Friday, January 22, 2010

MS. IFILL: Chaos on the Potomac, the Supreme Court guts campaign finance limits. Massachusetts elects a Republican senator, health care reform’s on life support, plus we bring you an eye witness report on Haiti, tonight on “Washington Week.”

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): Let the American people decide how much money is enough. Sunshine really does work if you allow it to.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): The Roberts court has turned back the clock on our democracy by over a century.

MS. IFILL: In one major decision the Supreme Court rolls back decades of campaign finance limits. While political upheaval of another kind rocks the capital after Massachusetts voters picked Republican Scott Brown.

SEN. SCOTT BROWN (R-MA): I think they sent a very, very powerful message that business as usual is not going to be the way we do it.

MS. IFILL: How much will the 41st Republican senator weaken the president’s agenda?

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: It’s just nice being out of Washington. Let me say. There’re some nice people in Washington, but they can drive you crazy. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: And amid aftershocks and confusion, the world copes with the devastation in Haiti. Covering the week, Joan Biskupic of USA Today, John Harwood of CNBC and the “New York Times,” Alexis Simendinger of “National Journal,” and Martha Raddatz of ABC News.

ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 40 years of journalistic excellence, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with “National Journal.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Perhaps we should have seen it coming when the Supreme Court went out of its way to hear new arguments of what was considered a pretty tangential campaign finance case. Citizens United v. the FEC turned out to be a pretty potent platform for the court’s five-to-four majority to say what many conservatives have emphatically argued for years. Money equal speech, the court ruled, so many limits on campaign finance contributions violate the Constitution. But practically what does this decision do and what doesn’t do, Joan?

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, at the threshold, Gwen, the main thing it does for what’s going to happen in 2010 elections. It says that corporations cannot be limited in the independent expenditures they do on behalf of a candidate. In this case it was a movie that Citizens United did that was effectively an ad against Hillary Clinton. It said it was a documentary, but the court itself said, “no, the clear message was don’t vote against Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary.” But it would affect direct mail. It would affect anything that corporate money was going to do on behalf of a candidate. It didn’t touch the soft money provisions of McCain-Feingold that lots of your viewers are used to, but the main thing here was that for the first time the Supreme Court said that government, the federal government here, but the states also cannot distinguish among speakers in a political election, corporations versus individuals.

MS. IFILL: Whenever we have covered a Supreme Court nomination process, they’ve always come to this point where they talked about precedent and stare decisis and previous judgments by the court. This own court has expanded this law many times and now they’re overturning themselves and not in their way to do it.

MS. BISKUPIC: Right, and Chief Justice John Roberts is very self-conscious about that and actually even wrote a separate opinion. The main opinion for the majority was by Anthony Kennedy, a conservative justice, joined by the four other more conservative justices on this court. Chief Justice Roberts, who during his confirmation hearing talked about how you shouldn’t have any jolt to the system, that you should watch precedent, wrote separately saying, “okay, I believe in judicial restraint, but not judicial abdication.” And his argument was that the key rulings at issue here are from the past that it said that governments could draw lines on what corporate wealth came into campaigns. He said those were unworkable and that you shouldn’t just for the value of preserving precedent uphold them. But it was a fairly self-conscious opinion there. And of course, he’s gotten lots of criticism already.
And the thing is Congress’ hands are really tied here because this was based on the constitutional First Amendment right of free speech. The court said, again by Anthony Kennedy, that there’s this free market of ideas. In dissent, Judtice John Paul Stevens said essentially, get real. Politics and big money from corporations has this distorting effect on the political discourse and could potentially be corruptive. That’s what Congress found. Yes, go ahead John.

MR. HARWOOD: I was going to say, Joan, that one of the things that Democrats have talked about is some way of fixing this, reacting this because labor unions also aren’t going to be limited. Corporations may have more money and they’re concerned about that. Is there no way to cure the constitutional defects of this law, this provision?

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, they can’t do anything on the constitutional issue short of – without passing a constitutional amendment. But they can do things around the margins. And for example New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Maryland U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen said that they were going to introduce legislation that said if you get any of the bailout money, your corporation, you need to abide by restrictions. That maybe Congress would use its spending power under the Constitution to enforce various limits. But in terms of the major constitutional issue, there’s really not much Congress can do frankly. And the states, lots of states are affected by this too.

MS. RADDATZ: And what happens in the states? What happens generally as you go forward from here? You’re talking about the movie. You’re talking about what this case was based on, but what will we see in the future? Who benefits?

MS. IFILL: And you’re talking about federal elections later this year.

MS. BISKUPIC: That’s right. You’re seeing a lot going on in the fall in the 2010 election cycle. In the states, I think there are at least 19 gubernatorial races coming up. And many states, 24 states that had limits on corporate spending in election and those are all going to be obliterated now too.

MR. HARWOOD: And I think there’re few corporations that have concerns about the political climate right now.

MS. BISKUPIC: Right. The kinds of things you’re going to see are not more of the Hillary the movie that was at the center of this. You’re going to see more advertising on local TV stations. I think the real winners, Martha, are going to be media outlets because now there’s been corporate money to be spent there. And they’ll be pressure on corporations to spend it.

MS. SIMENDINGER: We can’t let you go without asking – give us an update about how Justice Stevens is doing. There was some discussion about how he was on the bench and whether he’ll be with the court.

MS. BISKUPIC: Justice Stevens read for 20 minutes from his dissenting opinion. He was very impassioned, but he was also quite halting in some of his language. I think he’s kind of weary about where this court has been. Now, he’s also 89. He’ll turn 90 in April. And when I talked to him in October about what his plans might be, he was a little bit coy, but he also said, I’m not exactly a kid.

MS. IFILL: But he used tough language. He talked about the court’s agenda. And the talked about censorship. He was – he’s not a guy who was checking out here.

MS. BISKUPIC: No, his opinion was incredibly forceful and really gave it to the majority in terms of – to use the word “agenda.” These folks tend to be quite reserved. But he talked about how the only thing that makes this decision different from the decisions they had in 1990 and 2003 is the changed membership. And that’s the departure of Sandra Day O’Connor.

MS. IFILL: One interesting thing about this, of course, is President Obama condemned the decision, but he himself waived campaign finance, so he could collect as much money as possible. So it now depends on how it works for you. Well, the Supreme Court may have turned the campaign financing on its ear, but the good people of Massachusetts probably turned the entire 2010 election cycle upside down by voting to send Republican state Senator Scott Brown to Washington to fill the seat long held by liberal lion Ted Kennedy. Blue state voters send an unmistakable message to Washington, but what was it? Well, it depends on who you talk to. The Senate majority leader, a Democrat, and the minority leader of Republicans see it differently. What a surprise.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): The American people demand that we work together as partners not partisans to improve their individual lives.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I think the majority’s gotten the message. No more gamesmanship here and no more lack of transparency.

MS. IFILL: So if that train’s not going to meet, perhaps our reporters can come up with some answers. What do the numbers tell us, John, about why Massachusetts did what it did on Tuesday?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, first of all, this is a real moment of crisis for the Obama presidency one year in and a moment of definition where Barack Obama and his Democratic Party have got to figure out who they are, what they’re for, what they’re going to try to do, and what risks they’re going to take.

We’ve all known, going into 2010, that it’s going to be a difficult election year because the economy is very bad. Unemployment’s high. And it’s going to take a while for that to turn around. And that was anticipated. But I think what no one anticipated was just how stunning this result was going to be in Massachusetts, where Ted Kennedy had held that seat for so long. The Democrat – the Republican, Scott Brown, won by 5 percentage points in that very, very Democratic state.

And we had subsequently a “Wall Street Journal”-NBC poll that dramatized some of the reasons for that. We know that independents have turned away from Democrats and that was reflected in this vote, both in Massachusetts and nationally. President Obama’s approval rating’s under 50 percent. Majority of the country say the things in the nation are going in the wrong direction. Eighty three percent say they’re dissatisfied with the economy. And when you ask people about support for the president’s health care plan, it’s under water. Thirty three percent in our poll nationally said it’s a good idea. Forty six percent say it’s a bad idea.

And I think what has really taken a lot of people by surprise, if we’re allowed to confess error on this show, I dramatically underestimated the amount of panic that would result from this Massachusetts circumstance. And that’s what we’re seeing happen right now.

MS. IFILL: Well, let’s get back to the panic. But it’s funny, I read today a poll or a survey that was taken after the election that showed that Barack Obama won independents of Massachusetts by 17 points. Scott Brown won them two to one. So how does this kind of fallout, Alexis, affect the president’s agenda, especially health care?

MS. SIMENDINGER: You talked about panic. It was a shock to the system, I think, throughout. The entire agenda is turned upside down. There wasn’t a Democrat who didn’t think that there wasn’t something that was going to be affected and we’ve already started to see some of the repercussions of that. Health care was just put totally the bricks on and lots of discussion this week about how to retool it, whether to pick it apart into pieces. The first thing that Speaker Pelosi determined is that the easiest route would have been if the House would have taken the Senate bill, the Senate passed bill –

MS. IFILL: That was just not happening.

MS. SIMENDINGER: – she made it clear that she had a practical mutiny on her hands from her caucus if they had tried to push that direction. There was talk about could they possibly get the Maine moderate Senator Olympia Snowe, would she be the 60th vote. She made it clear that there was no sale there.

So now there’s this discussion about parceling it into little pieces and could they do a much more incremental moderate view. And President Obama actually hurt his own cause in a way because he initially came in before anybody had a chance to react and started talking about let’s just find the pieces that we can coalesce around.

MS. IFILL: Let’s listen to a couple of things the president had to say in reaction to this. He obviously was as shell shocked as everybody else in his party and in the Republican Party, to be honest. He spoke to ABC News earlier in the week and today he was on the road in Elyria, Ohio.

PRES. OBAMA: The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they’re frustrated. So here’s the good news. We’ve gotten pretty far down the road. But I’ve got to admit, we hit a little bit of a buzzsaw this week. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: An understatement. There was the thoughtful tugging on his chin Obama and then there was the tireless populist Obama. Which one wins the day in the wake of a week like this?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, in the immediate instance it’s the populist Obama. We saw – last week, he proposed a tax on banks. They knew that this Massachusetts election was going to difficult then. And in fact, over a couple of months, he’s been sort of inviting a fight with major Wall Street institutions. He really invited one this week with this proposal to limit the size and the scope of activities of these large institutions. If you own a bank and you benefit from the federal deposit guarantee and low interest loans from the Federal Reserve, you can’t run a hedge fund that puts your own money at risk because that would put the entire system at risk. So he’s got to fight with Wall Street on his hands and I think one of the ways that Democrats are going to try to respond to this anger is to surf it basically on the economy and go to war a little bit with Wall Street. And I think the question’s going to be strategically, as Alexis was talking about on health care, do they make themselves healthier politically by turning away from health care. I’m not sure that they do and it’s possible, I think the White House still has some hope that members will come to the realization after this thing sinks in that they might be better off passing a comprehensive bill anyway.

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, what about other domestic issues too. You just mentioned some of the economic ones, but what about energy, immigration, all those things that –

MS. IFILL: Climate change.

MS. BISKUPIC: – exactly. What does this mean for them?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, as we headed into 2010, there was no question that the president’s agenda was already being pared down before Scott Brown won in Massachusetts. There was no question about that. And the core pieces that the president was still touting with the caucus tended to be let’s focus on jobs, some kind of jobs bill. Let’s pass that right away. Maybe some financial regulation that seemed to be the populist kind of avenue to pursue. And then the idea of climate change turned into is there a consensus on energy? And that seemed very remote. And immigration reform seemed to go off the scales entirely.

I could not find a Republican or a Democrat that wanted to talk about that realistically as something that was an option for an election year. Everything’s changed.

MS. RADDATZ: Are the Republicans going to want to work with the Democrats? It seems the voters want people to work together, both sides to work together. Do you expect we’ll see that?

MR. HARWOOD: Now, Martha. (Laughter.) You’re a realistic person –

MS. RADDATZ: I’m so optimistic, am I?

MR. HARWOOD: No, that is not going to happen. It will happen rhetorically. It will not happen in fact.

MS. RADDATZ: Exactly. It will happen rhetorically, “oh, yes, we are working together.”

MR. HARWOOD: But I will say that doesn’t mean there aren’t some issues, like we saw with credit card reform last year, where when the train leaves the station, some members feel they have to jump on. And they really have no choice. I wouldn’t count on financial regulation because it’s one thing for Republicans and their leadership to take on the big government Democratic approach to health care. It’s another thing to try to stand in the way of financial regulation when people are angry at Wall Street almost as much as they’re angry at Washington, if not more.

MS. SIMENDINGER: There’s two other quick things I’d say. Afghanistan is another area in which we saw the minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, when he was asked, “what would you work with the president on,” he only came up with one thing. That was Afghanistan.

The other thing I would mention is something that we’re watching this week, which is Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve, the president needs those Republican votes and he will have to work with Republicans on things from time to time.

MS. IFILL: But you mentioned job creation, for instance. It’s something everybody says, jobs, jobs. The president should have been talking about jobs. But it costs money to stimulate the economy to create jobs. And of course spending is supposed to be the bad thing. He didn’t focus enough on costs when he talked about health care. How do you balance these two competing needs?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the struggles that I discovered this week as these Democrats were reeling trying to figure out what to do is that they find the message so confusing when they’re talking about those back home. They’re trying to explain to voters themselves. Look, the two things you’re talking about are not necessarily consistent. And I think that what we’re going to see in the new whatever jobs package this turns out to be and even in the budget, much less emphasis on spending. There seems to be more interest in tax cuts, lots of interest in small business. But you can’t spend the whole year on that. So this idea of turning to jobs and the economy is great, except that doesn’t fill a whole year, except maybe going home to campaign.

MR. HARWOOD: As Alexis was alluding to sometimes voters are really angry, but not necessarily coherent. And this question about jobs, you do – if you’re trying to create jobs quickly, you do need to spend money, whether it’s in the form of tax cuts or direct spending. And there’s a contradiction there. And that’s one of the things that makes these congressmen earn the big bucks right now.

MS. IFILL: Yes, well how could they – voters be expected to be coherent when often their elected lawmakers are freaking out, which is what they’re doing right now? How – how do they do that?

MR. HARWOOD: You’re exactly right and Alexis referred to the Ben Bernanke nomination. Most members of Congress, if you got them privately, gave them a little truth serum and took them away from the TV camera, would tell you that Ben Bernanke saved the economy from depression. The creativity and the skill that he exhibited in working first with the Bush administration and then with the Obama administration, and yet he finds himself as the lightning rod, as the target for this anger.

My own belief is at the end of the day he will likely get the votes because members, at some point, they’re going to have a moment where they say, are we really going to take him down under this pressure? What’s going to happen to the stock market then? What’s going to happen to market confidence? What’s going to happen to the economy? I think that’s the question.

MS. IFILL: Back to Massachusetts for a moment. Why did he win? Was it because Scott Brown ran such a massive campaign or is it because the Democrat Martha Coakley did not, or did it have nothing to do with anything they could have done?

MR. HARWOOD: I think it is way too reductionist on the part of Democrats in the White House to say, “oh, it’s just because she’s a lousy candidate.” No, there is a national mood of unease, of anxiety about people’s economic future. What’s going to happen? People health care is getting cut. Their hours are getting cut back. Unemployment is 10 percent. And all of that was exhibited in New Jersey, in Virginia, in the off year elections, last November. It’s showing up in Massachusetts. And it’s really showing up around the country. And that’s why members are so anxious.

MS. IFILL: And it’s showing up in a lot of tipping point districts.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And I would say that any member incumbent who was up for reelection this year, Republican or Democrat, but mostly the Democrats should be very concerned about this outsider phenomenon. The tea party group, initiative, movement, whatever that is, threw just millions of dollars at the last second into his campaign. And independents are moving away from the party in power. So anyone who is the establishment candidate should be very worried.

MR. HARWOOD: There’s a good number of members of Congress whose political careers have about 10 months to go.

MS. IFILL: That’s right. Well, we’ll be watching them and covering them all.

Now, to the other issue we’ve been following. Ten days after an earthquake flattened Port-au-Prince, its cathedral, its schools, its hospitals and left hundreds of thousands dead, injured, and homeless, the aftershocks are still being felt in Haiti literally and emotionally. Martha’s just back. How did you see when you were there travelling? How did it compare to – you covered a lot of pretty awful stories – how they compare?

MS. RADDATZ: I have to say the one thing – and I’ve been thinking about this since I got back a lot because sometimes when you’re there you can’t think about it – but what happened in Haiti was so massive, the scope of it is like nothing I’ve ever seen. When you’re covering a war, there’s a terrible event or there’s a bomb that goes off here or a bomb that goes off there. When you drove around, it was crushed building after crushed building, collapsed building, bodies in the streets. Every single street you went to, something horrible had happened. And the moment that was brought home to me is about three days after the earthquake; I was driving around with ABC’s medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser, also a physician. And I said, “you know, Dr. Besser, the thing that breaks my heart is thinking and looking at these buildings and how many dead people are in those buildings.” And Dr. Besser said, “what breaks my heart is how many live people are in those buildings.” And I hadn’t really thought about that. You hear about these periodic rescues, but even today they found someone alive.

MS. IFILL: They did.

MS. RADDATZ: So there was so little help quickly that it’s almost as if you heard voices as you were driving around.

MS. BISKUPIC: Martha, they’re talking about setting up a tent city. Have you – what will that do and how long can that be a solution? Could you tell whether there could be really be any kind of rebuilding of the capital down the road?

MS. RADDATZ: It is so massive that you – Port-au-Prince is basically just destroyed. Someone said what percentage and I think probably 50 percent and probably another 30 needs to come down. The tent cities you’re talking about, they’re talking about building four different massive camps with tents and move 400,000 people out. I think they have to do it. You cannot possibly rebuild that city or make that city safe –

MS. IFILL: While there’re people living there.

MS. RADDATZ: – while there’re people – you can’t drive down a street without concrete falling. There’re so many buildings that need to come down. And it’s such delicate work, really. You put a bulldozer in there, but you have to make sure what’s next to you isn’t falling down. We were in a warehouse one day where they were packing up food to deliver and the whole side of the wall was already cracked. And while we were there, there was a pretty significant aftershock. In fact I was sitting just outside and I thought it was the wall crumbling. And then I realized it was an aftershock. And it didn’t crumble. But everywhere you go it’s dangerous. They have to get those people out of the city.

MS. SIMENDINGER: There are many, many countries there with lots of support and how are the Haitians reacting, for instance, to the U.S. involvement or the military presence or the television crews?

MS. IFILL: Is there any coordination at all?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, right. (Laughter.)

MS. RADDATZ: First of all, the Haitian people were fantastic. Just – you couldn’t believe the resiliency of the people. After all they’ve suffered through, they were out singing in the streets, even days and days later in this horrid squalor, living in trash and trying to stay clean and doing whatever they could. There was a day that – the presidential palace, which is basically collapsed, the 82nd Airborne, about 100 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne landed at the presidential palace. Now, the image of this, of helicopters landing at the presidential palace and there were people yelling. And I had no idea what they were yelling. I got a translator over. And they were saying, “yes, America’s taking over. Viva America.” And that shows pretty much they want America to come in.

And you mentioned the coordination. It is still unclear to me who’s completely running the show. Those first couple of days were absolute chaos.

MS. IFILL: The Haitian government is still meeting outdoors.

MS. RADDATZ: The Haitian government is meeting outdoors. I don’t know where the Haitian government has been in all this, which is one of the reasons the Haitians were so excited to see the Americans.

MR. HARWOOD: But realizing how chaotic it is and the vast scale of the devastation, how do you evaluate how effectively the U.S. forces and other forces who were there are doing at distributing aid, at doing whatever they can to make the situation better?

MS. RADDATZ: John, it’s such a complicated process. It’s heartbreaking in that sense because you want people to just rush in there and get that aid out. And in many ways you really can’t do that. People ask me a lot, why don’t they just drop food in the city? Now, they’re doing air drops outside the city with parachutes and food outside the city. But in the city, you just can’t do – you’ll kill people. I saw one day, it’s the single helicopter, go down near us and I followed it and it looked like it was going to land, but it was in masses of people. And they couldn’t land. It dropped the food out. It’s the last time that happened. And it was a U.S. helicopter. I was surprised –

MS. SIMENDINGER: Because of the stampede.

MS. RADDATZ: – it’s just stampede –

MS. IFILL: Crazy. Martha, thank you for going and covering it and thank you for coming home and telling us about it.

That’s going to be it for tonight. Thank you everyone. The news just keeps coming and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon. Next week, the state of the union address. We’ll have full coverage on the “PBS NewsHour” and then we’ll wrap it all up again here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.