HH: Joined now by Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter. Jonathan, yesterday at the Newsweek blog, the Gaggle, you wrote this is a big one for President Obama, another case where he needs to hit a three-pointer at the buzzer. I think it was an air ball, or at best, a clank off the glass. What’d you think?
JA: I didn’t think it was a three-pointer, but it definitely wasn’t an air ball. And you’re out of step with the consensus. He, you know, he sunk a ten, fifteen footer. It was a good speech, struck the right tone. It didn’t solve his political problems, obviously, but his little asides were effective, he worked in a little bit of humor. I think he explained that it wasn’t his spending that put the country in a hole, it was the spending of the last eight years that took us from a surplus, budget surplus to a deep deficit under President Bush, because he didn’t pay for either of his wars, he didn’t pay for his prescription drug benefit. So conservatives have a lot to explain for by trying to claim that it’s Barack Obama who put us in this hole.
HH: Do you think the Democrats are really going to try and argue that the budget deficit, which was $161 billion 2007, and now has swollen to $1.35 trillion, that doesn’t include TARP, doesn’t include the stimulus last year, the panic stuff.
JA: Yeah, those are big things not to include. You can’t stop the clock at 2007.
HH: No, I’m just…no, but those aren’t recurring. The $1.35 trillions is recurring. I’m just saying, Jonathan, that’s a huge uptick from $161 billion to $1.35 trillion. I don’t think the public’s going to believe that this is George W. Bush’s fault. The Democrats passed these budgets.
JA: Well look, the budget deficit when George Bush was in office was $1 trillion dollars. You can’t get around that, Hugh. That’s the fact, as the President said. You can try to measure it from 2007 all you want. The budget deficit is not a flexible number.
HH: And actually, it is, but…
JA: And it went to $1 trillion in December of 2008.
HH: And so you’re telling me they’re going to try and make that argument, because they can, and I think for a long time, they may fool themselves that they’re fooling, but Massachusetts understood what was going on, Jonathan.
JA: No, no, I agree with you that the period when you can cite the historical record, which is that the deficits were run up under President Bush, is coming to an end. He’s taking, Obama has to take responsibility, you know, for the economy now, and he can’t just blame Bush for everything. But I think people who are intellectually honest, you know, can assess this as something where the big spending came under Bush.
HH: Jonathan, that’s…
JA: And actually, TARP, we’re getting our money back.
HH: That is simply not true. And I have to pause and respond to it, please.
JA: That $700 billion is coming back. Hugh, Hugh, I mean, please…
HH: When it was $161 billion, we had our panic crisis. We spent the stimulus, we spend the TARP, and that’s on George Bush’s watch.
JA: Say that again? It was $161 billion?
HH: $161 billion in 2007, and I agree, on Bush’s watch, we did the TARP, and the stimulus, you could argue, was necessary because of Bush, and not the Democratic Congress…
JA: 3%. The stimulus was only 3% of the deficit.
HH: But what I’m getting at is it was $161 billion. Today it’s a permanent $1.35 trillion. That’s permanent spending assigned by the Democrats. You can’t lay that…
JA: It’s not permanent. First of all, that number does still reflect liabilities, some of which are going to get paid back. So look, we could talk numbers all day. Basically, you’re right that Obama has to take ownership of this now. But I think you are also right when Bush was president, that they were running up a deficit, and you made it artificially low. They didn’t pay for the wars. They didn’t pay for their health care plan, the prescription drug benefit. At least the Obama plan is, according to the nonpartisan CBO, is paid for. So politically, this may well play out against Obama, but I think people who are listening and who want to get at what the actual facts are, have to recognize that he was dealt a very bad hand by Bush when he came in.
HH: All right, so we’re going to disagree on that, but let’s move on to another issue. Taking on the Supreme Court, it’s never happened before, and whether or not it was tactful, or whether or not it was appropriate, what about the wisdom, Jonathan Alter, of attacking the decision authored by Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the Court? President Obama’s got a lot of cases over the next three years until he’s turned out of office in 2012, and the Supreme Court, you know the Supreme Court. You wrote the book on FDR. You know what happens when the Supreme Court sets its face against a president. And to take on the swing vote that way? It’s a Kennedy decision. Was that wise?
JA: It was unprecedented. You know, maybe it wasn’t politically so wise, though if Justice Kennedy renders his legal opinions based on whether somebody insulted him or not, then he’s gone down in my estimation. I respect him more than to think that he would, you know, decide important cases based on whether somebody’s criticized a prior decision or not.
HH: Justices, they’re people. When they get insulted in front of an international audience…
JA: Yeah, they’re people, but you know what, Hugh? You know what, Hugh? They’re the biggest bunch of hypocrites I’ve ever seen. You have these five justices, who for their entire careers, railed against judicial activism, railed against legislating from the bench, insisted on the importance of precedent. In their confirmation hearings, all of them talked about stare decisis. They insisted that they believed in precedent. You had John Roberts, who said I’m just an umpire in his confirmation hearings, I just call balls and strikes, we’re not talking about messing with precedent. And what do they come in an do? Overturn precedent. What do they cite as their basis? Dissents that were written by them in a 1990 case as their unbelievably flimsy justification…
HH: Have you read the Chief Justice’s concurrence on stare decisis yet, Jonathan?
JA: You know what, Hugh? I’ve read, because I wrote about it, I read everything that came down last week. And his concurrence on stare decisis was intellectually pathetic.
HH: I have to tell you as a Con law professor, that is a distinctly minority view.
JA: Well, among right wing Con law professors…
HH: No, just among originalists, and among people who take it…
JA: He is a hypocrite. Hugh, he is an intellectual hypocrite. And the other intellectual hypocrite is Antonin Scalia, who claims he’s an originalist, and repeatedly departs from original intent when it suits his purposes.
HH: All right, again, we disagree. Let me move on to one we might agree on, Chris Matthews last night, MSNBC:
CM: You know, I was trying to think about who he was tonight, and it’s interesting. He is post-racial, by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and passed so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about.
HH: What do you think about that, Jonathan?
JA: He probably could have chosen his words a little better, but the problem is anytime you talk about race at all, somebody’s going to get ticked off. So I’m not losing any sleep over Chris’ comments.
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HH: Jonathan Alter, a couple more issues from last night’s speech. It’s fascinating talking with you, because obviously, he did not have the first year that FDR had that you wrote about.
JA: That’s true.
HH: What about not recognizing the police who brought the Fort Hood massacre to the end? He brought them there, and then he didn’t mention them.
JA: Well, it was interesting. I was expecting when I saw who they had as their skutniks, they’re called, after Lenny Skutnik, who pulled some people out of the Potomac River after an airplane crash in 1982, and Ronald Reagan was the first person to use civilians in the gallery, you know, regular people in a state of the union address. And in the years since, presidents have always had those guests sitting with the First Lady. So I was expecting, when I saw who the guests were going to be, that he was going to recognize all of them at one time or another. But he decided not to use the time to do that. So he went back to the way things were done before Reagan. Actually, he included some of what Reagan did by having them there, but didn’t want to take the time for a lot of that kind of thing. And I was surprised by it. I thought he missed an opportunity, because you can always pick up some points by using human props.
HH: All right, last question, health care, which I think is just deader than a doornail, and now they’re just trying to assign blame. In your blog, you write that it’s not, and I don’t think that anyone really knows for sure. But what I want to get to is when he said that “let me know, let me know, let me know,” it was kind of trash talking to the Republicans. Well, Republicans have said from the beginning, health care reform without tort reform isn’t health care reform. Do you think he’s open to actual bipartisanship and doing something that everyone knows needs to be done?
JA: You know, if you go back to the September speech before a joint session, he talked about tort reform. He is open to tort reform. He’s not, he doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about the trial lawyers. He’s happy to do that, but they haven’t come forward with a proposal, Hugh. You know, Mitch McConnell is just a pure obstructionist on this. If he would come forward with a proposal, and take his responsibilities to govern seriously, instead of just saying no, no, no, then I think they could do some business. But so far, it’s the Republicans who are refusing to get serious. They really are operating from the position that the status quo is preferable to even, you know, modest change. If they weren’t, they would be at least proposing that modest change, fashioning, if not a two thousand page bill, you know, a hundred page bill with some good ideas in it that then could become the basis for bipartisan negotiations.
HH: Jonathan, I think the Manhattan Beltway bubble is intact, and that you folks who are living inside of it really just expect the American people to fall for that. It’s just not going to work, but I appreciate your vigorous defense of the President. Jonathan Alter from Newsweek, his book is The Defining Moment: FDR’s 100 Days. You know who ought to read it, is Obama, because FDR did not try to do it this way.
End of interview.