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Week In Politics: Taking The Country's Pulse


We turn now to our weekly political observers, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution here with me in Washington. E.J., welcome.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.

RAZ: You, too. And David Brooks of The New York Times is in Philadelphia today. David, welcome to you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

RAZ: We just heard from David Welna how some members of Congress are actually embarrassed about their seeming inability to get anything done, but they're also torn by a divided public, constituents who really don't want them to compromise. First, to you, David. Is this really a case where Congress is damned if they do and damned if they don't?

BROOKS: Slightly, but not really. You know, if I look at the polarization, I think it's about a third out in the country, but I think it's two-thirds in Washington. Almost every member of Congress is more polarized than the district they represent. I think the polls are quite clear. People do have diversion opinions, but they want Congress to compete cooperatively, to compete and then cut a deal. Senator Bennet, who you quoted at the top, the Democrat from Colorado, believes that moment was Simpson-Bowles.

When we had the Simpson-Bowles moment, we had a moment for people from opposite parties roughly working from the same framework. And he was working with a gang in the Senate to try to get a vote on that. And he's convinced if they could get a vote, there'd be a surprising number of senators from both parties who agree on that. But, of course, they can't get a vote on that. And so he's convinced that there is - if they did something big like that with taxes and fiscal reform, the country would be with them. And I think he's right.

RAZ: E.J., does the supercommittee's meltdown kind of underscore what we've been talking about really throughout the year?

DIONNE: Well, I think that - I have a slightly different explanation, not surprisingly, for what's going on. I think what you're seeing is a Republican Party that, for now, and I hope it's not forever, has veered very, very far to the right. It's not polarization equally on both sides. It's asymmetric polarization. The Democratic Party, you still have people like Heath Shuler and Jim Cooper and Claire McCaskill and others. The Republicans have purged even their moderate conservatives so that the supercommittee failed because the - the Democrats actually put out a proposal to the right of the Bowles-Simpson report.

And Republicans said, well, we'll put up a little revenue as long as you can cut taxes in the top right by like $3.7 trillion. That wasn't going to work. I don't think we're going to get to less polarization until the Republican Party pulls back from the edge.

RAZ: Interestingly, E.J., some Democrats, some liberal lawmakers, and I believe you, yourself, have argued that it's great that the supercommittee failed in some ways because it's probably the best deal the Democrats could've gotten anyway.

DIONNE: Right. And well, I think that what you have now is a shift in the pressure on the Congress, 'cause if they do nothing, absolutely nothing between now and January 1st of 2013, you suddenly get $7.1 trillion of deficit reduction. Now, we're not going to have that, but all the Clinton tax rates would come back. You have this sequester where you've got automatic cuts. And then I think we can really talk about how do we balance revenue with spending cuts because you do need a balance.

And I think that it'll be a lot easier to get revenue when people who are against any revenue are looking at all these taxes coming back.

RAZ: David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I guess I disagree. I'm much more worried about what's going to happen, on part, because the defense budget is going to be slashed, in part because we're not going to have anything close to $7.1 trillion. A lot of that is the middle class tax cuts that Bush imposed or passed and there's not really - no disagreement on all that stuff. The tax cuts under Obama or a Republican are going to go through, except for maybe the top two percent.

So we're going to have huge deficits. Meanwhile, we're going to have a government which is sort of on autopilot. If you like corporation for public broadcasting, if you like the national endowment for the arts, if you like defense spending, it's all going to get slashed brainlessly. It's just no way to run a government. And so I'm frantically a bit alarmed about what's about to happen.

RAZ: Let me shift gears, gentlemen, for a moment. Because David, I want to talk to you about something you've been doing with your column recently. You've been taking the temperature of the country in a pretty interesting way, asking older Americans, over the age of 70, to write what you call life reports, sort of taking a look back on their life. What are you finding? Are you finding a relationship between what they are sending you and then over - and the overall political divide in the country?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think what you're seeing from older people and maybe from everybody is sort of a desire to go back to basics. People - one of the things that struck me is people are much more happy with how they did on their jobs; quite unhappy with how they performed as husbands, wives or parents. People are concerned about their private lives and I think that reflects a back-to-basics movement you see in the country at large.

If you look right now at where the country is headed, there's been a sharp reaction against debt. Seventy-five percent of Americans say they wish they had no debt. The average credit card bill is down 10 percent in the year as people reject debt.

So I think even though the government is deadlocked, American society is moving, moving away from debt and away from the super-consumption we saw over the last decade or so. And moving in, quite a frankly, healthy direction. So, the big story I take away is politics may be broken but society moves.

RAZ: Perhaps not such a huge generational gap when it comes to those kinds of issues, E.J.

DIONNE: No, I actually agree with David that there is a kind of back to basics movement going on out there. I think a lot of people, of course, are giving up on debt because their incomes are going down and they're very worried. The real problem that people faced for so long is because incomes were stagnant, in order to keep up their standard of living, they had to go into debt. That's how we kept this whole economy going and that was unsustainable.

But I do think the focus on, you know, local community on people, their own lives, their responsibilities to their kids, and their parents and grandparents, I think that's out there very strongly. And interestingly, I think it's really strong in the new generation, in the young people coming up. So I do think the older folks and the younger folks may have a lot in common.

RAZ: I saw a new Pew survey and I'm sure both of you have seen this. It came out last week. And it was extraordinary. It suggests that there is now greater economic mobility in Europe than there is in the United States.

First to you, E.J., what do you make of that?

DIONNE: Well, I was really struck looking at the countries that had a lot more - had more upward mobility than we had, and they were all social democratic countries. And what do you have? You have guaranteed health care for everyone, much lower cost for higher education, relatively uniform public education system, working-class parents get relatively decent levels of income.

And I think what that suggests is social democracy, or we could even say a little bit of socialism, is actually very good for capitalist upward mobility. And bigger inequalities are not being offset by greater upward mobility. In fact, bigger inequality turns out not to be very good for upward mobility.

RAZ: David Brooks, last minute to you.

BROOKS: Well, the other point to be made is that those societies have much better family lives. And I think that's much more powerful than anything government can do. In our country, 40 percent of kids are born out of wedlock; 70 percent of African-Americans, about 55 percent of Latinos, about 45, 50 percent of whites with parents with a high school degree. To me that's the big tragedy and that's one of the huge explainers of why we don't have the social mobility we do there.

Though, frankly, when I think of Europe, I think about the economic catastrophe that's about to hit us from there. And I just get incredibly depressed about the winnowing options they're facing. And to me, I think Angela Merkel has a bigger effect on Barack Obama's re-election right now than Barack Obama himself does.

RAZ: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.