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

Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2001; 11 a.m. EST

With the war on terrorism ongoing, an "axis of evil" identified and large domestic issues from the economy to the collapse of Enron looming, President Bush submitted a proposed budget for the federal government for Fiscal Year 2003 last week. And it's back to deficit spending.

One of the biggest challenges of any administration is to keep the economy rolling and the budget manageable, but sometimes it's just not possible. How will the projected budget deficits affect the stock market? Taxes? Social Security? Federal programs? Our way of life?

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist David S. Broder was online to talk about the coming fight over the budget, the effects of the war on terrorism thus far, the 2002 elections and politics in general on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

The transcript follows.

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."

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.

Baltimore, Md.: Is it your opinion that deficit spending or unbalanced budgets have an adverse effect on the economy? We have spent most of the century in the red and we have lived all our lives with deficits. In spite of that, the economy of the last 60 years has grown at a healthy rate overall and the economy has gone through cycles of tremendous growth even after dismal recessions.

David S. Broder: I am not an economist and I have forgotten what little I learned in college economics classes. I think you are write that economic cycles are not directly linked to federal budget deficits or surpluses. My concern about the return to deficit spending is that we know we have huge unfunded obligations to the about-to-retire baby boomers, and without paying our current bills, we face horrendous borrowing when their retirement and medical care must be financed starting in a few years.

San Francisco, Calif.: Your column today was about the campaign for governor in California. I do not like negative ads but they are effective when they are fair and inform the public. I was likely to vote for Riordan in the primary and general elections but his role in the Bork nomination makes him someone I could not vote for. Other people are alienated by his views about abortion and his using an ad that makes a false charge about Gov. Davis. Davis did not receive more Enron money than any other candidate, as the attack ad against him claimed.

David S. Broder: Clearly the Davis ads have been effective by giving people a different perspective on Riordan. It is significant that Davis chose to do that, rather than try to sell his own record, don't you think?

New York, N.Y.: I heard an economist on the radio months ago who said that even as atrocious as the deficit grew in the 1980s, it was nowhere close to being so large as to be unmanageable and having a dangerous effect on the economy. What's your take on that?

David S. Broder: All I know is that we spent and continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in interest payments on the federal debt that virtually quadrupled during the '80s. If it were not for those interest payments, we could afford far more for homeland defense, for Medicare drug benefits and all the other things that would make life more safe and secure today.

New York, N.Y.: With an ongoing war against "evil," emerging federal deficits, and a dramatic paring down of government services, what parallels and differences do you see between this year's budget debates and those of the 1980s?

David S. Broder: The biggest difference I see is that in the 1980s, the boomers were a generation away from retiring. Now we are six years away from the first of them reaching retirement age. What was a distant problem then is an imminent near-crisis today.

Salisbury, N.C.: We hear over and over again how Bush's popularity rating is still in the 80 percent plus range. But do the pollsters that say this ask whether people approve of Bush's handling of the war on terrorism and his handling of domestic issues separately, or are they simply asking the usual "Do you approve of the job the president is doing?" question. If it's the latter, isn't it possible that the respondents are responding mostly to how he's handling the war on terrorism, and perhaps feeling it would be unpatriotic to express disapproval even if their overall opinion of his policies might be negative?

On another note, if Bush's self-declared model political philosopher is Jesus, has he ever been asked how he reconciles this with bombing people and promoting tax breaks that favor wealthier individuals? Or are we not supposed to really take his answer to the political philosopher question seriously?

David S. Broder: Most pollsters, including our own team, ask both about the overall approval of the president, and the approval scores for his handling of major policy areas -- including the war, the economy, education, health care, etc. Bush's scores on domestic issues are somewhat lower in most polls than the overall or war scores, but still at a very high level, generally in the 70 percent range or higher.

Arlington, Va.: The significant thing about Gov. Davis is that he is following the Clinton model of governing from the center creating the possibility that he is too liberal for the Republicans and not liberal enough for the Democrats. I wonder whether this management style will be on the way out although Warner of Virginia seems to be embracing it.

David S. Broder: It's a good question, but not one I think we can answer well at this time. California and other states electing governors this year may give us some answers.

Oakton, Va.: How do we KNOW we are going to have deficits? It seems to me that all (or most) of these predictions is nothing but pure guesswork. We don't KNOW how much taxes are going to bring in a year in advance, how many refunds are going to have to be mailed out, and we don't KNOW what the final figure on outlays is going to be. We don't know, for instance, how widespread the anti-terrorist war is going to be (which, of course, costs money), or if another terrorist attack will bring even more federal outlays for reconstruction. This whole system of prediction, in my opinion, is sheer nonsense, and exists only for the purpose of making news and maybe jobs for economists.

David S. Broder: It may be sheer nonsense, but ever since the 1920s, the federal government has operated on a budget cycle that requires presidents to make their best estimates each winter. Congress now does the same thing, through the Congressional Budget Office. I have to think we are better off using the guidance of those budget estimates than we would be flying blind. As you saw after Sept. 11, there is flexibility to deal with unexpected emergencies. But there is also a discipline imposed by this process that I would hate to see disappear.

Boston, Mass.: I find it comical that the Enron scandal has both parties pointing their fingers at each other, for doing the exact same thing, which is take large amounts of campaign money from big business. Do you find it hypocritical that most politicians talk about the virtues of campaign finance reform, and yet both parties are fund-raising like crazy to haul in as much dough as they possibly can?

David S. Broder: No doubt about it. Both parties have pushed the envelope in their fund-raising. The best case for shutting down soft money is to relieve business, labor and wealthy individuals from being shaken down for six-figure contributions. But I am skeptical that any regulatory scheme will be very effective for very long, given the court rulings and given the variety of ways that money can move from the private sector into political campaigns. Ultimately, if we want to change that behavior, we probably have to consider some form of public financing of campaigns.

Helena, Mont.: The Democrats must feel they're in a horrible position. They can't take on Bush over the war and their attempts to nail him on the economy don't seem to have any traction. Realistically, won't they lose the Senate and lose ground in the House?

David S. Broder: They could. But at this point, there are about nine Senate races and three times that number of House races that look close enough that either party could come out on top. It may be a long election night -- but I hope not another 36-day wait to know the winner.

Boston, Mass.: What will happen if we have a large deficit in 2010 or when the Baby Boomers start retiring? Higher interest rates? Less to spend of priorities?

David S. Broder: We will either have higher taxes, reduced benefits, or massive borrowing that will raise both deficits and interest rates. It is not a pretty picture to contemplate.

Northern Virginia: Hi Mr. Broder,

Following President Bush's "State of the Union (War)" address, I was surprised, and disappointed that the American press (certainly The Post) failed to report on the responses of our allies, including newspaper editorials from around the world, especially Europe. Few journalists/pundits, if any, noted that Bush did not mention our allies; nor UK's PM Tony Blair. Just this weekend, the EU Commissioner blasted Bush's speech. No reporting of it in the American media!?

Your comments?

David S. Broder: I learned of the European reaction by reading the Post and other newspapers. I'm not sure your complaint is valid.

Vienna, Va.: Why all of this concern about the budget and deficit spending? First of all, no one truly knows what the ACTUAL surplus or deficit will in fact be -- it is just guesswork based on projected tax revenues and outlays. Second, if we DO have a deficit this year, so what? We had deficits for almost 30 years -- from the early Nixon years to the latter part of the Clinton era, and the world didn't end. This idea that deficits will drag the economy down is NONSENSE. Look at the Reagan years. We had an excellent economy -- low inflation, low unemployment, and RECORD HIGH deficits.

And the Clinton years. We also had an excellent economy -- first with deficits and then with surpluses. It is becoming more and more apparent that it is not the president, the Congress, or even the Federal Reserve Board that determines how the economy performs. It is the PUBLIC itself. When people and companies don't spend, the level of economic activity drops. People actually CAUSE recessions by being tightfisted, and this is often brought on by media gloom and hype scaring them. If people simply IGNORE the media pundits and continue to spend money, recessions can be averted.

David S. Broder: As I said to an earlier questioner, I do not believe there is a direct link between the budget surplus or deficit and the economic cycle. But we know the bills that are coming up when the baby boomers retire; that is not theoretical. And we are not in a position to finance their benefits, when we are running deficits now.

Arlington, Va.: Enron -- huge scandal, greedy corporate officers, little guy devastated. Truly awful. But it's not a surprise to me that a multimillion-dollar corporation would give money to a campaign to gain access. But isn't there clear evidence that there was no quid pro quo? Isn't that the point? Am I missing something?

David S. Broder: So far, there is no evidence I'm aware of that the Bush administration or its predecessor bent policy to benefit Enron. There are strong suggestions that some members of Congress who received Enron-related gifts blocked the proposed change in accounting rules which might have forced Enron and its auditor to disclose the company's shoddy financing schemes earlier.

Washington, D.C.: Historically, is there any difference between midterm election turnout and midterm election turnout during wartime? Are people more or less likely to show up at the polls? Does it affect them?

David S. Broder: A good question, but I'd have to do more research to answer it than I have time for right now.

Baltimore, Md.: Do you see Congress as culpable in any way for the Enron debacle? They are the ones that deregulated everything that allowed Enron to govern itself. If "Enron robbed the bank and Anderson drove the getaway car" can't we make the argument that congress put the key in the switch?

David S. Broder: Yes. As I said in a previous answer, it is clear that members of Congress blocked regulatory changes that might have averted at least some of these actions.

San Francisco, Calif.: Will Bush's conservative base hold him accountable for his failures to pass social legislation, and increasing the deficit?

Compassionate conservative broadens the base, but, in many respects, it is not true to its principles as it appropriates ideas from the Clinton's triangulation and agenda.

David S. Broder: At the Republican state convention in San Jose last weekend, populated largely by conservative activists, I heard virtually no criticism of President Bush. So far, I do not sense any rebellion on the right.

Menlo Park, Calif. Re: Davis vs. Riordan. You seem to be implying that if Davis had much of a record to sell, he'd be selling it, not going negative. His record notwithstanding, wouldn't it be more reasonable to infer that he's going negative because he thinks that's what'll work? I don't like negative ads either, but I don't assume that a candidate that uses them has nothing good to say about himself. He's just recognizing reality. You don't think you made a bit of an unjustified insinuation?

David S. Broder: It is unusual, if not unprecedented, for an incumbent to go heavily negative on a potential challenger, even before that candidate has won a contested primary. Clinton did a number on Bob Dole in 1996, but only after it became clear that Dole would be the Republican nominee. Pat Brown attacked George Christopher in the 1966 Republican primary, because he thought Ronald Reagan would be an easier general election opponent. But Brown, like Davis, was carrying some fairly heavy baggage at the time, and, as you know, he ended up losing to Reagan. I am not suggesting that history will repeat itself. But every Democrat I talked to in California, including those close to Davis, acknowledged that the governor has some political liabilities at this time, stemming from the energy problems and his tenuous relationships with traditional Democratic constituencies.

Washington, D.C.: What was your take on the State of the Union? Obviously this war on terrorism is a huge government priority. But I get the sense that people were also annoyed that the domestic agenda seems to be getting short shrift. Clearly, when one thing overshadows everything, some things are going to suffer. But what do you think Bush can/should do to keep people on his side domestically?

David S. Broder: The State of the Union Address was quite different from what the White House had suggested in advance. Instead of linking the war effort to the domestic agenda, as presidential aides had suggested, it showed that the war on terrorism clearly is Bush's main focus. There is a gap now between the public's main concerns and his -- but so far, at least, it is not hurting him or the Republicans. As I said in a column after the speech, he has left the Democrats an opening.

Washington, D.C.: Don't you think the pro-choice/pro-life issue alone is enough to get Riordan in trouble? Isn't it enough to distract from issues?

David S. Broder: It took Mayor Riordan a week to answer the Davis ads questioning his abortion issue history, and during that week, everyone I talked to in both parties thought Riordan was being damaged. I can't tell what the long-term effect will be, if Riordan should be the Republican nominee.

South Bend, Ind.: Texas has long been a bastion of conservative, "contract with America" Republican politics. This year two icons of that movement will not run for re-election -- Phil Gramm and Dick Armey.

And, of course, there is the uncertain Enron effect.

Do you see any change in the direction of Texas politics, especially in light of Enron?

David S. Broder: Texas Democrats say they have a chance to make a comeback in the governor's race and the contest for Sen. Gramm's seat. But until the March 12 primary is held and we know the candidates, it is going to be hard to get a fix on either of those races.

Los Angeles, Calif.: What does being the mayor of Los Angeles have to do with being pro or anti abortion? I find that bringing abortion into the debate is merely a tactic to inflame public opinion and has no real relevance to debates of substance. It's aggravating to see fellow Democrats turn into a one-issue party sometimes.

David S. Broder: Clearly, as mayor, Mr. Riordan had no direct voice on abortion policy. As governor, he might have some discretion, but with Democrats likely (because of the redistricting deal) to be in control of both houses of the Legislature, it is unlikely that any legislation changing abortion policy would reach the governor's desk.

Re: Richard Riordan: I keep thinking about Riordan's support for Democratic candidates and I'm reminded of Rudy Giuliani, who supported Cuomo for governor against Pataki (I hope I have that right). Never seemed to hurt Giuliani, but then again, Giuliani dropped out of the Senate race. Is the situation parallel? In a state like California (or for that matter, New York), where "liberals" abound, shouldn't that be a plus? Shouldn't it make Democrats like him better?

David S. Broder: It probably does not hurt Mayor Riordan among Democrats; the question is whether it damages him among Republicans. You have the history of Giuliani right; but Giuliani did not subsequently run for statewide office, so there is no parallel there.

St. Louis, Mo.: As a veteran writer of politics, what is your most cherished item from your career? A letter, gift, credential, etc.?

David S. Broder: I like my press passes from the 1960 presidential campaign; it was my first and firsts are always special.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Broder,

What do you think of the terrorism warnings from the FBI -- both how they've handled them and what's happening now? I think they're unsettling, and while I understand and appreciate the need to keep us informed, they 're not specific enough to actually mean anything to the average citizen.

David S. Broder: Yes, they are unsettling. But I sympathize with officials who decide to share whatever information they have with the public, rather than hoard it for themselves.

Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Broder,

What do you see as the major items for this year's elections? Can the Democrats run on any of them? Recent polls show more support for Republicans on the domestic agenda.

David S. Broder: At the moment, the public seems not to have elevated a single issue above all others. If the economy recovers, I expect a serious debate on budget priorities--more tax cuts vs. popular domestic programs. And, of course, the war on terrorism may heat up at any time.

New York, N.Y.: Why hasn't the Enron scandal been affecting President Bush's popularity?

David S. Broder: Voter interviews suggest that people see no direct action by the Bush administration to benefit Enron. Unless and until there is such a link, it is not likely to damage the president, in my estimation.

Washington, D.C.: On the Riordan-Davis abortion issue. It seems to me that Davis has painted Riordan as a raving moderate on the issue. Isn't that where 70 percent of the population stands (even in California)? If so, do you think that the attacks could in fact help Riordan with the large segment of voters who favor abortion rights but also favor limitations on such rights (e.g., parental notice)?

David S. Broder: Your point is exactly the one that was made last week in a Sacramento Bee editorial criticizing Gov. Davis. That paper usually supports Democrats, so the editorial was viewed as significant in political circles.

New York, N.Y.: Mr. Broder, the common wisdom about Enron in the corridors of power (including the media) is that Democrats are as hurt as Republicans by it, yet it is crystal clear that Republicans, including Lay's oil buddies the Bushes, received far more of their largesse than Dems. So why this need, all of a sudden, to be "fair" about the political damage of Enron? Is this supposed fairness a betrayal of truth?

David S. Broder: No, I do not think so. The press has repeatedly reported that Enron executives were the biggest contributors to the Bush campaign. But we also have reported on their widespread donations to other politicians. I don't think that's bias; I think that is being thorough.

Bethesda, Md.: Do you find it weird that people within Enron (one woman in particular who's name escapes me) are being applauded as "whistleblowers" for merely sending e-mails and memos around the company warning of potential problems in the future? I am bothered that these people who apparently knew what was happening did little more than talk to their bosses about it. A real whistleblower, someone with a backbone and integrity, would have gone to the government or a major news outlet and really blown the whistle.

washingtonpost.com: Stories:
Blowing the Whistle (Post, Feb. 10, 2002)
The Woman Who Saw Red (Post, Jan. 25, 2002)

David S. Broder: Maybe. But Enron was regarded as a great company by the people who worked there, and I can readily see why the whistleblowers hoped their own leaders would respond to the problems.

Washington, D.C.: You expressed doubt about campaign finance reform by saying that you expect people will find a way around the limits in the bills. well, we've had laws against prostitution, extortion, bribery, etc., for a long time, and just because people still commit those acts does not justify removing those laws. Part of the problem with 1970s campaign laws is that the holes in them were never patched once they became apparent. These bills will be a start, and for a while they will be effective. We can't expect a perfect piece of legislation, and this bill beats the current system. If we wait for the perfect, we'll continue to get "hammered."

David S. Broder: I agree with you, and if I were in Congress, I would vote to end soft money. All I was saying was that the whole history of regulatory legislation on campaign finance suggests two things: unintended consequences and ultimate evasion.

Montgomery, Ala.: It amazes me how congressmen can act like the only misdeeds happen in the private sector. Even here, the fair-haired governor, having beaten the rap for not disclosing income, is accused of diverting contracts to his personal broker. And he might win again.

David S. Broder: There are plenty of miscreants. Even in journalism.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Broder,

Why hasn't the president's budget, specifically the defense spending, come under more scrutiny? Increasing the defense budget sounds good, but it looks like it will have little impact on the war against terrorism.

David S. Broder: I have seen several articles questioning the proposed military spending. And the congressional hearings have barely begun.

New York, N.Y.: Do you think a bad economy helps the Democrats in November, or would they be better served to have a healthier economy which allows them to focus on other issues that generally help them, like the environment, health care, Social Security, etc.?

David S. Broder: I think the Democrats would be much better off with a healthy economy, for exactly the reason you suggest.

Washington, D.C.: In the New York governor's race, will Andrew Cuomo's money be enough to overcome Carl McCall's endorsements and name recognition? And will the winner be able to unseat Pataki?

David S. Broder: I don't know who comes out of that primary, but Pataki appears to be in a strong position as an incumbent.

I'm afraid this has to be my last answer for today. Thank all of you for joining me. I'll see you again soon.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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