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E.J. Dionne defends the retiring Democrats, the upopularity of Obamacare, and that the undiebomber did it because of Gitmo

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

HH: It’s a new year, and the first dyed in the wool lefty that has come onto the program is our favorite lefty, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, author of many fun books and great columns every single week. Happy New Year to you, E.J.

EJD: And Happy New Year to you. Thank you. Happy to be your favorite lefty.

HH: Well, we’re glad to have you here, but I’ve got to ask you. Democrats are falling like flies this week. And it’s because, I think, you know, Chris Dodd, Byron Dorgan, Bill Ritter, the lieutenant governor in Michigan, is that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi seem hell bent on jamming down this wildly unpopular socialized medicine gambit. Why are Democrats acting so arrogantly in the face of the obvious wishes of the American people that they start over on this bill?

EJD: Now that’s a loaded question.

HH: (laughing)

EJD: (laughing) I’d expect no less. Let’s…first of all, let’s back up and look at the three cases you mentioned. Bill Ritter, actually a very good guy, you should have him on your show sometime, had, was looking at very sort of problematic popularity ratings. I don’t think his decision had anything to do with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Byron Dorgan is an interesting case. I don’t know how much of this is looking at a political climate which certainly does not look great for the Democrats right now, how much the governor of the state out there is popular. He might be running, and he’s 67 years old, and didn’t want to have to face another race. And then Chris Dodd, as you have probably mentioned on your show before, had other issues that had driven his popularity down before the President’s popularity went down. The funny thing about the other two withdrawals, Dorgan’s withdrawal is just bad for the Democrats. There’s no other way to slice it, because he is one guy who could hold that seat, and there’s probably nobody else right now for the Democrats who could win a senate seat in North Dakota. So that seat just shifts to the other side. But Dodd’s withdrawal actually is very helpful to the Democrats, because the state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, is very popular. He’ll probably hold that seat, and that’ll drop off the Republican list. And Ritter withdrawing opens the way for popular Democrats to run for governor as Ken Salazar, John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver. And maybe, Senator Michael Bennet’s primary opponent, Andrew Romanov, might switch races. So I don’t sort of put this huge gloss on it that you do, except I would agree with you, if you wanted to say that Byron Dorgan’s withdrawal is bad for Democrats.

HH: Now let’s just look at the poll numbers then, E.J. This is a wildly unpopular health care fiasco. No matter how you cut it, no matter which poll you look at, by margins approaching two to one, Americans are saying no, don’t do this to us, we hate this bill. Now that one third that loves it, you know, they’re numerous, they’re lefties, they love it. I know you like this bill. But will Democrats insist on jamming it down the throats of Americans, and doing so in secret, by the way, in secret by the way, in secret negotiations. Doesn’t this appall you as an open government liberal?

EJD: Secret negotiations? I mean, we’re talking about the Republicans passing one bill after another with secret negotiations. Number two, this whole process has been unbelievably open, and this debate has gone on forever. Number three, I will bet you something. We can figure out, you can give me your favorite conservative book, and I’ll give you my favorite liberal book. I bet you that in six months, this bill is doing much better in the polls than it’s doing now. I believe that…and first of all, a lot depends on which polls you look at. A lot of the specifics in this bill poll very well. I think the whole bill, because the Congressional process was so fractured, divisive, and nobody likes to watch a process like this, I think the process has given the bill a bad name. I am absolutely persuaded, and I really do believe this, I’m not just saying this to be provocative with you, that when people look at a lot of the stuff in this bill, ranging from you can’t, right away, out of the box, you can’t knock a kid out of insurance because of preexisting conditions. Right out of the box, 20 people can keep their own kids on their health insurance until they’re 26, 27, a lot of other things. These are going to be very popular. So I don’t think they’re jamming it, and I don’t think the bill is going to poll the way some of the polls show it polling now.

HH: We’ll figure out a way to test that, and I will wager Mark Steyn’s America Alone against…have you read Mark’s book yet?

EJD: No, I haven’t, so there’s a good one. Maybe I’ll do Michael Walzer’s On Toleration, or Frank Freidel’s great book on the New Deal, if you haven’t…

HH: I took Frank Freidel as an undergraduate. I’ve read that book. I read all four of his books. I’ll go with Walzer’s.

EJD: Okay.

HH: I had him as well, but I didn’t read his books, because it was a boring class. Now E.J., what’s going to happen to older Americans who have Medicare Advantage? What’s going to actually happen to them?

EJD: Well, older Americans…partly, it depends on where they live. There are, I think, some concessions to folks in Florida. That could have something to do with getting Bill Nelson’s vote. At least that’s how I understand it. I don’t want to swear on a stack of Bibles about that. But the fact is that Medicare Advantage was, one way to look at it is that some Americans will lose Medicare Advantage, and that’s true. The other is that Medicare Advantage was siphoning lots of money away from the vast majority of Americans who are on regular Medicare. And so I think this is going to create a much fairer system. And if you look at the report on health care costs that came out yesterday, one of the great drivers of these cost increases that conservatives tell me they want to get a handle on, so they can reduce the deficit, is Medicare Advantage. So I do not think this change is for the bad. All it will mean, really, is that those seniors who have Medicare Advantage may have to pay a little bit more to get some of the benefits out of it that they have now.

HH: How much more?

EJD: I don’t know the answer to that, but I don’t think it’s a vast sum, because we’re talking about the extras, not the core coverage that they get under Medicare.

HH: Now E.J., one of my propositions is that a lot of enthusiasts of the bill really don’t know the numbers attached to them, whether it is Jonathan over at the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn, or…

EJD: Oh, Jonathan knows these numbers as well as anyone.

HH: I had him on the show a long time, and he’ll tell you the same thing. He’s not really sure where the half trillion dollars in Medicare cuts are coming, he doesn’t really know how many Medicare Advantage people are getting screwed, he doesn’t know how much their premiums are going to go up. It’s all very soft, E.J. I think the older Americans are turning against the Democrats because a lot of Democrats are gambling with their health care. And I ask you, specifically, where’s this half trillion dollar in Medicare cuts going to come from? About $100 million from Medicare Advantage, and that’s going to get socked to the old people, but what about the other $400 billion?

EJD: Well, some of it, what they’re talking about is moving away from fee for service medicine. And they’re talking about a lot of different ways of charging people for medicine that encourage activities by doctors that deliver care more efficiently. The truth is we are shifting money that’s paid into the health care system one way, and paying it back into the health care system another way. And so I am persuaded that you are not going to see seniors, once this thing actually takes effect in 2014, or 2013, if they back it up a little bit, I don’t think you are going to see seniors wildly unhappy. And I think you’re going to see a lot of seniors very happy as they close the donut hole on the prescription drug benefit. So again, I think some of the polling among seniors against the bill reflects the fact that this generation of seniors is very Republican compared to the earlier, the earlier New Deal generation of seniors. So I think that when you’re talking politically, a lot of seniors are going to say the bill is bad, and they’re going to vote Republican. But guess what? Seniors voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. I think that politically, what’s going to be interesting is the behavior probably 10-15% of seniors who are persuadable by your side of this or by the other side of this.

HH: All right, let’s switch subjects while we have a little more time to the President’s comments yesterday that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was formed in part, at least in response to Gitmo. Do you believe that, E.J?

EJD: Well, I do believe that Gitmo, and the discussion of it around the world, did recruit people, some people, to the cause of Islamist terrorism. I think that’s true. It’s not the only thing. There are lots of reasons why this has happened, but I don’t think it’s by any means crazy to think that. I think it happened.

HH: You know, E.J., as you have probably read Lawrence Wright’s…

EJD: And we know it because they’ve used it in their own propaganda, by the way.

HH: Yeah, but Hitler, as Victor Davis Hanson said on this program yesterday, propaganda from our enemies says lots of things. Hitler said he was justified in invading Poland, and we don’t believe that. We don’t credit that. al Qaeda puts out its Gitmo, and Hanson was very harsh on anyone who believed that sort of thing, and I point to something like The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, a man of the left. The Wahabists and the Salafists have got, they’ve been that way since, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood got underway. And I just think it’s crazy, actually, to believe that Gitmo existing or not existing has anything to do with the underpants bomber.

EJD: Gitmo became a symbol of a lot of other things, and got linked up in this propaganda along with Abu Ghraib, which I certainly think harmed us as a country. And so I think that Gitmo, in a way, it’s used loosely. It becomes a shorthand for everything. But I do believe that we will be better off closing Gitmo with not only Muslims around the world, but lots of people who want to be our friend.

HH: A different question which we’ll continue another time. Happy New Year to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Always a pleasure, E.J.

End of interview.

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