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Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter gives a center-left perspective of what Obama’s first two years will be like.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008
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HH: We move to the center-left with Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, long time contributor to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Jonathan, great to have you on, I read with great interest your Newsweek column this week, We’re Heading Left Once Again. Summarize for our audience where you see this election going.

JA: Well, you know, I think unless there’s something truly extraordinary that happens in the next two weeks, it’s going to be president Obama. And then the question becomes how does the country move? And I think it’s one of those moments, one of those cyclical moments in American politics, when we have a change of direction the way we did in 1980 when the age of Reagan began. Now history moves on, the conservative majority is in serious trouble, and we’re about to enter a kind of a neo-Keynesian era where big government spending isn’t stigmatized the way it used to be. And there’s some room for liberal experimentation. Now if they do it in a stupid way, Hugh, and you and I both know that liberals are eminently capable of being stupid, they’ll get their heads handed to them, and they won’t be successful. But if they do it in a pragmatic way, we could see some big liberal gains, and even a resurrection of the more positive connotation of that word over the next decade or so.

HH: Now let me ask you a few questions that are specific, Jonathan, because last night I was with a group of thirty Jewish Republicans in Encino, California, many of whom are very, very skilled practitioners in the medical arts. You know, they’re at UCLA, they’re at USC. They’re scared to death about what Barack Obama and supermajorities in a Democratic Congress might do to the health care system. Do you think they’re right to be worried?

JA: No. And in fact, one thing that’s very interesting is if you look at the polling among doctors, they used to be overwhelmingly Republican and it’s not true anymore, because the status quo ain’t helping them. So…and also, when they look, when they take a serious look at John McCain’s proposal, which would basically greatly reduce the amount of employer-based health care, I don’t think doctors are too encouraged by that. That, of course, would be DOA with a Democratic Congress. The Obama plan, which has been rather misrepresented throughout this campaign, is actually not that radical, not at all radical of a plan. For most people, the status quo would obtain. You would still have employer-based coverage. There are not mandates, that’s just what McCain was saying, which is simply untrue, The only mandates relate to coverage of children, and we’ve already been headed in that direction with the CHIPS program anyway. So what we would get would be a national system that resembles what your man, Mitt Romney, has done in Massachusetts, which is working surprisingly well there as Governor Romney will explain. And that will end up, ironically, being essentially the model for the nation should Obama win.

HH: Now what do you expect the marginal income rate to go to?

JA: It’ll go back to what it was under Clinton. You know, they’re not…I know it’s a little hard for some of your listeners to believe this, but you know, even these liberal Democrats on the Hill, they’re not kamikaze pilots. They don’t want to go back to confiscatory taxation. So the Clinton levels are the ceiling on where they’ll go on marginal rates.

HH: Except for social security taxes, right, Jonathan? I mean, Obama told us if you make more than a quarter million…

JA: Yes.

HH: Those are going to go up to full indexing. That’s no longer a requirement…

JA: Well, it’s not going to be full indexing. In other words, you won’t pay, there’ll be a cap on it so you won’t pay, if you make over $250,000 dollars a year, it’s not like you’re going to pay seven percent of your total income. Right now, the cap it $99,000. And so they’ll lift the cap for people who are making over $250,000, but then the cap kicks in again. It’s a little complicated, but it’s not going to be confiscatory.

HH: And so…but that is not a retirement savings program anymore then, is it? It becomes…because obviously, that’s going to be taxing people to pay other people’s benefits.

JA: Well, we’re already taxing people to pay other people’s benefits. The idea of a trust fund and everything is just an accounting ruse, as you know well, that Social Security, as I wrote about in my book on FDR which you were nice enough to discuss with me, and it was a bit of, as it was launched was a bit of a con job on the American people. People assumed they were putting money away for their own retirement, when really their retirement was being subsidized by current workers. And that’s the way the system has worked for the last 73 years, and that’s the way it will continue to work, because every single effort to change it to a more private account approach has failed between 1936 and 2005.

HH: I’ll be right back with Jonathan Alter. The book he refers to is The Defining Moment. You may find it very useful if Obama wins in two weeks.

– – – –

HH: Jonathan, let’s go down a couple more issues again. Number one on my callers and e-mail list, though I don’t worry about it at all, is the reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine. I don’t worry about it, because…

JA: No, no. That’s crazy. I mean, yes, you do have some people on the left who are advocating that, but our media environment doesn’t allow for that anymore. It’s so much more fragmented than it was at the time the Fairness Doctrine was repealed that it’s simply unworkable to reimpose that. So all of your listeners can start worrying about something else.

HH: So you don’t think that Pelosi and Reid will try and mandate equal time for liberals?

JA: No, they can’t. They can’t. It’s simply unworkable in our current media environment. It’s a complete non-starter. And also, you know, well, that’s the main reason. It simply doesn’t work. The Fairness Doctrine was repealed during a time when cable was in its infancy, and wasn’t a significant player in politics. And obviously that’s changed. Nobody, including the liberals, want some sort of regulatory regime telling them who can talk when, so don’t worry about it.

HH: I also believe it’s unconstitutional.

JA: It’s totally unconstitutional, totally unconstitutional, but more important, more practically, it’s completely unworkable, and I really don’t see the Democrats trying to do that. They instead, instead of trying to block out talk radio’s advantage for conservatives, what they’re doing is they’re building their own political force online. And they now have passed three million contributors, small contributors, average donation $86 dollars, to Barack Obama. Those three million people are going to be very, very useful to a President Obama and moving his program. If the Republicans were smart, instead of bellyaching about this, they would do what they did when liberals dominated the mainstream media and had close to a monopoly on media in the 1970s. They started building their own movement. I don’t understand why they don’t do that online today. Right now, they’re getting beat badly by liberals online.

HH: I agree with that. Now let me ask you, Jonathan, in terms of what happens if a supermajority comes in, and A) do you think a supermajority, do you think they’re going to get a filibuster-proof Senate, the Democrats?

JA: No, but I do think that they’re going to come within, they might get 56, 57 Democrats, and then they could pick off a Susan Collins here, an Olympia Snowe there on certain issues.

HH: An Arlen Specter over here. That’s right, those are the three.

JA: Yeah, on particular issues, but they’re not going to have a total filibuster proof Congress.

HH: Okay, so given that, that they have to negotiate but they can get what they need, will they self-regulate? Now you referred to this in the last segment, and by the way, I don’t think this is going to happen. I still believe very much that McCain has got a much stronger approach here than what’s going to happen.

JA: But why do you think McCain’s going to win, just quickly. I know you’ve been telling your listeners…

HH: He’s going to carry all the red states except Iowa, and he’s going to pick up New Hampshire. He may lose New Mexico, the New Mexico-New Hampshire thing, and it’s because of the polling in Rasmussen that shows it’s four points, and I believe they’re overpolling Democrats by a lot, and that the turnout is underestimating Republicans who are scared to death of Obama not because he’s African-American, but because he’s hard left. So I think we see self-correcting measures. We always seek self-correcting measures in America unless you’re in a depression. And Jonathan, here’s my key theory, is that Americans want the money back. They lost a lot of money in the last three weeks. You probably lost money, I lost money, everybody listening lost money.

JA: Sure.

HH: And we want it back, and we know that high taxes and slow growth won’t get it back, and then he’s going to spread it around, by his own words, if we do get it back, and that they don’t want that.

JA: Here’s the problem with the spread it around-Joe the Plumber business, which by the way, there’s some polls out today showing it’s been, left little impact at all on the electorate. And the reason why is that if you give a trillion dollars in taxpayer money, which is what it’s going to be to bankrupted banks, that’s spreading the money around. That’s spreading the wealth around. It’s spreading it around to Wall Street. And so people go why are these people complaining about spreading it around to folks who don’t have very much in the middle class when they’ve just given a trillion dollars to Wall Street? So the old arguments about socialism, they’re just not cutting, Hugh. They’re not working the way they used to. And also the end of the Cold War makes it harder to say that we’re headed for socialism/communism the way Republicans could argue for so many elections. So Republicans are going to have to find a different vocabulary and pick up the pieces after this. I agree with you, I don’t think McCain is finished. Two weeks is a long time in politics, and I wouldn’t be totally shocked if he pulled an upset. But even if he did, the country would still be moving to the left. He would still have to work with a Democratic Congress. It would be a little bit like Nixon coming in and having to work with the Democratic Congress in 1969.

HH: That’s exactly what it’s going to be if McCain wins. It’s going to be Nixon from ’69-’74 without the corruption and the plumbers. Last question, Jonathan, we’re running short on time, Joe Biden yesterday warned the world that mark my words, mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like it did Jack Kennedy. Of course, that’s Iran he’s talking about. He knows what’s coming. Is that smart for Joe Biden to have drawn a bright marker underneath the fact that Obama has no experience in such matters, and that one is coming?

JA: No, I don’t think that was too smart of him to do. I think that they would test McCain, too. In terms of Obama’s steadiness or his readiness, he did get a boost from Colin Powell on that over the weekend. I don’t think endorsements are hugely important, Hugh, in presidential politics. People make up their own minds. But there’s a certain number of independents who when they see that Obama has not just Powell but a share of other generals and admirals, retired generals and admirals, there were about twenty of them who showed up at the Democratic convention, they will get the picture that Obama is perfectly qualified to handle national security. And I think that’s coming through now. If McCain had been a less erratic candidate, he could have run a steady as she goes, steady hand on the tiller campaign. But he blew that in September, and I think when we do the postmortems that first week after the financial crisis developed, when McCain was just not steady, will be why he lost.

HH: We’ll talk after the election if not before. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment, thank you, Jonathan.

End of interview.

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