Political Week: NSA Phone Monitoring, Tax Cuts

Large, far-reaching issues dominated Washington this week: Tax cuts and domestic spying were two of the more prominent ones. Robert Siegel talks with E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Joining us now to talk politics are two familiar and very wise voices, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back, guys.

Mr. E.J. Dionne (The Washington Post): Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: The USA Today story has alarmed just about everyone in Washington. Many in Congress are disturbed by what the NSA did and some who aren't are disturbed by what USA Today did. Well, here are some results from a Washington Post/ABC News poll that I want to ask you about.

People were asked about the NSA database and if that's an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism. Sixty-three percent said it is acceptable. The follow up was, if you found out that the NSA had a record of phone calls that you yourself have called, would that bother you? Sixty-six percent said no, it would not bother me.

So many people, the strong majority of Americans, are unfazed by this and a smaller but pretty healthy majority, 56% say it was right for the news media to have disclosed the secret government program. What is this and what we're hearing in Washington say to you, David Brooks?

BROOKS: Well I think the Republican Party is going to have their convention at NSA headquarters because this is the one popular thing they've got going for them right now. I think what you saw on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans and probably in the public at large, is first of all in the substance. People are fine with this program. You know, we've known there's been data mining around. People accept the fact as long as they're not listening to my conversations but they're just recording who gets called and they have this massive database with billions of calls, so if it helps them prevent another attack, fine.

What they don't like and especially what members of Congress don't like is the fact that the White House was not forthcoming with this last December, when this came out. We've known they've been doing these big data mining things. Why don't they just let us know that it's also domestic as well as international?

SIEGEL: But the argument we've heard from the White House and its defenders, that it's a blow to national security every time something like this reported. That doesn't seem to be a very popular attitude either.

BROOKS: No, and that's a plausible argument, especially to somebody like me, but I still don't understand why in this case it would be a blow to national security.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne?

DIONNE: Well, first of all I think most terrorists, I mean, I don't know a lot of terrorists personally, but I think they assume they are being tapped and investigated in all kinds of ways. So I don't see how revealing any of this in the newspapers is actually a severe threat. I think this sort of division in the Post poll is interesting and of course, it's a Post poll so it's entirely accurate. That, I think there's a lot of give on this issue. That people on the one hand say, I don't want to be blown up and I didn't do anything wrong so, yeah, it's okay to do this.

The fact that people want it disclosed, I think says that there's probably 20% or 30% of the public that's kind of torn between the civil liberties arguments and the national security arguments. But I think David pointed to something that's important and so did Susan Collins, which is, I think the administration's problem is that it hasn't been very forthcoming in explaining this and it seemed to lead people to believe that it was narrower than it actually is.

The president, early on when this came out, said, well, this is about terrorist surveillance, that they're only targeting international communications in which at least one party is overseas. Now, maybe he wasn't talking about data mining. But this is parsing the facts a little too fine and I think one of the reasons the president's in trouble in the polls is that he's lost trust and credibility, which used to be his calling cards. And I think it's a problem when they just don't say, here's what we're doing or here's what we can't talk about.

SIEGEL: On to another issue that has implications for the president and also for people running for Congress. The Congress has extended tax cuts whose expiration, scheduled for 2008, had permitted at least the appearance of some fiscal discipline and concern about the deficit. It was almost a straight party line vote. Do you think we're looking for a year in which Democrats and Republicans argue about tax cuts and that's going to be a major litmus test of who's on which side, David?

BROOKS: The Republicans hope so. This is another issue which they think they're probably on the side of the public. As far as the tax cuts I think, you know, keeping investment taxes low is probably a good policy option. They had to do something about the alternative minimum tax. That's also probably a good policy option.

That doesn't negate the fact that spending is one of the reasons Republicans are running away from the White House and from the Congress and I think what the White House is hoping and praying for, that the Congress will send them a piece of legislation, a budget, which comes in over the White House number and the White House can veto it and slam the Congress. That would be wonderful for the White House, but it's a symptom of something that's also happening this week, which is the Republicans in Congress and the Republicans in the White House are sniping out at each other viciously trying to take advantage of each other's weaknesses for their own benefit.

SIEGEL: You're saying a veto as theater or a veto as...

BROOKS: No, a veto as a real thing. I mean there are spending bills coming out and the White House would like to veto something.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: You know we have a slew of problems in the country and the problem that the Republicans in Congress decided to focus on was to make sure that two years from now the wealthiest people in the country would pay less in capital gains and dividends taxes.

I just do not think that this excites the Republican base outside of a small piece of Wall Street and indeed, in talking about where the president has gone in the polls there's this tendency to say, ah the Republicans have to gin up the base and pick particular Republican issues. I think this vastly overstates how ideological most Republicans are. A lot of the Republicans who are straying form the president aren't doing so because they think he's become some kind of liberal, they're doing it because they're not happy with what's going on in Iraq, they're not happy about oil prices.

It may come as a shock to some Democrats as well as conservative activists, but Republicans are citizens and people just like everybody else and I think it's on the fundamentals that the president is losing ground then ginning them up. As a people yourself, and a nonideolog you should know this.

BROOKS: I'm trying to be an ideology. I'm a wannabe.

DIONNE: You failed, that's a compliment.

BROOKS: Just as a matter of policy, I mean, since the cap gains cuts investment has surged, revenues are up like 13 percent so it's not clear to me it's a failure as a matter of policy.

DIONNE: The sign of a conservative is he refers to them as cap gains, not capital gains.

SIEGEL: He's on a nickname basis with the cap gains.

DIONNE: This was some very sluggish recovery compared to others. There's no evidence that these tax cuts have done all these wonders that you guys claim.

SIEGEL: You mentioned E.J. was it, did you mention Democrats a moment ago? Let's pursue those people, whoever they are. Where are they? What's their case in light of this Congress and White House that seem to be losing popularity?

DIONNE: You know what's intriguing is that for the first time in a long time, Democrats are starting to say maybe we've left first principals to the Republicans and maybe we should go back and say we want to talk about first principals again.

A prominent NPR commentator named David Brooks once called me years ago and said, what kind of ties do liberals wear? And he wasn't talking about what style, he was talking about Adam Smith ties or, you know, Calvin Coolidge ties. Liberals have not wanted to engage in the philosophical debate or defend their own tradition.

I think what you're seeing changing as the Republicans go down is a willingness on the part of liberals and Democrats to join the issue at a clearer level and to challenge conservatives on fundamentals on this radical individualism they preach overlayed with a kind of preachy religiosity and I think the debate's going to get much better if liberals have the guts finally to do that.

BROOKS: You call it principals, I call it ideology, which are adapting to - listen I think what's happened to the democratic party is the Clintonites have reasserted themselves and the center of the party, whether it's Hillary Clinton or Rahm Emanuel in the Congress, has really asserted itself and taken the lead from the people further on the left.

SIEGEL: The people further on the left being Howard Dean?

BROOKS: Or the people who want to withdraw from Iraq quickly, the people who really want to address issues like income and equality, more of the union agendas.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you both. David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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