MS. IFILL: Hello, I’m Gwen Ifill. I’m joined around the table by Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Chuck Babington of the Associated Press, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, and Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy magazine.
As we enter this Memorial Day weekend, we thought it might be fitting to talk about one of the issues following our veterans once they return home. The Pentagon has recently decided to end its suicide prevention program, Vets4Warriors. The program is only five years old, but it has already assisted tens of thousands of veterans. But it is at risk, isn’t it, Yochi?
MR. DREAZEN: It is. And this was a program that was being operated from this nondescript call center in New Jersey. It is staffed only by veterans, the idea being that if you are a veteran speaking to someone else who had served, you might be more comfortable than talking to a civilian – you’d think, this person went through what I went through, they speak the language, they came from the same world. And it’s being molded into the military’s kind of overarching program called Military OneSource. And it’s going to save the Pentagon about $5 million, which is so insignificant for a place that spends close to a billion dollars a year on mental health, and it’s just inexplicable.
MS. IFILL: How effective has this been, as this particular subset – I mean, it seems to make sense that you would try to consolidate all your efforts, but has this been successful in a unique way?
MR. DREAZEN: It has. It’s had about 110,000 calls just in the last two or three years, and the people who call call in part because they know who they’re going to get on the phone. They know it will be a veteran – it won’t be another volunteer, it won’t be a civilian. They know exactly who they’re going to reach. So to get rid of that program and bring it into this kind of bigger overarching program, which has many flaws – including the fact that not everyone who answers the phone is a veteran – is mildly inexplicable. And we broke this story last week. Yesterday then saw Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, the senators from New Jersey, four members of the House from New Jersey, write a letter to the secretary of Defense to say, why are you doing this? Reconsider it. Review it. Whether it’s enough to save it is probably unlikely, but at least they’re paying attention to the decision.
MS. IFILL: OK, thank you.
Dan, you wrote a story this week about the money that’s driving this campaign. If there’s one thing that we know is consistent, and that – and only seems to get bigger and more unwieldy, it’s the degree to which money is driving who is in this race, who is not, who gets heard.
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, the public gets hurt.
MS. IFILL: No, who gets heard.
MR. BALZ: Oh, who gets heard, sorry. You know, what we – what we are seeing in this campaign is an almost exponential distortion of what we’ve seen in the past. It’s largely because of the role of the super PACs. Super PACs were a relatively new entity in 2012. They played a role. You could argue that in the general election they weren’t that significant. In the primaries, with the Republicans, they probably did have real impact, both in preserving the candidacies of some of the candidates who otherwise were underfunded or in helping Mitt Romney swat away those challenges.
What you’re seeing now – and in many ways Jeb Bush personifies this – is the centrality of a super PAC in the thinking and the strategy and the preparation by a candidate. Jeb –
MS. IFILL: Even the staffing.
MR. BALZ: Jeb Bush is not an official candidate, in part because he is spending much of this first part of the year stockpiling money into his super PAC. It is in some ways a mockery of the way the campaign finance system ought to be run. He’s playing within the rules. I’m not saying he’s breaking the rules. But he’s stretching the spirit of the law. And it points up, again, the shredding of the system we’ve had really for – that we had for 30 years in financing particularly the primaries and the general election, and that’s all gone now and this is kind of the Wild West.
MS. IFILL: It caught my ear that Hillary Clinton has said on more than one occasion on the campaign trail she thinks this is a terrible thing the way the money system has evolved, but I don’t hear her taking herself out of that.
MR. BALZ: Well, no. I mean, she said she wants a constitutional amendment if necessary, and she took the extraordinary step of essentially saying I will have a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees people who would overturn Citizens United, which was the case that opened a lot of this up. And yet she is operating in an environment in which there’s going to be some direct coordination with a super PAC that is stretching the limits of what the law would suggest, and there’s no single step that she’s been prepared to take. I understand no candidate, you know, wants to unilaterally disarm.
MS. IFILL: We’ve heard that.
MR. BALZ: We all get that. And yet there’s nothing that she’s been willing to do about her own candidacy that says I’m going to – you know, I’m going to sort of put my money where my mouth is.
MS. IFILL: Molly, let’s talk about some of the people on the fringes of this race, because you wrote two pretty good pieces – actually, very good pieces – in the last couple of weeks.
MS. BALL: Thank you, Gwen. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: We’re being generous – about John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, and Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, who you argue we should be taking seriously.
MS. BALL: Well, I didn’t – I’m not predicting that he’s going to get any traction as a presidential candidate. But it is interesting, you know, we were talking the main show about that crowded debate stage. These are both candidates who could potentially be excluded from the debates, despite the fact that, you know, one of them is a three-term senator who’s been a powerful voice in the Republican Party in Washington for more than two decades and the other is the two-term governor of Ohio who also served for nearly two decades in the House of Representatives and who Newt Gingrich gives a large share of the credit for balancing the budget in the 1990s. So these are both people whose – who ought to have the gravitas to entitle them to have a voice in this race, and both interesting candidates who I think ought not be underestimated.
Kasich is a – puts on a compelling show. When you get him in front of a group of people, he’s got a sort of unorthodox, authentic presentation.
MS. IFILL: That’s a very nice way of putting it. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: He’s a little rough around the edges in a way that I think people can find pretty appealing.
And Lindsey Graham’s been going around to some of these early state cattle calls, and the activists respond well to him because he’s loose and he’s funny, he’s sort of irreverent. He’s not what you expect.
But either of these guys, you know, it’ll be tough for them to break in, just given how many other people are out there.
MS. IFILL: And we’re waiting to see Governor – former Governor O’Malley of Maryland get into this race, too, and see whether he can break through on the Democratic side.
MS. BALL: That’s right. His announcement is scheduled for the 30th of this month in Baltimore.
MS. IFILL: Governor Pataki’s on the 28th. (Laughter.) What? I’m just saying.
MR. DREAZEN: Thought about him.
MS. BALL: My calendar is full of presidential announcements as well. It’s an exciting time.
But you know, I think O’Malley has an advantage that he is pretty much guaranteed a large amount of airtime because there are not as many candidates on the Democratic side and because he gives Hillary a foil, if he’s willing to do it. And both O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have been a little bit cautious in how much they’re willing to really criticize Hillary, but I think the media is hungry for a foil for Hillary and is hungry to see her get an actual contest.
MS. IFILL: It’ll be fun to see. And of course, we have Rick Santorum coming up soon, as well.
MS. BALL: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: Chuck, Congress, Capitol Hill. We talked about the trade bill. We talked about the NSA bulk collection data. But also they actually – well, may have been – kicked it down over a couple of months, but a big, huge highway bill, infrastructure. We were obsessed with it only a week ago, after the Amtrak crash.
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah, it was – it was set to – it is set to expire on June 1, right, and generally out – you know, bridges and highways, summer, warm weather’s the best time to work on them. It looks like there will probably be maybe a two-month extension to keep it going. But when this is the type of stopgap – resorting to stopgap measures that we see over and over in this Congress. And it wasn’t that long ago that things like highway funding and, you know, funding basic parts of the government weren’t that hard to do. And now, because the partisanship – the main reason is that partisanship has become so extreme and the divisions are so deep that it’s hard to get even basic things done.
MS. IFILL: I wonder if the death of pork-barrel spending, which used to be a robust part of congressional action, also contributed to lack of agreement on simple things like, should I resurface this bridge.
MR. BABINGTON: I can’t tell you how often I hear a congressional leader say, in private of course or off the record, you know, if only we could do earmarks again, you know, give favors to this congressman or that senator for, you know, a local project or something. And sometimes they were construction-type projects. But those were the – they greased the skids for bigger problems. And you know, they had – they had a smell to them, and that’s why they were done away with. And yet you can make an argument that they were a reasonably small price in the big picture to get bigger things done.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, no more, but maybe it’ll come back because of that very reason. That’s what politics is, trading.
Thank you, everybody. Thank you for watching as well. While you’re online, check out everything else our panelists are covering in News You Need to Know, every day at our PBS.org/WashingtonWeek website. And we’ll see you next time on the Washington Week Webcast Extra.