Brooks and Tumulty on debt, social spending, Jan. 6 investigation, Supreme Court

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including debt ceiling negotiations in Congress, debate over President Joe Biden’s social spending bills, new revelations about former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and what's expected from the Supreme Court this term.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been a whirlwind of a week here in Washington, with the U.S. Supreme Court kicking off its October session, a new report on election interference being issued by the Senate, and a temporary deal reached on the federal debt ceiling.

    To help us make sense of it all, we are joined by Brooks and Tumulty. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Karen Tumulty, columnist for The Washington Post.

    Very good to have you both with us. Jonathan Capehart is away tonight. Happy to see you both on this Friday night.

    But let's talk first, David, about what they have done in the Congress, in the Senate. They have kicked the can down the road. Enough Republicans gave the Democrats the votes they needed to go ahead and move the debt ceiling decision to December. Is it going to be any easier then?

  • David Brooks:

    No.

    And this is what happens when politicians play hand grenade with the nation's solvency. But it's as if the political campaign is running all year around now or all lifelong, because it's all about positioning for the next election.

    So, the Republicans would love to see the Democrats on a straight party-line basis expand the debt ceiling, and then they could blame them for all the spending. And Mitch McConnell was sort of backing them up to do it. And then he sort of blinked.

    And I think there are two main reasons he blinked. One, there was some threat that the Democrats were so panicked by this they were going to change the filibuster, which the Republicans desperately do not want them to do. There was some possibility they were just trying to ease some pressure on Joe Manchin, look after their buddy Joe Manchin, who is taking a lot of heat from more progressive Democrats, and then some possibility that Schumer didn't have 50 votes to raise the debt ceiling, in which case we would have gone into insolvency.

    So we're going to go through all this again in December.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It — is December going to be different?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    December is going to be different because they will also, in that same little window, have to vote on the continuing resolution. This is the bill that keeps the government operating.

    So we may have within a few days of each other these two difficult votes, one to keep spending and the other to keep borrowing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Karen, what about — I mean, David mentioned this, that some people are saying, including former President Trump, saying Mitch McConnell folded.

    What happened here?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    I all along was a little skeptical that Mitch McConnell was going to be willing to take the fall for making the — essentially the entire world economy collapse.

    He had some leverage. As too often happens in Washington, there's a deal right before the deadline. But I do think we ought to think about whether we ought to even have this whole exercise of raising the debt ceiling. It is something that is meaningless in the context of controlling spending, because you're basically paying bills for spending you have already done.

    There's a budget process. There's an appropriations process. If you want to have fiscal discipline, that's where to do it. I think they ought to just suspend the debt ceiling indefinitely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And which is, I guess, an argument that the Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has been making.

    But, David, I mean, are there clear winners and losers coming out of this? Or has it just muddied — is the picture just muddied even more?

  • David Brooks:

    I'd say muddied.

    I think each party got a little of what they wanted. The Democrats got the Republicans to actually have a vote and produce some votes. And the Republicans got the idea that we're just going to go through this again.

    Everyone's a hypocrite on matters of procedure. So whether you're for the filibuster or the debt limit, it all depends on whether you're in the majority or the minority. The Democrats, I think, in 2006, it wasn't quite the same circumstance, a very similar circumstance. They were very happy to let the Republicans take the fall and be the ones to pass the debt limit, including Joe Biden.

    And now that shoe is on the other foot, so they have all 180-degree changed their positions. And this is the way it always is on these procedural game-playing things, that you do what's in your best interests at this moment. There are no actually principled players in any of this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does one side come out stronger or not in this?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    No.

    It is really a situation of — people seem to think this debt ceiling vote is some kind of political liability. I have never heard any campaign where it becomes an issue or the subject of an ad. The size of the social spending package that the Democrats are talking about, that is likely to be — figure in the 2022 campaign.

    But I — this is just this Kabuki theater that they do over and over and over again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, moving on to something.

    We just heard Fiona Hill, the — who has written a book about her experiences, David. And that is a number of developments this week about election interference in 2020. You had this disturbing report come out from the Senate Judiciary Committee about the lengths former President Trump went to try to get the Justice Department to overturn the election result.

    Then you have more — watching state after state say they want to reform the way they count votes, the way they run their elections. How worried should the American people be right now about all of this?

  • David Brooks:

    Pretty worried, on a scale of one to 10, seven-and-a-half or so. That's pretty worried.

    I'm not a worrying kind of guy, but I think worried about two things. One, we keep learning more and more that Trump really wanted to overturn the election. He wanted to take away the election. And we also learned that, throughout the administration, throughout some of the Republican secretaries of state, there were honest people that were not going to let him do it.

    And so we have learned from the Senate report that he was threatening to fire the attorney general. And there were enough people in the Justice Department who said, we will all quit at once if you do this, and so he didn't really have a chance.

    But the more dangerous thing is what's happening in the states now, is that we're setting ourselves up for this all to happen in 2024 if he runs again, and if he's anywhere close. And, this time, he will have had not a couple of weeks to prepare to take the election away. He will have had years.

    And the party seems to be extremely focused on this process. And so that's the things we're worried about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where should the concern be focused in all of — that there's so many moving parts to this.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Well, the pattern of the Trump presidency is, with these revelations, you will always hear something else happened that is both shocking and unsurprising and even predictable about Donald Trump.

    And there were a few people that stood in the way. Dan Quayle, who talked to Mike Pence about his lack of powers to overturn the election on January 6, was not on my bingo card for the savior of democracy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Karen Tumulty:

    But, next year, we're going to have the midterms, and these races in the states where governors may be replaced by governors who would be fine with letting partisan hacks control elections, secretaries of state, election officials.

    I think the danger in 2024 is going to be a lot higher even than it was in 2020. And we may once again have Donald Trump back on the scene.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I was going to say whether he's on the ballot.

    I mean, David, you read that portion of the Senate report where it — for hour after hour, there was an argument inside the White House with then-President Trump, saying, we need to replace the acting attorney general in order to overturn the election. I mean, they had to argue him down from this.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    The most chilling quote — and that was Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general.

    "One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren't going to do anything to overturn the election."

    That is what the president of the United States said to his acting attorney general.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

    And so the good news is there were enough. I guess what strikes me — and this is the underlying problem — is that any time Rudy Giuliani or anybody could come up with a crackpot rationale to do this, they seized on it without any evidence. There was never a moment when people in Trump world said, that one, that theory is a little wacky.

    They seized on absolutely everything. And that is what happens when you're in a post-truth world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And if President Trump is not on the ballot, Karen, there's still concern that people who espouse his philosophy and who deny the election result in 2020 could be pushing some of the same…

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Exactly.

    I mean, these are people running up and down the ballot. It has become practically an article of faith in the Republican Party that, if you want to have a shot at elective office, that you have to say these things that really undermine the integrity of the electoral system.

  • David Brooks:

    Fifty-nine percent of Republicans in one poll said that believing the election was stolen was an important part about being a Republican. It's central to the identity.

    It's not belief in free markets or being socially conservative. From philosophical and principled positions has gotten to Trump positions. And so the identity of the party has fundamentally changed from a conservative party to a Trump party, at least among, say, half of the Republican…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing I want to make time for, Karen, and that is the Supreme Court reconvening this week, a lot of eyes watching this institution because they are taking up hot-button issues, abortion, gun rights, and others, maybe affirmative action.

    What are you looking for from this term? And people are starting to say, if the court does what we think it could do, this is going to look like a partisan court.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    It certainly — I think this is the term in which the heavily conservative Supreme Court is going to truly show us who they are and what they think.

    And I think the biggest issue on the plate is whether or not they overturn Roe vs. Wade, either with this case that is coming their way from Mississippi, or the new Texas abortion law is likely to land in their lap again pretty soon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, there's always — we're always watching the Supreme Court, David, but is this time different that way?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it is a little.

    There has been a 5-4 conservative majority, but John Roberts, the chief justice, really cares about the court and the dignity of the court and the legitimacy of the court. He could now be in the minority in a lot of these cases, and he could be on the left side, because he is not — he's been hesitant to turn over precedents.

    And there seems to be five at least who are much more willing. And so he might turn out into be the minority player. And there will be nobody to try to keep precedents just for the legitimacy of the court.

    Public opinion polls on the court are not in freefall, but they're in serious decline. The number of people who think it's a legitimate and trustworthy institution is at a low. And the Supreme Court justices are all out on the road saying, no, we're not partisan hacks.

    They're not. But they're conservatives and progressives, and they vote like partisan hacks, so that — on the big cases, not on most cases, but on the big ideological cases, their votes are entirely predictable by who nominated them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And at a time, Karen, when the country is so divided politically, it — I mean, it matters whether the court is seen as partisan or not.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

    And, again, I mean, the fact that the — these justices are feeling that need to go out and say publicly that they are not partisans is — that, in and of itself, is extraordinary. But we will see how these big cases on not just abortion, but some other hot-button issues, like guns.

    And again, this is a relatively young court. And this is the court that we're going to see basically for a generation potentially.

  • David Brooks:

    It used to be people had faith in government and the governing institutions.

    And when that faith goes away, everything is up for grabs. And whether we're talking about the budget, the election or the court, they all grow out of the fact that people have lost faith in the legitimacy of their institutions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's a grim note to…

  • David Brooks:

    Sorry.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A really grim note for us…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    Just facing reality here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On this Friday night.

    David Brooks, Karen Tumulty, thank you both.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Thank you.

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