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Week In Politics: Budget; 2012 Election


Now, politics. And joining me are, first, our regular weekly commentator E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you again, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And from New York, sitting in for David Brooks this week is Ron Christie, a Republican strategist and a former staffer in the George W. Bush White House. Ron Christie, welcome.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Republican Strategist): Robert, it's a pleasure to join you.

SIEGEL: And we've just heard about the current fiscal condition of the big entitlement programs, which brings us to question about commitments to cut spending, what to do about raising the debt ceiling, which the federal budget is about to exceed.

I'd like to hear from both of you. First, Ron, about your sense of whether what we're looking at is another round of brinkmanship that's likely to end with something akin to the deal over this year's budget or is this time going to be - is it going to be much tougher this time to avert a fiscal blowup?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think it's going to be much tougher to avert a fiscal blowout. But the consequences to the country and the ramifications of the dire economic situation that we're in puts position - puts people in Washington in a position where they have to act and they have to act responsibly.

Today's report only underscores the need that entitlements, the largest portion of the money that the federal government spends and its tax revenue that it collects, the prices are rapidly rising and they're rapidly rising higher than the rate of GDP growth in the United States.

And so I expect that the former plan that was put on the table a few weeks back by current House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will be a good starting point for negotiations. But I would caution that Democrats, particularly HHS Secretary Sebelius, demagoguing the Republicans and suggesting that more seniors are going to die under the plan is not a first responsible step for the secretary to take.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think about this?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think in the short term we're not going to settle this. If we get any budget deal to get past the debt ceiling, it's going to be rather small. I don't know how you get there, but that's - I can't see the parties reaching agreement on the large issues until after they're fought out in the election. And I don't think it's political at all to say that there are two big options here.

You can primarily reform the way we deliver health care, which is what President Obama wants to do, or you can ask seniors to pay more and more overtime for their coverage, which really is what Representative Ryan's budget wants to do.

I think one telling moment will be the special election in the 26th District in upstate New York - a very Republican district.

SIEGEL: It's near Buffalo?

Mr. DIONNE: Near Buffalo. It's sort of between Buffalo and Rochester. And the Democrats, surprising to them, as well as everybody else, are making a run for it, almost entirely on a reaction to the Medicare proposals in the Ryan budget and also 'cause there's a split Republican vote.

If Democrats pull that off, I think the Republicans really are going to quietly rethink where they are in the Ryan budget.

SIEGEL: Ron Christie, you described the Ryan plan for Medicare as a starting point. It appeared to be a point of departure. A lot of Republicans were departing from it just a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think in the great scheme of things there are a lot of people who are more interested in their own political re-election than they are to confront serious issues facing the country. And that's where I think we are with the Ryan plan.

The Democrats don't have a plan. The Democrats say that they have taken steps to shore up the solvency of Medicare and Social Security, and, frankly, that's not the case. I'd like to see what President Obama's plan is on paper, in writing, in specific, talking about how he would shore up the program rather than just attacking Paul Ryan and the House Republicans.

And I think that's the real lack of leadership that we're facing in this debate. Let's have an honest discussion, but let's have both political parties put their cards on the table, as opposed to one putting them down and the other criticizing him for it.

Mr. DIONNE: Just, I would say briefly, President Obama took about a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare and every Republican running for office in 2010 attacked the Democrats for it. So I don't know about demogoguing Medicare here.

SIEGEL: Well, let's move on to 2012 because the Republican presidential field has been fleshed out a bit. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is all but in the race, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is now in the race officially. And I'd like to hear what you guys make of these two Republicans.

First, E.J., Gingrich.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, when I came back after a time in Europe to cover American politics in 1986, one of the first trips I wanted to make, and I made it - was down to Georgia to meet this really interesting guy, Newt Gingrich. And you got to say, first of all, that he is always fascinating. And when you're actually just sitting down with him exchanging ideas, he's a lot of fun to talk to.

His problem is, I think, that he's always seen his central mission as standing up, athwart mass ignorance and shouting, listen to me. And he's had a remarkably little discipline. John Podhoretz, a good conservative, had a column this week in The New York Post where he reminded us that Newt once likened the Democratic Party to Woody Allen's affair with his own sort of pseudo-stepdaughter. And he once suggested that if you were upset by the fact that Susan Smith had drowned her two children, you needed to vote Republican.

But John also had a wonderful Bob Hope lyric which he said summarized Newt, you may have been a headache, but you never were a bore. But he's not going to be president.

SIEGEL: Ron Christie, you agree he won't be president?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't think so. I think the speaker is certainly brilliant and certainly a machine when it comes to putting out numerous ideas on very complex policy matters. But the fact of the matter is, he's only been elected to the House of Representatives. Other than his stint as speaker of the House, he does not have any major governing experience.

And I think given the really complex issues facing the country and given his relatively lack of significant leadership experience, I think he'll attract a lot of attention, he will be politely regarded on the stage, but at the end of the day, he won't be the next president of the United States.

SIEGEL: Almost out of time this week, so let me just ask very briefly, do you think Mitt Romney's doing all right, Ron Christie?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I do. I think it was a very smart move for the former governor from Massachusetts to try to put not distance between himself and his Romney care plan in Massachusetts, but to explain what he had done as governor and how he would differentiate for being the Republican nominee and hopefully the next Republican president.

He's being attacked on the right for this, but I think he did the right thing now to put that issue on the table so that it will hopefully not hurt him as much in the future.

SIEGEL: E.J., you have five seconds.

Mr. DIONNE: For a lot of conservatives, unless he repudiates his greatest achievement as governor, they'll never give him the time of day. He tried, but I think he can't really pull it off.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and Ron Christie, thanks to both of you.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Take care, gentlemen.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.