MS. IFILL: Now comes the hard part. Leadership fights, tax cut debates, collapsed trade deals, and budget cutting, and that’s before the new Congress even gets to town, tonight on “Washington Week.
ERSKINE BOWLES, CO-CHAIRMAN, OBAMA DEBT COMMISSION: This debt is like a cancer that will truly destroy this country from within if we don’t fix it.
MS. IFILL: A bold new plan to reduce the deficit immediately draws fire from the left and the right.
REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY (D-IL): The debt and the deficit are unsustainable, but this is not the way to do it.
GROVER NORQUIST, PRESIDENT, AMERICANS FOR TAX REFORM: The problem is not the deficit, which is the difference between overspending and the overtaxing, but rather the overspending is the problem.
MS. IFILL: And more post-election fallout. Who will lead the House Democrats? Will Michael Steele survive at the Republican National Committee?
Traveling abroad, the president encountered skepticism on trade, currency, and America’s leadership role in the world.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Instead of hitting home runs, sometimes we’re going to hit singles, but they’re really important singles.
MS. IFILL: While at home, a former president tries to redefine his legacy.
MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: Was there ever any consideration of apologizing to the American people?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I mean, apologizing would basically say the decision was a wrong decision. And I don’t believe it was the wrong decision.
MS. IFILL: Making and writing history. We look at the week with Jackie Calmes of the “New York Times,” Naftali Bendavid of the “Wall Street Journal,” Tom Gjelten of NPR, and Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Last week’s political seismic shock gave way to another this week, this time over policy. Turns out it’s one thing to campaign on cutting the budget, eliminating the deficit, and reducing spending. It’s another thing when doing all that could mean overhauling Medicare, slashing military spending, raising taxes, and eliminating popular deductions. That’s some of what the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission is recommending. Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said on the “NewsHour” this week, that’s a good thing.
MAYA MACGUINEAS, PRESIDENT, COMMITTEE FOR A RESPONSIBLE FEDERAL BUDGET: I think if there’s one thing that we should be able to agree on it’s that the deficit and the debt present a real threat to this economy in the medium and long term.
My hope is that having this realistic blueprint out there changes the terms of the debate.
MS. IFILL: Now, how realistic the blueprint is and how much the terms of the debate have changed remain an open question tonight. President Obama, traveling in South Korea, urged lawmakers to at least consider the plan.
PRES. OBAMA: If we are concerned about debt and deficits, then we’re going to have to take actions that are difficult and we’re going to have to tell the truth to the American people.
MS. IFILL: But big proposals like this often die once on arrival in Washington. Is this one different, Jackie?
MS. CALMES: The short answer is no. You could say it’s dead on arrival, but it depends on what your definition of DOA is. It’s dead in the sense that it was the opening bid. The two chairmen put it out there. It’s more comprehensive than a lot of people expected. It takes in everything: annual spending, entitlement program spending, taxes, social security, defense spending. And Republicans were ready to oppose the tax – the revenue increases in it, even though it would also lower rates. And liberal groups were heavily mobilized to oppose the social security proposals. So in that sense, it is dead. But I don’t see this group of people – 18 important people, dozen members of Congress, including leadership figures, spending this much time on a wasted effort. In the short term, yes, but I think something like this is going to serve as the basis for a debate that’s going to grip this country for coming years.
MS. IFILL: Which sounds like it was part of what the chairmen – the two co-chairmen had in mind because we weren’t supposed to see this report until the 1st of December. And the entire commission hasn’t even voted on it yet.
MS. CALMES: Well, what we weren’t supposed to see until December was a final vote or decision.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. CALMES: The chairmen felt like to get some discussion going, they had to have something they could work from – the members could work from. They knew as soon as they put something like this out, with 12 members of Congress in the room, it was going to leak. So they figured why not get it out. The people who would leak things would leak things that they didn’t like. It wouldn’t be the whole package. So they got it out there in a way that it was the whole package. They had a press conference. And so far has been constructive. The expectations for this were so low that some people were actually expecting that if you raised the subject of taxes or Social Security, people would get up and leave.
MS. RADDATZ: Jackie, can I ask you sort of a fundamental question here? The economy is certainly not entirely recovered by any means. So shouldn’t there be more spending? Shouldn’t there be more stimulating the economy instead of worrying about the deficit yet, or is that sort of the fundamental debate here?
MS. CALMES: Well, that’s – a lot of people, most mainstream economists would agree that you need more stimulus and spending. Certainly we’re going to have to extend unemployment benefits at some point for two million people still out of work. And of course we have the debate on the Bush tax cuts. But you can do both. That’s where it gets lost. It’s hard to understand – it’s hard for people to understand. A lot of these changes that the chairmen proposed and what – the deficit reduction we’re talking about would not take place until 2012 at the earliest. And some people say that would be too soon. So – but if you put steps like these – and I’m not endorsing any of them – but if you did steps like these, into the future they would take effect. It would be a pretty big signal to global markets that the United States is getting its fiscal house in order.
MR. BENDAVID: Well, Jackie, is this proposal evenly balanced? In other words, do the spending cuts sort of match the tax increases? It seemed like early on, at least, the left was a little more worked up and exercised about this whole thing than those on the right. And it sort of made me wonder whether this tried to split the baby right down the middle or whether there was a little bit of a favoring of one side.
MS. CALMES: Right. Well, whether it’s balanced depends on who you talk to. Republicans don’t want to see any revenue increases at all. Democrats don’t want to see Medicare and Social Security cuts.
MS. IFILL: When you say revenue increases, you’re talking about gas taxes, things like that.
MS. CALMES: Right. And they would do away with a number of tax deductions that we all benefit from, like they give the panel the option of doing away entirely with the deduction on mortgage interest, doing away with the tax free benefit on our employer provided health benefits. But they don’t say you have to do that, but to the extent you do that, it brings down your top rates. The income tax rates they’re talking about would be as low as 8 percent for lower income to no higher than, say, 23 percent. But to the extent you keep these deductions that we all love, it would have to go up to raise – because they don’t want to raise just the same amount of money, they want to raise a little more because the whole point is deficit reduction.
MR. GJELTEN: Jackie, I’m curious about the politics of this. You mentioned that the liberals were very quick out of the gate in denouncing it, but back when this commission was first announced, we remember that a lot of Republicans initially supported it, then flipped to against it.
MS. CALMES: Right.
MR. GJELTEN: Is there any sign yet of how this is going to play out politically, how Republicans sort of are going to deal with this? Are they going to continue to keep their distance from it, or might we see some engagement there?
MS. CALMES: Well, this is one of these exercises where no one wants to be the one with blood on their hands. So the Democrats don’t want to take the blame for killing it, nor do the Republicans, but the good thing about this is no matter what you think about it substantively, after the campaign we’ve been through – and candidates seem to make it sound so easy to be fiscally responsible, this shows you – their plan shows you just how hard it is and that you can’t get where we need to be simply by cutting spending or you’re going to have some people how – you virtually would have to get rid of all of our annual spending and then get into the Social Security and Medicare. And you can’t do it with taxes alone. There has to be a coming together.
MS. IFILL: It was truly a put up or shut up moment. We’ll see whether that actually happens.
But in the meantime, big policy could easily be overshadowed by big politics. And even though lawmakers don’t return to Washington for their lame duck session until the next week, the politicking has already started. Nancy Pelosi kicked off the fight by deciding not to step aside as party leader. Her lieutenants Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, both grabbed for the remaining musical chair. And on the Republican side, GOP Chairman Michael Steele is once again under fire. But why does it matter that these leadership posts are such an important thing? What does it have to do with policy or what we see that happens next, Naftali?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, the reason that matters is because it’s not just about what person occupies which slot, it’s about these broader fights and debates that are taking place in both parties. It’s pretty typical after a turbulent election like we just had that both parties would kind of reassess where they stand and what approach they want to take. So on the Democratic side – this race that you refer to, so Congressman Hoyer is seen as being associated more with the moderate wing of the party. And Congressman Clyburn is seen as being more associated with the liberal wing. Now, that’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but the fact remains that it reflects this deeper fight within the party about whether the right way to react to last week’s election is to move to center or to reaffirm their liberal principles. I think that’s why it matters.
MS. IFILL: And on the Republican side does it matter who the head of the RNC is?
MR. BENDAVID: That’s a little bit of a different matter because that’s less of an ideological issue and more of one that has to do with competence, if you will. There’s a lot of people who sort of feel like Michael Steele was just a bad chairman of the Republican Party. He didn’t raise a lot of money. He was given to controversial statements. And maybe it didn’t matter so much in an election like we just had, which was a huge Republican year, but most Republicans, I think, would tell you that 2012 isn’t going to be as Republican as this year. And they need somebody who can raise money, who doesn’t draw more attention to himself than to the candidates. And so there is this fight underway about whether or not to replace him.
MS. CALMES: Well, it takes somebody to beat somebody. We saw Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan Republican chairman got in today. Will there be others?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, that’s what everybody’s waiting to see. There’re a couple of people who are kind of still trying to decide how it all plays out. And right now, Michael Steele has a reasonable amount of support within the party, but he also has staunch opponents. And so a lot of this is going to depend on just who gets in, how credible they are, and then whether or not they can attract support to their side.
MS. IFILL: It takes somebody to beat somebody for Nancy Pelosi as well. And there are some staunch opponents within the Democratic Party, none of them seemed to be running against her.
MR. BENDAVID: Yes, that’s a fascinating thing. Nancy Pelosi was the subject of so much attack and vilification over the past campaign, yet when she announced that she was going to stay and surprised a lot of people, and was going to seek the top Democratic post again, nobody jumped up to run against her. Now, she’s still running as though she has strong opposition. She’s circulating letters of support and everybody from the Sierra Club to the women of the House have come out on her behalf. And I think that’s because it’s not a question of whether or not it’s going to win, but she needs to get a lot of votes. In other words, to have her position in the party be strong, she can’t afford to have 50 people vote against her. So she’s running very hard and very fiercely even though she has no opposition.
MR. GJELTEN: Naftali how much has the election itself affected these fights on both the Republican and Democratic side because isn’t it true that the Republican Party moved to the right with all these new Tea Party freshmen coming in, meanwhile a lot of conservative Democrats lost. So does that move the Democratic Party to the left and has that affected the leadership fights themselves?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, there’s no question that those things have happened. As you say, the Democrats in the House are a more liberal group than they were a few weeks ago because so many of the people who lost were in swing districts and they were moderates, whereas the liberals generally won. But it’s not clear actually that it’s affecting the leadership fight. That’s what I meant, I guess, about the danger of oversimplifying. Steny Hoyer, as I say – who’s the number two Democrat, is widely seen as a representative of the moderate wing, the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, but the fact is he’s got a lot of support from liberals, too. And so the race isn’t exactly breaking down that way.
I think the bigger question is sort of what direction does the party want to go in the future? Do they want to embrace and reaffirm liberal principles in the interest of energizing their base, or do they want to make enough of a move to the center that they have a better chance of attracting moderates than they were able to do just now.
MS. RADDATZ: There’s a meeting next week at the White House, correct? Bipartisan leadership – any expectations from that or is that just how you do –
MS. IFILL: Will there be Kumbaya in the driveway afterward?
MR. BENDAVID: Leaders of both parties, but particularly President Obama, have said they want to work together. They want to reach out to each other. I think this is the beginning of that. I would be very surprised if anything substantive comes out of that meeting at all. However, there’s been a lot of complaints about – from the Republican leadership that president Obama stopped meeting with them, didn’t talk to them, didn’t call them. And I think this is a way for him to at least send a signal that okay, from now on, I’m going to be more in touch with you guess.
MS. IFILL: And the first task, which we’ll be talking about next week, is Bush tax cuts, whether they’ll be extended, and the continuing resolution whether the government will be funded – oh, fun. (Laughter.)
While other countries are also watching carefully to see how the U.S. is handling its fiscal and political crisis. In Britain, in France, in Germany – in Greece that is – similar efforts have often yielded chaos. And as the president toured Asia this week, he was reminded that the U.S. is leading, but not necessarily dictating, the global economic agenda. No trade deal in South Korea or currency revaluation in China. Now, was the president snubbed, as he said, and we played a little bit of it, or was he merely just hitting a single?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, it wasn’t a great at-bat, let’s put it that way.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. GJELTEN: But I think the important point here is that it wasn’t just about President Obama being snubbed personally. This is really larger than that. The meeting in Seoul was the G-20 summit. This is the group of 20 largest economies in the world basically. Remember that these summits didn’t even happen until November, 2008. Up until then, it was really the G-7, the United States and the other big industrial countries that were really managing the global economy. And what we’ve seen is this real shift of power where the new players are now getting a seat at the table, countries like China, Brazil, India, and they don’t necessarily see the world the same way. They don’t necessarily have the same priorities. And what they are doing here is they’re asserting themselves. And what the United States used to be able to accomplish at these G-7 meetings where it was in charge along with its allies, that’s just not the case anymore.
And I think that what we’re seeing is that – and in addition to that, these emerging economies are actually doing much better than the old advanced countries. In fact, risk analysis firms now say it’s more risky to invest in the advanced countries than it is to invest in the emerging markets. So as a result of that, what you get are some real disagreements and there’s no real way, there’s no new leadership that has emerged.
These countries are not accustomed, like China and India are not accustomed to sort of being in these leadership positions, so what you’re seeing is a lot of squabbling. Until new leadership patterns emerge, we’re going to see more of that probably.
MS. RADDATZ: But Tom, when this began, everybody thought China would be under pressure. All eyes are on China because of their currency. How did the U.S. really become the target?
MR. GJELTEN: There you could make an argument maybe that there was some bad timing or the United States sort of blew it in a sense. The Federal Reserve announced that it was going to pump $600 billion into the economy through a complicated procedure we don’t need to get into. But a lot of the – a lot of the emerging countries thought that would have the effect of lowering the value of the U.S. dollar, which would make U.S. exports more competitive. That’s just the argument the United States had been making against China and was hoping that this would be the issue that would get worked out at the G-20 summit. Well, after the United States made this move, it put the United States on the defensive and it was no longer able to kind of take the moral high ground and make this argument against China. I’m sure China was relieved because it really took China off the hot seat.
MS. CALMES: Was there any sense of the election drubbing that the president got affected the outcome of this whole Asia trip as he went from India, Indonesia, South Korea, now in Japan?
MR. GJELTEN: It seems, Jackie, that what happened in South Korea was kind of unique because he started out in India and he actually had a very successful trip in India. He emphasized that he spent more time in India than in any other country.
There was a column today by Charles Krauthammer in the “Washington Post,” not a real good big supporter of Obama saying that he thought that President Obama did really well in India because he put the U.S.-Indian relationship on a higher profile. And while he was there, of course, he endorsed India becoming a permanent member of the Security Council.
Indonesia, except for the volcano, another fairly successfully. He was welcome with open arms, very warm welcome in Indonesia, a country where he spent some of his own childhood. So it really was not Obama personally, it was the unique situation, I think, of the G-20 summit that really sort of lowered his standing a little bit.
MR. BENDAVID: Well, you mentioned India, and as you said, he proposed a permanent seat for India in the Security Council. What are the political ramifications of that? Presumably India is very happy about that, but I assume a lot of other countries aren’t. How much of a risky move was that for the president to propose?
MR. GJELTEN: It wasn’t all that risky, Naftali, in the sense that it’s not going to happen. And anytime that you propose something you know is not going to happen, that’s a way –
MS. IFILL: – talking about, this all comes together.
MR. GJELTEN: – but as you play this out, the one thing that these countries all share is the idea that national sovereignty should be honored. And to the extent they become big players in the United Nations, it’s going to be much harder to enact sanctions against Iran. It’s going to be harder to intervene in countries for humanitarian or human rights purposes. These countries, as a rule, don’t like the idea of intervening. And so I think it really would change the way that the United States is able to pursue foreign policy goals in places like the United Nations.
MS. IFILL: Well, at least – while we’re busy looking forward to what happens next, at least one high profile politician, he chose to stay out of the tax cut, deficit, what happens next debate this week, and that was former President George W. Bush. He had a book to sell, “Decision Points,” in which he sought to explain his past and pointedly avoid the disputes of the present. After talking to Oprah and Matt and Sean and Bill all week, did he pulled that off, Martha?
MS. RADDATZ: Oh, I think he stayed out of all the disputes. He really didn’t want to get into that clearly.
MS. IFILL: He called it “the swamp.”
MS. RADDATZ: The swamp, I’m not going back to the swamp. It was Oprah who tried to get him in the swamp, he said. But in fact, she asked him about Sarah Palin. And he wasn’t going there. He wasn’t going anywhere. But what he did do – you could almost picture. I was at the White House for three years, covering President Bush. And you could almost picture him and a book editor sitting down together – you’ve got to talk about Katrina. You’ve got to talk about Afghanistan. You’ve got to talk about Iraq. So he sort of told you as much as he needed to tell you, but there were no earth-shattering revelations, except a couple of personal revelations, but on policy it was pretty much the way you expected him to respond.
MS. IFILL: Even saying that he supported waterboarding wasn’t really a surprise?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, you know – he obviously did. He was president of United States. He never conceded it was torture.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. RADDATZ: He never conceded – and he’s still not conceding it was torture. He’s just saying, yes, I supported waterboarding and it got us somewhere. That’s essentially what they were saying through those years.
MR. BENDAVID: But do you feel like we learned anything about the guy? It seems like one of the things presidents can do when they’re no longer president, they can tell you some stuff they couldn’t have said during their tenure. Did we get anything out of this, or was it just what you would have expected?
MS. RADDATZ: I really watched carefully and I had moments with President Bush in the Oval Office, alone in the Oval Office, talking to him or with him with a couple of other people around, and once at the ranch alone in his office. And the man I saw on TV being interviewed was that man you are alone with. He reflects only to a degree. He doesn’t give you a great deal of information.
Did we learn some information? You bet. You learned a lot of information about – the thing that struck me most was the incident with his mother and we probably all heard this reported this week and out of the book. But he said when he was a teenager – and this profoundly affected him – his mother, Barbara Bush, had a miscarriage and that she put the fetus in a jar and had young George Bush take her to the hospital. And that he remembers seeing that jar now. I have to say, and particularly as a mother of a son, I cannot imagine that scene. I just cannot imagine that scene.
And I was sort of figuring out the math today. He was – the driving age in Texas was 14 at the time. He said he had just learned to drive. So he was 14 years old. She was 21 when she had George Bush. So she was about 35 and on the way to the doctor and it’s something he’s never forgotten. And obviously he said if his mother didn’t give him permission to tell that story he would never have told it.
MS. CALMES: And she did give him permission?
MS. RADDATZ: Yes, she did.
MS. CALMES: There’s been so much, over the years, speculations about the relationship between the two of them, and people saying he’s closer to her than he is to his father. What sort of context does he present this in –
MS. RADDATZ: That’s a really interesting question because I would say – I’ll go back on that because I think what I did learn is that I really do believe he’s as close to his dad and that there is enormous respect both ways, but he said he was very close to his mother, I think he was home a lot with his mom. And she had a child die at age three. And he said he shared that a lot with her and –
MS. IFILL: Time for one last quick question.
MS. CALMES: We’ll go to you.
MR. GJELTEN: What called my attention was his comment that – Kanye West, when he said that he didn’t think that Bush cared about black people, President Bush said that was the most disgusting thing that happened in his administration. Did that –
MS. RADDATZ: Which was pretty extraordinary that that was the most disgusting, but he talks about that in every interview, that he was disgusted that he was called a racist. He said, you can call me anything. You can say I didn’t care. But you cannot call me a racist. So that really struck a chord with him.
MS. IFILL: So we did learn something about the things at least struck a chord or shaped the man he was. That’s why we read these books.
Thank you all very much. Before we go tonight, we have to bid farewell to our audio engineer extraordinaire, David Gillette, who’s retiring after 32 years here at WETA in Washington, much of that time making sure you can hear us on “Washington Week.” Now, he gets his Friday nights back. Good luck, David.
But you don’t get yours back. Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour,” check out our Webcast Extra only online at PBS.org, and then we’ll see you right here next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.