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Week In Politics: Two Weeks Of Shutdown, And Debt Ceiling Talks


We're going to talk politics now with our Friday regulars, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

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

SIEGEL: Hopes are high, stock prices are even higher now that it seems at least possible that the government will reopen soon and that the government won't stop paying its debt. It's a pretty low bar for optimism, but I wonder what both of you think as to whether this particular round in the perennial fiscal fight in Washington is teaching any lessons that might make a recurrence of it any less likely down the road. David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think it is going to be pretty much less likely because it's been pretty decisive. I'm mourning because has been awesome this week here in Washington, but we're about to lose all that.

SIEGEL: We can drive to and from work more easily.

BROOKS: But, you know, the lessons on the Republicans, you know, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll just came out this week, was just devastating for them, probably the most popular - unpopular party, I think, in the history of these kind of polls. So they're down to about 28 percent. Obamacare is more popular. They're getting the blame.

The leaders of all this, people like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, Republican senators, their popularity is under water. So it's been pretty decisive and pretty crushing and so if you want to pick a fight with the president and you're a Republican, you want to shut down the government, it's hard to see a more fixed decision than this one.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: I think it a rout of the Republicans and that does have real implications, 24 percent positive rating. On the question of whether people want a Republican or a Democratic Congress in that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, in July, the two parties were tied. In this poll, Democrats ahead, 47-39. So it's very clear that in a very short time, the Republicans have moved the public against them.

And I think we also learned a lesson here that President Obama, who, in earlier confrontations, seemed to move to negotiations early, sometimes he seemed ready to start with the other side's offering, you know, asking price, this time held very firm and said, no, we've got to change the system. We can't have this again.

Now, we're going to learn a lot over the next few days about how we move forward but I think that the Republican Party has gotten a real warning. And moderate Republicans, who've been very timid in all this, may after it's all over, go to their Tea Party folks and say, do you want to be in the majority or the minority in the next Congress?

'Cause if you do this to us again, the moderates will say we'll be in the minority.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about three key players here, President Obama, Speaker Boehner, Harry Reid. David? I mean, we heard E.J.'s appraisal of President Obama. Others, are their performances worthy of note or of special criticism? What would you say?

BROOKS: Yeah, I wouldn't say anybody's distinguished themselves with creativity. I guess, from Democrats, the three of them will get some credit for hanging tough while the - but, you know, it was the Republicans who committed suicide, so they stood back and let it happen. So I'm not sure I give them masterly points for being the Lyndon Johnsons out of all this.

SIEGEL: Does Boehner survive as speaker from this episode if he reaches an agreement with the president?

BROOKS: Yes, if anything he's enhanced, to be honest. You know, his doubters have always come from the right. He hung tough with them, so he showed them that he can hang tough. And so he may have hurt the party, but helped his own speakership.


DIONNE: That's possible, although I do think that Speaker Boehner really showed a kind of solicitude to a right wing that he disagreed with right from the start that really damaged his relations with Obama and severely damaged his relations with Harry Reid. Harry Reid stood very tough on this, partly because he thought he had an agreement with Boehner that if the Senate agreed to the Republicans' number on this continuing resolution, Boehner would get it through.

Boehner is like the negotiator who says, well, I agree to this and then comes back and says, gee, I can't deliver on this 'cause the guys behind me won't back me. So he's got some work to do if he wants to reestablish some relations with the other side.

SIEGEL: I mean, there are two big ways of looking at this. Number one, that it's been a series of very contingent calculations and miscalculations. The other is that it reflects this very deep division we have in Washington. At some point, the parties have to talk about revenues and entitlements and they just - there isn't a lot of common ground. Or is there, David? Is there enough common ground to reach something that puts this fiscal war at an end?

BROOKS: Among the think-tankers and among the economists, you know, they could sit down and hammer an agreement in three and a half minutes. The political problem is the political problem. But the way this got off track was it was focusing on Obamacare and that was Ted Cruz's stupidity. And so - Paul Ryan has now dragged it back to the crucial issue, which was how are we going to trade domestic spending, which we should do more of, discretionary spending, welfare, education, that sort of thing, Medicare spending we should probably do less of.

That's the sort of deal that's out there sitting and it's always been sitting there. Because of Ted Cruz's stupidity, we got sidetracked into this suicidal pact over Obamacare. But now, we're sort of slowly getting back to that core debate which is really where it should've been all along.

DIONNE: I am skeptical of the grand bargain for this reason, that the grand bargain always envisions a combination of some reduction in entitlements, which not only Democrats don't want to do but Republicans, except for Ryan, have been reluctant to put their names on; some tax increases and more domestic spending or investment on the other side.

And I think it's going to be very hard to get the votes in the Republican side for any further tax increases, which in turn will make it very difficult for Democrats to agree to very much in terms of cuts. So I'm not optimistic of any grand bargain anytime soon.

SIEGEL: I was struck today that just as Obamacare seems to have disappeared from the discourse of what's going on here, that at the Values Voters gathering in Washington, Ben Carson, the African-American pediatric neurosurgeon and sort of coming star conservative commentator referred to Obamacare as the worst thing to happen to the country since slavery.

There's still a hysteria out there about the Affordable Care - not that it's a bad or imperfect law, but that it's a national catastrophe, David.

BROOKS: If you hang around those conference rooms in the hotels in Washington, modulated rhetoric is not always the characterization that you see in these places.


BROOKS: So I would say that's not totally unusual. I do think it's a mistake, and to be honest, if we hadn't had this government shutdown, we'd be talking about how bad the enrollment has gone because the computer programs as people try to register, or more succinctly fail to register, for this thing have been pretty disastrous.

That would be the story of the week if the Republicans hadn't hogged the limelight.

DIONNE: The hysteria, though, is not just in hotel ballrooms. I think the Republican Party's problem is that it's used that hysteria at times, the establishment of the party to the extent that there is such a thing, to work people up, to raise money to get votes. And then it turns around that a lot of people take this hysteria seriously.

I mean, it's absurd to see Obamacare, a market-based solution to the problem of providing more coverage, as a national catastrophe. But they've played with this hysteria and it came back to bite them in this crisis.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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