Polls, Schiavo and the CPB

Robert Siegel talks with E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and with Tod Lindberg, editor of policy review and research fellow at the Hoover Institution. They discuss the latest polling on President Bush and Congress, fallout from the Terri Schiavo autopsy, and political wrangling over the CPB.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In case you thought that no group in Washington is doing especially well about now, think twice. The Washington Nationals, the ex-Expos, are in first place and putting the lie to the old saying about `Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.' As for political Washington, it's a different story. The polls show increasing disapproval of the president, of the Congress, even of the Supreme Court. We're going to talk about that, also about the autopsy of Terri Schiavo and where observation ends and diagnosis begins, and other topics with our guest political observers, now joining us today. First, our regular political commentator E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Georgetown University and The Brookings Institution.

Welcome back, E.J.

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

SIEGEL: And in off the bench for David Brooks today is Tod Lindberg, who's editor of Policy Review and also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Welcome back.

Mr. TOD LINDBERG (Policy Review): Good to be with you.

Mr. DIONNE: It's a strong bench.

SIEGEL: It is. First the polls. E.J., what do they tell you?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, they tell us what we've been seeing for several months now, which is that the president is in trouble. I always thought when you looked back at the election that there were two majorities in the country, a majority that wanted to get rid of President Bush and a majority that just couldn't get to John Kerry. And the Bush campaign was very wise in trying to activate that second majority; they had built a wall so people couldn't get to Kerry. And I think what you're seeing now is the underlying dissatisfaction with President Bush. The Iraq War was never broadly popular and things aren't going very well. The Social Security privatization was never broadly popular, and the president didn't have a mandate to do that. And the whole Washington conversation is about issues that the country says `Huh?' about. I think the Republicans and President Bush are out of sync with where the country is.

SIEGEL: Tod Lindberg, president out of sync, in some trouble, never all that popular? What do you think about E.J.'s analysis?

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, you know, I was struck--I looked in some detail at some of the stuff in The New York Times poll, which I thought was really very interesting because it almost--it precisely mirrors where Bush was one year ago today if you look at the approval numbers, if you look at some of the specific issue-handling numbers, etc. And I think there's a sense in which that kind of makes sense because this administration has been frankly a little bit adrift over the past few months. It's actually been reminiscent to me more of a kind of June-July political season than a late spring. And the question is: Why is that? I mean, I think obviously, a very significant part of it is that frankly there's a lot of resistance in Washington to Bush's agenda. The Democrats are not interested in doing Social Security with this president; I think that's abundantly clear.

SIEGEL: It seems to be true of a lot of people in the country as well. The president just can't get a rise out...

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, yeah, I think...

SIEGEL: ...of the public on his Social Security.

Mr. LINDBERG: I don't think Social Security was ever going to get done on the basis of a huge clamor, a national consensus around a particular set of ideas. But at the same time, you know, it's undeniably the case that Bush has taken this act on the road and it has not generated significant enthusiasm out there, at least not as anything detected in the polls. There's another important point in this poll, Robert, and I'll then cease my filibuster. And it is this.

Mr. DIONNE: I won't vote for cloture.

Mr. LINDBERG: It's very interesting because there's this question in The New York Times poll that asks what Democrats should do. And the question was: Should they just oppose and keep Social Security as it is, or should they propose an alternative? And it was 67-to-24 in favor of `propose an alternative.' So I don't think this season-of-our-discontent poll is necessarily only applicable to, A, the president and, B, the Republican majority in Congress; I think it's a little bit broader than that.

SIEGEL: I want to get to one other matter, and that is the Schiavo autopsy, which came out this week, and it showed that Terri Schiavo, who'd been the subject of congressional/presidential intervention, had suffered such severe brain damage that pathologists whom our reporters talked to were stunned by how much shrinkage of tissue there had been. She was blind, the coroner concluded, she had probably lost all memory, and this was somebody who--well, you wrote about this in a column today, E.J.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. I think that no matter where you stand on this--and I respect the right-to-life movement, and nothing in the autopsy report prevents those who oppose removing the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo from continuing to insist they were right. But what you had were people in politics, and I think particularly Bill Frist, going way beyond what they knew and making pretty outrageous statements. And I think Dr. Frist, as he likes to call himself, has a particular problem because he didn't just go on the floor as a right-to-lifer saying this feeding tube shouldn't be removed. He went on the floor and said flatly, `I close this evening's speaking more as a physician than a US senator,' and he gave this elaborate medical explanation and then he went on television this week and said, you know, `I never made the diagnosis,' even though he said in the same speech, `That doesn't sound like a woman in a persistent vegetative state.' I think the right-to-life Republicans really overplayed their hand, showed they'd be willing to say whatever was necessary, and I think they hurt their own cause.

SIEGEL: E.J. wrote today, Tod, that Senator Frist owes us an apology. Do you think he does?

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, I don't know if he owes an apology, but I certainly think he owes a statement that sort of clarifies where he is on this and what he intends to do with his medical hat. I think he was probably briefed by some people who had a tendentious reading of the facts in the case. As E.J. pointed out quite rightly, it is unnecessary to the contention that removing the feeding tube was the wrong thing to do or that the circumstances were ambiguous to contend that she was going to get better or that her condition was a lot better than it was. There is a perfectly presentable, morally respectable case--I mean, there's a competing case as well--that he went too far.

SIEGEL: A quick issue uncomfortably close to home for me to be asking you about, but I think I should. Corporation for Public Broadcasting got cut by the House Appropriations Committee yesterday. They inflicted a pretty big cut on funding. You think this issue of cutting public broadcast funds has legs in the Congress the way it appeared to back, say, in '94 and '95? Tod?

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, I think one of the things that's been happening is there have been some questions raised about political agendas, etc. And I mean, frankly they're coming from both sides, but you know, when you get articles on the front page of The Washington Post, for example, calling into question the integrity of Ken Tomlinson, etc....

SIEGEL: He is the chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Mr. LINDBERG: ...well, you know, there is apt to be a kind of allergic reaction to that among some Republicans on Capitol Hill. I don't know if this was in the works before then or after. But as far as the legs go, I think if Republicans will reflect back on the last attempt to bag Barney, they will not recall that period with fondness, and probably not seek to repeat it.

SIEGEL: Barney and Big Bird survived.

Mr. LINDBERG: Indeed.

Mr. DIONNE: And I suspect they will again. I mean, memo to Ken Tomlinson: `I'm a liberal and whenever I appear on NPR I'm matched with a really smart conservative.' I think this notion that PBS is some liberal bastion is simply wrong, and I think what you're seeing here is an effort by the conservative movement to either wipe out various points of opposition or, I think more significantly, to try to intimidate various forms of independent media into being less critical than they might be, or less questioning. They didn't have this problem with the media when they were going after Bill Clinton, but they're very uncomfortable when they go after President Bush. Gee, might that be partisanship?

SIEGEL: Tod, you want to have the last word?

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, yeah, 'course it is partisan. Washington is partisan. What's striking is the way in which things go around and come around, and what looks like a firm, rock-solid, principled position today often turns out to be highly contingent when the political circumstances are reversed.

SIEGEL: Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review and research fellow at the Hoover Institution; and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. LINDBERG: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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