E.J. Dionne’s defense of the Obama speech Tuesday night.
HH: Today I wanted to check in so it’s not uniform negativity on the President’s speech. I want to make sure you hear from the other side. E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post, loved the President’s speech last night, wrote a column today called Faith-based Initiative: Can Obama Restore Our Belief In Government, a very clever column. E.J. Dionne, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
EJD: Good to be with you, and your listeners should know that Tom Ricks truly is one of the smartest people on military stuff. They should definitely listen in tomorrow.
HH: Oh, it’s an amazingly well-reported book. Now I’ve got some questions for him about it, but the effort that went into getting the details down, the interviews, it’s an extraordinarily compelling read, and I’m looking forward to that conversation. All right, E.J., let’s set the table. What did you make of the President’s speech last night?
EJD: Well, I liked the speech. I liked it because I thought he was being Ronald Reagan in reverse. You know, you go back to that great 1981 Ronald Reagan speech in the middle of an economic crisis, and you know, everyone is saying Obama has been too gloomy, and I heard parts of that speech by Reagan, and he was very downbeat about where we were, but upbeat about where we were going. Reagan’s objective was to move us in a conservative direction, and I think Obama’s speech was a speech that said, and he was very explicit about it, you can’t say in a time like this that government shouldn’t try to solve problems. You can’t say that it can walk away from these things. And so he was making a case for a kind of new progressive engagement, I think. And I think he was fairly unabashed about it, though he was careful to say I am not using government, I’m not for government for the sake of government. I’m just for using government to solve problems.
HH: Now this brings me to my central objection to the speech, E.J., is when he said everything he’s proposing is, “not because I believe in bigger government. I don’t.” Now look, I just don’t believe that, because everything he campaigned on, everything he called for last night – health care reform, the stimulus that passed, it’s all about expanding the government. You cannot not be for bigger government and envision the kind of health care reform he’s talking about, E.J. Wasn’t that just refusing to be blunt and candid with the American people?
EJD: You see, I don’t, because I think I would say myself, and maybe you’re going to accuse me of not being blunt and candid, that I am for a greater government role in health care not because in an ideal world I would like that, not because I get a kick out of adding to your tax bill or mine, but because I think that there are certain problems that can only be addressed by government. And at this point, we have had for a long period of time this very substantial number of people who are uninsured. We have in any event enormous share of the health costs are already borne by government through Medicare and Medicaid. And if we don’t get a handle on those costs, that’s a problem for taxpayers. So I am for a larger government role than you are. Obama is for a larger government role. But it’s not for the sake of government itself.
HH: Well see, I applaud that.
EJD: You know, I don’t want government in the business of organizing baseball for us. I was going to say I don’t want government in the business of manufacturing cars, but I guess it sort of is now.
HH: Well I actually wouldn’t mind if he had said I don’t believe in bigger government for the sake of bigger government. I only believe in bigger government because it’s the only way, as you just said, E.J., to cover the uninsured. And I don’t believe that that’s the case, but at least he would have been candid about it. He does believe in much larger segments of the government, of the economy being superintended by the government, and I think that Reagan was completely opposite to that, and I’m completely opposite to that. I think they’ll screw it up, I think we’ll end up with rationing. In fact, you and I will have to talk about health care a lot as the year unfolds. But I don’t like trying to have his cake and eat it, too. I don’t like it both ways. If you’re going to be an unabashed supporter of expanding the federal government, you ought to say so and tell people why, persuade them why. It’s necessary. And I don’t think he tried to do that.
EJD: Well you see, you know, it’s funny you say that, because what I heard him say is just what you said would be the honest way of saying it, which is that there is a case for government intervening here. And all he’s saying, because I think sometimes people on my side of things hear some conservatives talk, and they act as if we just sort of believe in government because we get a kick out of it, or because we really, really want to triple the number of bureaucrats in the country. And it’s not. It’s a disagreement we have on principle over, and pragmatically over whether certain problems can effectively be solved in the private sector, or whether you really need a government role. And I think in the case of each of the problems he described yesterday, education’s more complicated, because I bet you that before the year is out, you may agree with some of the things he wants to do on education.
HH: Well, if he goes for KIPP that Jay Mathews wrote about so eloquently and we talked about last week, I am all for it if he wants to expand the Knowledge Is Power Program. You betcha.
EJD: Right, and I think that he’s going to be interesting on education in ways that will engage you at some point. That’s one area where I think there will maybe be some bipartisanship. But in some of these other areas, you’ll probably disagree with him on global warming, but for people who are for a carbon tax, or a cap and trade, again are not doing it just for the sake of having the government play a larger role in the economy. They’re doing it because they’re worried about global warming.
HH: Aren’t some people doing it just because they love the power, E.J? I’m not saying you. I know there are lots of environmentalists. But aren’t there control freaks out there who just want to run other people’s lives through a variety of programs?
EJD: You know, I know you believe that, and maybe there are some. I mean, we certainly had control freaks in our history who wanted to set up dictatorships, but I don’t see that primarily…and that’s most of them who are busybodies or vicious intermeddlers. But I don’t see that as motivating most of what liberals want to do. At least most of the liberals I know, including this liberal, don’t get a kick out of running people’s lives. We have a tough enough time with our own, right?
HH: Let me tell you the two things I wish he’d done. The two things I wish he’d done would have been one, to honestly say you know, when George Bush came to the Democratic Congress and begged for assistance on doing a Social Security overhaul, it was rebuffed and that was wrong, because when he said no one’s tried to do these big problems for the last four years, all I thought about was George Bush wasting 2005 trying to get the Democrats to come up with anything other than no. And that was dishonest to say that we haven’t tried this in the past. But then secondly, are you familiar with the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act, E.J?
EJD: Probably not in the detail you are.
HH: Well, it just kicked in two weeks ago, and it’s costing hundreds of millions of dollars in recalled goods that are not dangerous to children. It was one of those acts of Congress that just completely indentify all that conservatives have that are wrong with Congress acting, unintended consequences, throwing people out of work, destroying goods that are useful, and no one’s fixing it. And if we’re going to trust him to get health care or education, shouldn’t he have called to fix something that most sane people realize is so badly screwed up, the CPSIA being one of them?
EJD: Look, I don’t know enough about the CPSIA, and I try not to nat around when I don’t know stuff, so I will have to look that up and figure out what I think on it. But in terms of…two things, one, on Bush…
HH: E.J., hold on one second, let’s go one more segment. I don’t want to cut you off in mid-stream, so I’ll be right back with E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.
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HH: When we went to break, I had just described to E.J. my complete, utter frustration with the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act, and how it’s devastating American business, and no one seems to want to do anything about it. And before we trust the government to fix health care, if they can’t fix their own screw ups, why should we trust them? And E.J., you have the floor, and we only have two and a half minutes here. I want to make sure you get the last word in.
EJD: Two things, as I said, I confess ignorance on your issue, so I’ve got to study up on it. But you mentioned credit to Bush on Social Security reform. If he had led with privatization and had made clear that you could have a compromise solution that might include some nips and tucks in benefits, some modest tax increases, you would have had a wholly different conversation. I think it was leading with privatization is what messed that up. If could make a different point on the Obama speech, I think he is going to surprise you by taking some programs and getting rid of them, because I think he knows that if you are a liberal or a progressive, you’ve got to show people that you can reform government, and even get rid of things that don’t work. So we’ll see what he does with that. But one thing that I found fascinating about this speech and almost every speech Obama’s given, is that he’s using what you might call socially conservative themes on behalf of liberal programs. There was a whole lot of language, the word in the speech about responsibility, it’s one of his favorite words. There was that whole part of the speech that said you can’t solve social problems without families kicking in, without people taking, parents taking responsibility. Now you could argue if you wanted that that was window dressing, but I think it’s very interesting to hear a liberal or a progressive president talk that way. And I think it’s actually useful. I think it’s in the cultural arena where Obama may have more success in bipartisanship, or at least in some conversation across philosophical or ideological lines.
HH: Well, you might be right about that, and I particularly love the appeal to the young girl who had written the letter, and I thought the First Lady was wonderful and her embrace of her, and in just…everything that messaged about America was great. On the other hand, E.J., and I really do hope you look at the CPSIA for the simple reason. They are proposing to do very, very, very many, very, very complicated things. And they can’t get simple things right. It scares me to death that anyone in Congress that could pass the CPSIA and destroy industries willy-nilly, would dare undertake the health care or the Social Security that you and I are both going to be relying on sooner rather than later. I just don’t trust their competence, E.J. I don’t think they’ve got it.
EJD: Well you know, Medicare has its problems, but an awful lot of people in the country swear by it.
HH: Oh, Medicare’s…
EJD: And so I think that you have seen government take on responsibilities in this area, not address them perfectly. I know doctors, I’ve heard doctors complaints about Medicare. But it is not the disaster you’re describing with the, what is it, CPSIA?
HH: Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act, E.J. I’ll look forward to your column on it. Thank you, my friend.
End of interview.