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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Post-'Nuclear Option' Politics And JFK's Legacy


It's time to talk politics now with our Friday regulars, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times who joins us this week from Stanford University. Welcome back to both of you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Start with filibusters. You've heard Ailsa Chang's story. David, is today's level of cooperation in the Senate so paltry that the GOP threat of no more Mr. Nice Guy was worth the Democrats ignoring?

BROOKS: Well, I do think it's a travesty. I think if you think we don't have enough partisanship in politics then this was a good move because we're going to get a lot more of it. The Senate right now is not like the House. If you go to the Senate, if you go to the Senate dining room, they really are socializing across party lines. They have friendships. They have working relationships.

And that's because they know to get stuff passed, to get nominations through, they need 60 votes. They actually do need to make friends across the aisle, which is really not true in the House. And so they're - even with all the ugliness in the Senate there still is something more functional or has been until now, more functional in the Senate, which is why they were able to pass immigration reform.

This is going to weaken that. They will take away that for these nominations, the 60-vote rule. They'll probably take it away at the end of the day for Supreme Court nominations. They'll probably take it away when opportunity arises for other legislation so the Senate will look much more like the House. It'll be much uglier. And as Lindsey Graham said, the nominees in the courts will also get more partisan.

SIEGEL: E.J., what about that?

DIONNE: Well, I don't see a whole lot of cooperation going on between Democrats and Republicans on nominations. A lot of people are talking about liberal and Democratic hypocrisy because back in March of 2005, when the Republicans threatened to go nuclear and get rid of the filibuster, Democrats went crazy. I was one of those people. And I think what unites the position then with the position now, is a feeling that this year's conservatives will use any means at their disposal to win control of the courts.

And the other thing is, something has really changed under President Obama. The Congressional Research Service found that there have been 168 cloture motions filed on presidential nominations in our history. Nearly half of them happened under Obama on cloture motions for judicial nominees since 1967, almost half of them under Obama.

So something has happened here and I think most Democrats and liberals looked at the current abuses and decided that they'd prefer to live under majority rule, even when Republicans are in power, they continue with this path to perpetual gridlock.

SIEGEL: David, do you accept that something very different from the norm was going on in the past couple of years or was it just the Democrat's turn in the White House?

BROOKS: We've had a deterioration over the last couple decades and norms have eroded. There's no question about that. I think the biggest blockage according to a graph in my newspaper was in the final year of the Bush administration where Democrats were blocking. But there's no question Republicans have been blocking and doing so in a shameful way.

So fixing those norms, I think, is the right way to go. The idea that you can fix those norms by simply eliminating the rules and getting rid of this traditional culture of the Senate, which has strong protection for minority rights, a strong ability to stop what goes on in the house, that was written into the very culture and spirit of the United State Senate.

And this is eroding that. And if I hear E.J.'s attempt to escape hypocrisy, the essential argument is Republicans are really bad and Democrats were not so bad so what's good for the Democrats is bad for Republicans. That doesn't seem to be a very effective way to escape the charge of hypocrisy.

DIONNE: No. I...

BROOKS: I modestly think I'm the only honest man in the country on this because I hated the nuclear option on all these circumstances.

SIEGEL: It's a tough standard to argue with right now, E.J.

DIONNE: Yeah, no, I think - I fundamentally disagree with David. I think the history shows that Democrats have never come close to abusing this. I looked up the numbers. As of 2005, when they brought - the nuclear option first arose, the Democrats tried to block 10 Bush judges and confirmed 204. There has been an extraordinary escalation under Obama.

SIEGEL: I'm going to break up the clinch because I want to get onto one other topic, which is today's historic anniversary. Fifty years ago, of course, today, President Kennedy was shot. These days, there's a fairly lively political argument. E.J., to read your colleague George Will on The Washington Post op-ed page, John F. Kennedy was a conservative, tax-cutting, Cuba-obsessed cold warrior, more in line with Ronald Reagan's politics that came later than with the politics of the brothers who survived him and who moved to the left over time.

What do you say to that argument?

DIONNE: Well, in some ways, the greatest tribute to John F. Kennedy is both liberals and conservatives these days want to claim him. And I think they want to claim a period in our history when we really believed in public service and common endeavor and also a time when we had a lot of confidence in ourselves as a nation.

I think it's always vexed to try to put a historic figure into the current context, but I think the real story is that Kennedy began political life unquestionably as something of a conservative and that he moved more and more towards the liberal side.

And if you look at his major achievements, one was avoiding a nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis; another was the call to service, including the Peace Corps; and the last two great speeches of his presidency before he was killed, one was on civil rights, which set the frame for what happened under LBJ, and the other was for nuclear disarmament.

SIEGEL: Let's give David a chance. David, what do you think of JFK?

BROOKS: Yeah, I actually have a more negative view of JFK but not for the - on the left-right angle. I just think he made politics too utopian, and it led to a complete disillusionment. His inaugural address was a very utopian address, to pay any price, bearing burden to end disease. And his - the charisma of his office and then the martyrology of his death really created this atmosphere for a lot of people that politics was not only sort of a negotiation of interests, it was to deliver them personal meaning, it could create a religion of Camelot, which was sort of a Christ-like religion for people who read Vanity Fair.

And once it turned out that politics couldn't do all these things, then you had this huge disillusionment fall in. So I do think the whole Camelot thing had a perverse and very negative and disillusioning effect on American politics.

SIEGEL: A truly conservative critique, David, thank you.

DIONNE: High compliment.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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