Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Week In Politics: Spying, ACA Rollout And The Va. Governor's Race


And now to our Friday political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

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

BLOCK: So this week, Angela Merkel apparently joining the list of world leaders whose cell phones have been monitored by the NSA. And it was enough to draw in a cry of enough is enough from the French European Commissioner Michel Barnier, talking to the BBC.

MICHEL BARNIER: Enough is enough. Between friends, between allies we need trust. We need confidence and I think that this confidence has been shaken.

BLOCK: So, David Brooks, ambassadors have been summoned, reassurances have been offered by President Obama. But there are implications for national security, for trade. How damaging do you think this is to our relations with our allies?

BROOKS: Yeah, pretty damaging - I want to the Berlusconi account, of course. I'd like to hear those conversations.


BLOCK: If you had to choose?


BROOKS: You know, what strikes me - it's part of a larger picture - that our security apparatus doesn't have a lot of prudence. Prudence, you know, good government combines passion with proportion. So, the people in our national security apparatus have a passion for protecting the country, and for learning what they can. But there has to be a sense of proportion, of trade-offs of what are we possibly sacrificing.

I can't believe that what we learn from bugging Angela Merkel's phone, or overhearing her phone calls, is worth this kind of exposure which has deeply hurt international relations and also undermines the people's faith in the government is basically not going to invade your privacy. And so, to me, we've got a national security apparatus - not only this but in past cases - that wants security overall and unwilling to look at the downsides.

BLOCK: E.J., though you might wonder whether we're in the middle of a Claude Rains in "Casablanca" moment here, of people being shocked, shocked to find out that this was going on, something that they probably knew and accepted all along. Or does monitoring cell phones really go much deeper than that?

DIONNE: I really want to hear the Claude Rains interview on this. I think you're exactly right. I mean anybody who reads spy thrillers knows that allies spy on each other. David Sanger and Mark Mazetti, in The New York Times, referred to the age-old game of spying on America's friends. And they noted that when Secretary of State Henry Stimson, our secretary of State, had the most famous line on this: Gentlemen, do not read each other's mail. He said that in 1929 and it was barely new then.

So there is a lot of posturing here. And there're two things though, one is the electronic surveillance program more broadly is deeply unpopular in Europe. Europeans are genuinely upset by what we're doing. And what Merkel said that I think is true is it's not primarily about her. It's about people in Europe being unhappy with this.

One very sharp for repost though - somebody who broke with all of this - was Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain who was really defending surveillance. And he criticized those have some, and I'm quoting him, "some la-di-da, airy-fairy view about what this all means." But that is not the dominant view in Europe at the moment.

BLOCK: La-di-da, not the dominant view, David.


BROOKS: Let's have a little proportion. I'm all for being tough on terrorists, but overhearing Angela Merkel is not exactly this. To me, going after cell phones is not the traditional intelligence gathering we do on the Israelis or we do on the French or we doing on Germans, which is proper analysis. Bugging or overhearing somebody's phone calls is an insult. It's an insult and its offensive thing to do whether it's a friend of ours. And it's just not worth the broken trust.

DIONNE: I agree with that but I doubt that this is anything entirely new. And I don't think it's cell phones are new. I don't think overhearing conversations is new.

BROOKS: Yeah, I would just say we're in a new technological era and we have not adapted safeguards for that.

BLOCK: I want to move on and talk about the Affordable Care Act, the well-publicized problems that we've been discussing about the new website. There are now daily briefings who - to update folks on what's going on with the website, so a bit more transparency. E.J., is it enough transparency?

DIONNE: Well, I think it's a - forget transparency. But let's make the thing work. I think that they took some steps. I think Jeff Zeints, who has been tasked by the administration to fix this -he's a business guy, worked in OMB. He is a very practical guy. I think giving it to him and then deciding that they really needed a new overall manager of this, because a lot of the problem was that different parts of it didn't work together.

You had the spectacle of all of these companies blaming each other: It wasn't our part that failed; it was the coordination that failed. So now this company, QSSI, is coming in.

I think the most significant thing they did this week, beyond saying we're going to get this working by Thanksgiving or a little after, is they tried to rationalize the two deadlines. As it is, there was a February 15th deadline for avoiding the penalty that you had to pay, if you didn't get insurance, and a March 31st enrollment deadline, and now they're pushing everything to the March 31st enrollment deadline.

What they desperately want to avoid, the administration does, is postponing the mandate to buy insurance. Because that would wreak havoc with prices, wreak havoc with the insurance companies, and they're already getting some demands in their own party to do that. They've got to stop that and get this working quick.

BLOCK: Well, and David, can they do that? This is such a flashpoint in all of the budget talks.

BROOKS: Right, they're just going to face a lot of pressure, as to E.J. said, there's already some Democrats. And the key thing here is that it's - is they had three and a half years to prepare for this, the website, which was the easiest thing to do. And if they couldn't get the website, which was the easiest thing to do, there are much tougher issues down the road with some of the exchanges, with getting some of the young healthy to sign up, with the mandate and the enforcement of the mandate, those are much more challenging issues. So why should we have confidence that they're going to be able to do that? And I think the ebbing of confidence, a little bipartisan, is really what they should be worrying about.

DIONNE: There is ebbing of confidence. I don't get why they weren't more ready for this website. But here's what can give you confidence in the basic structure of the thing. In the states that actually set up their own exchanges, this is going very well, particularly in places like Kentucky or New York or California. So the structure of the thing actually can work.

I think one of the questions down the road is whether the penalty is big enough to make sure that enough young people in particular buy health insurance. I think the structure is sound, but I hope they explain more about how they didn't get it right at the beginning.

BROOKS: Well, there is some doubt that maybe the law is just so complicated. The website is messed up because the law is so complicated and has to deal with so many things that it doesn't have to if you're in a straight Medicare and Medicaid type program.

DIONNE: But if that were true, it wouldn't be working in any of the states, either.

BLOCK: A brief moment to talk about the Virginia election coming up on November 5. They're going to elect a governor. It's Democrat Terry McAuliffe against the Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. And so far Terry McAuliffe is leading in the polls. Should we see this election, David Brooks, as any sort of bellwether of what we might look for in 2014?

BROOKS: I think so. Well, it's going to hit the Republicans much harder because they're now calling Cuccinelli, Shutdown Cuccinelli. They're blaming the government shutdown on Republicans. There are obviously a lot of government workers in Northern Virginia, let alone along the coast where the military facilities are. So it's hitting especially hard there.

But it's a Republican - it should be a Republican race. McAuliffe doesn't have good NRA ratings. The health care thing should be weighing on the Democrats. But the Republicans sort of messed up, and they're getting hit.

BLOCK: And E.J. very briefly.

DIONNE: If Republicans go hard right, they lose purple states, and the question will be how badly will this hurt the rest of the ticket: That'll be a real measure.

BLOCK: OK, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to you both. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.