Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker on Obama’s proposed second term
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HH: Joined now by Ryan Lizza, Washington, D.C. correspondent for the New Yorker. Hello, Ryan, how are you?
RL: I’m good, man. How are you?
HH: I’m great. Great piece, The Second Term, in the new New Yorker, I linked it at Hughhewitt.com on Monday, a lot of people talking about it, one of whom was John Thune on this program on Monday, Ryan. I asked him about the second term agenda and the critiques of the Republicans in the Congress that Team Obama had. And I quote now, John Thune said that’s crazy talk. It’s so far for me to even entertain when they say that they could say that with a straight face, because as you know, they had for a while there everything. They had a 60 vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, a huge majority in the House, president, and you know, but to blame Republicans for this, they control the agenda. They run this town. What have you heard about that reply?
RL: Yeah, I think that Obama used his big majorities in the House and Senate when he was in his first year, right, up until he lost that 60th vote. So he passed his health care bill, he passed financial reform, he passed his stimulus package, so he used it, right? I mean, when things ground to a halt, that was after the 2010 elections when he lost his supermajorities.
HH: But all those things that he got done, Ryan, I think what Senator Thune was saying…
RL: And wait, can I add one thing about that?
RL: My view of politics right now is we have structural polarization. The two parties are locked into two camps of about the same size, and the only governing strategy, frankly, that really works anymore is partisan, you know, is when you have a president of one party, and a Congress controlled by that same party with big majorities, and the American people say yeah, we want this agenda, and you pass it. That’s, partisan dominance is the only way to get things done right now. And if you look at the first two years of the Obama administration, that’s what we had – partisan dominance with Obama having big victories. If you look at the second two years, you had a Republican House and a Democratic, non-filibuster-proof Senate, and a Democratic president, and you didn’t get a whole lot done.
HH: Ryan, I agree with the fact that it takes partisan dominance to achieve something. But what I think Thune was objecting to in that which the White House staff, senior staff were telling you on an off the record, is that the economic morass that we are in is the responsibility of the Republicans because of obstructionism, because they got what they wanted. They got the stimulus, they got Obamacare, they got Frank-Dodd. And everything that they got has resulted in a morass, and that they’re refusing to own the disaster that they created. In fact, tomorrow night, the President’s going to give another ‘it’s not my fault’ speech, when as you just pointed out, he got everything he wanted for two years, the results of which are now washing up on our economic beach as wreckage.
RL: Well, you know, there’s a big debate about this, right, whether the stimulus was enough or too much. And he frankly wanted more stimulative policies in the 2011 period, and you know, obviously, Democrats and Republicans have fundamentally different views about what the economy needs. And once Republicans took over the House, the Obama agenda ground to a halt, and the Republicans, of course, couldn’t pass any of their agenda items, either. And I think that’s why we have this campaign this year. This campaign is going to settle, at least temporarily, it’s going to settle some pretty important ideological debates in this country. And yeah, one of the things I like about this campaign is that that is one thing that Romney and Obama agree on. They agree that this shouldn’t be a campaign where these guys are papering over their differences, and wooing the low information voters. They’re basically saying, they’re both saying this is a big, important election with two clear ideological choices, and is going to signal to the leadership in Washington which direction they want Washington leaders to go in after two years of gridlock.
HH: But Ryan, what I want to make sure, though, that we’re talking about is that this election is a referendum on what President Obama wanted and got in the first two years of his presidency, the affects of which we’re living with now. I think what I found disturbing about your piece, because it is obviously highly sourced, people spoke to you on the record and off the record, it an other worldliness about their detachment from the consequences of what they did. They are like, you know, ten year old boys who broke the vase and are pointing at people down the street because the music was too loud.
RL: Well, because…how come? Is it they’re talking about, they’re still blaming stuff on Bush?
HH: They just won’t own the fact that everything, and we’ll come back from the break, I go to the Christine Romer report that said if we pass this stimulus, unemployment won’t go above 8%. It’s never been below 8%. If we pass Obamacare, premiums will fall. Premiums have gone up. If we pass Dodd-Frank, the markets will reform, and in fact, we have Jamie Diamond on the Hill today explaining $2 billion dollar losses.
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HH: Ryan, you’ve got all these people talking to you. What I really want to know, do any of them, any of them admit to you, on or off the record, that they know they botched it, that everything they tried, nothing worked, and that this economy is theirs? Does anyone know that?
RL: The idea that the economy is theirs, I don’t think anyone at the White House would dispute that, that they have ownership of this economy. But you know what the White House’s basic campaign message is, that it is that they inherited some tough times, they’ve done their best to make them better, and that Romney wants to take them back to the problems that got us into the mess in the first place. I’m not endorsing that view, but I’m telling you that’s, you know that that’s their basic message. Look, I, the way I look at the Obama presidency is that he had, there was an agenda of choice and an agenda of necessity. And what he tried to do in 2009 was, despite the economic crisis, and despite the fact that he knew that would dominate his presidency. He tried to hold onto some pretty important pieces of that agenda of choice, in other words, the things he campaigned on, before Lehmann, before the crash, health care, of course, being the big one, but you know, back then, cap and trade and those were the two big ones, really. And you know, if he, and I think history is going to judge him, especially if he loses, is going to judge him partly on that decision. In other words, I think a lot of people will say that was a mistake, if he loses this election, they’ll say that was the biggest mistake he made, that he should have abandoned his campaign agenda, he should have abandoned his agenda of necessity, and just stuck with the, excuse me, agenda of choice, and just stuck with responding to the crisis. Now you’ll disagree. Yeah, I know, Hugh, you disagree with everything that he felt was necessary when dealing with the crisis, but put that aside for a second. I think that will be the big takeaway if he loses.
HH: But today, Mitt Romney gave a speech…
RL: You might at least agree with part of that, at least.
HH: Yeah, Mitt Romney gave a speech today in which he said the Obama administration, the president have pursued, “the most anti-investment, anti-business, anti-job series of policies in modern American history.” And then he pointed out the president saying you know, the private sector is doing fine was in fact an authentic expression of what Barack Obama believes. And as John Thune said on this show, the transcript of which is over at Hughhewitt.com when we discussed your article on Monday, that they really do believe that. They don’t think this is a problem of private enterprise, otherwise they won’t have this sort of pirate EPA running around slitting the throats of businesses. They wouldn’t have the Keystone pipeline vetoed. They’re just, they’re from a different economic planet, Ryan. And when they say the fever will break, that is so condescending, and at the same time, it is so anti-self-inspecting of their own ideological extremism. That’s what I, I found your piece as revelatory as your leading from behind piece about their foreign policy. They really do live on a different planet.
RL: What was it specifically in there that had you shaking your head?
HH: When you said the second term will be deficit reduction, a highway bill, immigration and energy policy, but the mantra, if we can break this fever. They’re the ones with the fever, and he said it over and over again, and all your people that were talking were nodding. And I thought to myself, A) their second term agenda is small beer. It’s just so underwhelming, but B) the only fever in Washington right now is theirs, when the president walks out and says to the country the private sector is doing fine, Ryan Lizza? Didn’t you drop your pencil?
RL: Well, put that aside for a second. I would disagree with you that the agenda that was laid out in that piece is small ball, because think about the first part of that agenda. The first part is, and this is Romney or Obama, whoever is president has to deal with the fiscal cliff, right? So whoever is president has this major opportunity to redefine the size and scope of the federal government for decades to come, right? We’re going to have entitlement reform, we’re going to have tax reform, we’re going to finally deal with the Bush tax cuts, hopefully get a permanent resolution to that. And we’re going to figure out what to do about Social Security and Medicare, right, that we’re going to get a version of the grand bargain that everyone tried to get last year. Isn’t that going to be the first big thing if it’s Romney or Obama?
HH: No, absolutely not.
RL: You say no?
HH: No. If it’s Obama, he will move unilaterally, as he has been moving unilaterally, to undermine additional Constitutional restrictions, and we will have deficits on the gamble that the world has nowhere to put their money but here, and we will have deficits of $2 trillion dollars a year. He will not do…
RL: You think if Obama wins, you don’t think that Boehner and Obama sit down and restart the negotiations?
HH: Absolutely not.
RL: Why not?
HH: I think the president will rule unilaterally in a way that is extra-Constitutional, and that we will have $2 trillion dollar deficits.
RL: How? What can he do, Hugh?
HH: Simply refuse…he’ll shut the government down again until such time as Republicans capitulate.
RL: When did he shut the government down?
HH: That was the threat in the summer of 2011.
RL: But that didn’t happen. That didn’t happen.
HH: No, but Boehner blinked, and the Republicans blinked, and they passed the fake sequestration, the Gang of Six. I mean, that was all a blink by the Republicans, and I think we recognize that now. But Ryan, what I really want to get back to…
RL: I disagree with you. I think if Obama wins, that’s the first thing that’s going to happen.
HH: Not in a hundred years.
RL: And Republicans and Boehner and Cantor are going to have to decide whether the fact that they couldn’t prevent Obama from having a second term, whether that changes their strategic calculation.
HH: Not in a hundred years, but here’s what I wanted to get to.
RL: And that’s what happened in ’97. But Hugh, that’s what happened in ’97 with Clinton and the GOP Congress.
HH: When the deficit was significantly less than $1.5 trillion dollars a year.
RL: Well see, but this is a bigger emergency than you had in ’97. It should be a greater incentive for these guys to…
HH: I would believe that, but he has evidence none, and there is none in your article, evidence of a willingness to do anything about entitlements, nothing serious.
RL: No, you should look closely as what Plouffe says. Look closely at what Plouffe says in that article, saying look, we did all the work on this last year. He basically told me, look, that deal, we were this close to.
HH: I know the Boehner side of that story, I know the Cantor side of that story. That’s not true. They didn’t do any of the work, they never reduced it to specifics. Plouffe is lying to you. They have never put out anything remotely resembling a plan.
RL: That’s…look, they didn’t have stuff on paper, but they had, they got Pelosi and the Democrats to go pretty far on entitlement reform, much farther than the Gang of Six was willing to go, at least…Boehner and Obama went further to the right than the Republican and Democratic…
HH: Urban…Ryan, stick around one more three minute segment. Urban myth. Absolute urban myth peddled by the White House in defense of their president’s inability to make a single decision, because he is paralyzed by the job.
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HH: Ryan Lizza has been my guest, and it’s an amazing piece. People need to read it at the NewYorker.com. Ryan, here’s what I want you to comment on. Yesterday, I broadcast from the front porch of the Reagan ranch, where he delivered forty plus radio addresses, where he signed the biggest tax cut in American history, the very wonderful Rancho del Cielo high above the Santa Barbara coast. His second term, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the Brandenburg Gate speech. Reagan’s second term, which you reference a lot, was about big ideas and big things. And he did it all from the platform of what he accomplished. Your article sketches out a tiny, tiny platform by a confused and shrinking president. And I think he’s about, the one thing you didn’t talk about, he’s about to launch his own Pearl Harbor on the American defense budget. I mean, there’s nothing to do with Reagan when you cut a hundred billion in F-22’s, F-35’s, the ships we need, 20,000 Marines, 100,000 Army and sailors. He’s about to cut the American national power.
RL: Do you mean that because of the sequester, or because of his Pentagon budget that was released earlier this year?
HH: That, the sequester, and his strategic, his so-called strategic realignment, send 10,000 Marines to Australia and say everything is well.
HH: He has no vision for America’s role in the world for a second term.
RL: Well look, the strategic realignment, I mean, I think this is something that conservatives should look at and take seriously, and there’s probably some common ground here. I mean, the idea is that we’re not in the foreseeable future going to be engaged in massive land wars, nothing like Iraq, and that the idea is small footprint. The other idea is that we’ve ignored the Pacific, and we need to do something, we need to contain, manage China’s rise. And to do that, we need to pay a whole lot more attention to what’s going on in the Pacific. And Hugh, look at some of the, just, take your political hat off for a second and look carefully at what he’s done with Vietnam, with Burma, with moving troops into Australia, with some of the shifting in their approach to China after the first year, which I think they now will tell you, China interpreted his movements in 2009 as weakness, and too accommodating. They shifted to a much more sort of containment light strategy that I don’t really see the basis for a big partisan disagreement about.
HH: Ryan, this is, I think you’ll find the fall will be about President Obama launching a Pearl Harbor-like attack on our defense establishment, and Mitt Romney saying…
RL: What do you mean by that?
HH: I mean striking at the very heart of national power, destroying with a budget that which our enemies have not been able to destroy in 50 years. This sequestration, which he said not one word about, not one word, Ryan, has he said about the sequestration. He wants it to happen. The Russian exchange with Medvedev on at least missile defense, 20 seconds, Ryan, are you going back to this? Are you going to go back and write more…
RL: I think I’m doing sort of a Democrat, Republican, Democrat Republican. So the next piece is going to be about the Republicans, something Romney-related.
HH: I look forward to it. Ryan Lizza, always a pleasure at NewYorker.com.
End of interview.