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Week In Politics: Fiscal Cliff, Immigration Reform


And now to our political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi there, E.J. Hi, David.


E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: So to start - we just heard from Ari. Not a whole lot of optimism there that a deal would get done before the deadline. David, to start with you, do you see anything useful just coming out of the meeting, the fact that there was a meeting?

BROOKS: The illusion of productivity. They're trying to pretend that they're actually doing something. So after we go over, they can say, well, at least we tried. And so I'm pretty sure we're going to go over unless somebody makes an offer. It seems extremely unlikely to me now.

I think the onus actually does fall on the Republicans. You sort of know what the Democrats want. They want to raise taxes on the rich, and this is what the president has campaigned on, as Ari mentioned. It's hard to know what the Republican mention - message is. What do they actually want to get out of this?

And so they've been casting about without really any positive spin, any positive thing. Here's what we hope to achieve. And so it's really up to them - after we do go over the cliff, after the little crisis starts - to say, this is what we want. And once you get two parties who tell you want they want, then you can find some ground in the middle maybe.

CORNISH: E.J., in your recent column, you look back to 1990 when congressional Republicans then rejected a deficit reduction proposal between George - President George H. W. Bush and Democrats in Congress. What were the lessons you were trying to draw there about today?

DIONNE: Well, I think the reason we're in this fix is because Speaker Boehner decided that he was going to run the House by giving his most conservative members -30 to 60 members - a kind of veto power over what is finally done. If Speaker Boehner chose to govern somewhere from the middle or slightly to the right of the middle, we could have a deal here.

President - what President Obama put on the table before Speaker Boehner walked away was a very good deal from the Republicans' point of view. I think he raised the threshold for the tax increases to 400,000, and he was willing to go to 500,000. He added a change in the Social Security index the Democrats didn't like at all. Republicans should have jumped at that. That was a real middle - maybe even slightly right of middle - proposal.

What happened in 1990 is that when the most conservative Republicans took themselves out of the equation, there was a new deal negotiated that depended mostly on Democratic votes, and it actually moved to the left from -of the deal that conservatives had rejected. They've got to put themselves back in the game.

And David's absolutely right that there is no Republican message here other than that they're resisting tax increases on the wealthy, and they want to pretend they're not voting for them by going over the cliff. That's just not very constructive. I don't think it's very good for the Republicans in the long run.

CORNISH: And, David, at the same time, you've written that if Obama is going to govern the way he wants, he absolutely has to crush the Republicans on the debt ceiling threat and on tax rates. David - crush - that's a harsh term. What are you getting at here?

BROOKS: Well, I'm trying to express what they think. I think they - the White House thinks the country is ungovernable unless they get a little more revenue. I think the Republicans should say, listen, we want to go big. You simply can't raise taxes enough on the rich. There aren't enough rich people to pay for even the kind of government Republicans want, let alone the kind of government Democrats want. And so they should go big.

They should say, listen, we're going to cave on taxes, which they're going to do anyway, and say, OK, but we want to tie this to a big tax reform and a big entitlement reform in 2013. And let's spend the next year getting a big solution to this big debt problem. If they tied this short-term cave-in to a big process, I think they could have a very good year where they can talk about the fundamental issues they like talking about. But they don't seem to have any strategy at all so far.

CORNISH: You also talk about this idea of the showdown era, trying to put that era behind us. But frankly, given the last couple of months, it feels like, I don't know, the beginning of the showdown era, not the end.

BROOKS: Well, I think the president thinks, listen, what do I want to do in my term? I want to do some big things like immigration. I want to have more economic reform. I probably want to do the Keystone pipeline. I got to get us out of the mode where we're having a budget shutdown every couple of months.

And so I think that's why they're holding tight, and this is their best moment to hold tight because the polls are with them. The business community is with them. The defense industry is with them. All the people, all the sort of interest groups are really on their side. So this is their moment of maximum leverage.

DIONNE: I think what's depressing about this is we had an election that was supposed to settle some things. The Republicans may have held the House, but they lost the vote if you put together all the House races that were held in the country. We've got huge problems to face including, as David mentioned, immigration reform and, more generally, how to get this economy working in a way that shares growth all around, all the way from top to bottom in a very different world. Obama would like to take on some of these issues. I dare say some Republicans must want to take on some of these issues, but we're going to have accounting wars for the next six months if we keep going like this. And that's just not in keeping with the kind of country we ought to want to be.

CORNISH: And since you both mentioned it - we've got a little time left - I want to talk about immigration reform because it's one of those issues that President Obama has indicated he'll make a priority in his second term. Gun control is another, climate change is another. But on immigration reform, how much of the political will here do you see as - do you see this as something that we'll actually be talking about, there'll be action?

DIONNE: Yes. But...

BROOKS: I guess I would - well, we agree.


BROOKS: You know, I think this is the prominent, most fertile avenue to go down. There's Republicans, obviously, have learned some lessons. Democrats have learned some lessons about the need to control the border. I do think there's a real possibility to recreate what Bush almost did several years ago.


DIONNE: I totally agree. The Latino vote was critical to President Obama's re-election. Republicans know that if their share of the Latino vote stays where it was in the 2012 election, they're going to have a lot of trouble winning elections in the future. And it's a problem that the country knows has to be solved. So I am hoping this is one issue that does not fall off some cliff somewhere.

CORNISH: And the president has some important Cabinet openings to fill? Do you see big confirmation battles ahead?

DIONNE: Well, if Chuck Hagel becomes the defense nominee - and it's still very much up in the air. Michele Flournoy is another possible candidate to be the first woman secretary of defense. But if Chuck Hagel is a nominee, there will be a big fight. And I think one of the problems the president has with all these leaks is if he - it doesn't appear that he has decided on Chuck Hagel yet. But with all the opposition to him, if he backs off, it'll look like he backed off perhaps a second nominee that he wanted - Susan Rice being the first - that maybe some pressure to name Chuck Hagel, although the White House seems to said they haven't made up their mind.

CORNISH: And, David, for you, any confirmations you want to point out?

BROOKS: Well, the Hagel thing is interesting because we all say we like mavericks, but it's actually tough to be a maverick because Republicans don't like him because he was in many ways, well, not a team player. Democrats don't like him because his views are pretty conservative on a lot of issues. So they're sort of stuck there in the middle without a real base.

CORNISH: All right. Lightning round, one minute left. Political predictions you guys got wrong in 2012, David?

BROOKS: I'd like some of what E.J.'s wrong predictions?


BROOKS: You know, the big one I got wrong is I thought Europe would collapse. And so that's a sign that you actually can muddle that - muddle through and kick the can down the road.


DIONNE: You know, this year was a better for me than some other year's political prediction.

CORNISH: Oh, sure it was.

DIONNE: There are other years I could talk about. I think the most striking prediction6 that went wrong this year was the notion that low-income people, that African-Americans, that Latinos wouldn't vote. And that is what led to all these expectations on the part of Republicans that Mitt Romney was going to win the election. It turned out that the voter suppression efforts really turned on African-American voters who are not going to let their vote get taken away. And I think the reality of the new electorate is the biggest story, electoral story of 2012.

CORNISH: Well, we'll have to leave it at that. Looking forward to next year's predictions from both of you. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.


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