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Week In Politics: Fiscal Cliff, GOP Soul Searching

It's been an eventful week in politics, but now what? The fiscal cliff looms, the Republican Party does some soul searching, and some are asking, did the elections change anything? Melissa Block talks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now, to our political commentators - E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post; and David Brooks, of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: We're going to talk about the fiscal cliff, in a moment, but let's start with the surprise news today - the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. He issued a statement saying, "I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair." This is a four-star general; a former commander in Iraq and Afghanistan; former head of CENTCOM. Many people talked about him as a possible potential can - presidential candidate in the future. David Brooks, what do you think?

BROOKS: Yeah, I basically have a French attitude toward this sort of thing. I think we should - you know, it's a personal thing, and we should let very talented people serve publicly, even if they've done shameful things, because there are not that many talented people. When you're head of the CIA, it's a little different; and so I guess he did have to step down. I just hope somebody can use his talents - and I guess I'm talking to you, Princeton University.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: He's been rumored to be - potentially - the president of that university. E.J. Dionne?

DIONNE: I agree with David. And if I could explain the vagaries of human behavior, I'd be a counselor or a rabbi, a priest, or a minister. He gave his service to his country. I feel very bad for his family, and I hope - I'm sure he'll do something useful.

BLOCK: Let's move on and talk about what's going on with the fiscal cliff, and what we heard today from the president, and from the speaker of the House, John Boehner. We heard Boehner express an aversion to raising tax rates, thinking you can fix this with eliminating deductions and loopholes; the president, the White House repeating his thought, that any bill that doesn't include a tax hike on the wealthiest earners - the top 2 percent - will get his veto. David Brooks, where is this headed? Are we still hurdling toward that fiscal cliff, or is there a path away?

BROOKS: Oh, there's a path - if E.J. and I sat down, we could have a path, no problem.

BLOCK: Well, what about given the players that we're talking about?

BROOKS: In the Congress? No, I'm much more pessimistic about that. You know, there is a general approach where you could reduce some deductions and get some revenue that way, and then cut some spending; and we can all sketch that out in the abstract. Once you start getting to the details - exactly how you do the tax reform; how much spending per how many dollars of revenue - I think we're going to go over the fiscal cliff at some point, this year; at least for a couple days, couple weeks. I think it's going to be - extremely ugly year with the fiscal cliff, with the debt ceiling; a whole bunch of things. We're going to be fighting over budgets, and I think it's going to be scary.

BLOCK: Well, one thought, E.J., is might there be a down payment - essentially, a short-term measure that gets them through the end of the year, and then they can work on the bigger picture?

DIONNE: You see, I'm not afraid of the fiscal cliff. Indeed, in some ways, I think we should go over it because I don't think it's really a cliff at all. I think there are plenty of ways you can handle the immediate effect. You don't have to change the tax-withholding tables. You don't have to make all the cuts at the beginning of the year. You can sort of push them out till the end of the year, while they are making a deal. So they never actually take effect.

I just think it's very clear: Taxes on the well-to-do have to go up. And maybe the only way that Republicans will be able to vote for it, is if we do go down the hill - or over the cliff, as most people say. I am struck with this - I've always been a critic of this, oh, we can do it all with tax reform. I'm struck that right now, Speaker Boehner's position is he'll make a deal, you know, by not increasing the highest tax rate, but do it through tax reform.

That's Mitt Romney's position. So he's saying he'll make a deal with the victorious candidate, on the basis of the program of the defeated candidate. I think it is a bargaining position.

BLOCK: But what about on the entitlement side, where there's going to be pushback from Democrats - right? - who say, you can't mess with Medicare; or, you can't mess with Social Security.

BROOKS: In some ways, this is harder than what we tried - I guess - 15, 18 months ago because you've got the House Republicans, who are pretty recalcitrant, but I think what you just heard from E.J.; if you read my colleague Paul Krugman's column today; the left and the liberals and the unions are much more organized than they were last time. They feel they won the election. They can get what they want. And frankly, the way the fiscal cliff is structured, if I were a Democrat, I may want to go off it - because you get your tax increase; you get a bunch of revenue; you get a lot of spending cuts, on the defense side. The programs you care about are actually protected. That's the way the fiscal cliff is structured. So the...

BLOCK: Social Security and Medicare.

BROOKS: Right and some domestic programs. And so the Democrats have a strong incentive to want to go off.

DIONNE: Well, the other thing is the election, which is - you know, Obama - you know, I'm skeptical of big mandates ,and people claiming mandates for everything they want. But if there was one thing Obama was clear about, it was raising taxes on the wealthy, to help balance the budget. And he's got - for that, he clearly has popular support, and the exit polls show that; so that I don't think - and I think he is much ready - much more ready to be tough this time than he was before, because a lot of things are going for him this time; including, I think he can fairly claim, the will of the people.

BLOCK: Let's talk about a recurring theme post-Tuesday night, which is the future of the Republican Party. If demographics is, indeed, destiny, what is the destiny of the Republican Party, David?

BROOKS: There are sort of three schools: the stand-patters, who say we've just got to find some more white people, and maybe they'll vote for us; we've got to rally our base a little better. And then there's the group - my friend Charles Krauthammer is in it - who says, we've just got to shift on immigration. And then, on the third party - is the people of truth and justice, which would include me and a guy named David Frum, who's another conservative writer. And he says no, it's not just immigration. If you're going to win over some of the rising groups - Asian-Americans, Hispanics - it's about economic values.

You have to talk about income inequality. You've got to talk about some of the ways that people who are hardworking and entrepreneurial in those communities, feel government is helping them. And you've got to have a program where you distinguish between those parts of government which are helping entrepreneurialism, from those parts that are hurting it.

BLOCK: E.J., it's interesting - do you think that that specter that the Republicans raised, of an overreaching federal government, really backfired in a fundamental way?

DIONNE: I do. And in fact, you know, when we talk about the gender gap, we tend to talk about it in relationship to the social issues - like abortion, and candidates like Mr. Mourdock and Mr. Akin; and that was certainly part of it. But, you know, women voters - as my colleague Elizabeth Jacobs(ph), at Brookings, has pointed out - are also very much in favor of a government that promotes opportunity, and protects people. And I think that also hurt them, among women. And in that third group that David talked about - which I think, personally, is right in its analysis - Henry Olsen(ph), at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the point that if you look at all the candidate characteristics that were asked about in the exit poll, Romney won them all except the one, "cares about people like me." And the Republicans have created a sense, for large numbers of people in the country, that they don't really care about them. Mitt Romney's background may have aggravated that a bit, but I think it's a party problem that the party really has to grapple with.

BLOCK: I want to ask you both about the waves of recrimination in Republican circles, especially toward those - including Karl Rove - who fundamentally misread this electorate and continued to see a different outcome even after the results had been called on Fox News. David?

BROOKS: I'm going to make E.J. walk down the corridor, to confirm that Obama really did win. I still don't believe it.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Take your microphone with you.

DIONNE: The electorate was just oversampled Democrats.

BROOKS: Yeah. You know, partisanship barbarizes; and it creates this epistemic closure, where people get in information cocoons.

BLOCK: Epistemic closure.

BROOKS: That's a very useful phrase these days, believe me.

BLOCK: Translate.

BROOKS: Epistemology is the study of what we know; and epistemic closure is being in an information cocoon, where you just believe what you want to believe. Confirmation bias is another phrase. And there's a lot of that going around - not only on Fox News but apparently, with Mitt Romney, who we now know was totally shocked. Well, doesn't he read the newspaper? And so I think people get in their cocoons, and they believe what they want to believe. And it's a challenge for all of us.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I appreciate Professor Brooks' point on epistemic closure. I think something's happened to conservatism that's different - it's different than it was before. Conservatives weren't fact-deniers in the past, on the whole. And I - they've really lived in alternative factual universe, and Nate Silver and the pollsters were only looking at data. Conservatives said, they're just making propaganda here. Well no, they weren't making propaganda; they were looking at data. And I hope conservatives draw some lessons from this, on global warming - and other questions where they can give up their epistemic closure.

BROOKS: Can I just add, there are liberal cocoons, too. Can we get that in there?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: OK, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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