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Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol on the debt ceiling debate

Thursday, July 28, 2011

HH: Joined now by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Bill, welcome, I had no idea you were such a RINO. I don’t think I should be seen or heard talking to you.

BK: I don’t want to hurt your reputation, Hugh, so you feel free to denounce me. You know, you can denounce me right now, or you can in the next two and a half hours after I’m off the air, that’s fine, too.

HH: It’s like the old days of the Stalin purges when the Republicans start doing this. They can’t disagree without deciding to read someone out of the party.

BK: That’s okay. You know what? I mean, I was thinking back to ’77-’80, the last time we had such a bad president, the Republicans were out of power, trying to figure out how to save the country, and there were a ton of disagreements, and serious ones, you know, Panama Canal, Ronald Reagan going around the country stumping about it, Bill Buckley in the Wall Street Journal editorial page saying no, that’s not the real issue, and then supply side economics. I mean, it happens when you have a big risk movement. I don’t think there are really differences in principle, a lot of differences in strategy and tactics. That’s okay.

HH: Now I want to go to the substance, which is Boehner 2.0 now, up to $22 billion in cuts in fiscal year 2012. That’s never been my biggest issue with this, Bill. I talked to Jon Kyl about this last week. It’s this supercommittee of twelve, and their ability to force a vote on anything they come up with. Have you heard yet any kind of hint of who the Speaker, and who Mitch McConnell would put on this supercommittee?

BK: Well, I agree with you, I think you meant to say. And I would sort of like to know who they are. And I think it wouldn’t be an unreasonable thing for…I’ve been told that Paul Ryan would certainly be one…The House Republicans will be totally solid conservatives, is the way it was put to me. They’re not going to be for any tax increase. Now obviously, a tax increase couldn’t pass the House anyway, so I’m not too worried about that. On Defense, one of the things, and this is something I give you credit. You and I are among the rather few, I think, people who are actually worried about our Defense spending, and the fact that we live in a dangerous world. That’s gotten a little lost in the rest of this debate. And one of the good things about Boehner’s bill is it preserves the Republican budget Defense number. It actually increases it a little over where the appropriations process had left Defense, much better than Reid or Obama. So that’s a slight plus for Boehner. Anyway, on Defense, I sort of agree with you. He’s got to make sure, they’ve both got to make sure to appoint pro-Defense Republicans like Jon Kyl, who I assume would be appointed by McConnell to that supercommittee. I’m not crazy about the supercommittee. I wouldn’t have designed this thing quite the way it is, but I think the Republican House can defeat whatever they don’t like, and I’m pretty confident that they would not let this committee do a lot of damage to the country. But don’t you think, Hugh, we have to first explain what we’re talking about? Because our President told us Monday night that the American public, they don’t really understand what the debt ceiling is. That’s term, that’s like a term no one had ever heard until the President explained it to us.

HH: He never does talk radio, and as a result, he never understands how wildly informed the American people are on this stuff.

BK: Well, it’s also the natural condescension of Harvard Law School lawyer and Con Law professor.

HH: Yes.

BK: It is, that sentence just leapt out to me, and I think you’ve talked about it, too. I mean, it was so amazing, you know, the debt ceiling, something the American public, they can’t bother their little heads about this thing.

HH: Yeah.

BK: Are you kidding? The whole country is in an uproar. No one wants to lift the debt ceiling. That’s why House Republicans couldn’t really make themselves even vote for Cut, Cap and Balance last week, they were so resistant to giving the federal government any more money. Then they did the right thing and did Cut, Cap and Balance. And now, it’s a less good outcome, but still, I think, an adequate outcome to have Boehner pass.

HH: Well, it’s pretty hard to shock me, but when the President comes in with that line of the adult in the room, and it has become so aggravating, because in fact, it’s the exact opposite of that last Friday night, when he threw what was, I think, back to Nixon, the closest thing to a tantrum, and not even R.N. did that kind of theatrics.

BK: You know, I talked to Boehner a little in the green room Sunday before Fox News Sunday. We actually argued a little bit, because he was a little too entranced with the notion of a grand bargain, which I’ve been against and suspicious, not just suspicious of, but really against from the beginning. But he moved off it finally. But I mean, what he and some of his aides said about how the President ran these negotiations, Fred Barnes has done some reporting on this, you know, the degree to which, whatever you think of Harry Reid and some of these other, Biden, for that matter, it was, you know, they were negotiating. They didn’t agree, but there was a sort of serious back and forth. And they’d agreed to put off certain things until later, and try to resolve some things now. And then Obama comes in and lectures everyone, and speaks down to everyone. I’ve been told by some of Boehner’s aides that if Harry Reid could liberate himself from Obama, they could cut an acceptable deal. It’s just that Obama keeps jerking Harry Reid back to the White House, and insisting that he not actually try to resolve this, and in an adequate way, that would reflect the stalemate that we have at the federal level now, and let us have a big election in 2012.

HH: Now I’ve posed this question to a number of people, and have gotten some interesting answers. Do you think the President or Nancy Pelosi might purposely encourage a sort of market panic, a mini 2008, they might underestimate the chaos, and therefore hope to politically advantage themselves from it?

BK: I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the President has toyed with that, don’t you think, over the last week?

HH: I do.

BK: He’s said irresponsible things. Tim Geithner has said if you are the secretary of the Treasury of the United States, the job that Jim Baker held, the job that Bob Rubin held, neither people I agreed with all the time, incidentally, but serious people. You do not go on national television the Sunday before, eight days before a date which you have said would be a date in which all kinds of terrible things would happen, and just increase the level, potentially, of hysteria in the markets, warn about the Asia markets opening late Sunday afternoon. I mean, it is totally irresponsible. The Secretary of Treasury of the United States has to go on television and say look, we’re going to work this out, I’m telling the world that U.S. debt is good, the U.S. government’s word is good, don’t worry about it, let’s get about the business of having an economic recovery. And so that, I agree, and Geithner wouldn’t do that unless the President was pushing him to do that.

HH: And then Jessica Yellin poses the President a question about old people getting their Social Security checks, and he refuses to confirm that they will. On both of those points, there is no debate, Bill Kristol.

BK: Absolutely, and we’re going to be paying Social Security taxes next week, whatever happens on August 2nd, and they have all those bonds, right, that they have to cash? And of course, there’s plenty of money anyway to pay Social Security and military salaries and the bondholders if it came to it. So that was another thing, though. The Republicans should have passed a prioritization bill a month ago, I think, just to make clear about Social Security recipients would get their checks. I mean, there were certain things that…and here, I do partly blame Boehner.

HH: Yes.

BK: But I partly blame the Republican caucus, which didn’t even want to get into any of this stuff, you know, because they just didn’t want to think about the debt ceiling in a sense. They just wanted to be against it. Boehner let it go too late, and now we’re scrambling. But I think it’s going to come out okay.

HH: But Bill, that puts the finger on the problem I think a lot of people have, is that the Speaker, though he is a conservative and is doing yeoman’s work on many issues, does not appear to have a strategery, has not been thinking through 2011 as other than a series of engagements. The Appropriations chairman controversy, the other committee chairmen, he went with the old guard. On the C.R., he went with the not really any decent cuts. We’re ending up with a status quo ante. And the budget passed, but there’s no possibility we’re going to get any of these appropriations bills passed with our sorts of things. Do you sense that there just hasn’t been a plan?

BK: Well, when you put a guy from Ohio in charge, in an important job like that, Hugh…

HH: (laughing)

BK: …and you’re going to have limitations. That’s just the way it is. But I don’t know. I mean, I like John Boehner, but you’d be the first to say I acknowledge he’s not some grand thinker, and I think he feels that he’s constrained by having Barack Obama in the White House, and Harry Reid in the Senate.

HH: What about the $800 billion in revenue hikes? Doesn’t that concern you that…

BK: Yes, that does, that he was willing to agree to it does concern me. That’s why I think we’ve ended up in a better place than if he had been able to cut that deal with the President, which is why I think we should take this deal that we have and push it through, be on guard for the things you want to be on guard for. And look, if conservatives were screaming about we want to make sure this does not result in Defense cuts down the road, or tax hikes down the road, I think that’s a very reasonable position. I think saying, or telling people hey, let’s just defeat this on the floor tomorrow, let’s vote with Nancy Pelosi, I don’t think that’s a sensible position.

HH: Bill Kristol, always great to check in with you, even though we’re going to have to delete this tape before Erick Erickson hears it, or his head will explode. Thank you, Bill, good to talk to you.

End of interview.

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