A conversation with Australian author Richard Flanagan about his latest book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The Man Booker Prize-winning novel is based on his father’s experience as a slave laborer in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Following a deal to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers turned their focus to budget talks. The goal is to prevent another government shutdown come Jan. 15, 2014. Technical problems continue to plague the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act exchanges and Republicans in Congress are calling for further investigation. The White House nominated Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security. If confirmed, he would be the first African American to hold the position. And Newark Mayor Cory Booker won a special election for the U.S. Senate. Diane and her guests discuss the week in domestic news.
- Susan Page Washington bureau chief, USA Today.
- Ron Elving senior Washington editor, NPR.
- David Leonhardt Washington bureau chief, The New York Times; author of the e-book: “Here’s the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth."
As Republicans reassess their strategy after the federal shutdown, many are asking what the debt showdown means for the GOP establishment. Ron Elving of NPR said the conservative consensus that’s governed the party for the past 30 years has changed. “From a historical perspective, it’s hard to remember a time when the Republicans have been quite at each others’ throats in quite this way,” Elving said. Susan Page of USA Today said approval ratings for Republican elected officials are at a record low.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. What's next for Congress and the White House after a last-minute deal reopens the government, President Obama backs Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, despite a rocky launch of the new healthcare insurance website, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker wins a special election to fill New Jersey's open U.S. Senate seat.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the national hour of the Friday News Roundup: Ron Elving of NPR, Susan Page of USA Today, and David Leonhardt of The New York Times. We invite you as always to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Welcome, everybody.
MR. DAVID LEONHARDTGood morning.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning, Diane.
MS. SUSAN PAGEGood morning.
REHMAnd, David Leonhardt, since you are author of the e-book "Here's the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth," I'm going to ask you about this deal.
REHMThe government has reopened, but President Obama yesterday called for an end to crisis, to crisis governing. What happens now?
LEONHARDTI still think we're unlikely to get a big deal, a huge grand bargain on the deficit. But I'm also not sure we need a grand bargain on the deficit. And it's clear from the early signs coming out of Congress that Congress is going to lower its sights, so what happened this week was the Republicans in the House, who were the driving force behind this shutdown, surrendered.
LEONHARDTThey said, you know what, we're not going to try to force the end of Obamacare. We're actually not going to even demand some middle step. We're surrendering. And they surrendered under pressure from a lot of their colleagues in the Republican Party who saw this doing damage to the party, who saw the poll numbers.
LEONHARDTThey surrendered under pressure from President Obama who kept using the word ransom. And so what they're now doing is going into a series of budget negotiations, but this isn't like the last one. If these budget negotiations fail, there's nothing that kicks in. And so they could get to a deal. They could get to no deal. The reason I say that it's less necessary to get to a grand bargain is our deficit has come down so much over the last couple years.
LEONHARDTCombination of things. The economy started to recover, and we've raised taxes through the end-of-the-year deal.
REHMAnd the sequester.
LEONHARDTAnd we've cut a lot of spending. And so another way to think about it is that the private economy over the last year or so has actually been growing at a pretty healthy rate of 3 percent. The economic growth has been weak, mostly because the government has been cutting and pulling down that growth rate. The upside of that is that the deficit's coming down. And the idea of getting a big deficit deal, while important because our long-term problems are still really big with Medicare and Social Security, is not urgent.
PAGESo it's a good thing it's not urgent since it's not going to happen. And we should remember that, while we call it a deal that they got to get out of this current mess, it's not a deal in that it addresses the fundamental underlying conflicts between the two sides, right? It just delays them until January and February when we will once again have a debate about funding the government and about raising the debt ceiling.
PAGENow, the question is, because of this Republican sad experience over the last 16 days, will they choose to not go the route they did this time, which is a total showdown that leads to a shutdown? Will they pursue different tactics that are somewhat less catastrophic in terms of government functioning? And I do not believe we fully know the answer to that question yet.
PAGEWe know that people like Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said yesterday they would not force another shutdown, that they had taken the second kick of a mule and gotten nothing for it. But it's not clear to me that people like Sen. Ted Cruz and the Tea Party Republicans are going to agree.
LEONHARDTI think the...
ELVINGIf you're a democratic strategist, you are praying that they have not gotten that message and that they will go right back to this tactic book in January and February and that they will try -- as Ted Cruz said in the last 24 hours he would -- to do exactly what they did this time. Now, that's if you're a democratic strategist.
ELVINGAnd for exactly that reason, there is hope, there is cause for optimism that the Republicans might take a rather different approach. And one way that they could do this -- and I realize this is contrarian, but I'm just throwing it out as a sort of wild optimistic moment. There is some reason to think that this particular -- well, they won't call it a Super Committee, but it's basically the same idea from 2011.
ELVINGThis particular reiteration of that concept might actually see an opportunity to try to do something creative that could obviate a January, February train wreck and make it not necessary to shut down the government and therefore move the subject politically for the 2014 races back off of this moment, which is bad for the Republicans, and on to some other subjects that might be bad for the Democrats.
REHMBut let me understand you've got the same people involved as in 2011, you've got the same starting point as in 2011, same broad outlines of a compromise?
PAGEWell, but, as David said, the economy's a little better, the pressure to try to do something with the deficit is a little less, and expectations are lower. I mean, if they got a deal that just managed to not have another crisis, people would hail that as a big victory. I don't think people are looking for the kind of grand bargain that would raise taxes and really tackle entitlement spending, the kind of thing that had been tried and failed, a couple times now, in this administration.
PAGESo -- but maybe, as David said, maybe a small deal gets us down the road and avoids hurting the economy. We know that the shutdown and the crisis politics that we've had the last two weeks has hurt the U.S. economy at a time when it really doesn't need to be taking any more blows. So that would be a good thing. I mean, of course, we know that Ron is a wild optimist about all things, but maybe that'll happen.
LEONHARDTI'd phrase one question for each party, so I agree all the people here are the same. But the Ted Cruz faction of the House and the Senate don't control things here. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner could have prevented this from happening. And they didn't. They wanted to hear out that wing of the party. My guess is next time they will prevent it.
LEONHARDTAnd so the question for the Republicans is, do the leaders in the party essentially shut down that wing and decide, we're not doing this again, even if we have to say no to them? The question for the Democrats, I think, is really interesting, which is, how important are taxes to the Democrats? Republicans have said, we won't have any budget deal with tax increases.
LEONHARDTDemocrats want to raise taxes on companies and on the affluent. Republicans would say, no, that's off the table. There's an interesting question. Should Democrats really stick to their position that they will only take a deal with tax increases? What if Democrats could get a deal with some changes to Medicare and Social Security?
LEONHARDTLike you slow the long-term growth rate of the...
LEONHARDTRight? So they're cuts, right...
LEONHARDT...to bring them more into balance. And in exchange for relatively modest cuts, what if the Democrats could get President Obama's pre-K program, which isn't very expensive and would provide preschool for millions of 4-year-old, particularly poor and middle class 4-year-olds?
LEONHARDTWhat if they could reduce some of the cuts to the sequester? What if they could increase cuts to scientific research and to climate research? What if they could spend some more money on college financial aid and highways? I can put together that deal and make the numbers work out on a piece of paper right here.
REHMAnd I'll moderate that discussion. You put it in front of (unintelligible).
LEONHARDTBut the question for the Democrats is, will they go for that deal? I think there is a big progressive argument for that deal. But a lot of progressives would hate it because they view any cuts to Medicare and Social Security as wrong.
REHMAnd would they see raising the salary limit on Social Security contributions as part of a cut?
LEONHARDTThat's a great question. I think the problem with that is, from a conservative perspective, that is really a tax increase, so my guess…
LEONHARDT...is that if the Republicans stick to the no tax increase part of the deal, my guess is that isn't part of the package. And instead you're talking about things like inflation adjustments and stuff like that.
ELVINGIt's a tax increase, and it's a totally rational tax increase and one that you could get overwhelming support for if you could lay it before the American people with any kind of objective (word?)...
REHMDo you have any historical perspective on why that was set at that limit?
ELVINGOh, it's been climbing for years and years and years. Obviously, it wasn't $100,000 when they began.
ELVINGIt's way over -- it's going to rise above $100,000 eventually. Everybody knows that. It just hasn't really been effectively raised to be what it would need to be to save Social Security over the long haul, but it easily could be. But I think David's got the key here when he talks about the sequester because that's where the two parties come together. And it may be the only good common ground from which we could begin a larger discussion, and that is, how do we replace the sequester?
PAGEAnd what a surprise is that because, remember, when the sequester was negotiated, it was negotiated because it was seen as completely unacceptable to both sides.
PAGENow we've had Democrats make a major concession in accepting sequester spending, that lower level, as acceptable. I mean, so it's the baseline that we're moving forward with. And Republicans are not squawking about the big defense cuts that were also part of that deal. So I agree that that is -- it is significant that what was once negotiated as a kind of suicide pact, that they would have to come to a deal because neither side would accept the sequester, is now what they're starting with.
REHMAll right. Let me ask you all, what about President Obama? How does he come out of this whole shutdown, Susan?
PAGEI think he comes out strengthened. He refused to negotiate. He had a very strong partnership with Harry Reid, the Senate leader, in shutting down. Even when Republicans talked about restoring funding for very popular programs, he succeeded in not giving any ground, any significant ground, when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. And he may have set the stage for negotiations next time that don't lead to this kind of brinkmanship.
ELVINGRemarkable when you go back a few weeks and you consider how, at the end of the summer, the president was reeling on Syria, reeling on the NSA revelations, reeling in terms of his relationship with the budget and the Republicans in Congress, and just nothing seemed to be going right for him. And here we are, just a fairly short period later, and more or less all of those issues have turned around, with the exception -- which we'll get to about the rollout on Obamacare, which we'll talk about. But all these other areas where he seemed to be doing so poorly so recently have turned around.
REHMSo what finally convinced him to take that stand, David?
LEONHARDTI think a few different things, two above all. One, he doesn't have to run for reelection again. And when he had to run for reelection, I think he was more worried about the damage that something like this could do to the economy. And not only that, but there are two players in this negotiation, and I think that he thought Republicans would be more willing to do damage to the economy if he were running for reelection at the same time.
LEONHARDTHe's not now running for reelection.
REHMDavid Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. Short break here. When we come back, we'll talk more about this deal and other issues, take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back to the national hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with David Leonhardt of New York Time, Susan Page of USA Today, Ron Elving of NPR. We were talking in that first segment about the budget deal we hope somehow they'll be able to reach, but have great skepticism about. What about the GOP? Ron Elvin, how is it affected by this whole shutdown and everything that went with it?
ELVINGFrom a historical perspective, it's hard to remember a time when the Republicans have been quite at each other's throats in quite this way. John McCain has said extraordinary things about Ted Cruz and some of the other people who have taken over the party, particularly on the issue of the sequester, but also on the issue of the shutdown strategy and so on.
ELVINGIt takes you back to 1976 when Gerald Ford was running for reelection -- or for election as president when he was already president, having become so after Nixon resigned. And Ronald Reagan challenged him for the nomination and split the party right down the middle. He almost went to the convention in 1976. And we had, of course, in the Carter presidency the great fight over the Panama Canal, and the Republican Party was very divided.
ELVINGBut in 1980, Ronald Reagan put an end to that, won the nomination, won the presidency, was reelected, and, since then, we have seen a conservative consensus in the Republican Party that has really governed that party over this 30-some-year period of time. What is changed is that a new party has formed almost fully out to the right of that conservative consensus. And that's a surprise to a lot of people. They wouldn't necessarily have expected that to happen.
ELVINGBut what we saw in 2009 was a lot of Republicans and conservatives generally said the old Republican Party couldn't stop Barack Obama from becoming president and putting his medical -- I mean, rather his health insurance plan into effect, what we now call Obamacare. Therefore we are going to create a new party or a new energy, a new dynamic that's going to move the party in a new direction and fight that law and fight this president far beyond what the conventional Republican Party was able to do.
PAGEWell, the Republican Party's in really sorry shape. And its approval among American people is way down. It was down to 24 percent in a record low in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, which showed the damage that has been taken to the Republican brand. But here's the big dilemma for the GOP. So the Tea Party forces have led them down a path that has cost them dearly among people in the middle, more moderate Republicans, swing voters.
PAGEOn the other hand, that is where the energy of the Republican Party has come from since 2010. And the question is, can they somehow take advantage of the energy of the Tea Party without having all the damage from the Tea Party? And I don't think we know the answer to that. We saw the Cook Political Report, Charlie Cook, a friend of "The Diane Rehm Show" yesterday.
REHMHe's coming on Monday as a matter of fact.
PAGEComing on Monday. Well, just yesterday, the Cook Political Report changed the ratings of 15 House seats. Fourteen of them moved in the Democrats' direction. It puts the House of Representatives in play for the possibility of a Democratic takeover of the House in next year's midterm elections, which is something that previously did not seem possible.
LEONHARDTI agree with that. I like that analogy about that these tensions between the base -- the very passionate, energized, motivated base in appealing to the middle. We've seen other organizations go through this -- or are going through it. The Democratic Party went through it in this country in the 1970s and '80s. The Labour Party went through it in Britain. And then the Torreys went through it in Britain. The Catholic Church is going through it right now. And there are these real tensions.
LEONHARDTFor the Republicans -- for many of these Republican members, their only danger is going too far to the left, going too far to the middle because then they will get primary. There are in safe Republican districts. It's not mostly gerrymandering. It's mostly that we've self-sorted geographically. Gerrymandering plays some role. But it's mostly that liberals are more likely to live with liberals, and conservatives are more likely to live with conservatives than was in the past.
LEONHARDTAnd so the Republicans have this real problem, which is, for the people in the House, moving to the right is a rational thing to do. It makes it very hard for them to win presidential elections. They lost the popular vote in five of the last six. They do badly amidst every fast-growing group in this country, young people, Latinos, Asian Americans, self-identified gays and lesbians.
REHMAll right. Let's talk for a moment about economics and how much economic damage was done, Susan.
PAGEWell, the lead story in USA Today this morning is a big headline, how to lose $24 billion in 16 days. And that's what we did.
LEONHARDTI wish I had it to lose.
ELVINGAnd without having fun.
PAGEThe damage to the economy, the damage to consumer confidence, it -- there are estimates that it cost us about 250,000 jobs to have gone through this exercise, and so definitely a serious toll. It cut the rate of growth in the economy in ways that are not yet calculated. And we'll see next week when the jobless numbers come out on a delayed basis...
REHMYes. On Tuesday, yeah.
PAGE...whether it affected hiring.
REHMAnd here's an email on this very point from Mark in Silver Spring, Md. "Any apology for the inconvenience, hurt and pain the Tea Party people cast around this country while they stood on their principles and didn't lose a penny in the process?" Ron Elving.
ELVINGWell, the question answers itself. I mean, if they themselves did not feel that pain, I don't suspect that there's going to be a great deal of apology. I think that, because this was driven by principle, they're going to say, we stood for our principles, and that was the right thing to do. And it was the president's fault that the government actually shut down because the president wouldn't negotiate with us. And that's their point of view.
ELVINGBut I think you also have to consider that, in the long run, we're probably going to see what we saw in the '90s after those government shutdowns which, after all, taken altogether were longer, which is that the economy will recover some of that ground. Some of the hiring that was put off in the last couple of weeks will get done in the latter part of this month.
REHMBut it just delays everything.
ELVINGAnd if you look at the stock market, for example, just to look at the other evidence, the folks up there in New York don't seem to have any problem at all buying this economy. And the stock market has shot back up through this week despite all of this. Granted, when they believed there would be a deal and the government would reopen and we would not default, that's when those stocks really took off.
REHMBut you know what is so shocking to me is that we are circling right back to 2011 to the same outlines of the same program that John Boehner walked away from after he and President Obama had apparently reached some kind of agreement.
LEONHARDTAnd there's obviously a lot of disagreement between those two sides about who really walked away at what precise moment. And we'll never know exactly who did. But they couldn't come to an agreement. That is certainly true. We are, but it's also different because failure here doesn't really lead to anything.
LEONHARDTFailure there led to this whole fiscal cliff and all these issues, and people sort of thought failure was not an option. Failure here is an option. If they don't agree to any deal and the Republicans decide not to shut down the government again, failure here just means we keep on keeping on.
PAGEHere's one thing that has really shocked me, and that is what Ron was just saying, that the stock market seemed to take it all in stride.
PAGEIt's as though there is no expectation that we have a functioning federal government. It's as though we are Italy or some other country where, you know, things change, they don't get anything done, but business goes on as usual.
LEONHARDTBut the one thing I'd add is that, while it's true that the shutdown wasn't as long as the one in the '90s, we have been engaged in much more austerity combined in the last few years than at any point coming out of any recent downturn. So the government has been doing more to hold back the economy than it was doing in the '90s or the '80s. Under Reagan, coming out of that terrible recession, the government was actually growing pretty rapidly. It's been shrinking at the federal, state and local level now.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about the status of the federal exchange website, Ron. Have the problems gotten anywhere near to getting fixed?
ELVINGI don't think we want to say yet that they're fixed. I think that they are moving in the right direction, that they're trying to address some of the problems. I think a lot of the problems with some of the contracting that was done, this was not something that the government could just flip on with a switch and say, oh, you seven people over there, get this done -- or you 7,000 people over there, get that done. They needed a lot of outside help, and a lot of that outside help doesn't seem to have helped much.
ELVINGWe don't know what all the glitches are necessarily about. We do know that, whenever anyone tries to roll out something big -- you know, Apple saw this with their mapping app and so forth. When you roll out something big and a lot of people try to use it all at the same time right at the beginning, that can cause problems. The mere popularity of the option of doing this could be part of your undoing. And they weren't really able to beta test it the way you would normally beta test something like this because of its nature.
REHMAnd Republicans are now calling for Kathleen Sebelius' resignation because of this, Susan.
PAGERight. And actually, I mean, Republicans call for the resignation of members of the Obama Administration all the time. That's not too surprising. But one thing that was surprising was the identity of a senator who was calling for Sebelius' resignation, that's Pat Roberts from my home state of Kansas.
PAGEOf course, Kathleen Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas -- and her father-in-law who was a congressman -- a Republican congressman from Western Kansas, that's who Pat Roberts worked for, got his start in, has a long relationship with the Sebelius family. So the fact that he was calling for her, you know, to pay the penalty for the problems with the rollout, I thought, made it more serious than just another political...
REHMAll right. Here's...
ELVINGAnd just to point out that Pat has a Tea Party opponent in his reelection.
REHMAnd here's the question that has come up on this program a lot, so I'm going to read this email from Fran in Raleigh, N.C. "Has anyone suggested the reason for the rollout of the enrollment for the ACA could be due to folks being paid to clog the lines? There are so many groups who do not want to see this health program succeed that I can see where there might be paid saboteurs. Somebody has got to perhaps investigate why this has gone as badly as it has."
LEONHARDTLook, as the listener points out, there are a lot of big money interests out there...
LEONHARDT...who are opposed to Obamacare and who have decided to do all kinds of things to try to stop it. I would assume there are people out there who are trying to do dark things to try to mess with the exchange.
REHMBut you're smiling. David.
LEONHARDTWell, so I'm smiling because, look, politics is a serious game. And I would not be smiling, Diane, if I thought that was the main reason for the problems. I would be shocked if it were the main reasons. If the right were going to organize tens of thousands of people in a paid way to go on and try to mess it up, I think we'd know about it. And not only that, but at the end of the day these numbers are not so absolutely over the top in terms of how many people are signing up that they couldn't have gotten this to work regardless.
LEONHARDTI really do think the first problem is they have done a bad job rolling this out.
PAGEBut it is though -- does reflect in some ways a fundamental victory by Republicans who opposed the Affordable Care Act in that only a minority of states agreed to set up the state exchanges that were supposed to be the heart of the program. In some of those state exchanges, the rollout has gone pretty well in states like California and Colorado -- not that they've been without problems, but more successful than the federal exchange. The fact that all these states, the majority states went to a federal exchange, the default exchange made it a bigger and more complicated effort.
REHMSusan Page of USA Today, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ron, weigh in.
ELVINGI would be shocked if there were not at least some people trying to come up with some sort of means to sabotage the system because it doesn't seem like it would be very hard to do if you were doing it fairly spontaneously among people who are political activists. I think it gets more complicated if you start trying to pay people to do it because then you'd probably start bringing in people who you can't really trust. And sooner or later you get an Edward Snowden and then blows the whistle on the whole business.
ELVINGBut I would also be shocked if that effort were really the reason that this has not gone well. It seems much more likely that they just didn't have the resources, that it just wasn't well coordinated, and that they probably could've used some more time. But, on the other hand, they probably need this time to beta test it in the field.
ELVINGUnfortunately, this is the real show. It's not a beta test. And maybe if they can recover -- it's not a question of the challenge. It's a question of how you respond to the challenge. If they can do in the next six weeks, the next couple of months what they didn't do in the last six weeks or a couple of months, they can still pull this one out.
LEONHARDTI think one of the -- I agree with Ron. I think they have a lot of work to do to do a better job. They've done a bad job rolling this out. If they can try to fix some of these things with some urgency and more competence than they've shown so far, there's a lot of reasons for the people running Obamacare to be optimistic. And if -- we just have to look across the river to Virginia to see one of them, which is Terry McAuliffe is now leading in the polls there. If he becomes governor, that state will almost certainly join these exchanges.
LEONHARDTAnd it's a good reminder of something, which is it almost -- it, in all likelihood, takes a state joining only once, and then it'll never unjoin. That is what's happened with Medicaid. It took 27 years for all 50 states to join the original Medicaid. So if you look out over the long term, yes, a lot of states now aren't joining. But it probably takes only one governor, Republican or Democrat, at one time to sign up for it, and that state will be part of it forever. And it's why I think that, 30, 40 years from now, Obamacare will be as engrained in American society as Medicare and Medicaid.
REHMLet's talk about the president's choice to replace Janet Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security. Jeh Johnson, what do we know about him, Susan?
PAGEHe served as the general council at the Defense Department during Obama's first term. He doesn't come in the tradition of Janet Napolitano. You know, she had been the governor of Arizona, had long history in working on issues like immigration. He has a long history of working on issues like cyber security and terrorism. So it may signal a slightly different focus at the top of that agency, a highly respected figure who's been in the government a long time. And David was telling me about -- before we went on the air, a little about his personal history that I didn't know.
LEONHARDTYeah, he's got -- he's the grandson of a civil rights leader who is the president of Fisk University in the South and was a more moderate civil rights leader and spent a lot of time working on it. You know, his grandfather was an academic early African-American leader in the 20th century. And he's got a quote out there, that my guess someone in the Senate may bring up -- Jeh Johnson does, not his grandfather -- that he may regret saying.
LEONHARDTMore than 15 years ago, when he was talking about his work at Paul Weiss as a law partner, one of the white shoe law firms in New York, he was talking about a verdict in Newark. And he said, the thing I'm most proud of about that verdict is that we got a largely inner city jury to side with the billionaire corporation and not the underdog. Mr. Johnson, of course, was representing the billionaire corporation.
ELVINGHe's a guy who has handled the tough cases as a lawyer and as a lawyer for the Department of Defense. He was the guy they put on Gitmo when they were trying to get Gitmo closed. He was the guy that they put on Don't Ask, Don't Tell when they were trying to get that ended and get the recognition of gays in the military opened.
ELVINGAnd he's had a lot to do with the drone policy, which is going to be the subject of his hearings, I suspect, to a large degree. He's been the person who made the legal justification for how the president of the United States could use a drone in another country to kill a United States citizen.
REHMBut he also argued against the war on terrorism and extended war on terrorism.
ELVINGHe said a wonderful thing. He said the terrible thing about war is it reverses the natural order of things so that instead of children burying their parents, parents bury their children. And that alone was a reason to always question whether any war should happen and whether it should continue and that we should stop talking about the war on terror after 12 years and call these programs something else and think of them as more targeted and not think of ourselves as committed to a lifetime of killing.
REHMAnd then we also learned yesterday that NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander is going to step down next year. Is that expected, Ron?
ELVINGOh, I would have to say it was expected. He's toward the end of his career in general anyway. He and his deputy are probably both going to step out of the way. And obviously NSA, in the wake of Edward Snowden, is going to have to be reorganized and take a different look at a number of the things that it's been doing.
REHMAnd the NSA involved with the drone programs.
ELVINGAnd there's a lot of crossover here between these two issues. It's a good segue because a lot of the justifications that have been put forward for the things that the administration has been doing have been coming from people like Jeh Johnson.
REHMRon Elving of NPR. Short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time for your email and to open the phones from Scott in Pennsylvania who says he has a simple question. But he says he's embarrassed to ask, but thinks many Americans may be wondering the same. "If the deficit is going down, why do we keep raising the debt limit? How did these two relate to one another?" David Leonhardt.
LEONHARDTI spend much of my professional life asking questions that are a little embarrassing. You get good answers that way.
REHMWe all do.
LEONHARDTIt's how you fill in the gaps of your knowledge. So think about this as a household. Sometimes that analogy is problematic, but here it works. Imagine you have a credit card statement, and it shows how much you're going over what you're paying each month, right? That is like the deficit. The deficit's a flow.
LEONHARDTIt's how much we're falling behind each month. The debt is the accumulated amount we've fallen behind over a long period of time. So even if our deficit falls from $1 trillion to $800 billion to $600 billion, during that time the debt is still growing, right? The debt is the pile. The deficit is the amount we're adding to the pile.
LEONHARDTThe most important economic principle to add here is that it's OK to be running a deficit because our economy is growing. And so essentially if you run a small deficit, next year's economic growth pays off this year's deficit. The key is to keep it to something like 2 to 3 percent of GDP. We're just on the verge of doing that. And so going forward we're OK. We just got to repay some of our debts.
REHMYou want to add to that, Ron?
ELVINGOnly saying that this is what we saw in the later 1990s when a healthy economy, a new constraint on federal spending and slightly higher revenues partly due to tax increases actually allowed us to come to or at least a theoretical year or two, a balanced budget. That could happen again, believe it or not.
REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones first to Hatchbend, Fla. Hi there, Tom. You're on the air.
TOMGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call. I have a comment about the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. And I've been noticing the Republicans seem to delight in making references to the failure of it and its not working and all of that. I signed up for Obamacare on Oct. 1, and I tried to access it online.
TOMAnd I got stuck on the first couple of pages because it wasn't working. So they had an 800 number. I called it. And they registered me. And then about two weeks went by. And I called them back, and I said, I haven't heard anything. And they said, well, we see that you applied, but we've lost your information.
TOMSo I reapplied online, and it went very smoothly. And then someone contacted me a few hours afterward and said, yes, everything is OK. We'll contact you in a few weeks about your options for coverage. So I think it's working really well. And I'm hoping that I can save money on the insurance that I'm paying currently, which is exorbitant. So I think the Republicans are going to have some surprise coming when people are actually satisfied with it. And I'd like to hear the comments from your panel.
PAGEWell, Tom, I would just say that the White House is on line two and would like to speak with you because this is exactly the kind of story that they need to hear. And, you know, you see it when you're following on Twitter, people saying, I have a preexisting condition, now I've been able to sign up for health care. I've been able to afford coverage that I couldn't afford before. And that's -- I mean, that's the hope.
PAGEAnd, of course, you're in Florida. That means you were using the federal exchange, the one that's had so many problems. One of the things that's made people suspicious is that the administration has declined to provide information about how many people have successfully signed up. And I think, until they do that, there's going to be suspicion that the number is very low. But, Tom, it's good to hear your story.
REHMThanks for calling. Let's go to Rick in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
RICKHi, Diane. A long time listener, first time caller as well.
REHMGlad to have you with us.
RICKThank you. Just a couple of quick comments as well about the ACA. I hear a lot of comments in various news media from Republicans certainly and also on your show about what a terrible job the government has done rolling out the ACA. I think two points to that. One is I don't have -- I don't this for certain, but I doubt that there's any type of website or service online that is as complex and sweeping as this site that has to call together so many per site.
RICKAnd when you think about eBay, PayPal, Google, Yahoo, any of these giant sites that has had to go through growing pains over years and still have problems and revamp themselves all the time. I think we should cut the government a little slack on getting something up and running that's very broad.
RICKSecondly, I think, you know, they're not certain about how people are hired by the government. And I suspect that maybe by the very way contracts are laid out, they don't always get to hire the very best people like Microsoft would be able to.
REHMWhat do you think, David?
LEONHARDTI think there's a lot there that -- there's a lot I agree with there, and I would probably just come down in a little bit different place. I do think they deserve more blame for not doing this better than they did than the caller. But I also agree with the caller. They deserve some slack. Medicare Part D when it started went quite badly.
LEONHARDTThe key now is, do they fix the problems? If they fixed the problems, whether we think they deserve massive blame, some blame or almost no blame won't matter in the end. And that's why I said they really need to have some urgency about this. If they fix it, this stuff will all be forgotten.
REHMHere's an email from Jen, Ron. She says, "Can you explain who constructed the strategy for conservatives? How was it rolled out? How has the Heritage Action fund been involved in the brinksmanship strategy? I'm not clear on who devised it and why they thought it would work given the Democratic control of the Senate and White House."
ELVINGLet's start by saying that it was not conceived, though, because they thought it would necessarily work. It was conceived because they were desperate to find something that might work.
REHMWho did it?
ELVINGA great number of people were involved in this. And actually David's newspaper did an excellent full-page take out on this about 10 days ago in the Sunday paper. It goes back quite a ways to the period of time after the law had been passed, but it was not even close to being implemented yet. And a lot of people, like, say, the Koch brothers, who weren't familiar with them, some of their organizations.
ELVINGAlso Heritage Action fund, which is part of the Heritage Foundation that is now run by Jim DeMint, former senator from South Carolina, Tea Party favorite, and a number of other people got together and said, we really got to keep this Obamacare from taking effect in the fall of 2013 because...
ELVINGWell, because, again, we said earlier and David said earlier, if this should really take hold, you heard David comparing it to Medicare and Social Security, the most popular programs the federal government has besides national defense. So if it does take hold and over years become as popular as those programs, then that is an enormous defeat for people who would rather see the federal government shrinking and becoming less important in people's lives.
ELVINGSo from an ideological standpoint, from a business standpoint, from a political standpoint, they were willing to bet the farm on any strategy that came down the pike.
LEONHARDTHistory is instructive here. I mean, Ronald Reagan rose to prominence in politics -- he was already prominent as an actor -- in significant part by comparing Medicare to socialism. He said, if we allow Medicare to pass, one day we will have to tell our children and our children's children what life was like when America was free. And so conservatives understand that it's very dangerous.
LEONHARDTIf you are opposed to the idea of government giving people health insurance, if you are opposed to the idea of government playing a big role in life, you have to be very careful. Once these programs get going, your battle is lost. And so I think that was a big part of the driving strategy here. It's also the political dynamic which we talked about, which is they don't have to appeal to the middle.
LEONHARDTI just want to add one detail, which is the Koch brothers have come out and said, look, we were not in favor of shutting down the government for this. And the Koch brothers have funded various groups on the right, some of which played a role here. The Koch brothers themselves were not central figures in the shutdown strategy.
ELVINGAnd, of course, let's be fair. Most people were not in favor of actually shutting down the government. What they were in favor of was using the confluence of the Oct. 1 deadline or date when we were going to open these exchanges and the continuing resolution by which the government gets funded at the end of a fiscal year.
ELVINGSo they looked at that -- and knowing of course that what you're threatening is a kind of partial government shutdown -- and they weren't necessarily saying let's threaten not to raise the federal debt ceiling. They were saying let's look at that confluence of dates and see how much leverage we can get on that for some sort of negotiation with the White House.
LEONHARDTAnd make Obama fold on something.
REHMHere is a question from Tim in Baltimore who says, "Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen drew attention to HR Resolution 368 which altered House voting rules to make Eric Cantor the only one who could vote on the budget legislation. The blame assessment machine is in high gear, furiously spanning to both sides. How could 368 guarantee that there would be a shutdown?"
ELVINGIs this a negative turf war we see going on? What they did was they amended the running rule or the continuing rules of the House so that only the House majority leader could bring up the bill. It wasn't just that he was the only person who could vote, but that he was the only one who could bring the bill to the floor for a vote. And that is a change from their usual rules, and it was done so that they could control the whole situation.
REHMRon Elving of NPR, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Carter in Carlisle, Penn. You're on the air.
CARTERYeah. You were talking about debts a while ago. And I was just curious, how much of the debt is due to the wars on terrorism?
LEONHARDTMost of it is not. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan play an important role in the creation of the deficit, but definitely a secondary role, much smaller than the recession we went through, much smaller than the Bush tax cuts. It is mostly not the wars, but the wars were not cheap.
REHMOh, for sure, the wars were not cheap.
LEONHARDTThe worst cost of the wars were not budgetary. They were human.
REHMAll right. To Mary in Arlington, Va. You're on the air.
MARYOh, Diane, thank you for taking my call.
MARYAnd I agree with many of your viewers that there is a lot of blame to go around. But I'd like to ask the panel, if they were to compare President Obama's leadership during this to President Clinton -- yesterday I read an article by Ron Fournier who said that some Democrats were saying that it's winning at all cost, and it's not about governing. And when I think back about President Clinton, he had a Congress that wanted to impeach him, for heaven's sakes.
MARYYet he was able to triangulate and to work with them. And I feel like now the setup is that, going forward, if we don't reach a deal, oh, you blame the Republicans. There are plenty of people in the middle to work with. And I feel like, if you're engaged -- President Obama gave a speech in Tucson where he said, we need to talk to each other, not over each other, not impugn the viewpoints of others. And I just feel with the rhetoric over the last two weeks on both sides, but he's commander-in-chief, that he could have done a better job.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call.
PAGEYou know, Mary, that's such an interesting point, and we had a similar point being made by none other than Leon Panetta on Monday who was at a breakfast with reporters who had served as President Obama defense secretary, basically criticizing President Obama for not engaging on a more consistent basis. And, you know, I was thinking, comparing this shutdown with the last one, the shutdown in 1995, 1996, I was covering the White House for USA Today.
PAGEAnd it was, you know, obviously the same kind of head-butting that we saw this time. But almost every day, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton talked on the phone. There was constant communication between them. There was a huge urgent effort made to negotiate a deal. We didn't see that this time. We did see President Obama invite members of Congress to the White House toward the end but certainly not playing the kind of role that Bill Clinton did last time.
PAGEAnd I wonder if that will have repercussions going forward because you remember after the last shutdown, Congress and the White House got a lot done in 1996. They got a big welfare bill passed. They got deficit reduction legislation passed. It was a very productive year. I don't think that this situation is set up to work out that way, in part because there just isn't the relationship between the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic president.
LEONHARDTWell, I've been, I think, the most critical on the panel about the Obamacare rollout. So I'll now flip and say I think Obama has a very good argument here that this discussion of leadership has been a little but amorphous. I think, look, is what the Republicans were doing was unprecedented. No one has ever said, we're going to violate the debt ceiling or shut down the government to repeal a three-year-old law.
LEONHARDTAnd his view was actually, the only way to prevent this from happening again, the way to avoid these future crises and shutdowns was to not negotiate. If he negotiated anything in exchange for what used to be normal operating procedure, he would make these crises more likely in the future. That strikes me as a pretty strong argument.
PAGEWell, I think it's true that he was facing a tougher foe than Bill Clinton did with the rise of the Tea Party. But it's to some degree the culmination of five years of failing to build the kind of bridges to members of Congress and other players in Washington that would have served him well in a crisis like this. And being president is hard. President Obama has achieved a lot, but I think he is fairly at fault for failing to build the relationships and having a kind of consistent engagement that you really need with the chips are down.
ELVINGYes. I think it's been a good criticism of this president that he doesn't have the personal relationships. He hasn't reached out to Democrats as well as to Republicans so that at moments like this he would have something that he could draw on as well. The most successful presidents, and even the most successful parts of presidencies that were more of a mixed bag, has been largely based on that ability. And this is not something that Barack Obama has personally cultivated since he first came to Washington.
REHMCory Booker in New Jersey, David Leonhardt.
LEONHARDTI think that -- Cory Booker won a 10-point victory as an African-American statewide candidate in a state that -- has New Jersey ever elected an African-American governor or senator?
LEONHARDTNo. So I think some of the attention was he's such a celebrity. People said he won by only 10 points over a Tea Party candidate. He won by 10 points in a state with a Republican governor. And I think his election victory, it was a little messy, but I think it was mostly impressive. Here's the big question for Cory Booker.
LEONHARDTHe sounds a lot like Barack Obama did when Barack Obama came to Washington, in terms of we just need to come together and find common ground, and, boy, that diagnosis of Obama's looks bad in retrospect. And so what I'm interested to see is, how does Cory Booker go beyond platitudes about all coming together and manage to be an effective senator in such a polarized time?
PAGEIt's just that he's been such an interesting figure as a mayor. He's done amazing things as a mayor. Hands on, he's rescued people from burning buildings. And does that translate to the job of being a U.S. senator?
ELVINGNot very well, although there are some people who need to be rescued from a burning Senate chamber.
LEONHARDTYou got to figure he has his eye on the New Jersey governor's job because the New Jersey governor has his eye on another job as well.
ELVINGThere you have it.
REHMOf course, but the point is that he is someone who's going to have to run again very soon.
LEONHARDTYes, in about 20 minutes.
REHMExactly. And so people, as I read somewhere, should not put their Cory Booker signs away because his election or reelection is coming up very soon.
ELVINGHe's been running pretty constantly for quite some time.
REHMAnd he's a good man. He's been on this program several times. It's been fun to talk with him. David Leonhardt of the New York Times, Susan Page of USA Today, and Ron Elving of NPR, great to see you all. Thank you.
LEONHARDTThank you, Diane.
ELVINGThank you, Diane.
REHMHave a great weekend, everybody. I'm Diane Rehm.
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