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Brooks, Marcus on ‘Absurdity’ of Shutdown Debates, Paul Ryan’s Budget Plan

April 8, 2011 at 7:00 PM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus discuss the battles over the short- and long-term government budgets, including deadlocked negotiations over funding for this fiscal year and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal for fiscal year 2012.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away tonight.

David, what is happening with the people who run…

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: … and govern our country?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s absurdity. I mean, it really is absurdity.

The amount of money, by the federal budget standards, is trivial. The side issues are perennial issues which will never be settled. It’s like people getting divorced because they disagree about the napkins.

And so they’re just fighting and fighting. And all day, as you watch the press conferences and see the statements, first, you see them, totally different diagnosis on what on earth in happening.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so you can’t tell what is happening.

And then the rhetoric gets ratcheted up. I just heard the Democratic Caucus, some Democratic members saying, oh, the Republicans are declaring war on women. It’s “Third World War” on women. They’re killing women.

I mean, it’s the rhetoric we were supposed to be getting away from. And that’s true on both sides. So it’s just an embarrassment to both sides. And the only significance I can possibly see all this happening — well, it will be significant if the government shuts down — but is, what will be the effect on the serious issues, when we actually start talking about real issues?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Do you agree that it’s something kind of weird going on here?

RUTH MARCUS: Weird, absurd, those are all good adjectives.

JIM LEHRER: Dangerous, embarrassing, all of that stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: Yes. Get out the thesaurus.

But I think that David is right. The really important thing about this little episode — I have been calling it a tantrum — is what the impact will be on the actually important things that need to happen down the road. The most immediately important one is to raise the debt ceiling, which is what grownups do, even if they don’t like it, when they are faced with the need to keep the nation’s full faith and credit.

And there had been a theory at the start of this, you know, let the Tea Partiers shut down the government. It’ll be brief. It will be relatively painless as these things go. And they can have their tantrum over something reasonably unimportant, so that — and I don’t mean to trivialize shutting down the government but relatively unimportant.

And then, so, they — so the grownups can take charge and get everybody to behave when they need to behave when you are out at the supermarket checkout line in front of the candy. But I think the legacy of this shutdown is actually going to be bad for the future, because — two things. They — there’s a legacy of distrust and bitterness and hostility on both sides. And I’m talking about the grownups who are in the room trying to negotiate with each other, who are trying to get to a deal. And that is very scary for the future.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And if I could just add one other element…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: … I think, for the American public, when the public looks at Washington, when we start doing the serious stuff, the public is going to have to say, OK, they have cut a deal. I basically trust it will be done fairly, that if we all have to take some cuts, we will all take the cuts. It will be done fairly.

And this — the events last week certainly do not enhance trust in government.

JIM LEHRER: Well, picking up on your point, let’s assume, for discussion purposes, that the speaker of the House, John Boehner, is an adult and that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is an adult.

Boehner says this is only about money. Reid says, no, it’s not about money at all; it’s about social issues and it’s about women’s health.

So, what is going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

I assume what they are doing — and I hope this is true — they’re just trying to show their bases that they’re fighting as hard as they can for them, and then, at the end of the day, in the last minute or the last second, they will just cut a deal which has probably been in the works and they knew they were heading toward all along.

And so Boehner can say to his people, we fought for spending, we fought for spending. And Reid and the Democrats can say we fought for a right to choice. And then they will — but they will have known all along, well, we will cut a deal when we have to. We have just got to say, we fought hard for you.

JIM LEHRER: Would you go along with the thesis that, even if in fact, later tonight, they do strike a deal, and they technically don’t shut the government down, or whether they do, that everybody involved is going to come out a loser?

RUTH MARCUS: Pretty much.

I mean, how could you look at this episode, and who is the person that you respect in this process? And I think that the — and people will look at it and say, geez, if these people cannot agree on something that even we understand is a pretty small disagreement, a pretty small piece of the budget, how are they going to deal with the really important things?

The one thing that I think is going on, and it’s just been just very bizarre, “Rashomon”-like, where you have Boehner saying, we’re disagreeing about this, and Reid saying, we’re disagreeing about that, I think what is really going on is that the Republicans — one of the big divisions has been this rider to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

That is just anathema to Democrats. They are not going to accept it. Republicans know that. Instead, what the Republicans are looking for is to take the general federal-funding program for family planning known as Title X, to turn that into a block grant, to give it to states, many of which, you may recall, have Republican governors and perhaps give those Republican governors the flexibility to administer the program in a way that, guess who, Planned Parenthood, might not be able to get the funds.

So that’s, I think, a piece of the explanation for why the two sides are saying completely, seemingly opposite things, but they’re actually fighting about something that’s — they know what they are fighting about.

JIM LEHRER: The issue, though — if you take that issue, and the argument, at least the Democratic argument, has been, hey, this is no time to be talking about things like that. Let’s just put the money together and keep the government running. We have got troops. We have got three wars going on.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: We have got all kinds of things going on. We can take care of that issue, as Ruth just outlined, through the normal legislative process.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I agree with that, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And not only I agree with that. A lot of pretty serious pro-life people agree with that. Sen. Coburn from Oklahoma said something like that. Sen. Toomey from Pennsylvania said something like that.

And I think they threw this in there, in part just to — it’s primary campaigning. And a lot of this is primary campaigning done on a national stage, so people can say, you know, to social conservatives, to economic conservatives, see, I fought for your issue. I care about this. I threw it in there.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, we have a president of the United States who we haven’t heard from — one word from today.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.

JIM LEHRER: A lot in the last, couple, three days.

RUTH MARCUS: He had a late night.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: He was up late. And he canceled his trip to Indiana.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: How does he come out in all of this? Where does he fit into this?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he doesn’t come out particularly well either, in part because he’s been semi-involved, and he gets criticism for being semi-involved or for not involved.

But I think he’s been soiled, like everyone else involved in it. I sort of don’t blame him. He’s stuck with this process. From what I have heard, he is not particularly happy about the way this is being conducted. He would like to get on to the bigger and more serious issues.

But he looks like someone who, A., the president not leading — and this has been a charge made about him on a series of issues — not being active, and someone who can’t execute a government that seems to function normally.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, two things. The president said last night, “And I would like you to get back to me in the morning.”

Well, if you are the boss, and you tell — and people don’t get back to you in the morning, that eliminates a little bit of — diminishes your bossiness, or boss-ness. The second thing is I think it’s actually a lesson for the White House for, as I said, the debt ceiling down the road.

On that one, the White House, the administration is going to have to be involved as early as possible to figure out what it is going to take to get the deal, because it is not going to be an up-or-down vote on raise the ceiling, don’t raise the ceiling.

JIM LEHRER: The same issues are going to be raised.

RUTH MARCUS: The same issues are going to — some of the same issues. We’re going to hear a lot, my favorite phrase, actually, budget process.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: We are going to hear a lot about budget process and hard caps and things like that. But it is going to take something like that to get — to cobble together the votes.

And, on that one, the brinkmanship actually has consequences.

DAVID BROOKS: To get there, you would have — you have to have built up months and years of personal relationships. These things don’t happen when you have personal relationships. And…

JIM LEHRER: These things like what is happening right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I don’t think they do, because they say, OK, listen, we’re friends.

JIM LEHRER: Come on, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And then let’s take care of this.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: We feel a sense of loyalty to one another.

And you’re seeing the effect of a Washington where people will occasionally sit in a room together, but they don’t have the sense of emotional commitment that we’re brothers underneath it all. And so — and this is what happens.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Sen. Corker — we had it in Kwame’s piece at the beginning — he said, it’s outrageous, what we are standing around saying about each other.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: And that is what you are talking about.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s been a mayor. And, yes, and so that’s…

JIM LEHRER: The mayor of Chattanooga.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so that’s — that’s sort of the sad thing about all this.

And, at the same time, there’s this other debate going on which is about the serious stuff. And it is a heated debate, as it should be. But you have got a couple people at the same time this is happening really talking about the big issues. I mean, Paul Ryan from Wisconsin is one. I think the president would like to talk about the big issues. And that stuff is what really matters.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Speaking of Paul Ryan, of course, he is chairman of the House Budget Committee and came out with a plan for 2012.

What do you think about it?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I had two completely opposite reactions.

The first was, good for him. I like anybody who is willing to come out and put a comprehensive plan on the table for dealing with the long-term debt, which involves some very painful changes in entitlements. It’s going to require that no matter whose plan it is. So, good for him.

It’s not a — it’s not, when I say comprehensive, it’s a plan that has a lot of holes in it. And you can pick apart some of the assumptions, but it’s still a plan. And some people have said it’s suicidal, it’s such a plan.

But my second reaction is, OMG. The — the cuts in here are…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my…

RUTH MARCUS: Goodness.

JIM LEHRER: Goodness.

RUTH MARCUS: God.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: The cuts in here are so dramatic. They are so painful. And they — and many of them are focused — I know this is not his intention, but he turns, for example, Medicaid, which is the health-care program for poor people, into a block grant. You give it to states.

But then it just doesn’t grow enough to deal with the increase in health-care costs. Well, what happens to these people? Similarly with food stamps, same thing, block grant. Money goes to states. What happens during a downturn? More people go onto food stamps. Does the money go up? No. So, how do you deal with that?

And, similarly, there’s a lot of questions about what would happen to elderly people who will no longer have all their Medicare costs covered but will have what is essentially a voucher, will have a set amount of money that they can use to buy insurance. And that doesn’t go up with inflation. So, there’s a lot of problems.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are some problems, but I think it’s a big step forward.

JIM LEHRER: Positive step?

DAVID BROOKS: We have been saying, let’s not focus on the trivialities. Let’s focus on the long term. Ryan does that.

Let’s not just focus on discretionary spending. Let’s focus on entitlement. Ryan does that. And then he says, let’s face the implications of your choices. Right now, the American people want more government than they are willing to pay for. And so he says, OK, you’re only willing to pay 18 percent of GDP for government. Here’s the government you are going to get.

And so, that’s a real choice. And I wish the Democrats would say, OK, if you want to preserve these programs, we’re going to have to raise some taxes. You have got to pay for the programs you want.

And so that is the debate we need to get. There are about six things that have to happen before we get to a real compromise. I think he has taken one of those six things by really putting entitlements on the table. I agree with Ruth about some of the cuts. I wouldn’t prefer them, but I do think he has moved us forward in sort of an important way.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it’s going to be taken seriously — I don’t mean endorsed and accepted, but taken seriously as a place to start serious debate about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s up to Barack Obama.

I mean, Obama can say, as many Democrats and many Republicans fear — a lot of Republicans think this is politically suicidal — he will just say, look at how they are cutting. That is our issue for 2012.

The alternative is to say: I hate what they are doing, but they are doing something, and so here’s my counterproposal.

And we will see what he does.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

RUTH MARCUS: Waiting for the counterproposal. Nobody would be happier.

The president — the White House press secretary came out with a statement after Congressman Ryan released his plan. He said: We think this is a really important issue. The president thinks it’s incredibly important. We think this approach is wrong. We are in favor of a more balanced approach.

And that would be? And, so, I’m waiting. One of the things that’s fascinating about Ryan putting out his plan is, you have Simpson-Bowles. You have Ryan. So the whole debate has shifted seriously rightward. We need to have the other alternative.

JIM LEHRER: OK. And we will see where it goes from here.

David.

Ruth, good to see you again.

RUTH MARCUS: Thanks.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

Thank you. It’s good to see you again, too, David.

(LAUGHTER)