The audio and transcript of my 1/21 interview with the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne
HH: It is my great pleasure to wish a Happy New Year to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, who has been writing about the year ahead of the Obama administration. E.J., Happy 2014 to you.
EJD: And Happy 2014 to you. Good to talk to you, Hugh.
HH: It’s good to talk to you. Now I have to begin, obviously, with a hardball, because it’s politics. Last night at the White House, they had this enormous party for Mrs. Obama’s 50th birthday. And I don’t begrudge her that at all. But it was all these famous and rich people and glitterati. Were you there, E.J.?
EJD: I was not there.
HH: All right, so I just…
EJD: I’m glad I wasn’t, because if I had known I was doing this show, I would have known you would have asked me.
HH: Well, my question is, is there a disconnect between that kind of party and the language of income inequality?
EJD: You know, my favorite old slogan out of the New Deal was if you want to live like a Republican, vote Democratic. I don’t think Americans begrudge presidents of either party celebrating the 50th birthdays of their spouses. So yeah, I mean, I suppose if you want to say it’s another sign that there is a lot of inequality in the country, that’s true. But I don’t think most Americans reacted that way, and including a lot of conservative. She is, you know, they have been married a long time, and 50 is a big, round number.
HH: Oh, I think it’s great to have a 50th birthday party, but the number of private jets coming into Dulles, and the description of the parties that have leaked out, and the secrecy around it, it has about it the air of excess. And Davos does as…am I talking to you from Davos, E.J.? I’m hoping I’m not…
EJD: No, I am sitting in my nice, suburban home in Maryland.
HH: Oh, good, covered with a beautiful…
EJD: In the midst of a lot of snow here, by the way. You should be happy you’re out there.
HH: I am. I am so glad…I was in New York for the last snowstorm. I’m so glad to be in L.A. for this one. So in the midst of Davos, and the President’s about to head for England, with all this wealth on his side of the aisle, is anyone really going to take seriously that income inequality is other than an attempt to divert attention from the collapse of Obamacare?
EJD: Well, I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, I’m not surprised you think that. People have been, people on the progressive side have been talking about income inequality, in some cases, for twenty or thirty years. I mean, this is a very long term trend that we’re looking at. And I think the test is do you want to do practical things about it or not? I think that minimum wage would help, an increase. You don’t. I think that some of the preschool, pre-K ideas Obama has would help. You probably don’t. In general, I think that a certain amount of income redistribution, and let’s face it, Social Security and Medicare as well as Medicaid and other programs are part of a certain amount of income redistribution. They have helped us be less unequal. But we also have very large forces. And if you’re, I’m not sure you disagree with me, having to do with changes in the economy, the decline of the well-paying blue collar work, also the decline of unions, where we probably do disagree, so there are, these are big things that have been going on for a while. There are some practical remedies that we can choose to enact or not enact, and that’s what the public fight is about.
HH: Now E.J., what I admire about good old-fashioned liberals like yourself is that your faith is never shaken. Now yesterday on the program, we talked with Sue from the Seattle Pottery Supply, who had been receiving hundreds of phone calls from the Maryland would-be buyers of Obamacare who went to the Maryland exchange and got her 800 number in Seattle for three months, despite her effort to get it changed. And so your confidence in government, and after the collapse of the state exchanges…
EJD: I don’t, you know, Hugh, I just want to interrupt you. First of all, the Maryland exchange, Maryland where I live, in fact, has been particularly problematic. They’ve had a lot of problems. That’s not, that’s less true of the California exchange or the Kentucky exchange or the New York exchange. And so I don’t have unlimited faith in government. I think government is capable of being corrupt. I think that government is capable of failure as well as success. So is the private sector. The difference is I think that if you look on balance over our history, I think government has helped make us stronger and more productive. Government has helped save capitalism on many occasions. So it’s not, it doesn’t take a limitless faith in government to believe that government serves a very useful, and in my case, I also think on the whole socially progressive role.
HH: But when we’ve got something like the Maryland exchange and the Oregon exchange, and I wish you’d look into the California exchange. It’s a giant sham, E.J. It is not, the demographics of the thing are a nightmare, and it will collapse next year. But it at least appears to function better than Oregon and Maryland. I’m just saying, why not, before we launch into a whole bunch of other initiatives that won’t work, why not try and fix the one that isn’t working right now in front of us? At least why not call of new laws in Maryland and Oregon until they can at least get their websites to get the right 800 numbers on it?
EJD: No, but who is, I mean, new laws, raising the minimum wage, for example, that’s a very old program. We’re just talking about adjusting it. Pre-K programs, you know, that people have been talking about, some very conservative states like Oklahoma and Georgia have had enormous success with effective pre-K programs. And look, I would like to pass, you know, I think there are some fixes that could be made in Obamacare. I think Obama himself thinks there are things that could be streamlined. for example, that sort of sharp cutoff at 50 employees in terms of the mandate. But right now, as long as your side of the argument is sticking to, you know, let’s just repeal the thing, we can’t have a good discussion about how to make it work better.
HH: Well, my side, I’m not, it’s an interview. It’s not an argument. I’m just genuinely curious at what point does even a great defender, the St. George of the Beltway liberals, E.J. Dionne, and a truly warrior-like in your love of the left and of doing this right, when do you throw it in and say honest to gosh, we have screwed up this Obamacare thing so badly. Maryland should fold up its exchange. Oregon got to get out of the business. And we ought to call a timeout until we at least stop, you know, hurting people, because you know, millions of people got hurt by this, E.J. I mean, your side has hurt millions of people when it comes to health care. Don’t you worry…
EJD: You know what, Hugh? I don’t believe that that’s the case. I do think there will, at the end of the day, be some people who may end up paying a little more. We’re going to see how that works out. But I don’t think the numbers are going to be vast. I think when you look at this a year from now, we’re going to see a whole lot more people helped a lot, and a very small number of people hurt perhaps a little bit. But we, and then we can figure if an injustice was done to them, we can fix it. But the idea that extending health coverage to, we’re at, well, it depends on how you count it. If you count it up to about 10 million people, I think that’ a positive good. I think it’s good that, for example, the kids can stay on their parent’s plan until they’re 26. That’s something that Obamacare has done and helped three million families.
HH: Have you read Avik…
EJD: So I’m not saying Obamacare is perfect. I don’t think anybody who supports it says it’s perfect and couldn’t be improved. And indeed, I think that you, we could argue about this all day. The effort to try to do all of this through the private market, this is really very similar to Romneycare in Massachusetts, very similar to what the Heritage Foundation talked about, and it’s an effort to use government to subsidize the private market. We’re having many fewer problems on the Medicaid expansion.
HH: Have you read Avik Roy’s How Medicaid Fails The Poor, yet?
EJD: I have not.
HH: Okay, I would recommend that to you, because the Medicaid expansion is a nightmare that will unfold slowly as it sucks people into doctorless programs. But let me go back…
EJD: Well, one of us is right.
HH: That’s right.
EJD: If this were, this will be a nightmare, or it will be, not going to be, I’m not going to be broad about it. I’m going to say it’s a program that made things somewhat better. I don’t think it’s going to be a nightmare.
HH: And do you believe that you’re going to be able to step back and say I was wrong about all of this? Do you possess that ability, E.J., in another year if it’s still the train wreck that it’s turned out to be thus far?
EJD: Oh, I have been wrong about things. For example, I was wrong that I thought that Congress would support Obama when he asked for the authorization on Syria, and I was completely wrong about that. So I’m perfectly capable…
HH: You and me, both.
EJD: …of admitting that I am wrong. And so if…but I’m not going to pronounce myself wrong now when I think the thing has actually gotten better since the disastrous rollout.
HH: All right, when we come back from break, we’ve got to talk about the religious freedom aspect of this, but let it be known that E.J…
EJD: I thought we were going to talk a little about Governor Christie, which I think…
HH: Oh, we are. We are.
EJD: Because I’m curious what you make of this.
HH: I make of this Bob McDonnell, the governor from Virginia, took nine months from the dawning of this scandal to the announcement today of his indictment. We won’t know whether Governor Christie’s in the deep or swimming free for at least a year because of the investigations, and I’ll get E.J. Dionne’s summary of Governor Christie when we come back. E.J. Dionne deserves to be read every single day. E.J., you got a book coming out this year, by the way?
EJD: No, but I’m actually working on a book about conservatism, and I may come out to visit you about this.
HH: Uh oh, I’m forewarned is forearmed. I’ll have to put up…
EJD: I want to understand it. I’m Colombo asking lots of questions.
HH: (laughing) Oh, you’re Colombo, and I know how Colombo works. One more question, Hugh.
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HH: E.J., I really do hope you write that book on conservatism. I liked the book, The Death Of Conservatism by the editor of the New York Times Book Review whose name I can’t think of right now, but…
EJD: Sam Tanenhaus.
HH: Yes. Sam came on and talked about his book about the death of conservatism. So I want you to come on when yours comes out. Very quickly, I’m very…
EJD: I’m not talking about death, by the way. I am genuinely trying to understand what happened to the movement over the last ten years.
HH: Then you will be my…
EJD: So that’s why I want to come out and watch what you do.
HH: Come stay in my house. Come be my guest, and I would love to have you do that. E.J., I’m very sorry to see Ezra Klein leaving the Washington Post. I love Wonkblog. He was a friend of my daughter’s in like K-6, and so one of the bright stars. What do you think happens after he leaves? Does the Post fill that gap?
EJD: I am very sad about losing Ezra. I really admire him. I’m very proud of the fact that I teach a course at Georgetown on media and politics, and I finally, some years ago, decided that I needed to teach a section on blogging. And the two bloggers I brought in were this young blogger from the American Prospect called Ezra Klein, and a young blogger for the Atlantic called Ross Douthat. Now of course Ezra is Ezra, and Ross is a columnist for the New York Times. So I always tell my students that this class was way ahead of the mainstream media. I love Ezra, and I am very sad he’s going.
HH: And you’ve got Greg Sargent, and you’ve got a great bench, and you just added Robert Costa. But I hope you keep pushing for the young, bright people to come over and staff the Post, even if they do move on to better and bigger things. All right, Chris Christie. The amazing governor of New Jersey is in the thick Does he get out of it, do you think?
EJD: Well, ever since Bill Clinton, I have been disinclined to declare any politician’s political career over. And Christie is a skilled politician. But here are some of the problems that I see, and one of them, actually, has nothing to do with liberals. I think his biggest problem is actually among Republicans and conservatives. But what I still don’t get from that very first news conference is why he was not more curious about this story, and only learned what was actually happening when those emails were finally leaked. He never sort of, he never explained that And somebody who’s governor of the state where you’ve had these huge traffic tie-up, but then forget it. Or like he didn’t do it right away, but this was in the news for months. And I just don’t think he’s explained that, yet. And of course, as you said earlier, now that this is split into an actual investigation by a U.S. attorney of whether, you know, Sandy funds were used to pressure a mayor or not, we don’t know what happened, you know, that becomes even more difficult. So I think the biggest problem he has is that he doesn’t have the kind of base on the right that you need to survive a scandal. Barney Frank used to quote a Chicago machine politician who said the definition of your base are the people who are with you when you’re wrong. And I don’t know what kind of base Christie has. According to this Pew poll, 42% of Republicans who have heard something about this story don’t believe his explanation. That’s the kind of number that’s really problematic.
HH: Well, that’s very interesting. Now I want to apply the same standard to the other frontrunner in the presidential race for 2016.
EJD: I knew you’d bring up Benghazi, right?
HH: Well, I’m bringing up Hillary first. Why was she not more curious after talking with the number two in Libya the night of Benghazi to call back Mr. Hicks after the Ambassador was killed, and the Embassy overrun, and Tripoli evacuated? Where did she go? What did she do? Why wasn’t she more curious, E.J.?
EJD: Well, I think, you know, if you look at this Senate report and put aside the part the Republicans stuck in as a minority report criticizing her, I think a terrible thing happened there. I want to know above everything else why our government didn’t lean on the Ambassador not to go to Benghazi at that point, because we did have intelligence that it was a mess over there. But I just do not think that her critics have found, have made an effective case that she somehow mishandled this whole thing. You keep saying it, but I don’t think the independent reviews, whether you’re looking at this Senate report, or whether you’re looking at the New York Times story, I don’t think you have the goods on her.
HH: E.J., my question is…
EJD: I’m sure we’ll be debating, I’m sure we will be debating this right through the next election.
HH: Not a debate, just a question. After the 2am phone call with Greg Hicks, what did she do that night?
EJD: You know, Hugh, I did not prep myself in Benghazi details, so I’m not going to go there right now.
HH: All right, because I don’t think anyone can…
EJD: I didn’t know we were going to discuss Benghazi.
HH: Well, when you brought up Christie…
EJD: I just don’t want to get into a fight over Benghazi without being prepared for it.
HH: No, it’s not a fight. I really, I don’t think anyone knows what she did, and that’s the problem. But I’ll give you a big softball. What were her accomplishments as Secretary of State?
EJD: I think first of all, her accomplishments inevitably are going to be linked to what we see as Obama’s accomplishments. And if you see, as I do, ending the war in Iraq, knowing the place is a mess now in many ways, but getting our troops out of Iraq, that’s part of it. I think that for the period she was secretary of State, opinion of the United States rose in the world. I think that she did a lot of work on human rights and women’s rights around the world. I think that, and you know, and you and I will just plain have to disagree on this. I think at that end of her four years, we were in a better position in the world than we were when she took the job. And that is the old Ronald Reagan question.
HH: Well how do you, why would you say that? Why were we in a better position?
EJD: Because I think that you know, fighting two wars at the same time drained, first of all, cost a lot of lives and also a lot of casualties. It stretched American power in a way that I don’t think strengthened us in the world. I think the war was a mistake, and that getting out of there has actually put us in a position over the long run to recalibrate our foreign policies into being a stronger position in the world.
HH: So when she runs, her biggest accomplishment for four years at State is she helped President Obama pull the cord on Iraq?
EJD: Well, I do think that that is a big deal to a lot of Americans. Most Americans came to disagree with the war and wanted to end it.
HH: But I mean, that’s it for Hillary, for four years, that she…
EJD: No, I think you could go through, I think there are a lot of things you can look at in terms of her dealing with both in Asia and Africa how she has sort of, she advanced development goals in the third world, building, by the way, on some of the good things George W. Bush did.
HH: But I mean, I can name the…
EJD: The heralded good deeds were, you know, had a lot to do with the poorest countries on Earth.
HH: 45 seconds, E.J., until we’re doing. I just, just a specific, though. I can name the Bush AIDS Initiative, I can show you where the money was spent. I really don’t think there’s anything on Hillary’s resume.
EJD: Well, you know, the next time I do the show, I will prep for that list. I was actually thinking more about Chirstie and the interest in augural address he actually gave for that.
HH: Well, he got snowed out. You took me off course when you said why was he not more curious about the story, and I instantly thought of Hillary on the night of Benghazi.
EJD: I should have known. I should have known. And I should have dodged to the inaugural address, because I think this, absent a scandal, that speech today really laid out where he wanted to go, a mixture of, a certain kind of libertarian anti-government rhetoric mixed with compromise talk to appeal to the center, and a very interesting, I thought, intervention in saying basically, let’s end the way we are fighting the war on drugs. And I think that actually fits in with what I see as a very positive development on the right. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the light on crime folks…
HH: Well, then, E.J., stick around one more segment, and we’ll let you talk about his inaugural address.
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HH: I want to be fair to my friend, E.J. Dionne, who is always very fair and generous with his time. And you started to make a very interesting point. I know that New Jersey’s inaugural ceremonies were snowed out today, but you still went to the effort of reading the Christie inaugural address. Now after the break…
EJD: I even listened to him deliver it.
HH: Oh, that’s more impressive, because I was on the road. Geraghty’s going to come on, and we’re going to talk about Bob McDonnell and Christie, but at this moment, most Republicans are saying well, that was a good idea, but maybe there was a reason that Mitt Romney didn’t pick Bob McDonnell and didn’t pick Chris Christie to be his vice president, and that basically, it’s over. Do you think that inaugural address was how he was going to run for president?
EJD: Yes, I think that’s how he was going to run. I think if you’re a Christie supporter, there was something almost tragic about it, because he chose, I think correctly, from a political point of view, to do an inaugural address about how he’d govern, not about all these questions. And I think you saw a very interesting strategy there that there were parts of it that would very much appeal to mainstream conservatives. But as I was saying, I thought this let’s revisit the way we deal with drugs is part of what I see as a very positive card on the right where a lot of conservatives around the country have said wait a minute, if you want to reduce government, why are we spending all this money on prisons, are we putting people away who should not be imprisoned for long periods of time, particularly people with drug offenses. I’m not talking about big dealers. I’m talking about average, you know, the user. And you know, people like Richard Viguerie, who is hardly a, who’s not even really a libertarian. He’s a very ardent conservative who has been active in pushing this idea on the right. And it’s one of the few areas where I see some real short term possible alliances between the left and the right.
HH: Now E.J…
EJD: As a law professor, I’m curious where you stand on all of this.
HH: I’m a thousand percent against the legalization of dope in Colorado, and I wonder if you are in favor of the weed state. Are you all for that?
EJD: I’ve come around to thinking that the law is enforced so erratically and unfairly, that we should either decriminalize or legalize it. The debate should be between decriminalization and legalization. And on that one, I can actually argue it both ways. I do see some benefit in discouraging drug use, which is what decriminalization does, but I cannot see large penalties for the small minority of people who happen to get picked up, and who also happen to be disproportionately African-American. But these inequities exist within classes, too, so I…
HH: E.J., quick question. I was once behind you, and I didn’t know you at the time. I was about six behind you at the Fleet Center on the night that President Obama gave his address as we were going in through the thing. And you know, a lot of reporters have a couple of pops, right? They have a couple of drinks before they go to the convention or during the convention, and you know that they’re still able to do their good work. If the young bloggers around the Washington Post were stoned, would they do the same level of work as if they ‘d had one or two drinks?
EJD: I don’t think so, myself, but I could be wrong about that.
HH: And doesn’t that itself answer why we don’t want to legalize marijuana, whereas alcohol…
EJD: Well no, but I’m not sure that taking a couple of pops is a great idea, either. You know, there is, you are quite right, a long journalistic tradition of this, but you know, I think if you look at kids, you have problems on both counts, that I think we need to worry about both excessive use of alcohol and drugs.
HH: And in that class that you taught, Ezra Klein, that you brought Ezra in and you brought…
EJD: And neither Ezra nor Ross were stoned that day. I’m quite certain about that.
HH: (laughing) Well then…
EJD: They were very sharp that day.
HH: Are you saying that dope would rule that out, they’re being even entertaining? Are you making that…
EJD: Well, no. But I just wanted to defend their honor.
HH: Oh, well, I didn’t attribute to it. I’m just saying that, it interests me the whole question as to why we don’t want to legalize or decriminalize dope, it’s very different from alcohol. It’s very, very different in its impact on people, don’t you think?
EJD: I’m not sure of that, actually. It’s not clear to me, you know, I think as a country, we may have a larger problem with alcohol. But that’s not a position I hold strongly. It’s simply an impression.
HH: Okay, do you ever smell dope around the Post?
HH: Ever see booze around the Post?
EJD: You don’t smell cigarettes anymore. My bad habit was cigarettes, so I wouldn’t go near dope for fear that it would bring me back to smoking cigarettes.
HH: But did you ever see booze in Ben Bradley’s desk?
EJD: I was not privileged enough to see that. Whether it existed or not, I don’t know.
HH: Anywhere around the newsroom?
EJD: You know, I did know a wonderful New York Times reporter who did keep a flask in his desk.
HH: You see, I think one’s a journalistic, I think one’s a tradition, and one would be a revolution. E.J. Dionne, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you from the Washington Post. Come stay with me, E.J. The invitation is open at any time.
End of interview.