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Brooks and Dionne Discuss Conflict in the GOP, Confronting Gun Violence

September 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including prospects of a government shutdown, conflict and leadership within the Republican party, the politics of choosing a new Federal Reserve chairman and the shooting at the Navy Yard.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Mark Shields is off today.

Gentlemen, welcome.

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

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just nine days until the start of the fiscal rear, David, the Republicans in the House have thrown down the gauntlet. They’re not going to fund the government for the coming year, they say, unless the president’s health care plan is zeroed out. Where is it headed?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m Mr. Pollyanna on this. I think we’re — it will be fine.

I think what happened, there was a minority of House Republicans who upset the majority, upset the leadership. They wanted to have this big thing, we’re going to defund Obamacare, or else shut we’re going to down the government. The leaders didn’t really want to do this. They thought it was a dead end or, as they’re now calling it, a box canyon, which is the metaphor of the week.

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And — so, but they have got these people. They are going to give them what they want, from pressure from the right. So they give them what they want. They pass this thing, no funding for Obamacare. It’s going to die in the Senate. And then I think they are going to come back or either fudge or cave in. And I suspect we will not be shutting down the government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you think?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think the Republicans at this point are going to call in Vladimir Putin to settle their civil war.

(LAUGHTER)

E.J. DIONNE: I mean, this is an astonishing fight within the Republican Party.

And the one guy bringing them together is Senator Ted Cruz, who is the guy who pushed the Republicans in this direction and then said, well, really, we’re not going to do it in the Senate. It’s up to you guys in the House. Later, he made a kind of Churchillian statement, saying, I will fight all the way.

But a lot of Republicans are alienated that they got put in this box. The moderate Republicans say, we shouldn’t be here at all. And the conservatives say, well, are you going to really back us up? I am more inclined than I was a few days ago to think we will avoid a shutdown.

There’s a lot of pressure building within the Republican Party to say, this is the dumbest strategy we could pursue. And I think that is starting to sink in. But the right wing of that party feels this very, very strongly. And so I’m not sure they’re going to roll over all that easily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, given that, who is calling the shots in the Republican Party? Who is in charge in the House of Representatives?

DAVID BROOKS: Apparently, Senator Ted Cruz is in charge of the House…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: … and with these 43 or some-odd couple dozen more Tea Party Republicans.

Mostly, there are a couple things going on. First, the people on the far right — well, we will call it the far right — have just the media behind them. They have got a lot of momentum behind them. And nobody really wants to anger them. And it’s just easier to placate if you are leadership than it is to really take them on.

I think that’s probably a wrong strategy long-term. At some point, you have got to a showdown probably with the Ted Cruzes of the world if you are in leadership. At some point, if are you in leadership — and, believe me, the Republican leaders detest him. He’s really unpopular. And at some point, they think he will burn out. Maybe that’s true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s Cruz.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s Cruz — because they want to impose some party structure. They want the leaders of the party to lead a party. They believe politics is a team sport.

A lot of these Republicans like Cruz and like some in the House and like Jim DeMint, who is a former senator now at the Heritage Foundation, they are doing very well for themselves by running against the Republican Party. They can raise a lot of money. They can build their national stature, potential presidential options.

But it’s very bad for the leadership. And so, eventually, I think they are going to have to have a confrontation and they’re going to have show who’s boss somehow.

 

E.J. DIONNE: You know, I think the answer to your question when you ask who is the leader of the Republican Party, right now, there is really no leadership.

And I was talking to a conservative today who made a really interesting point. A lot of Republicans aren’t necessarily worried that they will lose a primary to a Tea Party candidate. What they are worried about is having the primary in the first place, having to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, face a lot of negative ads.

And so a lot of Republicans are just reluctant to cross the right, even when they are not inclined to agree with them. And that sort of really makes John Boehner’s job very difficult. And Boehner himself is worried about crossing them because he’s worried about losing his leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But David is saying that the leadership needs to confront the Tea Party.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I could make the alternative case, just let it sort of play itself out. But, you know, that’s a dangerous game.

And the problem the leadership has, what exactly is their leverage over these people, whether you are leadership in the House or leadership — they really are fervent believers. They have total conviction in their cause. They’re not afraid of being denied committee assignments. And, crucially — and this really has affected Capitol Hill in terrible ways — when we got rid of earmarks, we got rid of the power leaders have over their own members.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so getting rid of the earmarks, the little special interest spending legislation, was very bad for Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this isn’t the end of it. You have got the debt ceiling decision coming up in just a few weeks.

How do you see this getting revolved? I mean, are we looking potentially at a government shutdown?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think — as I say, I think it receded a little bit this week. But the debt ceiling is really frightening.

If — we don’t know exactly what would happen if Congress doesn’t approve the debt ceiling. And you wonder if Speaker Boehner might win this round, meaning they will get some kind of agreement so we don’t shut down the government, but then have to do something for the right wing then on Obamacare.

And it’s really — this fixation on Obamacare, I think, is really important. And I have started to believe that they’re not afraid of Obamacare because they think it won’t work. They’re afraid of it because they think it will work.

And Ted Cruz almost said that when he said, look, this is our last chance, because people will get hooked on Obamacare.

People don’t get hooked on bad programs. They get hooked on Social Security. They get hooked on Medicare. And so I think there really is this fear, we can’t let this have a chance.

DAVID BROOKS: There, I disagree with you. They really think it’s not going to work.

There’s all these anomalies in the law. There are things that are — there are things that are just messing up already. They’re reasonably confident it will not work, and they just think it is a job killer. It is also political gold for them. It’s an extremely unpopular program. So it’s a no-brainer politically and substantively as far as they’re concerned.

E.J. DIONNE: The particulars are popular.

If you poll on Obamacare, it’s unpopular. But people want to keep protections against being discriminated against on preexisting conditions. They want to keep their kids on parents’ plans. There are a whole bunch of things here where if you repealed Obamacare, people would say, wait a minute, we just lost a lot of stuff.

I think — and I think it’s going to work better than David does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about the Federal Reserve.

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers took himself out of the running, an unusual step, this week. The White House is now saying, indicating, suggesting it’s probably — or that Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve governor, is probably the candidate to chair the Federal Reserve.

 

But what does all this say, David, about how the White House, how the president has handled this? What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m a little mystified by the fact that, after the Susan Rice imbroglio, in which she was sort of hung out there and there was no comment from the White House and people were attacking her, debating whether she would or wouldn’t be a good secretary of state, they got in exactly the same fix with Larry Summers, sort of mentioning names, floating names.

And then he is sort of hanging out there being attacked from the left, being defended a little, being — not being defended enough from inside. And it takes the decision-making power out of the president’s hands and becomes a public volleyball. And it’s unfair to Summers, as it was unfair to Rice.

And it’s sort of unfair to the president, because he can’t make a decision. So my advice would be pick somebody and make the decision quickly. Don’t let it become a tug-of-war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain the thinking behind all this?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I’m not sure what thinking there was behind this.

(LAUGHTER)

E.J. DIONNE: I mean, I think this was a real problem with the handling. First, he kind of leaks prematurely that Bernanke is leaving. That sets off all of this speculation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president.

E.J. DIONNE: The president, yes.

And if he really wanted Larry Summers, he had to move really quickly. He allowed this to brew. And there is within the Democratic Party now a more assertive, if you will, populist left that is really unhappy about some aspects of Clintonism and Obamaism, particularly the deregulation of the 1990s that Larry Summers was involved in.

Now, I think Summers is actually more liberal than his image. Nonetheless, he was very much entangled in that. In the meantime, they already had a problem with not appointing enough women, in the eyes of women. And here you have Janet Yellen, who is an eminently qualified person, whatever her agenda.

And so they just had a situation where progressive Democrats were ready to draw a line here and make a point. And they had to back down, and Larry Summers had to drop out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we will see what happens. We expect there could be an announcement pretty soon.

Another grim subject, another mass shooting this week, David, everybody dismayed at this tragic shooting at the Navy Yard here in Washington. The focus again seems to be on people with mental illness, emotional problems having access to guns. Is there any sense that either Congress or there’s some mechanism to get at that, or what? What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think nothing’s going to happen on the gun front. The fact that two Colorado state legislators lost their jobs recently over gun laws, I think that suggests, at least in the near term, gun control legislation is not going anywhere.

Gun control legislation has become less popular since the Connecticut shooting in the school. But the mental health thing has sort of bipartisan support. I have always thought that was the best way to go. There are 250 million guns in the country. It’s really hard to regulate guns and keep them out of the hands of people.

We could have a much, much, much better mental health system. And I have always thought investing in there, first of all, it may prevent some of these violent attacks, but, more importantly, you get a better mental health system. And so doing on its own intrinsic basis is worth it even without the shooting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why hasn’t that happened? You have now had several incidents, mass shootings, where people — the perpetrators were people who were documented to have had emotional or mental problems.

E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, I suspect if you look at the sequester, we’re probably taking lot of money out of mental health as we sit here.

I don’t disagree on with David on the importance of mental health, but I think it is a gigantic evasion to say we can’t do anything about guns. If you look at the list of countries in the world that have had mass shootings over the last — I think it’s 50 years, we are number one at 15. Finland is number two with two of them.

There’s something different about us. It’s not that we are a more violent people. It’s that we have the most permissive gun laws in the world. And I just think this is one of those subjects, as a coach of one of my sons once said, where you just have to keep coming at them.

And I think when you look at the side that wants to have some really sensible regulations on guns, they have not been as well-organized as the NRA. The NRA has been at this for 30 years. There’s been a renewal of organization since Newtown. And I think you just have to keep coming back at this.

A lot of states have passed better laws, even though you had the recalls in Colorado. And I think you have got to bring it back to the floor of the Senate. And sometimes you have got to lose some fights before you can win them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think that’s doable?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I just — I think there’s so little evidence. Many, many studies on gun control, whether it reduces violence, whether it’s murder or anything else, gun control does reduce suicide. It doesn’t seem to reduce violence all that much.

I just think there’s relatively weak evidence and week effects you get from trying to control the guns, much more promising to try to do something on the mental health side. And this is why it hasn’t happened. It has become a left-right feud. The right talks about mental health. The left talks about the guns.

E.J. DIONNE: But the right talks about mental health, and then doesn’t fund it.

(CROSSTALK)

E.J. DIONNE: In other words, I think mental health enters this conversation because it’s a way of pushing back against gun control. We should have a serious conversation about mental health and a serious conversation about regulating guns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a minute left. I want to ask you about what the pope said in this interview yesterday, kind of remarkable comments, David and E.J., saying that the church has been far — Roman Catholic Church far too focused on what he calls small rules, small-minded rules, and too much on abortion and contraception.

What do you see happening?

DAVID BROOKS: People are focusing, I think, too much on the abortion and contraception. The church is not going to change its views on that.

What we should focus on is in the personality of Francis, remarkable personality. I really recommend everybody reads this, a gorgeous personality of humility, of spirituality, of religiosity. If you just read that interview, you see a man you tremendously admire, who I think is going to have a tremendous effect on the world.

E.J. DIONNE: My favorite line in the interview is, if one has all the answers to all the questions, that is proof that God is not with him.

So, I should probably say I don’t know in response to your questions.

(LAUGHTER)

E.J. DIONNE: I do think what he said about abortion and gay marriage and all of that was a very big deal, because he hasn’t changed the church’s view on abortion, as you reported earlier in the show. He gave a very strong speech on abortion.

But what had happened is that conservative forces in the church had so emphasized abortion and gay marriage and those issues, that the church’s rich tradition of social teaching and concern for the poor had been pushed to the last pew. And what he’s saying is, I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to change the church’s doctrine, but the church is going to be much more about this.

And he’s also saying, I don’t want to reduce the church to a small group of very orthodox believers. I want to open these doors and welcome people in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much to think about.

E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.