NPR

Week In Politics: Fiscal Cliff, Romney, Benghazi

Audie Cornish talks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the fiscal cliff, Mitt Romney's post-election comments and the ongoing investigation into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more on this busy week in politics, we turn now to our regular commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hi, there, guys.

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

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So as we heard in David Welna's story, the lawmakers at the White House meeting trying to strike that conciliatory tone, but there's still a lot of obstacles here. And David, you write today that the president needs to be a deal maker and not a warrior. So far, do you think the president is playing the deal maker?

BROOKS: I'm going with warrior, so far from what we've seen. We all know what should happen. There should be an increase in taxes and they should restructure Medicare to save some money. But I really don't think we're going to get there. I think we're in for a bumpy couple months and I say that because the president knows he holds a lot of political cards.

The polls support a tax increase. He doesn't want to restructure Medicare particularly. So I think what he's going to offer, he's demanding a lot from the Republicans. He's essentially demanding capitulation on tax rates. He's demanding they essentially humiliate themselves and I think he knows he can probably win in the court of public opinion. So I suspect we're in for a long bumpy period. I suspect there's going to be Republican capitulation at the end and I suspect the bad blood out of that will mean we won't do much else in the next several months because there will be so much bitterness.

CORNISH: E.J., do you hear anything out of that White House driveway tape that indicates some red flags?

DIONNE: See, I'm pretty disappointed by David's gloominess. I thought we would have a very constructive conversation here today. I think the president needs to be a warrior in order to be a deal maker. And that is what the lesson is of the last several years. He tried really, really hard to do it the other way. He was incredibly conciliatory. He gave a lot in that GOP offer, John Boehner, back in 2011, and it didn't work.

And I think now he has several cards, the two biggest ones is, A, he was reelected after a campaign in which he pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy and, B, the way the fiscal cliff works, and I don't really think it's a cliff, I think it's a slope, but the way that works...

CORNISH: A steep one.

DIONNE: Well, I don't think it has to be steep. I think there are ways they can keep it from affecting us very much for the first month or so, you know, by not changing the withholding tables, by pushing the spending cuts down later in the year. But I think that, you know, the Republicans know all these tax increases come back.

I am struck that we already know taxes on the wealthy are going up and we are arguing now about how it's going to happen. Boehner insists on tax reform. The Republicans used to insist on tax reform and rate cuts, but they're not saying that anymore. Obama would like to - and I agree with him on this, I think we'd be better off to restore the Clinton rates and then talk about tax reform.

You might end up with a mix of the two, so I'm less pessimistic than David is over getting a deal.

CORNISH: When I hear you talking capitulation, though, it makes me think about this general hand-wringing in the Republican Party, which brings me to Mitt Romney. For the first time since the election, the public heard from the Republican nominee and it was in a phone recording and it was leaked. It was a conversation that Romney was having with donors on Wednesday and it was him giving his take on President Obama's reelection. Here's a clip.

MITT ROMNEY: What the president's campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote and that strategy worked.

CORNISH: Went on to give some examples of some of those gifts, one of them being the health care law, which he said was a gift to African-Americans, went on to talk about young people, Hispanics. And a wide range of Republicans have trashed Romney for these comments. David, what's going on here?

BROOKS: Well, this was Mitt Romney's gift to the Republican Party because he gave Republicans something to push against and distinguish themselves from what just happened. And it's crucial because what happened from Governor Bobby Jindal and others was them saying that government programs that help people are not gifts. And so, it goes to the core of what I think of as the Republican problem, the adjustment they have to make, is how do you treat government?

If you think government is never - should never be in a position to help people out so they can rise and succeed, then those kind of programs that are gifts. But if you accept that government has a role to help social mobility, then they're not gifts, they're legitimate programs. So I think it's going to help Republicans reposition themselves, and they now have Mitt Romney to push against.

DIONNE: I think it was a gift both to Obama and to the Republicans. They get cheap grace out of attacking Romney and can distance themselves from this. But I think there's something substantive there, which is that if the Republicans are rejecting this, they are also rejecting a view very popular in what the conservative writer David Frum has called the conservative entertainment complex - talk radio and Fox News - because they really believe what Romney said.

And I think they are setting themselves up to have a very different view of government that will be more congenial to Obama's, and anyone - the other thing is anyone who thought the 47 percent Romney wasn't the real Romney, well, he popped right back up again in this tape.

CORNISH: It was a coda that sort of played into the narrative that was already out there from the election.

BROOKS: They only quick thing I'd say is that no one should - we should all feel sorry for people who lose a presidential election. It's something they never get over. And I'm willing to cut him some slack in the week after probably the biggest traumatic moment of his life.

CORNISH: Well, I'm glad you are. Ed Rogers(ph), longtime Republican strategist, said he never developed an emotional foothold within the GOP. So he can exit the stage anytime, and no one will mourn. Kind of a bit of a burn. In our last moments talking about Benghazi, we thought this was the issue we'd be talking about this week. Intelligence hearings, of course, today with former CIA director David Petraeus testifying about the attack on the Benghazi consulate.

We're going to hear more details about his testimony later. But, you know, last weekend, last week when Petraeus issued his resignation, David, you said that you were feeling very French about it. And given the rabbit hole of stories we've heard since, how are you still feeling?

BROOKS: Uber-French.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: My view has hardened. He should not have resigned. If Allen Dulles can have affairs at CIA head, then he can. So I'm - I don't think he should have to suffer. On the Benghazi thing, I think - I doubt there was sort of an active cover-up. I don't think Susan Rice was being intentionally misleading. But it is mystifying, given all that was known right away, why this really incredibly false story was dribbled out to the public, why the intelligence agencies came up with this narrative which was not true, especially knowing what we do know. And especially given what Petraeus apparently said today, which is they knew there were some - or they suspected there was al-Qaida interference from the start, and they struck that from the transcript. I'd love to know why that happened.

CORNISH: He argued that they struck it from the transcripts so as not to tip off terrorist groups that the intelligence community was on to them. But E.J.?

DIONNE: I'm not feeling quite so French as David is. I think, boy, did you open up - did these various activities and affairs not only on the part of Petraeus open up a real series of problems, you also have problems raised with the FBI, the shirtless FBI agent, and did - what in the world was his role in this? So I think the whole thing is very unfortunate.

In terms of Benghazi, we have no proof yet of a conspiracy. It seems to me that if you go back to the original Susan Rice comments that Senator McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham seem to want to hang her with and block her becoming secretary of state, she said this was all in response to the tape of - the Muhammad tape that offended so many Muslims.

If she'd only said it's perfectly possible that someone might have taken advantage of this protest, she would have been better off. But I don't know what the administration is covering up. And I hope we end this as quickly as possible and get to the truth because what we should be talking about is how do we prevent this from happening again in the future, and that ought to be the focus.

CORNISH: And there are a number of committees on the Hill who are continuing to look into this. So I'm sure we're going to learn more in the coming weeks. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks so much.

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

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