The beating death of Tyre Nichols has renewed calls for reforming the police. But can anything really change?
Guest Host: Susan Page
A mixed verdict may undermine U.S. plans for civilian trials of other Guantanamo detainees. General Motors goes public a year and a half after bankruptcy. And incumbent Lisa Murkowski claims victory in the race for Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Richard Wolffe MSNBC political analyst and author of a new book, "Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House."
- Karen Tumulty National political reporter, The Washington Post.
- Laura Meckler White House correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's been out sick. She'll be back soon. Strong sales of GM stock yesterday suggests that the government may be on track to recoup most of the taxpayer money used to bailout the giant carmaker. An acquittal on all but one of the charges against a Guantanamo detainee raises new questions about civilian court trials for alleged terrorists and Republican Lisa Murkowski claims a rare write-in victory in the Alaska Senate race.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me to talk about these and other top stories of the week, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal and Richard Wolffe, a political analyst with MSNBC, who has a new book out, it's called "Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House." Congratulations on your new book.
MR. RICHARD WOLFFEThanks, Susan.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an e-mail on -- at email@example.com or find us on Twitter or Facebook. Well, let's start with talking about GM. Certainly, one of the most controversial things the Obama administration has done. President Obama had some bragging rights this week, Karen?
MS. KAREN TUMULTYHe did. The initial public offering of GM stock was extraordinarily successful and it was really a -- you know, a vote of confidence, I think that -- on the part of the markets that the -- this carmaker is on its way back with, you know, a gigantic boost of U.S. government money, which also the government is -- it is possible is gonna get that money back as it sells its own stock in GM.
PAGENow, we heard President Obama talk about that very question, Laura Meckler, on whether taxpayers were in fact gonna get all their money back. But what he said seemed just slightly misleading to me or at least open to a misimpression. What was it that he said?
MS. LAURA MECKLERWell, he -- he put it in a very specific way. He said that, taxpayers were in a position to get back everything my administration invested. So the part that might have gone over some people's ears was the fact that the Bush administration actually invested about, was it $13 billion before President Obama took office and then the Obama administration invested much more, over $30 billion, so it's -- he was sort of saying -- and in talking with the White House later, it was sort of saying that, we're promising we're confident we're gonna get the money we put in, but of course, there's another $13 billion the taxpayers put in that I don't know that most taxpayers necessarily draw a distinction between those two.
PAGEAnd so if American taxpayers put in almost $50 billion...
PAGE...to save GM, how much are they now on track to get back?
MECKLERWell, I think they've already gotten back almost $10 billion and they have stock that is valued at another, what, 13, $14 billion that is coming to them, but there's still over $26 billion owed to them, so it's -- it's gonna take some time. And, of course, GM stock price has to stay high in order for these projected returns to be realized. I mean, if GM -- if something goes wrong, which obviously it has before, then the taxpayers are still on the hook.
PAGESo Richard Wolffe, talk about the political cause involved for the administration in undertaking this bailout and whether that now turns around...
PAGE...for the White House.
WOLFFEWell, a couple things. First of all, this has become exhibit A in the idea that the president's a socialist. He wanted to take over the industry and this was government interference. And the challenge for this president is two-fold. One is to get the story out and I explained this in "Revival" as well, but he was very frustrated through the whole year. They pooled all this money into things like advanced battery technology and that really sort of jumpstarted the whole industry and nobody knew about it, so he's got to go out there and say, for a start, this industry has been saved. These jobs have been saved.
WOLFFERemember, Democrats really got beaten very badly in the Midwest and upper Midwest where you have this concentration of the industry, so he's got a story to tell there and he's got a story to say about this whole notion of socialism that he's getting out, doesn't wanna stay with it, that they got their money back and that, you know, look, there's even a financial market that could cope with an IPO of this size because two years ago, that was just kind of unthinkable. This was a huge offering that the stock market took and celebrated.
PAGEThis was a gamble when the rescue effort was undertaken. And really, no one expected to see results like this so quickly, Karen.
TUMULTYIt's -- and it's really -- it's almost funny to see some of the second-guessing that's now happening after the -- you know, what the administration did was basically half of their investment in the company, but now the criticism is they may have sold too soon, that maybe they -- they should have ridden the stock price up. So it's -- that -- they have raised to about $12 billion and at least according to my own newspaper, when they -- they have said they're not gonna sell back the rest for another six months and that the stock price will actually have to go up to $53 a share, it closed at around 34 yesterday, for the government to actually get back all of its money.
PAGEIn New York this week, we had the first -- the end of the first trial of a Guantanamo detainee. A -- convicted on one count, acquitted on about 280 (laugh) other counts. This has really reopened that debate, Richard Wolffe, about where terrorist suspects should be tried...
PAGE...civilian courts, military tribunals.
WOLFFEIt has and it's a contradictory results, if you -- if you think about it, because the conspiracy to destroy buildings, you get convicted on and that's not the same as conspiring to kill people who are in those buildings, so that tells you the legal issues. I don't -- you can't blame the jury, here. The most compelling evidence that would have led to a conviction on all accounts was tainted by what many people call torture and what the last administration called harsh interrogation. So this takes you down this track of where does the president, where does this administration think people should be tried.
WOLFFEAnd the problem for the president is that not only did he say he wants this to be civilian courts preferably, but he does not want military courts to be a dumping ground for cases that cannot be tried elsewhere. And that's difficult because the assumption, I think, on the left and the right is that you should have some kind of lower standards in the military courts. The JAG lawyers, who have got this long proud tradition, don't agree with that and so what kind of standards work? And if you are gonna lock up people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most senior Al-Qaeda figure in American custody, if you're gonna lock them up without trial, because he has been water-boarded so many times, what kind of judicial review, what kind of court review will make that at least minimally acceptable?
PAGESo Laura, what does this do to the whole debate over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, where he should be tried and by whom?
MECKLERRight. And just to remind listeners that the president had said that he should be tried in a civilian court in New York City. There was an uproar from local officials there and from people who live in New York. They reverse course and said, they're reconsidering, so that decision is yet to be made. I think this puts even more pressure on the administration not to go ahead with that plan. I don't think they were particularly planning on going ahead with that plan anyway, but I think that the idea that we're gonna see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tried in a civilian court just dropped to whatever little tiny breath of hope that some people had that that was the course, I think, was largely extinguished by this verdict.
PAGESo who -- how will do you think people react to the idea that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will not be tried in a civilian court, that the administration changes course on this. Will everyone think that's fine, Karen, or will some people be unhappy?
TUMULTYWell, I think that -- at this point, I think people just primarily wanna see the guy get convicted, so it -- but it -- another thing it does, by the way, is it reignites the questions that surround the closing of Guantanamo as well. There was sort of good news and bad news, I think, for both sides out of the trial as it was conducted. And of course, you know, had they not got a conviction even on that one count, I think, you know, really, everything would have -- had blown up in their faces.
TUMULTYBut this trial did not turn into the kind of soap box that some people had feared. It also did not turn into a sort of re-litigation of the entire questions surrounding, you know, what some people called interrogation techniques, what other people called torture. And so it -- it really was, in fact, conducted as a true kind of almost, you know, garden -- for better or worse, a true legitimate garden variety kind of trial.
PAGEBut is there no cost to backing off a promise that appealed to a lot of Americans, that we were gonna return to kind of a normal system of U.S. judgment and then we were gonna close Guantanamo Bay within a year, which has not happened, now seems unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
TUMULTYAgain, I do think that this is an issue that really ignites the left and the right, but I think for most Americans, what they care about mostly is that -- that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gets convicted and I think that the venue of it isn’t as -- as important to them.
PAGEYou know, the issue that Americans care, perhaps, most of all about is the economy and we saw some developments somewhat encouraging this week, Richard Wolffe.
PAGEA number of workers filing new claims for jobless benefits rose slightly, but we saw other signs of the economy improving. What do you think is happening?
WOLFFEWell, the economy is in recovery, for a start. And, you know, I think a lot of our language in the media and in politics suggests that it's still in recession. It's not. It's a slow growth recovery with high unemployment and that's not that surprising, given the scale of the bust and the fear that big corporations had that their credit lines will be pulled in and banks would collapse. So they're sitting on these big piles of cash.
WOLFFEConsumers are spending again, which is a big driver of the American economy. What everyone wants to see is those big companies spending the cash, investing in jobs, doing deals and that's a factor of confidence. So confidence is what's missing and again, in -- in any recovery, this is not that different. It’s just the scale of the collapse on the length of time coming out of it. That just, of course, leads you to 10 percent unemployment, but...
PAGEAnd Republicans and Democrats both talking about their big commitment to creating jobs. Are there specifics, Laura Meckler, that you've heard that actually would use public policy to create jobs?
MECKLERWell, I mean, there's a big debate over taxes coming. There have been some thoughts about having a payroll tax holiday so that there'd be -- businesses would essentially not have to pay taxes on people that they hire for maybe a year. That's one idea that's out there. There's a lot of business tax cuts that need to be renewed that are typically renewed every year that's pending right now, so those are some of the things that are on the immediate agenda, I think. But I -- I think this is something that the White House is incredibly focused on, is that they know that they have got to come up with some ideas., they have to have some really solid things to show people that they're focused on this issue.
PAGEAnd yet a lot of economists say, really, we're in for an extended period of relatively high unemployment the next couple years, maybe.
MECKLERWell, you know -- and that very well maybe the case and that something that certainly President Obama wants to do everything he can to avoid. If unemployment is still near 10 percent when he's running for re-election, that's gonna be a big problem for him.
PAGELaura Meckler, she's White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and we're also joined this hour by Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for The Washington Post and Richard Wolffe, he's an MSNBC political analyst. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about some things happening on Capitol Hill with the election of leaders for that new Congress. Stay with us.
PAGEWhen the new Congress meets at the beginning of the year, they'll -- first act of business will be electing a new speaker. Republicans are gonna be in control. They have chosen this week that John Boehner is their candidate for speaker. No surprise there, Karen.
TUMULTYNo, no. It was basically the same leadership team with the addition of a couple of freshmen to, I think, bring some -- some -- to essentially give the sort of insurgent Tea Party movement a seat at the table. The real story, I think, this week was what the Democrats did, which is their decision to basically stick with Nancy Pelosi and her team and I think that this was kind of also a really important strategic decision on their part because I think it says that they are going to continue to fight to kind of hang on to the things that they believe they accomplished and that they will ultimately be vindicated on in the past two years.
PAGEAnd you think it says that because Nancy Pelosi has been such a -- such a fighter?
TUMULTYAnd also because a lot of Democrats are -- especially -- you have to remember the surviving caucus is a lot more liberal than the -- basically, the people who got wiped out in the election were a lot of the more moderate members in caucus, so the people who are left are really worried about the dynamic between Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress and they want Nancy Pelosi there at the table in the White House to essentially make sure that some ideological lines are drawn.
PAGERichard, do you think that the relationship among these three power centers, Republicans in Congress, Democrats in Congress and the White House, is it gonna undergo some fundamental shifts, I mean, in terms of perhaps President Obama's relationship with the Democrats in Congress on whom he has relied so much for the past two years?
WOLFFEWell, he's relied on them, but they haven't ended up in the same place. I mean, take health care, for instance, which I go through in my book. You have -- the Democrats came out in a very different position in the House from the Senate. That was where all attention was, this terrible negotiations they had and by the way, the president's natural position was to say there are people on the left who want all of this government stuff and there are people on the right who want you to be on your own and I'm the guy in the middle. That's how he played health care in the campaign, that's how he did it as he brought health care to a close in the legislation. That's his natural position right now.
WOLFFESo look, do they want in the White House a change signal? Would they have preferred Nancy Pelosi out? Yes. Are they respectful and kind of fearful of her and won't say that in public? Yes. But it's useful for them to say, Pelosi's over on the left, John Boehner and the Tea Party on the right and he's the guy in the middle trying to speak to independents, reasonable people because remember, independent voters are the ones he's lost in the last two years and he needs to get back.
PAGECourse that's kind of reminiscent of what Democrats in Congress saw President Clinton do in 1995, pursued this strategy of triangulation. Lot of Democratic heartburn at that point, that he was using them as their -- as his foil rather than his ally.
MECKLERAnd I -- there's a lot of nervousness about that right now, especially like what you see what's happening with the tax cut debate. The president has said he's willing to compromise on the tax cuts, the White House has already kind of signaled how they might be willing to compromise. All that said that they might be able to support a temporary extension of tax cuts for the wealthy as well as the middle class. A lot of Democrats feel like, well, if you're gonna do that, you should get something in exchange for it, that he's just sort of rolling over without -- you know, without getting anything back from the other side. And so it's sensitive on this issue, but I think the reason why it's so sensitive is 'cause there is that fear that they're going -- it's a hearken of things to come.
PAGEYou know, Laura, you wrote this week about some changes that may come up at the White House. Will there be big shifts in the wake of this midterm election?
MECKLERYou know, it's interesting because they have a tremendous number of vacancies in the White House to -- either right now or they soon will, to fill. And yet -- I mean, we're talking about, obviously, we have an interim chief of staff, so there could be -- they need to decide who's the permanent chief of staff. Many suspect that both deputy chiefs of staff will be gone. David Axelrod is gonna be going to his -- the Obama reelection campaign. He's a senior adviser. There's a lot of move. The National Economic Council, the National Security Council just changed, so there's a lot of change at the White House.
MECKLERBut yet, you don't really hear much talk about a shake-up. You know, a lot of the people who are coming into these posts are people who have long been in the Obama sphere, so it doesn't seem like -- I mean, we -- we can all be surprised and, you know, wake up tomorrow and find that everything's changed, but, you know, it doesn't seem like the president believes that he has the wrong people or the wrong type of advice around him.
PAGEKaren, we've got this huge -- speaking of shake-ups, this huge Republican freshman class in the House, at least 85 new members of Congress, many of them elected with the help of a lot of Tea Party support. They demanded a seat at the table in these leadership elections and they got two of them. What happened?
TUMULTYWell, I -- I think that John Boehner is trying to send a very strong signal that, you know, it will not be business as usual this time around. They are talking not only about giving these freshmen seats at the table, but running the House differently, opening up legislation rather than a bill coming to the floor with the exact number of amendments set and essentially the final vote pre-cooked before you even bring it. They say there's gonna be a genuine flowering of debate. Again, for those of us who have heard that promise before, that's -- you know, we'll believe it when we see it. And then there was another big move this week. It is a largely symbolic move, but a decision to sort of go cold turkey on earmarks.
TUMULTYNow, this again has -- it's a symbolic thing. There's really -- it's not a huge of percentage of the budget, but I think the whole earmark -- but these are these kind of special deals that are inserted into appropriation bills in the dark of night to serve one special interest or one member's district. They became a symbol of kind of the corruption of the way the whole process works in Washington. So Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, was one person who was very much in favor of keeping these. He said, you know, look, this is what we're elected to do, cut -- you know, the "Constitution" gives Congress the power of the purse. You are just turning that power over now to unelected bureaucrats. But it was, I think, on the -- you know, specially the incoming members, that was an important thing to do.
PAGEI listened this week to a briefing that John Podesta had, the former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, talking about all the powers of the presidency that Obama -- President Obama could still exercise, but, you know, it struck me, Richard, that this is the kind of limited things, the kind of regulatory changes that the Obama team used to scoff at, a small ball. This is something you write about in...
PAGE...your new book "Revival." What --what has President Obama's attitude been to some of these more incremental steps...
PAGE...that he could take?
WOLFFEWell, yeah, he -- he said repeatedly he didn't wanna follow the Clinton model. And he said he would rather do big stuff and be a one-termer than small stuff and be a two-termer and he was talking about Bill Clinton there, really. And maybe there's a contradiction because John Podesta, who you cite was a Clinton chief of staff, who ran his transition, he ran Obama's transition. And there were conflicts from day one between Podesta and this group that I call the survivalists, the Washington crowd, who said we need lobbyists in the administration. How else are we're gonna fill out this transition team, sign these earmarks into law? That's the way Washington works.
WOLFFEThe president said, do I really have to do this? I was against earmarks and for transparency. They said, yeah, you'll get what you want. Of course, he didn't really exactly get what he wanted, but there've been these compromises along the way that undermined what he stood for in 2008. And these people who want the revival to get back to the campaign days, people like David Plouffe, wanted the shake-up things, I think, that is gonna be significant, him coming back into the White House, the guy who ran the campaign. They've got to resolve this debate. Is he the insider or the outsider? Because, you know, otherwise, we're gonna have a fourth change election in a row and they're gonna be caught in the wrong side again.
PAGENow, do you think that President Obama meant it at that time and would say it again now, that he would rather be a one-term president doing big things than a two-term president who made...
PAGE...some of these compromises?
WOLFFEHe'll say it, but he's a very competitive guy, okay? And if you are a really competitive guy, you wanna win, actually, the second time around, so the question is, can he do big stuff, number one, now at this point or does he -- are we in a permanent campaign? And I think we're really are. That's where we're at.
MECKLERBut also, you know, in his defense, he has done a lot of big stuff already and he'll be running on that whether he likes or not...
MECKLERSo I mean, I don't think anybody is expecting a lot of big stuff happening in the next two years. I think that if they get little stuff done, it will be something to perhaps marvel at.
MECKLERI mean it's -- you know, I don't think anyone at the White House or even on the hill is talking about, you know, any major -- anything major on the agenda that remains unfinished.
PAGEThe -- you know, the -- in fact, their big test maybe defending the things they've already done...
PAGE...for a repeal or health care, not likely to actually be repealed, but could be starved of funds by this Republican control of the House.
TUMULTYAnd not only that -- and this is, you know, the metaphor that I've heard used a lot on the campaign trail by Republican candidates was, you know, letting the car sit in the backyard and not give it any gas. The fact is it will take money to implement the health care law, but just as importantly, maybe even more importantly, are all these new Republican governors because they are, in most cases -- you know, it's their attorneys general who are out there filing suits to challenge the central mechanism of the law, which is this requirement that everybody have health care and they are gonna be responsible for setting up these purchasing systems on the state level and they are gonna be really at the frontlines of implementing it.
PAGEWe had a very good week for Lisa Murkowski, a very bad week for Charlie Rangel. Charlie Rangel, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, we usually call that the powerful House Ways and Means committee, so powerful that's become part of its title. After a two and half year investigation, Richard, he was convicted by a jury of his House peers on 11 of 13 charges of violating House rules. How will he be punished?
WOLFFEWell, they're talking about going way beyond just the normal censure and reprimand because there are taxes unpaid here, so there could be a financial element to what he's facing, which would be uncomfortable and even more humiliating. And most of the power of this kind of process is the public humiliation of it, which is sad. It became a sort of almost a tragic comic site of his defense and walking out and the whole public gaming of it. But, you know, what an end to a career.
TUMULTYBut I -- could I say, they did decide to go with censure rather than reprimand and that is an extraordinary thing. It doesn't happen that often. In fact, I was -- I just arrived in Washington in the early 1980s the last time it happened and it requires a member to stand in the well of the House and have the charges against him read. And I recall the members then, you know, at least one of them was just sobbing in the well of the House. It a -- it is something that the Ethics Committee does -- in the House does not do all that often.
PAGEAnd was -- is there -- I mean, obviously, I suppose there's a fair amount of sympathy for Charlie Rangel who's been in Congress for more than 40 years a Korean -- decorated Korean War veteran and yet this did not prevent the Ethics Committee from almost unanimously -- I think the vote was nine to one for censure, Laura?
MECKLERWell, there was a lot of evidence against him, you know? It was a pretty powerful case. And, you know, he has fought it all along, you know, and he won re-election, he withstood a primary challenge. He -- he has been, you know, hung tough on this, but the fact is that that hasn't changed the fundamental nature of the case, so I think that's what has led us to this moment.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're gonna go to the phones shortly, 1-800-433-8850. First, let's just talk for a minute about Lisa Murkowski, not since Strom Thurmond in, what, 1954 has a U.S. senator been elected by write-in. This is a U.S. senator who won reelection by write-in, even though she had a difficult name to spell. Karen, is it clear that she has this election won?
TUMULTYIt is. It is. A senator who will henceforth be known as Lisa M. And it was really interesting because she -- you know, she was defeated and she didn't see her defeat in the Republican primary coming and her decision to stay on and fight and to wage this write-in campaign, which is a really difficult thing to pull off, was really quite extraordinary and it'll be interesting to see what kind of Republican she comes back as having had her own party, essentially, turn its back on her. In Alaska, she won with a lot of Democratic and independent votes. She has lost her seat in the Republican leadership in the Senate, but she is also saying she will continue to caucus with the Republicans.
MECKLERI mean, it would be -- it's an interesting parallel to Joe Lieberman, who was challenged from the left of his party and he ran -- of course, he just ran as an independent, he didn't have to do what Lisa Murkowski did, get people to write his name in for maybe equally difficult name to spell. And -- and he came back certainly more -- and even more independent than he had been before, so I think that that is something that will be interesting to watch with Lisa Murkowski. Of course, the other just, you know, wonderful sub-story here is that the battle between Lisa Murkowski and Sarah Palin, you know, two powerful women from Alaska. Sarah Palin, of course, backed the Joe Miller, who beat her in the Republican primary and there is no love lost between the two of them.
PAGELet's go to the phones and invite our listeners to join this conversation. We'll go first to Jonathan. He's calling us from Morristown, Ohio. Jonathan, you're on the air.
JONATHANAll right. Well, my question is, you know, this being the GM IPO being, I believe, the highest initial public offering of all time. And I just wanted to know, are there any restrictions or is there anything implemented that can stop wealthy individuals or companies from speculating on this stock? I feel like it's in their best interest to drive the prices of stock up and then take a convenient moment to bump it. And it will obviously be the workers and the people who are less in the know who will not be privy to that sell-off. And, you know, it's possible that they could lose everything. Is that a possibility and are there -- is there anything to stop that from happening?
PAGEAll right. Jonathan, thanks so much for your call. Richard?
WOLFFEYou know, when I used to be a reporter of the Financial Times, they used to say 99.9 percent of the activity in the stock market is speculation. That's what it's all about. So no, there's nothing to stop it from happening. That's what you do when you buy shares. If you want a safer bet, by mutual fund.
PAGEAll right (laugh). Let's go to Roxanne, calling us from Virginia. Roxanne, hi. Roxanne, are you there? I guess we've lost Roxanne. Sad. So early for her to go. George is calling us from Eldersburg, Md. George, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
GEORGEHello, hello. Nice panel. The recession, technically, is over, but in the world of blue collar people, it's certainly isn't. Fifty-nine million people are without any medical coverage and the contrast with the Congress is now that 261 members of Congress are millionaires. The turning down of the unemployment extension that was due to possibly be enacted November 30 is a tragedy. I find the whole political discourse charged with disloyal opposition, racism and a kind of vengefulness and craziness that I can't believe.
PAGEAll right. George, thank you so much for your call. You know, George raises a question of unemployment benefits. Tells us what happened on that point, Laura.
MECKLERWell, the -- a bunch of unemployment -- a lot of people are running out of unemployment benefits. Next -- by next month, it'll be more than 2 million people who have run out, unless Congress extends them. The House tried to do that this week. They used a legislative tactic that requires a two-third vote, two-thirds vote. They got a clear majority, but they fell short of that two-thirds, so the issue is still in limbo, but it's definitely going -- not -- has not gone away. It's gonna be a big part of the negotiations perhaps over the extension of the Bush tax cuts.
PAGEWhen we come back, we're gonna talk about yet another big plan to control the deficit and what kind of reception it's gotten. We'll take your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm and we're talking this hour, in our domestic News Roundup with Richard Wolffe, an MSNBC political analyst, Karen Tumulty from The Washington Post, Laura Meckler from The Wall Street Journal. You know, we were talking about the ethics trial for Charlie Rangel, the congressman from New York and we've gotten a lot of e-mails along the lines of this one from George. George writes, "Are any of Rangel's ethics violations actually crimes for which normal citizens would stand trial before a real court of law?" Who could respond to that question?
TUMULTYOh, failure to pay taxes, I think, is a -- is a crime, you know, so I don't -- he has repaid much of that money. I don't think that it's ever -- it's gone to a civilian trial -- I don't think he was ever charged with anything, but that, I think, would be considered a crime.
PAGESo is he being -- the question we're getting is, is he being subjected to the same rules that would apply to anybody else, given the rules violations? I mean, they're violations of House rules, so you'd have to be a House member to -- it wouldn't be a criminal matter.
TUMULTYWell, part of this is, you know, there are the allegations that he used his office to obtain, you know, rent-subsidized apartments and that -- or the influence that he was given things. And also that he used the influence of his office to raise money for a center that was gonna be named after him at a university. These are things where, you know, you can't -- these are kind of the things that are really hard to prove in court, but they are flagrant violations of House standards.
PAGEYou know, we had the -- another deficit reduction plan come out this week by another kind of good government group, the Bipartisan Center. What did they propose the United States do to address this big deficit we have, Richard?
WOLFFEWell, one of the most interesting pieces of this -- Laura mentioned earlier that they had an idea for a payroll tax holiday, so there's a temporary element to this long-term deficit plan that they rolled out. But one of the interesting things which has raised hackles certainly on the right was that those consumption tax that they want to throw in there as well, which I think they've called the debt reduction consumption tax. Everyone gets into the politics right here, but essentially, what they're saying, and not that different from the draft report from the president's own debt commission, is this mixture of dealing with entitlements and spending, messing around with the retirement age and at the same time, is raising revenues.
WOLFFEThe balance is slightly different. I think in the president's deficit commission, it was sort of 75 percent spending, about 25 percent on the revenue side. It's slightly more in balance with this Bipartisan idea, but what you have here is a debate that has begun in an extremely volatile situation where everyone says they care about the deficit and nobody actually wants to like any of the specifics. This is the -- one of those big things, we were mentioning about Obama trying to do big things, it's a big thing that you really couldn't do in this environment, but having the conversation is a big thing in and of itself because it's gonna test the rhetoric on all sides. Do you care about this stuff or are you just playing games?
PAGENow, Laura Meckler, The Wall Street Journal, your paper had a poll out this week that showed a lot of people didn't know anything about the deficit. Thirty percent didn't have an opinion about the deficit reduction plan, but among those who knew about some of the provisions or were asked about some of the provisions, a lot of skepticism about all of them.
MECKLERNobody likes any of this. I mean, that's where it basically comes down to. Do you want your Social Security benefits to be cut? No. Do you want the retirement age to go up? No. Do you wanna cut spending? No. Do you wanna raise taxes? No. I don't think I want that either. People don't want -- don't like this and that's the problem. I mean, none of this is popular and that's exactly why were in this situation in the first place.
PAGESo Karen, are there any signs, do you think, is this a moment where the nation kinda gathers itself and does these hard things or is it gonna be just more big serious reports that get put on a shelf?
TUMULTYYou know, it's impossible to predict, but unless politicians are put in a position of fearing the consequences, it's easier to just punt this and I think we're gonna see this, by the way, play out on a smaller level with the -- one of the biggest and most concrete pledges that John Boehner made was to cut $100 billion out of the budget in the next year. Sounds great, big number, but at some point, they're gonna have to produce some line items to do this.
TUMULTYAnd that's where, you know, those of us who are around in 1995 can remember where suddenly, the big promises were -- you know, became fights over, do you curb the growth of the school lunch program? You know, there was the big fight over public broadcasting and cutting their funding back and, you know, the Elmo wars. This is also, I think, on a smaller state, what we're gonna see playing out.
MECKLERAnd I do think that the one area that probably has the most potential for actually action is cuts in discretionary spending. In other words, cuts to spending that happens every year, not the entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. And -- but this one thing that the deficit commission did was they put out a list of -- a long list of things, some things that liberals don't want to cut, some things conservatives don't want to cut, but they're there, very specific things. It's not these sort of amorphous pledges. And the White House has made a lot of noise about the fact that they're serious about cutting spending. They've had more -- limited proposals in the past.
MECKLERI think that there's gonna be a lot of pressure on them to put some real spending cuts in the upcoming budget that they'll produce early next year. And the Republicans are, I think, all the promises they've made, as you said, this is one they're gonna have to at least make an attempt to deliver on. So you have pressure from both parties to at least take the spending seriously. So I do think on the discretionary spending side, we may actually see some action.
WOLFFEHere's another thing. Well, you hear politicians on the left and right say they wanna simplify the tax code. You know, there is a political line here, which will be very interesting to see if people pick up, of some of these ideas of lowering tax rates for everyone and getting rid of loopholes. The loopholes -- or rather the deductions that people can claim for things like mortgage interest, they're popular, but when you balance out lower rates for people against taking away some of these deductions, that's gonna be an interesting line of politics.
WOLFFEAlso, when the White House looked at previous commissions -- this is a story I put in my book -- they said the only reason -- it wasn't the quality of the Greenspan Commission's report on Social Security that got it through. It was having members of Congress who would sell it and that's what they lack this time. There are no figures out there like Bob Dole or anyone else who are gonna find that middle ground.
MECKLERAnd also, as Karen alluded to before, there's no looming crisis. There's no -- there's nothing -- no consequences right now. Back in the Greenspan Commission, Social Security was facing a true crisis. It was not gonna be able to write full checks if they didn't deal with it, so.
PAGEYou know, the -- well, the one thing you do have this time is that the political movement that had the most energy this year, the Tea Party movement, is really spurred by concern about the size and cost of government. To them, they would argue, we face a crisis on this issue.
MECKLERWell, it's -- there's crisis and then there's crisis. I mean, yes, they would and I do think that those concerns are gonna be taken seriously, as I said before. But when you're talking about eliminating something like the mortgage interest deduction, which is incredibly popular, there are a lot of people, most people in this country, affected by that, that's a lot harder to do and it's hard to get rid of something like that if there isn't something that is really pushing you to the brink.
TUMULTYAnd also, not to mention doing that at a time when so many people are underwater already with their houses and worried about the real estate market coming up.
PAGENow, just to be clear, though, the first deficit commission report called for eliminating the mortgage deduction for mortgages over $500,000.
PAGESo for a lot of Americans, their mortgage deduction, if they're able to take deductions, would make (unintelligible).
MECKLERAnd it was coupled with lower rates. I mean -- and that's -- as you said, I mean, it's important to know. It wasn't just a tax increase. It was also saying we're gonna, you know, sort of simplify the tax code and there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who think that that makes sense and I don't think we're gonna see any action on that in the coming year, but I think they've maybe planted the seeds...
MECKLER...for action down the line.
WOLFFEThere could be one crisis coming soon, though, which is the Tea Party folks saying, we don't wanna vote for an increase in the debt limit for the federal government and that's a vote that's gonna have to be taken very soon. It's gonna test Republican discipline and whether they're going to -- as the White House would like to say, are they gonna be part of the government or not? This is the first big test. There could be a lot of disappointed Tea Party folks who say, this is a way to control spending, unfortunately, it would send the financial markets into a complete tailspin.
MECKLERAnd there some talk of coupling that with the -- action on the extending the Bush tax cuts. The argument being, well, if you want to -- the reason we need more to be able to borrow more money is because we're continuing these tax cuts, so if you wanna do that, the responsible thing to do is increase the debt ceiling. I don't know if that will apply.
PAGEAlthough any number of these Tea Party backed-candidates pledged when they campaigned that they would not vote for another increase in the debt ceiling.
MECKLERAnd well, the other thing you're hearing is a talk of coupling it with the specifics on this $100 billion in cuts as well. I think we also have to keep our eyes not just on the Tea Party candidates who've just been elected, but every Republican because the fact is the lesson of the Tea Party movement has been that the Republican primaries had become a very treacherous place, so that every Republican's gonna be looking over their shoulder at a potential challenge and really, the only safe vote on anything that has money attached is no.
PAGEWe have an e-mail from Jim about our previous discussion on Charlie Rangel. He writes, "It is not a crime to fail to pay taxes. Many people fail and make mistakes and every year, millions of people are simply billed by the IRS plus a penalty. The crime is deliberately or fraudulently not paying taxes. There is no indication that the Rangel failure to pay taxes was deliberate." Thanks for that e-mail, Jim. Let's take a call. We'll go to Clint. He's calling us from Indianapolis. Clint, hi. Thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CLINTThank you. Hey, do you think Congress is ready to have, in fact, literal blood on its hands? Well, it took 10 years to slowly ratchet down the estate tax and in a course of 24 hours from December 31 to January 1, it could suddenly come back. I mean, I -- I'm worried about, you know, evil stepsons, often grandpa and just guys who don't wanna give the federal government a big piece of their money, throwing themselves out of windows. I mean, something -- I mean, if there's too late for a philosophical discussion about the estate tax, they just have to do something to incrementally raise it or extend it or something so that we don't hit this 24-hour period where, you know, it can make a $10 million difference in somebody's estate.
PAGEAll right, Clint, thanks for your call. You know, Laura, we should note that the estate tax at the moment is zero.
MECKLERRight, right. And that -- so this is another issue that's gonna have to be dealt with at the end of this year. If they don't, I don't think anybody is in favor of the policy that would result. So it's really their -- it's in the mix. It's one of the things in the mix and I predicated this is the kind of thing that will be dealt with.
PAGEHere's an e-mail from Loren. She's writing us from Lansing, Mich. And Loren writes, "I don't understand why there has been such a condemnation of civilian trials for terrorist suspects based on the recent verdict." The verdict just this week in New York.
PAGE"Are experts implying that civilians do not have the ability to fully understand these cases and come to a fair decision? Just because the jury didn't reach a verdict that people wanted, it doesn't necessarily mean that due process was not achieved. A similar verdict could have come out at a military tribunal. My husband is an army JAG officer. He says the real issue is whether the public will ever know the outcome of a trial. If this had been an military tribunal, whatever the outcome had been, the public would never have known." What an interesting e-mail, Karen.
TUMULTYAlthough I do believe, and I'm not a legal expert, there are different evidentiary rules in military tribunal, so that a -- you know, that you -- they could have used some of the evidence that they had to withhold in civilian court, they could have used in a military tribunal.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take another call. We'll go to David. He's calling us from here in Washington, D.C. Hi, David.
DAVIDHi. I actually have a comment. I oppose the trials also. First of all, I think that people are losing sight of the real motivation opposing the civilian trials, which is related to that evidentiary hurdle that you have to get over. If you torture people, that evidence is not admissible. And if in a civilian court, the defendant can raise that as a defense. And the thing that people fear in the past administration more than anything is that that would happen, because then it would unfold before everyone in a way that nobody could stop. And people would have to be held accountable.
DAVIDAnd so one more thing. I would like to end this kind of false objectivity about whether or not what was engaged in the torture. There's really no serious doubt. I mean, the head of the JAGs of all the four services thought it was torture. The ADA unanimously, except for one member of the administration, voted against it. It's really not an issue, and I'd like there to be some serious reporting on that, so that we can start actually calling it what it was.
PAGEAll right, David, thank you so much for your call. Richard?
WOLFFEWell, this isn't just a philosophical or political debate. I mean, it is actually important for the rest of the world. As America standing up as a country ruled by law with an important message for other countries around the world to have a rule of law that you respect is vital as a piece of public diplomacy, as well as internal politics. So I kind of -- the idea that you can just dump torture -- evidence gathered through torture into a military court, I'm not sure that's true. Different evidentiary rules doesn't mean that JAG lawyers accept the product of torture. That's exactly why they went up and condemned this stuff.
WOLFFEThe Army field manual, which is now, you know, have been adopted in law and -- or as the basis of law and is the policy of the United States right now means that it's unacceptable. Unacceptable international treaties and everything else, so -- but you have to acknowledge there's a political debate, and there was a different terminology used by previous administrations. So these aren't minor differences. And where the president came out was that he wasn’t opposed to military courts as such. A lot of people on the left thinks that's what he said. He didn't say that. He was opposed to Bush's version of the military courts, which was precisely to say torture was okay. Excuse me.
PAGEWe have a couple of e-mails along these lines. Here's one from Bruce who says, "It's a good thing that Lisa Murkowski won the senatorial race in Alaska. It shows that many Alaskans showed a great deal of disdain toward extremist polarizing politics." And this e-mail from Jebediah. "Obama's Bipartisan efforts have been postponed. That would be the meeting that was supposed to happen yesterday. It seems like an important symbol of gridlock to come. What kind of odds that your panel give on the Republican leadership coming to any agreements with the president? What are we headed toward?" Karen, you've been here covering things in Washington for awhile. Do you think we're heading toward a period of gridlock or of cooperative action?
TUMULTYI don't know. It's -- I think the rescheduled meeting on November 30 is going to be very telling because right now it's almost like classic game theory. I mean, each side is sort of trying to plot its own strategy without knowing what the other side is doing. What -- if in fact, everybody shows up at the White House on November 30 with some concrete things to discuss as opposed to just posturing, I think that's a really helpful sign.
PAGERichard, what do you think is ahead?
WOLFFEWell, tax cuts most importantly, but there's a very small window for anything substantial to be done. You're talking about two, three, most six months before the campaign begins again. And Mitch McConnell has said he has one goal in mind, which is to unseat the president.
PAGERichard Wolffe of MSNBC, he's the author of a new book, "Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House." And we've also been joined this hour by Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and by Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you all for being with us.
MECKLERThank you so much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back on Monday. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The Engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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