GWEN IFILL: Now that the leftovers are over and the football has been played, we bring your dinner table political conversation to our table, tonight on this special edition of “Washington Week.”
What were the hot topics at your house: health care, the economy, war, peace, or maybe Washington dysfunction?
MR. ZACH WOLBRANT (viewer question): (From tape.) Why is there no debt limit?
MR. MIKE WOODS (viewer question) : (From tape.) Why are your more concerned with what your party is going to do in the elections, rather than how you’re going to help the American people?
MR. DANIEL PELESKO (viewer question): (From tape.) I’m wondering what specifically you’ll be doing to prevent another government shutdown.
MS. IFILL: Tonight, we answer viewer questions from around the country with Peter Baker of the New York Times, Michael Duffy of Time magazine, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, and Jeff Zeleny of ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Because we’ve been talking at you all year long, we thought you might be thankful this week to have us talk with you about the things that are on your minds. So if you’re all talked about from Thanksgiving dinner-table debates, sit back and enjoy ours.
I want to start by putting one of our regulars on the spot. The White House has had quite a year, from foreign policy showdowns, to fiscal crises, to health care debacles, and Peter Baker says he saw it coming last winter. Call it second term-itis.
PETER BAKER: (From tape.) By his own staff’s calculation, he’s got eight months, 12 months, 16 months at most to make his mark. So he has to come out of the box fast and energetic. And he’s coming out on guns, immigration, fiscal policy, and energy. And that’s – he needs to push the other side into deferring to his judgment while he has the opportunity to do it.
MS. IFILL: How did that work for him, Peter?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s now, of course, 10 months later, and I think none of the things we mentioned there has been signed into law.
MS. IFILL: Not guns, not immigration.
MR. BAKER: Not guns, not immigration, not – they’ve moved some on energy in terms of executive action. And they’ll argue on guns they did some executive action as well but nothing of the things they sent to the Hill, jobs.
And, most importantly, I think the president talked during the election last year about the fever breaking, you know, this idea that after he was reelected, there wouldn’t be the incentive on the part of the opposition to be so opposed to everything that he did, and obviously that turned out not to be the case. The fever, if anything, seems as hot as ever.
MS. IFILL: Well, if there’s fever about anything, it’s certainly about health care. So let’s get to some of our viewers’ question. This Virginia voter is exasperated by the health care debate.
MS. THEODORA WOODS (viewer question): (From tape.) I want to know why they are so afraid of the health care law. Is it because maybe the big companies will not support their campaigns?
MS. IFILL: Now, of course, is Theodora’s opinion, Karen, but what is the state of this right now? Is there a fear of the health care law?
KAREN TUMULTY: There is fear of the health care law. There has been all along. And the divisions are really not because of one industry or another. It’s because of the really big philosophical, ideological and increasingly partisan question about the role of government and how big government should be and what it should do.
And this is also against a backdrop where people – every poll you look at shows that people are more skeptical than they have ever been of Washington and its ability to do anything right. So this law has never really garnered overwhelming public support.
And then you have this disastrous rollout which, you know, any doubts that people might have had about whether Washington could get it right would seem to have been confirmed. So in our polling, for instance, we’re finding, you know, that support for the bill has dropped and opposition has gone up by something like seven points just since October.
MS. IFILL: There also seems to be a lot of confusion about actually what is in the bill, what is not in the bill, what it would do, what it wouldn’t do. Is that because Congress isn’t interested in explaining it or because the White House dropped the ball, Jeff?
JEFF ZELENY: I think it’s a bit of both. I mean, there’s definitely been a messaging problem on this, but it’s not only that. I mean, it is a fundamental problem of – as Karen said, people have not been able to sign up for these. It’s sort of a basic of services.
But across the board, people still like what’s in it, if they can get to it, like the preexisting conditions and leaving your children until 26 years of age. But beyond that, I mean, we are seeing the White House, the administration bit by bit taking back some of their own law. We saw a bit of that this week with small business owners not able to sign up somebody else. OK. Hold off until 2015 so we’ve seen big businesses, small businesses – so all that is left basically – and it’s a big thing – is the individual mandate. That is a central question. Will the administration be able to keep that? They certainly argue that they have to because it’s a central part of this, but so much confusion about this law. And it really has just amplified and given fuel to the Republican argument that it is too big; government can’t do all this.
MICHAEL DUFFY: I think one of the reasons that the public is fearful of it, partly, not only because of the snafus and the confusion about that it means is that I think it’s important to say the Republicans have done such a good job of making it scary. One of the things that’s central to the Republican thinking at the moment is that once big entitlement expansions get into place and actually get put down, they’re really hard to roll back. People like them. And that’s an element that they’re trying to avoid.
MS. IFILL: Let’s take another health care question, this one from New Hampshire.
MS. JAN ROBERTS (viewer question) : (From tape.) Why are the government dignitaries allowed to keep their own plans at taxpayer expense and this plan is not good enough for them?
MS. IFILL: What you see from Jan there is some of the resentment that we’re talking about, about the details that they think exists in this bill, law?
MR. ZELENY: Exactly. And the – one of the things that’s going on right now is Speaker Boehner tried to sign up for the health care law himself and his office made a big to do about how he was going to join the District of Colombia exchange. So he was sitting in front of his computer and signing up for this. Well, he ended up – he did sign up but it’s going to cost him a lot more money.
But his has been a big central debate, if Congress should be included or should not be included. But one thing we do know – that their plans are better; they’re getting a special perk signing up for them on Capitol Hill. You can walk into some of these rooms throughout the quarters of the Capitol and see all these people helping employees sign up for this. It’s not, you know, through a website. It’s like walking into a small town insurance company, it almost feels like. So they’re definitely being treated better.
But, by and large, taxpayers are paying for their health care, I guess, but they’re paying their salaries as well so these are government employees.
MS. IFILL: And this is something the White House is perfectly happy to let Congress to sort out on their own, this piece of it anyway.
MR. BAKER: Oh, absolutely. No question about it. But I think what Jeff says is right. You know, this was not meant to take away employer-based health care. And the employer or the members of Congress are the taxpayers. So this is meant to provide insurance for those who currently don’t have it and can’t afford it.
MS. TUMULTY: And that’s a point worth making here, too, is one of the political problems with this bill is that 85 percent of the public has health coverage that they are – you know, most people are fairly satisfied with what they get from their employer. So one of the anxieties is that the government is going to come in and do something that disrupts what I’ve got and somehow make it worse than what it is now.
MS. IFILL: There’s one more detail I want to get to because – before we move off of health care – because it seems to me one of the interesting things is people don’t realize this is a law that’s already been in effect for a while.
Let’s listen to Randy, who wrote this in from Facebook. He wrote – that’s right, we’re going to take a look at this. He said, “What part of the national health care law still has yet to go into effect? Can people who are of no income sign up for the national health care insurance plan”? Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: I think the big question that’s still out there, come January 1st, when all the people – presumably the website gets working, and all these people think they have coverage and they can begin showing up at doctors’ offices and hospitals and community health centers, the question is whether there will be primary care providers there for them, whether they are satisfied with the care they’re getting and satisfied with the choices that they have. And that is something we are not going to learn until next year.
As far as the low-income people, thanks to the Supreme Court, the fact is that in about half the country, low-income people are going to be completely left out of this law because the court made it optional for states to expand their Medicaid programs and half the states have decided they’re not going to do it.
MS. IFILL: But this was bad news for the president, but the Republicans had some bad news this year as well and it happened on Capitol Hill. Listen from – let’s see – Daniel from Pennsylvania.
MR. DANIEL PELESKO (viewer question) : (From tape.) I’m wondering what specifically you’ll be doing to prevent another government shutdown.
MS. IFILL: That’s a pretty – there’s no guarantee that’s not going to happen again, Jeff.
MR. ZELENY: No, there’s no guarantee at all. In fact, some people – you know, Senator Ted Cruz is one of them. He has not ruled this out. He was kind of leading the charge last time. But I think, generally, all the Republicans I talk to on Capitol Hill by and large in the leadership, heard of on both sides, agree that it is bad for the party. And the shutdown is more than a month in the rearview mirror; why revisit that again? The politics are not good for that. But Mitch McConnell, you know, the Republican leader of the Senate, he says that, you know, we’ll not do this again. We’ll see, but I would be surprised if it happens again.
MR. DUFFY: I think Republicans have realized it feels really good not to bang your head against the wall, which is effectively what –
MS. IFILL: I think Mitch McConnell called it the second kick of a mule.
MR. ZELENY: Yeah, exactly.
MR. DUFFY: Well, and it costs more –
MR. ZELENY: That Kentucky phrase.
MR. DUFFY: I was going to say it costs about a half point in GDP, the shutdown, which has lasted 17 days, and about 10 points in popularity. So it was very damaging to the GOP brand. It was 17 years since they did it before. This one was such a tough lesson, it may be another 17 years before they do this again.
MR. BAKER: Well, why get in the way of your opponent when your opponent is busy shooting himself, right? And, at this point, Republicans can look around and say, Obama is having so much trouble on his own with “Obamacare,” with its health care program, that to have a government shutdown would only get in the way of a period that’s not really good for him.
MR. ZELENY: But that means they have to agree to funding the government then. So all these levels and things are still – they have not made any progress, as near as I can tell, and it’s still going to come up to the very last minute, which I guess would be January 14th because that deadline is January 15th.
MS. IFILL: You know, underpinning all of these concerns is the economy. What exactly are we doing to bolster the economy, get jobs? And we’ve got questions about that.
This one is from Lorna on Facebook. She says, “My children are drowning in student debt and jobs are not meeting their educational success. One daughter with two master’s degrees is making less than $14 an hour.” So how do you speak to families like that, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, I went and I looked up the statistics when I saw that question. And, in fact, student debt has surged 45 percent in the last three years alone. The average graduate of the class of 2013 left college with $28,000 worth of debt. And these kids – if I can say kids – are – you know, they’re not finding jobs out there that really speak to the skills that they have developed in college.
And I think that that is, you know, one of the primary engines of economic insecurity in this country is that people look at their children, they look at their grandchildren, and they worry that they’re not going to have the kinds of opportunities that they had.
MS. IFILL: Listen to Hannah, a viewer from California. She also had a question about jobs.
MS. HANNAH (viewer question): (From tape.) What are you doing to create full-time jobs? The problem for many of us around the country is that we can only get part-time work when we need full-time work.
MS. IFILL: Which is, of course, key to all of this, Peter, because when you hear John Boehner, you hear anybody getting up in front of a microphone and saying, jobs, jobs, jobs, he’s listening to these very same voters. But is anything they’re doing speaking to those voters?
MR. BAKER: Well, at the moment, there’s such paralysis that neither side is really advancing any policies that are changing things in that regard. Obama has to point to things they’ve done in the past, the Recovery Act and the tax – you know, finalizing the tax rates in a way that they liked.
But at the moment their plans for infrastructure, research and development tax credits, and so on is, you know, stalled in Congress. And they make the argument that the sequester, which are the automatic budget cuts that have gone into effect, and the government shutdown and things like that are actually hurting job creation, but there doesn’t seem to be any movement in a forward direction right now.
MR. DUFFY: I was going to say that we talk a lot on this show and in Washington about various pieces of legislation that may be moving or not moving, are stalled and not stalled. But really in the minds of most Americans, this is the only issue. In fact, it’s the top three issues, and it’s a concretization that really doesn’t take place here very often because, as you said, of the paralysis between the parties about what few dials they have on their dashboard to turn.
But unless we are doing – soon to find some way to do something about getting incomes up, and you see – beginning to see things around the country about minimum wages going up, because I think people are just frustrated about being able to pay bills.
MS. IFILL: Let’s listen to James from Maryland. He actually expresses some of that frustration.
MR. : (From tape.) Escalating prices in housing and in rent, poor people displacement, the lack of affordable housing; I’m concerned about the (projects ?) being built for the rich and with prices that aren’t affordable for people with middle incomes.
MS. IFILL: This gap, this wealth gap, this idea that there is growing income inequality beginning – minimum wage debate just scratches the surface.
MR. ZELENY: And it’s not discussed very much in Washington at all, as Michael said. I mean, it – you know, the job slogan sort of reappears, gets dusted off every campaign season. And there is a campaign seasons coming up.
You know, but there are fundamental debates that are happening – I wouldn’t say behind the scenes but off to the side in Congress, about the food stamp program for example. Deep, deep, deep cuts are coming to that next month, in December. Republicans are trying to cut $40 billion over 10 years. Democrats say, not that much. But there are deep cuts coming.
So if you look at the local elections that are happening around the country, you know, the mayor of New York City, for example, I mean, that was a central issue in his race, income disparity. So you are seeing these things that are happening around the country but not a lot in Washington.
MS. TUMULTY: And at the other end of the spectrum, the people who have seen a recovery, the top 1 percent. And Wall Street is booming. So not only are people at the bottom feeling like they can’t get ahead, but they are also seeing the people at the top are actually doing quite well again.
MR. BAKER: You even see the pope weighing in this week, right, talking about the notion of trickle-down economics and taking on some of the capitalism’s harshest edges.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: Let’s skip through some of the politics that we’ve all been talking about this year, which people have been paying attention too as well. One of them – one big shift we’ve seen actually involves public opinion toward gay marriage. And we heard this from Cathy in California.
MS. CATHY SUTHERLAND: (From tape.) With so many major issues facing our government today, such as poverty, economics, and the struggles that our families are going through, I’m amazed and appalled that our leaders see fit as their responsibility and right to interfere with personal lives.
MS. IFILL: Now, you can read that a couple of different ways, but we assume that she believes that there should be gay marriage.
MS. TUMULTY: It’s interesting though. I think the degree to which that debate is even happening anymore is within the Republican Party. The fact is every single poll, every survey you look at shows that a majority of public opinion is now coalescing around the idea that same-sex marriage should be legal. You see the direction that the states are going in – you know, one after another, they seem to be liberalizing their laws, not tightening their laws. And I think the big shift here is demographic. Among younger voters, even the majority of Republicans now support same-sex marriage.
MR. ZELENY: But the reality is across the country, I mean, there are still states that are moving to do the opposite as well. Indiana is one and others around the country are trying to hold fast on that, but you don’t hear – I mean, it’s hard to imagine how quickly this has moved.
I mean, the last presidential or Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, neither of the candidates – none of the candidates were in favor of this. Then Joe Biden, of course, comes forward, and then President Obama, then finally Hillary Clinton after that.
So, I mean, this is still all very new on the Democratic side. But you’re right, not discussed at all except in the Republican Party most famously recently in the – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: You know, we’re going to watch what’s going to happen in 2014 around this table and I’m assuming you’re going to be doing it too because you’re the ones who have to vote.
So let’s go on to a little bit of politics because that’s at the root of everything that we’re going to see happening next. Let’s listen to Mike in Virginia.
MR. MIKE WOODS (viewer question) : (From tape.) Why are you more concerned with what your party is going to do in the elections rather than how you’re going to help the American people, the unemployed, those without health care, things of that sort?
MS. IFILL: There seems to be this sense that people aren’t speaking to people, that the politicians aren’t speaking to people, Jeff.
MR. ZELENY: I think they’re probably right. I mean, a lot of it is – that explains why – or one of the reasons why there is, you know, such a low approval rating of Congress, and government officials and trust in public offices. But people who have that sentiment, I think most people would probably agree with that. No one has really sort of a corralled that.
So if there is this populist sort of sentiment – we saw it rise up in the tea party in 2010. Might it rise up again in a different way in 2014, I’m not sure. But, you know, it is about winning reelection. I mean, House members are up every two years, which they always have been, but, I mean, you could – we could talk a long time about the answers or the non-answers to that question.
But it gets back to why we don’t trust our government and public officials. Congress doesn’t work many days, only – it’s a very part-time Congress. They’ve passed fewer bills this year than any other Congress in recent years.
MS. TUMULTY: But politics has also – there was an op-ed in the Washington Post this week by Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, both former Senate majority leaders, who said, you know, we used to measure ourselves by what we could get done. And now, it does seem like everything in Washington is geared toward what you can stop.
MR. BAKER: It’s such a game of who got who. You know, the e-mail traffic that comes out from the political parties and the senator offices, and even the White House and their allies, you know, is always about – look what somebody said and isn’t this really an outrage here. It’s all about who’s ahead and who’s behind.
MS. IFILL: Which brings us right to this question from Julie in Illinois, who’s concerned about this basic idea that Washington just isn’t working. Let’s listen.
MS. : (From tape.) I think right now, what worries me most is this sense of divisiveness we have and the inability of folks to see things from other points of view. It seems like we’re becoming a nation of single interests.
MS. IFILL: Michael.
MR. DUFFY: I cite the great House district prognosticator Charlie Cook, who in his most recent rundown of the 435 House races in 2014 lists exactly 14 that are tossups – 14, less than about 3 percent. If you throw in the leanings and the likelies and the maybes, you might get, you know, 20 percent at most. But this is now very typical. Very few contests, actually seats are up for grabs. It’s not a – it’s a highly divided map, political map.
Both parties have seen to it that all their seats are safe and not only will they not be any sort of races that matter, but there’s really no need for conversation because we already know what we think and we really just have to contest in the middle. And it makes it all the harder because what money – which is pouring into this and then pours into a fewer number of races.
MR. BAKER: But what’s striking is if you look at the executive side of the things, right, the president – the last three presidents have all promised to bring people together. That was their pitch. You know, President Bill Clinton famously talked about repairing the breach. President George W. Bush talked about being uniter not a divider or President Barack Obama’s great post-partisan reach across. And all three –
MS. IFILL: Breaking the fever.
MR. BAKER: – have – breaking the fever and all three have either succumbed to the fever or been trapped by the fever or –
MR. DUFFY: Fed the fever.
MR. BAKER: Fed the fever, exactly, and they’ve become very polarizing figures in Washington today.
MS. IFILL: Time for one more thought.
MR. ZELENY: And the real reason is because you’re right. There are so few districts now. I think redistricting that was done by computer not done by political parties across the country – that is the way to break the fever, to change the makeup of Congress. You’re seeing it in California, in Iowa now. If other states across the country start changing how they redistrict, I think that could break the fever. But don’t look for it next year.
MS. IFILL: I said final thought, but I have one more for you. Do you see the fever breaking in 2014?
MS. TUMULTY: Not in 2014, no.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be – that’s so optimistic. What a nice way to end it.
Thank you everybody for your questions, for your answers. And thank you for your questions. We have to leave you a little bit early this holiday Friday to give you the opportunity to express your thanks to your local PBS station. That’s right. It is Pledge Week. Please, be generous.
But the conversation will continue here online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” In fact, you can find it there right now, at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And be sure to join me for my monthly chat next Thursday. You can go to our website and send me your questions.
The news doesn’t stop for the holidays. Keep up with daily developments every day with me and Judy Woodruff over on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we will see you again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.