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Ezra Klein Of The Washington Post On Shutdown Politics And Polling

Saturday, October 12, 2013
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HH: From Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, we press forward on this shutdown/closure/resolution weekend, we’re not sure, with a man of the left. Ezra Klein is of course the author of WonkBlog at Washingtonpost.com. Ezra, welcome back, it’s good to have you.

EK: Thank you for having me.

HH: Oh, it’s good to have you. Now I must admit to the audience it is unfair for me to have Ezra on, because I have a nuclear weapon to use on him someday. I have the 6th grade yearbook from University Park School in which he played Surfing Santa. So Ezra, I can always unleash that if you’re mean to me.

EK: That’s true. That is an incredible weapon to hold against me.

HH: It is. It’s like…

EK: So you’re in Irvine, and I grew up in Irvine.

HH: Yeah, and my daughter was a couple of years behind you in high school, but you and Megan McAllister start opposite, and I’ve got access to all your secret files. And I’ve never…

EK: Absolutely. And I think the key thing to know about that is my sort of deep religious you know, sort of ecumenical spirit, because obviously with a name like Ezra Klein, Santa would not exactly be the role you’d expect me to be in a play.

HH: And Surfing Santa.

EK: But I believe that we are one country, and we all need to come together in a spirit of tolerance.

HH: And so in that regard, the Republicans and the Democrats are talking, or are they, Ezra Klein? At this hour, as we approach Saturday and Sunday negotiations, do you think they will pull it together this weekend?

EK: This is a weird moment. They are, I wouldn’t so much say they are talking as they are talking about talking. They are talking about structure for how to talk going forward. I am much more sanguine about the debt ceiling than I was a couple of weeks ago. And to be fair, I’ve been sanguine about it ever since the shutdown began. I thought it was actually, given the structure of the two parties’ demands, it was actually important, as terrible as it is, that we had a government shutdown, because I thought that it would make the debt ceiling crisis less likely, and I think that’s proven true. But the problem right now is that they are still not able to sort of bridge this fundamental difference the two sides have, which is on the one hand, the Republican Party wants to get something for opening the government and raising the debt ceiling. They believe that that is a concession they are giving to the Democrats. And the Democrats simply firmly do not agree that is a concession. They say that they are happy to have a negotiation in which they get real concessions, things like tax increases or stimulus funding, or something like that, but they are not going to have a deal in which they agree that for the Republican Party to reopen the government, that is a concession to them.

HH: Now would you agree that the heart of this deal is going to be the medical device tax, and that is in fact a concession, but it’s a concession that the Democrats could say isn’t really a concessions, since 70 Democrats already voted to repeal it, or 70 Senators already voted to repeal it in the spring, and therefore, what is a major concession to Republicans, and it is a big deal, would not really, could be described as a minor concession by the Democrats. Isn’t that the perfect trap door, Ezra Klein?

EK: I don’t think so. I mean, I do think that ultimately, whatever kind of deal emerges from this process, is likely to have the medical device tax as part of it. I think that’s the correct read of the politics. Senator Susan Collins is offering it in the Senate. As you mentioned, a lot of Democrats don’t like that tax, either. But I don’t think it actually solves this problem. I think this is actually the thing that people miss about what has made this whole process dangerous, which is that the disagreement here is not over policy. When you’re disagreeing over policy, it’s not zero sum, right? In a grand bargain, or even an Obamacare context, you can come up with deals that give both sides something they want. And the medical device tax, if you could find an acceptable way to offset it, is a deal like that. The problem is one of principle. Democrats are not going to give away the medical device tax in return for the shutdown, and in return for raising the debt ceiling, because as a principle, as a belief of how the government should be run, as a belief about how it is safe to manage American politics going forward, that, to them, is a very, very significant red line.

HH: But Ezra…

EK: Yeah.

HH: In contrast to that, for the Republican side, and I think I can speak with some authority on this, it is a significant issue that the Article I branches, including the House in which the Speaker is one of the few people in the line of succession outside of the executive branch, this is truly the people’s House, and designed by the framers, and I know you probably read Miracle At Philadelphia. The House is designed with very specific Constitutional roles in mind that the President cannot dictate to. So all those principles Democrats might have about not opening the government in exchange for concessions, Republicans have in saying we have a right, and just because a law was passed, you know, that silly rhetoric of it was passed, it was signed, it was upheld by the Supreme Court, which could also be applied to the Fugitive Slave Act, and to Prohibition. That’s just not what the Constitution has in store for the House. So you’re minimizing that while the Democrats might feel they have a huge issue of principle, Republicans feel as strongly that they won the election just as much as President Obama won the election.

EZ: Well, so I’d say two things here, and I think this is an important point, right? I think you’re right. I think that’s how Republicans feel one, to Democrats, and obviously apportionment is what it is, but they got not just won at the Senate and White House levels, but they got 1.5 million more votes at the House level. So in terms of a popular mandate as opposed to actual, the whole thing of political power, they don’t see Republicans having a popular mandate. But look, I think your point here is correct, right? I don’t think saying something is the law is some way of settling a conversation over it, right? We change laws all the time. We need to keep changing laws. The American statute is going to become a mess real quick if we don’t update, and frankly, we probably don’t update it enough. But the argument I think that Republicans are making here has a different valance, a little bit, than I think they get credit for, which is that this argument, the way I think that you would apply symmetry to it, it’s not that what Democrats need to do is hand over to the House some set of concessions in return for a reopening of the government. It would be that Barack Obama and the Senate, that you win the election, and they could then say well, we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling, we’re not going to leave the government open unless you agree to immigration reform, unless you agree to add a public option to Medicare. Now they’re not doing that. And I think in a world where sort of politics works the way you’re saying it should work, that is what they would do, right? In a world where it is considered normal to try to get these kinds of concessions that you can’t get through the normal negotiated bargaining process by threatening shutdowns and debt ceiling fights, which by the way, are things that didn’t really exist at the founding of the Constitution.

HH: Actually, now Ezra, this is where perhaps a backing in Constitutional law gives me a little bit of an advantage. That’s exactly what should be happening. What ought not to be happening, and I want to go back to what you mentioned about popular mandate in the House, that’s extra-Constitutional. That’s actually anti-Constitutional, as the Constitution was designed not to allow popular mandates to drive, but representative government to drive, and that therefore, an appeal to the total votes gathered in the House is absolutely non-admissible as relevant evidence. What’s admissible is the fact that redistricting happens in every state, and the Democrats abuse it in Illinois, and the Republicans use it in Texas, and it all works out in the end. But what happens is you have a House under Article I with an authority. And so what happened to frame the Constitution to get to what they needed to do, they had enormous compromises and horse trading. And then in the early republic, when Jefferson wanted the Capitol, and Hamilton wanted the National Bank, they got together and they made a big deal. So maybe the deal needs to get bigger, and immigration reform needs to be on the table.

EK :Well, it might need to get bigger, but I mean, in terms of arguing over who sort of has the right interpretation of the Constitution, I’ll leave that to you. You should have Constitutional lawyers on to target that. What I’m saying is that the view that Republicans have here is met, and I think this is important, because the thing that is true about the Constitution, right, and it’s why to some degree we’re in this mess, is there is not some umpire somewhere who decides who is right in this, right? We somehow have to manage this through the normal mechanisms of government. And the thing that I think is important to understand, and I’m not trying to even resolve it here with you, because I don’t think we can resolve it, is that the two parties have not a disagreement, but genuinely mutually exclusive positions, positions at this point about how this should be resolved, and about what is appropriate to do. They can’t exist at the same time. And that’s what has made this so difficult. I mean, as you say, it’s very easy to come up with ways in a grand bargain, where a lot of different should end up being happy. The thing that’s giving them so much trouble in these negotiations is sequencing, right, because Democrats don’t believe…

HH: You are exactly, you are exactly right. The sides have mutually exclusive visions of what is legitimate. And that is, you’re also exactly right, and I am a Constitutional lawyer, that this is inbred in our system by our framers for a huge political design, which is moments of this sort of paralysis are built into the system and are good. Now I want to ask you, Ezra, do you think the media is overstating the magnitude of the shutdown’s political impact?

EK: Of its political impact, or on its impact on people?

HH: Political impact.

EK: No, I mean, it’s a little bit hard to say. Well, let me make this in two ways. At the moment, no. In 2014, yes. So I was really stunned, actually, by the polling that’s come out. I mean, you probably saw the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that’s come out. We now have two polls, two separate polls, Gallup and NBC, showing the Republican Party less popular than in any time in the history of those polls asking the question, which is only a couple of decades. It’s not like going back to the founding of the republic, but it is a couple of decades. That’s a very serious thing. And you actually see in those two polls and not in the AP poll Obama having a little bit of lift. And you see that in the Washington Post/ABC News poll. So this in the polling, in anything that we have that can give us information about where the American public is right now is a genuine, unmitigated disaster for the GOP. That said, I think that the big problem that we make when we evaluate things in American politics, when we sort of pour very, very, very deep inside the weeds in this stuff and look at it, is to say we extrapolate from wherever we are and however we’re feeling and whatever we’re seeing all the way to the election. The idea that this shutdown, which I do expect to end in the next couple of weeks, will matter 13 months from now to voters. I think it’s very implausible. What will matter, I think, though…

HH: Hold that thought, Ezra, we have one more segment. I’ve got to go to break. I’ll be right back with Ezra Klein, and I do disagree with him on what the polling data shows, so we’ll come back and talk about that and project forward.

— – – –

HH: I have to challenge, Ezra. When we were going to break, you said the polling is an unmitigated disaster for the Republicans. In fact, the AP poll which you glossed over shows the President at 37% approval, which is a disaster for him. And I think generally, I agree with the statement that the polling data on the shutdown is not yet all that useful, and that we lack data on the most important measure of voter preferences right now.

EK: Well, I wouldn’t say I glossed over the, I mean, I did say direct the AP poll. What I think about the AP poll is that number one, and I actually don’t think the President, whether the President dropped a bit or went up a little bit, because that’s what we see in both those polls, is that any poll, although there are two polls that show him going up with it. So I don’t have a very strong opinion on which one you should believe is right. I don’t think it matters. He’s not on the ballot. What you do see also in that AP poll, though, is pretty much the same thing you see in the other polls, which is the Republican Party gets a lot more blame for the shutdown than the President, including in that poll, right? So even so, I mean, watching Obama’s numbers drop, I mean, let’s say you just believe the AP poll and don’t believe any of the others. So Obama’s numbers are down a bit. But the Republican Party’s down even more. The Republican Party’s getting the blame. If that’s the best poll the Republican Party has at the moment, that’s not a good poll, right?

HH: Well, let’s pause for a minute. The Republicans are getting 70% blame in some measures, while the Democrats and the President get plus 50%. So they’re leading by about 20 points in the blame game. But as you said in the last segment, this is ephemeral. And I think that it’s absolutely true that Democrats face extremely unfavorable conditions in trying to regain the House.

EK: Well that, I think, is definitely, I mean, that is, I would say, separate from the effect of a shutdown. Absolutely, Democrats face extremely unfavorable situations in trying to regain the House. I don’t expect them to do it. What I was going to say before the break, which I do think is interesting, so again, as I would say, my view is that this point doesn’t matter much for 2014, no matter which of them you believe, just because 2014 is too far away. But I do think that something that’s important is going on, is that what you’re seeing here is not an aberrational strategy for the Republican Party, right? This isn’t a one-off. It’s being driven by forces and debates and coalitions and constituencies in the Republican Party that have throughout this have relatively been gaining in power. And so if you think, and I do think that this has been a bad strategy for the Republican Party, I think one of the questions you have to ask about 2014 is if you think there’s some chance that they will, that this will just be a one-off, and they will be pursuing a very different strategy going forward, that’s a little bit harder for me to believe. So I think the effect this could have on 2014, if I was looking at it from that perspective, and again, I don’t know how useful this is to do it, but that was the question. If I was looking at it from that perspective, I would say the issue is now what we are seeing in the polling now, but actually what you’re seeing driving the Republican strategy, because if they keep doing this throughout the next year, then it will be closer to the actual election, and it will be more foremost in voters’ minds.

HH: Now what I’ve been doing, Ezra, the three statements I put forward on which I think you have agreed and I have agreed are all drawn from Nate Silver’s column at 538, that the media is overstating the magnitude of the shutdown’s political impact, that the polling on the shutdown is not yet all that useful, and the impact, Democrats face extremely unfavorable conditions in trying to regain the House. Those are all Nate Silver conclusions that I share and that you have affirmed. And so all, that’s three different points of view from very different sources on what is really going on. And I go back to our first segment. Here’s what’s really going on, and it goes to your question about next year. This is a giant collision of first principles. This is not partisan squabbling over who gets the Transportation Bill money. This is not a question about whether or not the unions are going to be able to pocket donations from their members without their members consent. This is a big deal, and therefore, it will continue through 2014, and it is risible on the left to claim that the Republicans are arsonists and anarchists, just as it is risible on the right to say that President Obama is trying to destroy the country intentionally, that this is really what inevitably has to happen, because it’s the collision between Woodrow Wilson and a traditional conservatism that has taken 100 years. Have you read Charles Kesler’s book, yet, about Obama and liberalism?

EK: I have not, no.

HH: It’s a terrific read. It’s perhaps the best assessment not unlike Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism of the year before. But Charles Kesler, the very esteemed political scientist at Claremont McKenna, I would recommend you to it. But I want to give you the last word. Do you see this as sort of, this is the collision of first principles, not petty partisanship?

EK: I think this is a collision most proximately, and most importantly, between different wings of the Republican Party about the correct strategy going forward, because I actually think what is very important about how this is playing out, and what is very important about how it will be resolved, is that you have the Republican Party leadership does not want to be here, and is looking for a way out. So if you had a united Republican Party around this strategy, I would be more in agreement with you on this, that it was clearly and truly just a collision of first principles. But you know, what you have is Boehner didn’t want to have a shutdown at all, tried to pass a clean CR, et cetera, et cetera. What you’re seeing is a struggle for power inside the Republican Party over the direction of strategy. I honestly don’t know how that will play out. But I think how it plays out over the next year is for 2014 going to be one of, certainly, the essential questions.

HH: Oh, no, that’s absolutely true. Look, you’ve got Ryan conservatism and Cruz conservatism, which believe the same things and have different degrees of expression of it.

EK: Right.

HH: And then you have establishmentarianism, which is dead. And I don’t know if it’s dead for the Democrats, but Beltway establishmentarianism is dead. John Boehner will be the last Beltway Speaker. From now on, Speakers are going to have to evidence a great deal more ideological commitment than Speakers previously, Hastert, and they’re going to go back to the Newt model with perhaps less Newt volubility. And do you agree with that?

EK: I think that sounds plausible. I wouldn’t say that I feel so capable of predicting it confidently.

HH: And I also think on the Democrat side, though, when you’ve got Harry Reid saying things like,

HR: Understand we’re dealing with anarchists.

HH: And Nancy Pelosi comparing Republicans to arsonists, and the President doing the hostage taking, and Dan Pfeiffer talking about suicide vests, your party’s unhinged, Ezra Klein.

EK: Well, I wouldn’t call them my party, but either way, Mitch McConnell has actually compared this to hostage taking, too, although more favorably. Look, I am, whether or not I call arson or anarchic, I still wouldn’t call it anarchy. I think that the project of threatening the debt ceiling in particular is deeply, deeply, deeply dangerous. It is a very, very unwise way to try to get what you want outside of sort of the normal sort of bargaining and legislative process.

HH: That’s a legitimate criticism.

EK: And I think that the markets over time can be very, very, are going to become very, very, very afraid of this kind of stuff.

HH: Well, again, we can find that out in due course. That’s a very legitimate criticism. I disagree with it, but it’s legitimate. But what about the incendiary rhetoric of suicide vests and arsonists and anarchists, Ezra? Can you bring yourself to even issue a mild criticism of the leaders of the Democrats’ rhetoric, one minute to the break?

EK: Yeah, I think they’ve gone, and saying people have got a suicide vest on is probably going a little bit too far, although honestly, I’ve been watching this for a while now, and there’s quite a bit of extreme rhetoric coming from both sides.

HH: Not from Nancy…

EK: But I don’t spend all that much time trying to police it.

HH: Is there anything comparable to Nancy Pelosi arsonist and Harry Reid anarchist, from a leader of the Republican Party?

EK: I will, I’ve not come with a bunch of quotes to make Republican Party members look bad today, so I’ll leave that question for somebody who came to argue it.

HH: Do any instantly occur to you?

EK: I just don’t, I’m just not going into that, Hugh.

HH: But I mean.

EK: I’ll prepare for the questions that I think, I will argue on the questions I’m prepared to argue on.

HH: All right, but just, this isn’t…

EK: I actually, I respect your important point. I actually do try to spend my time like not, like in that part of the…

HH: I understand. I’m just asking…

EK: …the parties being mad at each other.

HH: …if anything, I know you’re not prepared, but does anything spring to mind that is remotely similar in degree of incendiaryness to the Pelosi-Reid comments?

EK: I actually think that Mitch McConnell saying these are hostages worth taking is basically the same comment, skewed positively.

HH: All right, that’s your answer. I disagree, but I appreciate you coming on. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, thank you.

End of interview.

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