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Brooks and Dionne: Budget battle is ‘debate with no substance’

October 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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 the lack of progress being made to end the government shutdown, the upcoming debt ceiling fight and how recent dysfunction is set to amplify the nation's poor opinion of Congress.
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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.

So we just heard from this gentleman, Kevin Geiss, who works for the Air Force. He’s furloughed.

David, is there a message there about federal civil servants, public servants and what they’re doing and what they’re not doing right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I think there’s a message about the quality of civil servants.

I often ask Republican political appointees who are in the departments, how good are the people you — the professionals, the career people that you work with? And almost universally, even if a lot of the Republicans are not very fond of big government, but they say the people in the offices are quite impressive.

And when I have sat in on meetings at HUD or at other agencies, I have been astounded by the high quality of the people. They’re not getting a lot of money. They’re doing it for the service. They are of high quality, the people in this government.

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David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, had a good comment a couple years ago. He said he used to call them all bureaucrats, but as he got to know them, he decided that wasn’t the right way to talk about them, in sort of a demeaning way, and he stopped using that word. And I think that’s appropriate, because the quality is quite high.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you take away from someone like that at this point?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think the government is full of people who are performing public service. It’s a term we don’t use.

The Partnership for Public Service, who gave these awards, is one of my favorite organizations. They ought to be everybody’s favorite organization, regardless of their politics, because they are lifting up the people who do well, are doing good things, like Mr. Geiss. They’re trying to recruit better people.

And when you look at this shutdown, there’s something so deeply disrespectful about it, the way that Congress can just walk away from paying the salaries of all these folks. And what does that do to recruitment? What does that do to morale in the public service? There’s some people who want to attack government. There’s some people who want to reform government and make it work better.

I think most Americans are on the side of the people who want to reform it and make it work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, are we any closer to a resolution? Here, we are four days in to the government being shut down.

DAVID BROOKS: Not very close. We must be closer, because there will be resolution. We have moved a few days ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: There will be a resolution?

DAVID BROOKS: I assume, by the time we die, there will be a resolution.

So, we must be closer, but it’s really not too evident. I guess I would say one thing is happening on the Republican side. I think there’s a widespread recognition from everybody who’s not in Ted Cruz’s own personal household that this was a very dumb strategy, that if you walk into a confrontation with the president, there should be some possibility of success.

And they walked in really with zero possibility of success. Focusing on Obamacare, which was never going to be defunded, merely distracted from the actual of Obamacare. It distracted from the issues upon which Republicans are strongest. And so it was an incredibly dumb, ham-fisted policy.

And I think that awareness has spread throughout the Senate, where I gather there’s been some sharp challenges to Ted Cruz from some of his colleagues. It’s certainly spread among the Republican elder class, the people around town who are — who want the Republican Party to do well.

And so there’s been a lot — a little more rethinking and a little more opposition, I would say, to some of the Tea Party, Ted Cruz types, which, hopefully, in my view, will build and offer some more sensible alternative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are you reading this, E.J.? Are you sensing that there’s some movement on the part of Republicans?

E.J. DIONNE: I sense some movement among Republicans who are not in deep-red districts.

You see almost two dozen now who say they would vote to pass the Senate’s budget, the Senate continuing resolution, if they could. And I think Democrats are now trying to find ways of putting those guys and women on the spot, because, if they combine with Democrats, we would end the shutdown.

But the thing that really strikes me, I was in the White House this week and talked to a number of top aides to President Obama, and I have never seen the administration be so resolute in saying, we cannot make any concessions on the issue of the shutdown or on the debt ceiling. We are happy to negotiate after those are settled.

Obama is famous for liking to negotiate. Some of us are actually somewhat critical of him for being too eager to negotiate, but this time, they’re saying there is a principle here. It’s a constitutional monstrosity to use these threats to try to get something done, in this case repealing the Affordable Care Act, when the president won’t sign it and they don’t have a majority in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Constitutional monstrosity, David? Is that what it would be?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, listen, this has become such a stupid event, because we’re not even arguing about the size of the government or the actual philosophical divide. We’re arguing about process, about who will talk to who and who’s willing to negotiate more and who’s willing to negotiate less.

So, I think it strikes most people, as it strikes me, as a debate with no substance to it, and as a debate about dysfunction in which Washington displays its dysfunction. Now, I concede that most of the blame probably has to go to the Republicans.

But I do not think Barack Obama’s off the hook here entirely. I do think, overall, it has been a long-running problem for this administration that they didn’t find a way to isolate the Tea Party and work with the other Republicans to create a governing majority, and that still holds.

Now they’re going to try to do it, and I hope they do. Maybe they can carry it over into immigration and other things. But it’s been a problem for the administration, unable to get — to separate the small rump group from the rest of the Republicans, who they could have worked with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying they should have done that?

E.J. DIONNE: But I think it’s John Boehner’s job to do that.

I think that John Boehner, whom a lot of people around town like — I kind of like him — up to now, he’s been a sort of guy who likes to get stuff done. And yet, in this case, he has allowed this small minority to dictate what, as you say, is a really dumb strategy.

And I think, at some point earlier on, he should have said, you know, maybe I will risk my speakership, but a lot better than pursuing what one conservative writer called the Seinfeld shutdown. It’s really about nothing now. It’s about whatever comes up on a given day that can justify it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But wasn’t it about health care? I mean…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that was never going to happen. So what was that about? And now it — so that — there were some wild predictions made by some in the Tea Party that it was going to — the exchanges were not going to be launched, there would be — Americans would be rallying in the street against Obamacare.

Obamacare is unpopular, but they’re not rallying in the street and they’re not going to defund it. The guy is president. The Republicans didn’t win the last election, so they have to understand that. And so you have to deal with that reality.

But the problem for the party is that you have a group of people who are not normal legislators. They’re just interested in making a media display. But the — I think Boehner could not have acted and survived his speakership before. But now, with much more unhappiness at this rump, I think he’s got a little more room to take some action to regain control of the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is that what you think is going to happen, that he’s going to shift his position and be willing to bend, after saying he’s not going to bend?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think he’s in a very tough spot now, and he still seems to be digging in.

He gave some signals that he would never allow us to default, he would somehow pass the debt ceiling, and yet today he was out there talking about spending, which had nothing to do with Obamacare, saying something must be done about this. I think that it’s — somehow, he’s got to find a way to end this, because it’s hurting Washington generally, but it’s clearly hurting Republicans more.

But I think, if he doesn’t end it, some of the Republicans who come from districts like here in Virginia, where we’re sitting, where a lot of federal workers live, in states like New York and Pennsylvania, where they said, this isn’t the kind of Republicanism we believe in, and I think they may have to create some of the pressure to get off this.

DAVID BROOKS: He could do it and the president could do it by shifting the focus away from the dumb Obamacare strategy to what has been on our agenda for the past couple years, some sort of entitlement reform, tax reform. They don’t have…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: A bigger package.

DAVID BROOKS: A bigger package.

I don’t have huge hopes that this is a moment we’re going to get a big, grand bargain, the way people talk about. But you can at least get to ground where there’s — compromise is possible. And I hope that Boehner moves there, as he is, and I hope Obama moves there as well, because there still is some sort of deal to be made there.

E.J. DIONNE: But you can’t negotiate a budget.

I mean, the Democrats passed a budget in the Senate, like the Tea Party said they were going to do; 18 times, the Republicans turned down a conference. We could have been negotiating this for the last 18 months. I think you can’t now, without ceding an important principle, negotiate a budget before you settle the shutdown and the debt ceiling.

I think there’s ample room to have negotiations after that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a danger that the debt ceiling gets caught up in all of this and they don’t raise it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what would be the consequence?

DAVID BROOKS: Obviously, that would be cataclysmic, probably, for the economy. And John Boehner has said that will not happen. And I think the president doesn’t want it to happen either.

So you would have to say the odds that we will do the debt ceiling are — that they will go over — will create that cataclysm are small. I’m the guy who said the government would not shut down, so trust me on my predictions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I remember you said that. I was sparing you by not reminding everybody of that.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, you know, when they were sitting around in 19 — whatever — 1914, the leaders of Europe, thinking, well, we’re not going to have a world war or anything, we wouldn’t get carried away, and, lo and behold, they do.

E.J. DIONNE: And, you know, that’s actually a good metaphor, because I think one of the problems here is, back in 2011, after the election, when the Tea Party looked very strong, President Obama did negotiate with them over the debt ceiling.

And I think they miscalculated in thinking, well, we can do this again and he will do it again. What they didn’t see is that the president learned something from that experience and said, I am not going to do that again.

DAVID BROOKS: If he holds back and says, I’m not negotiating until we do the debt ceiling, he’s asking the Republicans to give away all their leverage before he starts negotiation. They are not going to do that. So, he more or less has to do that to avoid a…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: What makes you think — explain, David, what makes you think that the speaker may be getting closer to giving some ground? I mean, what is the — what signal are you…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, you see the — you see — well, you see the buildup of upset in the Republican Party, not across the whole Republican Party.

A lot of Republicans, and Rand Paul, think, we’re winning, we’re winning. In their districts, they are winning. It’s good for them. But across the Republican chattering class, I think there’s a recognition that they’re not in a good spot. They shouldn’t have gotten in the fight in the first place. John Boehner never wanted to be in this spot.

And so — and you see him shifting away from the Obamacare toward these other wider grand bargain issues. That’s clearly a sign he wants to get into some new sort of game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that — so, E.J., do we then see the makings of getting this resolved next week?

E.J. DIONNE: You know, it’s the best line on all of this, Herb Stein, the conservative economist, who said, when something can’t keep going on like it is, it won’t.

So, someday, we’re going to get there. But I am very worried that John Boehner now has a whole series of positions he’s taken, and it’s going to be very hard for him to back off. And, on the White House side, it’s going to be very hard for them to provide fig leaves, given what their position is and given what is clearly a lot of hostility.

The president’s really calling out John Boehner in his public speeches in a way he didn’t before. So I see this as a very different kind of confrontation than the confrontations we have seen before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there — are there long-lasting — is there long-lasting damage to the country in some way, to everybody involved in all of this because of the government shutdown, David? Or are we just now in a place where we can just shut down the government every few years and sort of move on with life as usual?

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, what…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say the big effect is on trust in government.

You know, I think it’s the most important statistic, so I quote it all the time. When they ask people, as they have for decades, do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time, if you go through the first half or the first 70 years of the 20th century, 70, 80 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time.

I don’t exactly know what the number is now, but it’s not 70 percent. It’s probably around 22, 23 percent. And so there’s just no trust in government. And this will just amplify and fortify that belief that people think Washington is just screwed up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that matter?

E.J. DIONNE: It does matter.

I think you saw the cost of the shutdown in the cancellation of the president’s trip for Asia — to Asia. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an independent, you want the United States to be present in the world. It is important that we improve — pivot toward Asia, as the president likes to say.

And now what do we look like in Asia, compared to, say, the Chinese and others? Yes, we are a free country and they are not, but this kind of chaos is not good for us.

But one good thing could come out of this. I think the Tea Party is past its high tide. I think there is a slowly building revolt within Republican ranks against this kind of politics, which is not about governing. It’s about stopping stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than 30 seconds. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. I do.

I think it’s a rump that had its moment. On the other hand, it does have institutions, it has a donor base, and it has aggression. Ted Cruz, those Republicans, the Heritage Action groups, they go after other Republicans. There’s an aggressiveness there that is not matched by any other part of the party. And somebody has to stand up and balance it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are delighted to have the two of you here to stand up for what you came to talk about.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.