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Brooks and Marcus Discuss Washington’s Effect on the Economy, Budget Deal Hopes

March 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus talk with Jeffrey Brown about February's job report and how much politics and the government policy -- sequestration in particular -- effect the economy, plus the possibility of a bipartisan budget agreement and Rand Paul's John Brennan filibuster.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is off today.

Welcome to you.

So, go back to the top of the show. Good news, David, on the jobs front, good news for the economy, even as Washington dysfunction continues.

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Yes.

We overestimate how much effect Washington has. It’s sort of like you’re so vain, you really think this economy is about you. I have asked a bunch of business leaders …

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t want to sing that for us?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t, not with my voice today.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: I have asked a bunch of business leaders, you know, how much — over the past five years, what government actions have really affected a concrete decision you have made?

And you get answers all over the lot. There is no consensus at all on this question. The number one answer I get is uncertainty. I can’t plan because health care costs, because financial regulations. The number two answer I get is nothing. I can’t think of any way the government, even the big stimulus — the third answer I get is, the stimulus helped us. And the fourth answer I get is some other thing.

And so it has had — I think what we do here in Washington has an effect on the macroeconomy. But the idea that the fiscal cliff or the little things we’re doing here and now, even the sequester, which is all bad government, the idea that it has a huge effect on hiring decisions, I remain dubious.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the — the sequester, of course, in the run-up to all that, many economists said that is bad. The president, of course, was saying it could be very bad.

RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: Sky is falling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: I would disagree with David, because I do think that what happens in Washington does matter. It just doesn’t simply matter instantly.

So we haven’t seen built into these job numbers any of the impact of the sequester. And I think it’s important to remember we avoided the fiscal cliff, but there still was, with the expiration of that payroll tax holiday, a drag on the economy.

There is definitely going to be a drag on the economy with the impact of the sequester when it starts to be felt. That’s going to be in a month or two and in a rolling way. So, this is a terrific jobs number. That is good. But this has been a slow and fragile recovery.

And nobody should celebrate too much just yet or discount, sorry, David, the impact of Washington.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, I mean, obviously, there are drags. And I agree. Things are drags. But there are also pluses out there, the lowering of oil, of gas prices, that is obviously a plus. So there is a complex mixture of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, from a political standpoint, do you take it further and say — did the president overplay his hand to some degree, in saying — in the sky is falling toward the sequestration?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I thought sequestration was absolutely terrible policy. So, from the point of view of are we running a decent government, it was terrible.

From the point of view are — do people want a sign that their government can actually function, and does that overall level of confidence affect economic performance, I think he was right about that. If he was saying, well, a 0.25 percent drop in federal spending, whatever it was going to be, is going to have an immediate economic effect on hiring decisions, that was probably oversold.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the politics of the sequestration right now? Because we spent so much time talking after the election about the president has the upper hand, right, and that Republicans are down. Does it — has it flipped at all now?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, the president has the upper hand because he’s the president, by definition. But he’s still got a Republican House to deal with.

I want to go back for just a second on the sequester, because we had this odd thing. During the campaign, we refuse — when I say we, I mean President Obama and Mitt Romney refused to talk about — declined to talk about the fiscal cliff, declined to talk about the sequester.

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t think she was talking about all of us.

RUTH MARCUS: The — even after the election, we didn’t hear about the sequester for a while.

Then, all of a sudden, the administration way overplayed its hand by making it seem as if the sky was imminently falling. We may well feel, we probably will feel the impact of these things, not just in the macroeconomy, but because it’s a small part of overall government spending, but it is a large part of government spending on some particular programs.

Wait for those airport lines. David’s going be on a flight later tonight. I’m sure will be whisked right to the front.

So, when the — but when the president — now the president has completely flipped again.

He’s gone from sky is falling, let’s go out and trumpet to the country how terrible and irresponsible these Republicans are to cozying up with them in this mealtime diplomacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes, so that’s where I wanted to go.

The president has dinner. He invites 12 Republicans to a hotel in Washington, neutral territory.

What do you make of that? Is that — is that — is it useful? Is it helpful?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

First, I’m shocked that Ruth thinks I’m flying commercial.

I am flying commercial. I want to make that clear. So I think …

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s in a different economy altogether.

RUTH MARCUS: Oh, if I only knew how the other half lived.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

So, I think it’s vastly over — overdue. Those of us who interview these people have a sense that they’re — you interview them separately. And they do a lot of time guessing about what the other party is thinking. And then a lot of times, what you hear — and you heard this especially from Republicans — wildly inaccurate views of what Obama was proposing, let alone what he believed in private.

And so the idea was, why don’t you guys just get together? And I remember this — thinking this four or five years ago. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama are two wonks. If they could actually sit around a table — and you would think he has had a lot of lunches since he’s president. Just choose one and have Paul Ryan come over.

And so it’s always mystified me that it hasn’t happened. But it has happened. And so far, the effect has entirely — as far as we can tell, been entirely positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think it’s great that it has happened. I question why it didn’t happen sooner, either four years ago or two months ago.

I also think that, yes, the first results are entirely positive. But it is a long way from dinner to dessert.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: And, yes, there may be — there are some signs of what the president called the commonsense caucus in the Senate, some willingness from Sen. McCain, Sen. Ayotte, Sen. Graham to accept some new revenue as part of tax reform, and if you combine it with controlling entitlement spending, that is all terrific.

And the president ought to be able to agree to that. But there is that thing I mentioned earlier, which is, even if you could get an agreement on that, in that grand bargain that we keep sitting here talking about, how do you get it past the House, where there seems to be …

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

RUTH MARCUS: I interviewed Paul Ryan the other day — absolutely no willingness to accept new revenue, even as part of tax reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the president is next week continuing this. Right? He goes to Capitol Hill four times, including to talk to the House Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: But, obviously, the basic structural problems are not going to go away with a few meals.

But I do think there has been sort of a lowering of the desire to ratchet every discussion up into World War III. And so I think on the budget where they — they seem to have jointly decided, let’s stop having these budget fights. And so on some of the budget — thinking how to get past the sequester or really lock in the sequester, they seem to have said, let’s have a compromise that we won’t raise all the hot-button issues. We will just try just get through these things and we get on to other stuff.

I think the meals have helped a little on that.

RUTH MARCUS: They have decided to temporarily halt all these budget fights, so we won’t …

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

RUTH MARCUS: I think it’s highly unlikely we will have a government shutdown at the end of March.

But I really would keep an eye on, yes, once again, the debt ceiling debate that we’re going have come May, June, July.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m resisting more meal metaphors here.

But to move on to another phenomenon this week which was — it was the filibuster by Rand Paul.

He had a lot of Republicans praising him, right, off the bat. And then, 24 hours later, he got hammered by John McCain, Lindsey Graham. So what do you make of the divisions there?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, it’s very interesting.

First of all, I would say it’s not particularly senatorial to call your colleague a wacko bird.

That is an interesting way to get along with everybody. That is what Senator McCain had to say about Senator Paul.

Look, there are a bunch of divisions in the Republican Party, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, isolationists, neocon democracy promoters. And this is another one between the libertarians and those who believe in strong executive authority, and particularly during the war on terror.

We didn’t hear a lot from that group during the Bush administration. Now you have a Democratic president, that may have enhanced it a little bit. I thought the — that Senator Paul did a good service, in the sense that he brought attention to this drone issue, which has been underattended to in terms of what are we doing, where are we doing it, what is the legal basis for it, who exactly is doing it. Those are all legitimate questions.

The problem I had with what he did was that he was asking exactly the wrong question, which was conjuring up this fanciful notion that we could be attacked right here, right now any …

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

RUTH MARCUS: … by some president run amok.

That’s not going to happen. The attorney general told him it wasn’t going to happen. He refused to take no for an answer. But I do think that the sort of larger question of drone transparency is a valuable one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, is it — is it a legitimate debate over national security within the party? And is it a debate that has future consequences, political consequences?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is an ancient debate. If you go back through Robert Taft, the Republican Party has had a reasonably strong anti-military wing — not anti-military, but anti-interventionist wing.

And that goes back for decades. It was sort of quieted. It tends to grow when there is a Democrat in the White House. So, when Bill Clinton was contemplating action in Kosovo, suddenly, it got very big again. When a Republican is president, it vanishes. And it will vanish again when there is any sense of a threat.

So, for example, there were a lot of people who were cheering Ron Paul on, like Rush Limbaugh, because he was jabbing the president. But if it comes time that there is some American threat and there is a need for military intervention somewhere, they will be with John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he’s not also jabbing the Republican establishment at the same time?

DAVID BROOKS: He is. But I think they like the fact that he is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

And so I do think his — what looks like his side of the debate is bigger than it was five years ago — there’s no question about that — but looks artificially inflated compared to where it is now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just a couple minutes. And I wanted to turn from politics to a sort of cultural marker, which is the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, has a new book, “Lean In,” prompting a discussion of whether women can have it all or whether just the best-off women can have it all.

What do you think? Is this a — is it a cultural moment? Is it a useful moment?

RUTH MARCUS: It is a constant cultural moment.

It seems like the endless debate, and I imagine some woman sitting in this chair 20, 30 years from now having exactly the same discussion, probably with a couple guys — nothing personal.

DAVID BROOKS: I will still be here.

RUTH MARCUS: You and David will still be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, we will try to be here, I guess.

RUTH MARCUS: We will wheel you in.

Look, we had this conversation last summer when Anne-Marie Slaughter of the State Department wrote what I thought was a not-terribly well-thought-through piece called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s book is very interesting, because she talks from, admittedly — she acknowledges this — I am privileged. I — most women who work don’t have the flexibility I do. Many women who do have the flexibility I do haven’t made the same choices I do. That’s all fine.

But she talks not just about bias or discrimination, conscious or unconscious, in the workplace, but about the ways in which women, consciously or unconsciously, contribute to their own inability to have it all or lack of success. And I think it’s going to spark a very, very interesting debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the man’s view?

DAVID BROOKS: You can have it all. This is the essence of conservatism. No one can have it all. There are always tradeoffs in life. The world isn’t structured so you can have it all.

I will say two things. One, why are so few women crossing the CEO ceiling? I think the evidence is, overwhelmingly, it’s childbirth. There is some sexism in there, but it’s primarily a lot of women do not want to commit themselves to that sort of life. And, so, it’s that.

Second, I’m just struck — Katie Roiphe wrote a good piece about this in Slate magazine — why so much hostility toward her, especially from feminist circles? It’s as if a lot of people want to have women successful. But when they actually have a successful woman, they are extremely hostile to her, because she is out of touch and she doesn’t get it. So, my sympathy is mostly with her.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I will give you one sentence, if you can rebut whatever or respond in one sentence.

RUTH MARCUS: I think Sheryl Sandberg’s point about childbirth is, yes, and you might make different choices, but don’t cut off your choices before you know that’s what you want to do. Keep yourself in the mix.

And you know what? Have the guts, as she does, to leave the — leave the office at 5:30 and then check in at home.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. All right, a discussion we have started, and, actually, we are going to try to continue it on the program next week.

Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thanks very much.