argument is we want to negotiate and they can't. This is totally empty. The thing that really strikes me most is I have never seen the White House so firm in a position.

I was in there yesterday talking to a number of people and they are absolutely clear that they don't want this to happen ever again and they're willing to go pretty much right to the edge and say, we'll negotiate on everything but only after you pass the debt ceiling and reopen the government. And I think that the Republicans are taken aback 'cause they're not accustomed to this stance from the Obama White House.

BLOCK: Well, David, do the Republicans have a strategy? If, as E.J. says, the Democrats are standing firm and united behind the president, what's the Republican strategy?

BROOKS: They don't have one. You know, I think the initial thing by Ted Cruz and some of the Tea Party types was to defund Obamacare. Any professional politician, any professional legislator could tell them that wasn't going to happen. Some of them thought the launch of the exchanges for the new healthcare law would not be funded, they could stop that, well, that wasn't going to happen.

And so it was based on a faulty strategy by people who don't know much about government and by a majority of the House Republicans who probably didn't want to be here, but didn't know how to stop the minority who wanted to have this big confrontation. So it was really never about substance. It was about a style of politics and the Republicans who really want to champion this just want a confrontational style for confrontation's sake.

And so they dragged the party here. I think they think they're doing fine. I would say the Republican Party, the Republican elders, the Republican donor base, the Republican business base are all incredibly dismayed and to some extent, furious and embarrassed about all this. And what's going to happen, I hope and think, that they will rally against the small minority who are right now running the party.

BLOCK: Now we'll remember that two years ago, President Obama did negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling. They had discussions and there were compromises made. E.J., was that a mistake? I mean, don't - why shouldn't Republicans expect the same thing now?

DIONNE: Well, you know, if you ask them this question, they won't say they made a mistake, I don't expect them to say they made a mistake. And their view was the last time the Tea Party was on the march, they had just won the election, they were genuinely scared that the Republicans would go over the edge.

But I think their behavior now says that if they don't think they made a mistake, they sure don't want to make that mistake again. And so - and that they feel that if the Republicans misread them, misread the firm position they have based on the last time around, it'll be very bad for the country. So they're sending out kinds of signals, including in that meeting with the leaders this week, that the president is dead serious about not negotiating on the procedural issues and having a negotiation later on on everything else.

BLOCK: David, is that hypocritical of the White House to take that position now?

BROOKS: No, I sort of think I would do it if I were them. I would say if my opposition part is in the business of messing up royally, then we should help them. And I think they've decided, probably intelligently, that there's not going to be a lot of legislation passed over the next couple years, but at least they can do real damage to the Republican Party by letting the Republican - by inviting confrontation with more Republican radicals.

And I think that's going to happen on immigration reform, and it's happening this week. And so, if I were a Democrat, that's probably what I'd be doing. I'd say our goal over the next few years is help the Republicans commit suicide and hope moderates and responsible Republicans don't leap to the fore, and we'll see if that happens.

DIONNE: Could I just say quickly, they also think - obviously the Republicans are damaging themselves, and that doesn't bother Democrats - but they also think that it would establish terrible precedence for some time to come if we routinely govern ourselves like this, if we go to the brink on every budget issue. And so they feel - they talk about, anyway, a personal responsibility to stop that from happening.

BLOCK: If you look at the congressional map, the Republicans who are concerned, who are stymieing any kind of deal-making, are in districts that are much more solidly red than during the last shutdown, say. And they would be more worried about a Tea Party challenge in a primary, right, than in swaying moderates in a general election. So how do we get out of this, and David, what do you see the future of the Tea Party as being?

BROOKS: Well like I said, I think a lot of the Republican elders are very dismayed, but a lot of Republican House members are not dismayed. They think they're winning. They're getting a lot of positive feedback from their constituents, and that's in part because of gerrymandering. It's in part because of the demographic reality of America right now, which is Republicans move into Republican areas, Democrats move into Democratic areas, the country is self-sorting along political lines, leading to bluer blues and redder reds and hence shutdowns like this.

BLOCK: E.J., last word.

DIONNE: I think that there are still enough Republicans from areas that are not deep, deep red who want to change the party. You've got something like 20 Republicans who've already said we'll vote for that Senate continuing resolution to get us out of this. You have basically all the Republicans from Virginia saying that; not surprising, they have a lot of federal employees over there.

BLOCK: It's a small number, a very small number.

DIONNE: But it's 20, and I think there are many more Republicans who know that this doesn't help the party. And so, while gerrymandering is a huge problem, I still think there's an opportunity for Republicans to revolt, to pull the party back from the brink if they choose to.

BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: You, too.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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