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Brooks, Marcus Mull Court Politics, Health Care Reform

July 10, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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Columnists Ruth Marcus and David Brooks discuss top political news, including next week's hearings on Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, the pace of health care reform and President Obama's trip abroad.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away tonight.

David, how do you see the Sotomayor hearings playing out?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: I guess the way Tom Goldstein and Amy Walter just described it. I don’t see much there. And people have looked, as Goldstein said, for weeks and months. And when you read the opinions, even if you read it from a non-legal perspective, they seem very dry, very fact-oriented, very detailed, sort of deracinated. There’s not a lot of radicalism there, so not a lot to attack.

Now, having said all that, the fact that we all say that — at least I think that; I don’t know what Ruth thinks — maybe that means we’re all bound to be wrong, because maybe she’ll say something or David Cone, the former Mets and Yankees pitcher who’s going to testify on her behalf or appear on her behalf, will say something, or Frank Ricci, the New Haven firefighter who’s going to be against her, something is bound to happen, because it can’t be as smooth as we all anticipate.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, it can’t be that smooth, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be as smooth as David thinks it’s going to be, but I also don’t think we’re going to have some kind of Clarence Thomas-like bombshell, either.

There is, as Amy Walter said — Amy Walter said the Republicans might want to keep their powder dry and wait until the next one. They don’t have a lot of powder; it’s a pretty thin case.

JIM LEHRER: About her, you mean?

RUTH MARCUS: About her.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: It’s a pretty thin case to try to go against Judge Sotomayor, as David has said, and they haven’t really gotten traction with any of their arguments.

Nonetheless, I’m actually not convinced that’s going to stop them. Senator Sessions, who’s the new ranking member of the committee, said in an interview that he didn’t think her confirmation was a foregone conclusion. I think he’s wrong about that, but I think that that’s a signal that there is going to be a lot of fireworks before the inevitable conclusion, which is that she’ll be confirmed.

And I think the thing that I will be most interested in is whether, in this new line-up of the committee, with Senator Specter, who we’re always used to looking at as the Republican who might defect, with him having already defected to the other side, will it be a party-line vote against her and for her? Or will there be some mix-up? And I think that will be the interesting question.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, there’s a possibility of a mix-up? Or is it going to be strictly party line?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, she is quite liberal, and so I suspect there will be a lot of opposition on those grounds. But to get a real — to shake things up, they really have to get beyond the fact that she’s quite liberal. It has to get to some realm of activism, something that engages the public mind.

So I would suspect, because of her liberalism, it will be more like a party-line vote than not. I doubt it will be a unanimous vote or even close to that. But that doesn’t mean it will be a close vote.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think filibuster is off the table?

DAVID BROOKS: I would think so. You know, and part of it — you know, you just get the vibe in the conservative world. There are some people who do this for a living. They’re focused on this.

But I would say most conservative talk radio, most conservative politicians, there’s other things they’re worried about. They’re worried about health care; they’re worried about taxes, deficits. There’s a lot else going on. And so there really hasn’t been the focus among the activist community there might otherwise be.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of a lot of things going on — that’s called a segue in television…

RUTH MARCUS: Very elegant.

Obama's trip abroad

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
[President Obama] did pretty well with the Russians....Unfortunately, it was not seen by the Russian people.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, thank you very much. What about President Obama's trip abroad? He had a couple of summits. Let's start with the Russians. How do you think he did with the Russians?

RUTH MARCUS: He did pretty well with the Russians, but -- and so he got a good agreement on arms control. He got an agreement on over-flights to Afghanistan. He made a very good speech. Unfortunately, it was not seen by the Russian people, who might have benefited from seeing it, because it was not shown on Russian television.

But the question is, and then what? We've pushed the reset button. We've gotten a certain ways with the Russians, but how much further are we going to get? Is there going to be any kind of agreement on getting help with sanctions against Iran? What happened in Italy suggests probably not.

And so we are -- it was a fine Russian summit for what it was, but don't expect too much more.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I basically agree. My favorite moment came when he met with Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Russian Communist Party, and the Communist said, "I've studied your domestic program, and I think it's excellent."

So I would -- I would hope they bring him to the White House and maybe testify on behalf of the president.

RUTH MARCUS: He's going to be at the Sotomayor hearings, I think.

DAVID BROOKS: He might be testifying. That would be excellent. So, I mean, that was my favorite moment, but, in general, I think he did fine.

JIM LEHRER: He did. Anything accomplished from...

DAVID BROOKS: They got two small things: the renegotiation of the missiles and the START thing, and then they got an air flyover right to get into Afghanistan. Those were not major things. I think the major thing they accomplished was having a relationship with Putin and the regime.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that's real?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's a working relationship...

JIM LEHRER: Working relationship.

DAVID BROOKS: ... from what you can see. And, also, he did reach out to the opposition. The opposition leaders were pleased with what Obama said. And Obama, even though he didn't get televised, is always very conscious of, how am I talking to the people? And hopefully, some of the message he gave to the Russian people was also filtered through.

Results of the G-8 summit

David Brooks
The New York Times
If you're a global warming person who's worried about global warming, as we all should be, this has not been a great period.

JIM LEHRER: What about the G-8 part, the Italy part? Is there a list of accomplishments there that impressed you?

RUTH MARCUS: Not impressed so much, but I think you have to think about the baseline. When was the last time there was a G-8 summit that was a blockbuster, not...

JIM LEHRER: Uh, David?

DAVID BROOKS: That would be Madrid '02.

RUTH MARCUS: No, not. You have to go back to the '80s. But at any event, we saw some of the limitations on Iran, after bloodshed in the streets of Tehran, after this terrible episode. What could they say? "We deplore the post-election violence." Well, you could sort of see Ahmadinejad saying, "Whoa, I'm scared now."

And they basically said, "Well, we really need you to clean up your act on nuclear proliferation and openness, but -- and we'll deal with that in September." Well, on that, I'd say, "Good luck."

And on global warming, glass, I think, a little bit less than half-full. There was an aspirational agreement to lower the temperature, but not exactly an explanation of how. And the developing countries, China and India, which are essential players in lowering, in dealing with climate change, wouldn't agree on details.

JIM LEHRER: That's a great term, "aspirational agreement," is it not?

DAVID BROOKS: That's what a lot of us have with our friends.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think the big story here is the climate change and essentially the watering down of climate agreement. If you're a global warming person who's worried about global warming, as we all should be, this has not been a great period.

We had a very bad bill in the House, the prospect of really no bill in the Senate, and then internationally we've had opposition from the developing world, which will further strengthen the critics here at home. So you've seen a dilution of that whole energy, global climate momentum.

RUTH MARCUS: So stay tuned to Copenhagen.

JIM LEHRER: I have another segue. Copenhagen.

RUTH MARCUS: Sorry.

Health care reform

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
I think this was a bad week for health care. I think it was a week that actually would have benefited from President Obama's presence.

JIM LEHRER: I have another segue. Speaking of aspirational agreements, where are we on health care reform?

DAVID BROOKS: More aspirational than not, in fact, desperately aspirational. It's been a bad week for health care reform, and I would say on a number of fronts.

First, strictly on the Democratic front, there's wide disagreement on a whole series of fronts within the administration, in Congress, most seriously about how to pay for all this. The bill will be somewhere around $1.3 trillion. The House wants to do one thing; the Democrats in the Senate want to do something else. There's really been no sign of coming together even within the Senate, and so that's a political problem.

And then, to me, the larger problem is not only how are we going to pay the $1.3 trillion for this bill, but how are we going to reduce health care costs overall, health care inflation?

And to me, there's a splendid agreement. Republicans are against rationing; Democrats are against any competition. And so we are splendidly agreed that we will not control health care costs, and that's something we have bipartisan agreement on.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading on that?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I'm not quite as gloomy as David, but that's saying something. I'm still pretty gloomy.

I think this was a bad week for health care. I think it was a week that actually would have benefited from President Obama's presence. It's really time for him to step up and talk about what he believes needs to be seen in this bill.

JIM LEHRER: Take it away from the Congress?

RUTH MARCUS: Not take it away from the Congress, but assert himself a bit more. He has talked very eloquently about the need to have measures to bend the curve, as they like to say, on controlling costs, which is not there or is not there in any adequate measure in the provisions that we've seen so far.

And there was a very interesting letter sent this week publicly by Peter Orszag, the budget director, to the three chairmen of the relevant House committees, saying, Great work, guys. Love what you've done. Important progress, but it's not enough just to pay for health care. We have to figure out how to -- pay for the expansion. We have to figure out how to deal with these costs.

And that he was able to do that and do it publicly perhaps suggests the reason I'm not quite as gloomy as you are, that there may be a little bit of muscle put behind this.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David that, if you don't do something about health care costs, forget it, that it's not going to result in anything that matters?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I mean, it may result in something that matters and that would be good in the sense of expanding coverage for a lot of people who don't have coverage.

And expanding coverage and paying for it, if all the numbers work out correctly, is, I think, a good achievement in itself, though dangerous, because you've created a new entitlement program. And God knows what the costs could end up being in the second 10 years as opposed to the first 10. But I think to squander this opportunity to control costs would really be a tragedy.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I essentially agree with that, though I would think, if you don't control costs, I would think it's worth starting over.

Potential flaws

David Brooks
The New York Times
This was a core promise the president made, that this would be about controlling costs. That's not an optional part of health care reform; that's the central part of health care reform.

JIM LEHRER: Starting over?

DAVID BROOKS: I would think it would be worth opposing simply because -- I agree that covering more people would be valuable. But if we do this, and this, as everyone says, is a once-in-a-generation chance, if we do this without controlling the costs, that really ruins the budget deficit or the long-term fiscal picture for a long time.

This was a core promise the president made, that this would be about controlling costs. That's not an optional part of health care reform; that's the central part of health care reform. And if you don't do that, it seems to me you're missing one of the two big problems we're trying to address with this.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we've talked before that the stars are "finally aligned," end quote, for there to be health care reform. Do you think there's going to be some kind of health care reform, but it may be so flawed that it won't be that helpful?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think something will pass, and additional people will get coverage, but unless -- and I think the stars were aligned in part because there's a widespread desire. The public is not quite as engaged as they were in 1993, but they're engaged.

And the president was very serious about all the different aspects. And Peter Orszag, the budget director, is an expert on all this. And so that's why I do think they really do want to control costs in the White House.

And that's why I agree with Ruth: I think they have to get much more involved. I think they're waiting for conference committee after it passes out of the House. In my mind, that'll be a little too late.

RUTH MARCUS: That's a little dangerous strategy.

JIM LEHRER: So you still are vaguely optimistic?

RUTH MARCUS: I'm vaguely optimistic, but I have another worry, just to add to the gloom and doom, which is there's a little bit of a race against the economy and against the calendar. Time is running out. The Sotomayor nomination is going to take up time on the Senate floor.

And as the economy worsens, people are going to get more and more nervous about doing something that could add to the deficit, and they're going to start insisting that, well, that stimulus package he passed didn't do the job, so why should we trust him with health care?

JIM LEHRER: So I would call that cautious optimism.

RUTH MARCUS: Cautious, very cautious optimism.

JIM LEHRER: Very cautious. OK, thank you. Thank you very much, Ruth. Thank you very much, David.