Reflection On The Debt Talks Breakdown

Originally published on July 22, 2011 10:47 pm
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NORRIS: And we're joined now by our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to both of you. What a week.

We heard President Obama and John Boehner explaining their positions. President Obama said Boehner walked away. Speaker Boehner said it was the president who walked away by demanding more money. He said dealing with the president is a bit like dealing with Jell-o.

In terms of who pulled away from the table, E.J., who's right?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post, Brookings Institution): Well, here's what it sounds like to me. First of all, I don't think any of us has ever seen Barack Obama that angry. And people disagree about this, I thought it was good that he was angry because I think this is the day we learn that the Republican majority in the House can't govern. And I mean something very specific about that.

This is democracy we've got a Republican House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic president. The voters did that. The only way to govern in a democracy is to compromise.

Let's take the Republican account at its word. And we don't know which of these accounts yet is right. And I hope everybody puts out their numbers now, so we can all look at them.

But if you take them at their word, Obama was trying to bump up the taxes at most to 1.2 trillion. In a package that was mostly that was overwhelmingly cuts, even with that number it would still have been fewer taxes than in the very conservative Gang of Six deal.

So I think he had a very good case to make tonight and I think you saw the beginning of the 2012 election tonight, too.

NORRIS: So, E.J. is saying the president made a good case. Did Speaker of the House John Boehner make a good case tonight?

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): Yeah, I don't think the president made a good case. I think that on substance, the president may have the better the offer. I have argued that the Republicans should've taken this deal.

Nonetheless, I think what we saw tonight was all one-sided. I thought the president was self-righteous I'm the only honest person in the room. He treated other people like children. He really scotched, I think, any possibility that they're going to have any process, any substantive conversations in the next few days by being so judgmental and so superior, talking about himself too much.

I thought Boehner was fine. Sometimes he was overly partisan. Sometimes he, himself, got a little self-centered. Nonetheless, we saw a personality breakdown, I think. I wish the White House staff had said, Mr. President, you're really hot right now, wait till tomorrow. I think it would've been better for the country, and better for him.

On the substance, we just don't know. And as I say, I think the it's not symmetrical, I'm willing to admit that. The Democrats were clearly willing to bend more than the Republicans were. The crucial question to me now, after the dueling press conferences is, did the goal posts move?

We had two entirely different descriptions of that Boehner saying the president asked for $400 billion in revenue at the last moment. The president flatly denied that. So, one of those two people said something that was not true. And I have no idea who that was.

NORRIS: Or it's possible that there were other people involved in the negotiations and things perhaps got a little bit muddled. When the president was in a more jovial mode or mood, earlier today, he said that the American people elected a divided government, not a dysfunctional government. So, what is the way forward now? How do they possibly move forward?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think in the short term, it's very hard to get that the debt ceiling done now because Speaker Boehner laid down the same conditions the Republicans had at the very beginning we won't raise it unless it's matched dollar for dollar. Yet, both Speaker Boehner and President Obama said they don't want a short term deal, they want to do the whole thing.

I think we are probably back to something like the Mitch McConnell plan. The president said, look, I will take responsibility for raising the debt ceiling. And maybe you can link it to some sort of commission not a commission but a group of members of Congress who can try to work out some deal in the next six months. But it's very hard to see how you get from here to there.

But just to go back very quickly to something David said I think the president had good reason to be angry. He called Speaker Boehner and the speaker didn't deny this he called him this morning and the speaker didn't return his phone call till 5:30, the White House is saying, until after he told the media he had walked away from the deal.

NORRIS: Well, you know...

Mr. BROOKS: There's a real problem here when the speaker of the House can't at least call the president and say, I'm not sure I can deliver my troops, or that 400 million is too much.

NORRIS: Well, to that point, I mean, the president tonight used the power of his podium, and his briefing room, to make his case by speaking there for a half hour. And he demanded that leaders come back to the White House at 11:00 AM. But Mitch McConnell has already released a statement saying that he thinks the time has passed for people to sit down at a room at the White House, that the talks, if they proceed, need to take place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

So, what happens if the president calls the leaders into the White House at 11:00 AM tomorrow and they don't come?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, well, Boehner said he would come, so he got at least one. He and Boehner can sit in a room and stew at each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: So, I think they'll show up but I don't think anything is going to happen. Clearly, there is no trust there. And clearly, Boehner has decided he can work with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi more than he can work with Barack Obama. So, I think the Hill is going to work something out.

You know, I guess the most likely outcome here is either nothing, in which case we have a complete cataclysm. Or else, some sort of small deal that sort of kicks the can down the road until after the election, which will probably not be large enough to please the rating agencies, raising the risk of a downgrade of our debt, which will cost us all hundreds of billions of dollars.

So, both those options are really pretty terrible. But it's hard to be too optimistic right now.

NORRIS: Well, let's talk a little bit about the stakes there because there are some members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side, who think that a default wouldn't be necessarily a bad thing. What is at stake? Because it's interesting, the polls show that the American people have not really keyed into this. They don't really understand exactly what is at stake if we hit August 2nd and the government defaults on...

Mr. DIONNE: But what struck me about the polls, I think if you ask someone about the debt limit, off the top, their sense of the question is, well, do I want the debt to go up? And they'd say no. As this controversy has grown, more and more Americans have focused in and said, gee, this is a really bad idea, this could really hurt the country.

So I think the country is catching on to this. And that's why I think there is an even bigger political price to pay if something goes wrong now.

Mr. BROOKS: I wonder how many Republicans really think a default would be no big deal. Now, the speaker has done a very good job of bringing in a whole series of economists to the House, explaining to members how bad it would be.

And so, I think how many there are clearly, the speaker was always going to lose, like, 40 House members. Whether he would lose 70 or 80 of his own members, that was really the question. And, but the point is, he's going to lose a lot of people 'cause they just will not vote for anything, and so you need something bipartisan.

Mr. DIONNE: And those folks meant that he needed Democratic votes, which is why he needed to give the Democrats a little bit of something, which they weren't willing to give him.

NORRIS: Going to be a tense weekend.

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you. That's David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.