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David S. Broder
David S. Broder
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Broder On Politics
With David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist/Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 30, 2001; Noon EDT

Vermont Sen. James Jeffords's decision last week to leave the GOP was a rare unscripted move that threw the political world into a frenzy and overshadowed what would have been the biggest victory for the Bush administration thus far -- Senate passage of the $1.3 trillion tax cut. Fireworks not withstanding, what did Congress accomplish thus far this session? What is likely to happen on the Hill when the majority changes?

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David S. Broder was online to talk about politics, the Bush administration and public policy on Wednesday, May 30.

Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point."

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Falls Church, Va.: Presidents come, presidents go. Congress changes from one party to another. Ted Kennedy remains powerful no matter what. How does such a polarizing figure manage to wield so much influence?

David Broder: Part of Kennedy's influence derives from his seniority. Those years of experience have taught him a lot. Some of it comes from the quality of his staff, which always has been exceptional. And part of it derives from his skill in building personal relationships across the party aisle. Almost all of Kennedy's major initiatives have a Republican co-sponsor. When he goes off on his own, it is usually in opposition to a proposal from the administration or another senator.

New York: Isn't it true that this administration will not impose temporary price gaps in California in order for the energy companies in Texas to profit from this crisis? These are close personal friends and contributors to both Cheney and Bush are they not?

David Broder: Reporters make very bad mind-readers. I cannot tell you what motivates the Bush administration's opposition to temporary price caps on energy. But they have a perfectly respectable intellectual argument in the belief that price caps do not spur conservation or increase energy supply. The critical question, I believe, is whether energy companies have been manipulating the market or whether the shortages are real. If manipulation has taken place, as some evidence suggests, then the case for price controls becomes much stronger.

New York, N.Y.: There has been some talk that the Republicans might filibuster the resolution to reorganize giving Democrats control of the committees.

IMHO, I don't think they have the 40 votes. But, if they did, how would this situation be resolved under Senate rules?

David Broder: It would have to be resolved the way other impasses in Senate procedures are -- by the grownups in both parties finally deciding that they are making the Senate look ridiculous and calling off the dogs.

Orlando, Fla.: What effect, if any, does the Jeffords decision have on the long term efforts of the administration to create the image of a "compassionate conservative"?

David Broder: I don't think we know yet what the long-term effects of the Jeffords defection will be. It obviously gives the Democrats a much better perch from which to contest Bush on the policy agenda. But much depends on how the White House responds to the altered political environment. So far, the White House seems to be in denial, but I would not assume that they are permanently impaired. Bush changed tactics after serious setbacks in the campaign and may be capable of doing that again.

Honolulu, Hawaii: Why has the left fought so hard to defeat private school vouchers?

After all, everyone, left and right, wants the best for our children, and the tired rhetoric of "draining money from the public schools" sounds really weak to me. Don't we really just want the best education possible without regard to whether it's provided by the public or private sector?

My belief is that the REAL reason is that vouchers are simply the other team's idea. Your thoughts?

David Broder: I think there is more to the vouchers fight than simply Democratic resistance to "the other team's ideas." There is a legitimate question about how many pupils can avail themselves of vouchers -- because of the cost of private schools and their capacity limits. There is concern about what effect their departure would have on the public schools they are leaving. And the opposition is not limited to Democrats. Suburban Republican legislators, at both the state and national level, often have opposed vouchers because they and their constituents are very satisfied with the public school system, and do not want to encourage an exodus from that system.

New York, N.Y.: What if the Republicans want to regain control of the Senate by switching parties and all becoming independents?

David Broder: Now, that is a clever idea. I'd suggest you share it with Sen. Lott's office.

West Hartford, Conn.: Do you think that Daschle's rather bold pronouncements about the Bush agenda being "dead" -- in its various parts -- may set up a "triangulation" in which Bush can, in effect, do to Daschle what Clinton did to Gingrich?

David Broder: Republicans I have interviewed are hopeful that Sen. Daschle will overplay his hand, as Newt Gingrich did, and make himself appear to be the author of gridlock in Washington. Daschle is clearly aware of the danger, so it will be intriguing to see how he plays his hand.

Nashville, Tenn.: I understand the media interest over Sen. Jeffords's decision, but given the rules of the Senate, does it really change much? Unlike the House, where a one-vote majority allows the majority to control scheduling, time limits, number of amendments, the Senate is a place where one person can disrupt any bill simply by not giving up the floor. It seems to me that the only number that matters in the Senate is 60, and I doubt either party can get there any time soon. Your thoughts?

David Broder: You are certainly correct in saying that a switch of party control has larger consequences in the House than in the Senate. In addition to the procedural differences you mention, there are larger ideological gaps between the parties in the House -- especially at the senior levels. Charley Rangel instead of Bill Thomas as chairman of Ways and Means alters the equation far more than Max Baucus taking over from Charles Grassley at Senate Finance. Sixty votes are the key to passing bills in the Senate, but I would not underestimate the advantage the Democrats gain by controlling the timing and content of the agenda, both in committees and on the floor.

Fuquay Varina, N.C.: What effect will the increasing and projected gas prices in the U.S. have on the present and future economy and what social problems will be affected and created as a result of it?

David Broder: That is an excellent question, but not one I am qualified to answer. I simply cannot judge at this point how large the economic and social consequences may be of the rise in energy prices. Certainly it imposes costs, but how large they will be I do not know.

Fountain Valley, Calif.: What are the realistic odds of John McCain and/or some other renegade Republican switching sides?

David Broder: I would be surprised to see Sen. McCain leave the Republican Party. But I was surprised by Sen. Jeffords's switch, so I don't put too much stock in my own hunches.

Portland, Ore.: As a citizen of the West, I'm still viewing our local energy problems with some alarm. I appreciate President Bush's order to have federal sites reduce their power consumption, but is there really anything Washington will or can do for the short run? I just feel like we've been written off out here.

I also see the California governor trying to shift some blame away from himself. I personally don't think it will work, but President Bush's neglect of us doesn't help him either. What do you think of that?

David Broder: I have been in both Oregon and California in the last two months -- California, just last week, as a matter of fact -- and I know you are right about the feeling many people have that Washington in general and the White House in particular have been insensitive to the disruptions in the power supply and the sharp runup in energy prices. I think the pressure for some form of short-term relief will continue to build over the summer, but I am not smart enough to know how or when Washington will respond.

Greenbelt, Md.: President Bush seems poised to let California on its own to solve the energy crisis. Do you see any danger with this strategy? Can he weather the storm if the economy goes bad because of this?

David Broder: Clearly, there is a risk for the country -- and therefore for the president -- if California and the West suffer severe economic damage because of the energy problems. That part of the country is not only important politically but economically and culturally as well, and the consequences of this becoming a crisis would not be confined to one region. So there is clear risk for the White House in this situation.

Annapolis, Md.: Will Jeffords's switch hurt him at all at home? Is there anything that Republicans can do there to punish him?

David Broder: The only poll taken so far in Vermont shows overwhelming voter approval of Sen. Jeffords's switch. It was published Sunday in the Burlington Free Press and my recollection, not guaranteed, is that it showed more than a 2-1 approval of Jeffords's decision.

DuPont Circle: Do you expect the Democratic takeover of the Senate to improve their prospects for 2002?

David Broder: I don't know. Let's see how they handle their new power and responsibility before we try to decide what the political fallout may be.

Baltimore, Md.: George W. Bush is our second president in a row who is younger than you. Does this make you feel old? Or wiser? Or an unholy combination of both? Or will you do what I would in that situation and plead the fifth? Thanks for reading and keep up the great work.

David Broder: It certainly makes me feel older, but I find it especially disorienting to be covering the children of politicians I started out covering. I think we should be more like Japan, and never have a leader under 70. Just kidding.

Kerrville, Tex.: What is the argument that Gov. Davis has used to get President Bush to impose federal energy price controls in California? Shouldn't this be an issue that California should handle themselves? Do you take this as a way for Davis to try to shift attention away from how he screwed up and how poorly he's handled this problem?

What is your take on this?

David Broder: Certainly, Gov. Davis is trying to spread the blame around for the energy mess in his state. His argument for federal controls is that, under the law, the only agency that can impose such controls is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The state cannot impose controls on interstate energy supplies by itself.

Washington, D.C.: The Republican Party has not been particularly successful in California recently. Is President Bush throwing in the towel on this state?

David Broder: I doubt it. California is just too big and important for the Republicans to throw in the towel. With redistricting coming up, they have to try to protect at least the number of House seats they now control in that delegation if they hope to keep their majority in the House.

Phoenix, Ariz.: To what extent does the Democrats' edge in the Senate hang on the legal fortunes of Sen. Torricelli (D-N.J.)?

David Broder: Good question. The grand jury investigating Sen. Torricelli's finances is still sitting, and I do not know what, if any. indictments it will hand up. Even if he were to be indicted, the senator could continue to serve through the period of trial and any possible appeals. His term is up next year, however, and an indictment would obviously present serious political problems for him.

Andover, Mass.: All this "Bush is in trouble" post-Jeffords carp -- is it possible the media is once again underestimating Bush? As it has been written, it would be a minor heavenly miracle for Bush to get anything done now. I somehow doubt that. Also, my guess is that Montana and Nebraska get Bush visits soon. No time like the present to convince the electorate in those states to oust Baucus and Nelson in favor of Republicans. I notice Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota voted for the tax cut -- wise move, but I wonder if it will matter. They should go after him too, bigtime.

David Broder: As I said in answer to an earlier question, I think it is much too soon to judge the long-term political consequences of the Jeffords switch. We have to see how the Democrats and the White House play their hands.

One point about your question: Sens. Baucus and Johnson are both up for reelection next year in states that Bush carried. But Sen. Nelson of Nebraska was elected just last year and does not face the voters until 2006.

York, Pa.: I've seen you at the Shakespeare theatre off and on. To me, the plays often seem eerily appropriate to the political moment in D.C. and the nation -- like the rise of McCain and the playing of Coriolanus. Do you agree? And what does the Bard mean to you as a journalist?

David Broder: You are so right about the aptness of some of Shakespeare's drama. I've got a column in the works on a related subject--the essay that Arthur Miller wrote in Harper's on acting and politics. Hope to see you at the theater again.

Vienna, Va.: Did the U.S. have veto powers in the UN Human Rights Commission? What would happen if countries brought charges against Israel for human rights violations in Paletine? Without U.S. presence there, wouldn't charging Israel with human rights violations be fairly easy?

Wasn't not getting elected to the UN commission a serious error by the Bush administration? Wasn't that as serious as when Stalin withdrew the Soviet Union from the UN in the '50s, allowing the UN to vote for a police action in Korea?

David Broder: I am not expert on United Nations procedures, but I believe the only formal veto power the U.S. has is in the Security Council. But obviously we have large influence when we are engaged in any of the work of the UN. It was a real setback to American foreign policy to lose the membership on the human rights commission, but I'm not sure the consequences will be as large as Stalin's blunder.

Laurel, Md.: Doesn't the Bush tax cut INCREASE the progressivity of the federal income tax? If so, why do people say it doesn't help low-income taxpayers?

David Broder: As the Bush administration calculates it, upper income people will pay a slightly larger share of the income tax under the bill Congress has passed than they do now. But they will be the main beneficiaries of the rate reductions in dollar terms, and, of course, the phaseout of the estate tax is a real boon to the wealthy.

Washington, D.C.: Isn't it wonderful that the Supreme Court let that poor disabled boy Casey Martin use a golf cart? Isn't this a great day for inclusion and diversity?

David Broder: Yes, and I am going to demand a starting position on the Washington Post softball team, despite Manager Edsall's vehement objections.

Across the High Plains: How likely is John McCain to become a Democrat this year? Charlie Cook, in the National Journal, reports widespread belief on the Hill that it will happen, and sooner rather than later.

Is it reasonable for anyone to believe such a switch won't happen? After all, if you listen to what McCain says and take him seriously, it's clear that he now defines himself in opposition to his party. How is it possible for someone like that to find a place in his Caucus and stay in the GOP?

At some point doesn't he lose credibility with both sides if he doesn't switch, especially as he seems to glory in opening wounds in the GOP and then heavily salting them (e.g., his recent press release that his party "needs to grow up," delivered in the form of a tantrum).

David Broder: I remain a skeptic on the possible John McCain switch from the GOP. Clearly he has both policy and political disagreements with his party, but on most of the issues that come before his major committees, Armed Services and Commerce, he is in sympathy with the direction of the Bush administration. McCain is a man who follows his own instincts, so a switch is certainly not impossible for him. But I'd still be surprised.

Springfield, Va.: Seems to me that the patient's bill of rights could be an area of consensus for Bush and Daschle. They both have incentive to agree on something and Bush did allow a bill-of-rights law to pass in Texas. Other than that, I see 18 months of gridlock. Do you agree?

David Broder: I agree with you that the patients bill of rights is an issue ripe for compromise. The interest groups on both sides -- trial lawyers and insurers -- have no motive to compromise, but if the senators and representatives can shake free of them, there is clearly a do-able deal out there.

This has to be my last answer for today. I'm going to be on vacation in the first half of June, but I look forward to another chatroom session when I get back. Thanks to all of you for your excellent questions. Dave Broder.


That was our last question today. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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