Week In Politics: Christie Scandal & The War On Poverty

Jan 10, 2014
Originally published on January 10, 2014 7:19 pm
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It's time now for our weekly political talk with columnists David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hello to both of you.


E.J. DIONNE: Great to be with you.

SIEGEL: Let's start with Governor Christie of New Jersey. David, I've heard broadly two judgments about him this week. One, he dealt with an embarrassing disclosure the right way, with candor and contrition; and two, what kind of governor has a staff that blocks traffic for payback. What do you make of this?

BROOKS: Completely admirable and flawless, you didn't hear that one. You know, I actually don't think this is going to hurt him so much, mostly because I think some politicians have characters that are what you might call scandal vulnerable. They seem pure. They seem pristine, and when they lie and they do something scandalous, then it disrupts everybody's opinion about them.

But we sort of knew Chris Christie was a bit of a bully, and whether he knew about what was going on, I really don't have a view upon, but I do think if he is popular in the presidential run, or presumed presidential run, it will be because people don't like Washington. They want a bully to take it on. So I think this will not hurt him that much.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think, a scandal-free politician from New Jersey? That's what David is proposing here.

DIONNE: The jumbo shrimp, why not? You know, I think for - I disagree with David for almost the same reason he said, which is the big problem with this scandal is that it plays into the knock on Chris Christie. When a politician has to say I'm not a bully, that's a real problem. That doesn't work very well. Richard Nixon famously said I'm not a crook.

And I think at that news conference, what he never answered is why he didn't deal with this until the smoking gun appeared, and I think that raises a lot of questions that - and I agree with the story that we just heard, that this isn't over yet. The one thing we do know is he will not run if he runs for president on the slogan let's get America moving again.

SIEGEL: Actually, between the Christie aides whom he jettisoned and Robert Gates' memoir about his stint at the Pentagon, we've had some object lessons in political loyalty this week in this city.

BROOKS: And when I was covering British politics I ran across the phrase he jumped ship so fast the rats were left gaping and applauding. And I actually give Gates a pass on this. I think if you're going to write a book, you might as well be honest about it, and so I think he had a lot to get off his chest. And I think the book is much more subtle and nuanced than some of the early headlines, appreciative of Obama in some ways, not appreciative in others. And so I think if you're going to write a book, honesty is generally the best policy.

DIONNE: I agree that the book is more nuanced. I think the question about Gates is there was a tradition, I think it went away before Gates, that you waited a bit before - you waited at least until the guy was out of power before you wrote a book. But it really bothers me that the traditional loyalty, in general, has gone away. I always loved what an old Chicago machine politician once said: If you can't be loyal to a friend, how in the world can you be loyal to an idea? And while there are sins committed in the name of loyalty, I think most of the sins these days are committed against it.

SIEGEL: This week we also marked the 50th anniversary of a remarkable time of government activism. This time of year in 1963, first, the surgeon general took on smoking, we should say, and President Lyndon Johnson took on poverty. This week President Obama marked that milestone.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's now been 50 years since President Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty in America. That groundbreaking effort created new avenues of opportunity for generations of Americans.

SIEGEL: And Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also noted Lyndon Johnson's declaration of war 50 years ago.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: He said that the war on poverty: the richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. And with those words he foreshadowed the belief that's still held by liberals to this day: that government spending is the central answer to healing the wounds of poverty.

SIEGEL: E.J., first, do liberals still believe that and should they?

DIONNE: Well, they should in the following sense. They don't believe it the way Marco Rubio said, which is I don't know any liberal who thinks government spending is sufficient for healing poverty, but redistribution is absolutely essential and it is a big lie that the war on poverty didn't work.

Sharon Parrott at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote a great paper based on a lot of analysis that shows that if you compare 1967 to 2012, poverty overall fell from 26 to 16 percent. And remember, 16 percent is after a bad recession. So poverty has dropped 10 percent. It's down among children. Among the elderly it's down 47 percent then, 15 percent now.

So we have had, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, more successes than we want to know.

SIEGEL: I thought it was in the teens back then still, in the high teens.

BROOKS: I recall 19 to 15 being the...

SIEGEL: Fifteen is what I thought it was.

BROOKS: So some drop, but I guess I would say it's a bit of a mixed bag. Medicare was a successful program, but their projections of how much it would cost were wildly out of whack. And now it's unaffordable. Food stamps, I would say, was successful. Head Start was a good idea. It was executed poorly. It's had no good results. But the bottom line is poverty didn't come down that much, meanwhile social disorder skyrocketed in the '60s and '70s.

And I would say the difference probably between E.J. and I is E.J. will emphasize the material realities of poverty. I would say the social fabric was weakened unintentionally by a lot of (unintelligible)...

DIONNE: Just on that number, I just want to be clear. This is a poverty measure based on today's living standards. So if you correct for today's living standards, you have a very substantial drop. I care a lot about social measures. I think we do need to figure out what we can do to help families. I think family breakup is a problem. What I'm saying is not that you shouldn't worry about those things. I'm saying that if you're not willing to accept a substantial government role in helping the poor, you're not going to solve the problem, and we've got to deal with new challenges, including the decline of well-paying blue-collar jobs.

SIEGEL: David, you wrote today in a column about new thinking, new conservative thinking about these issues. Is there? Is there some new thinking?

BROOKS: There is some new thinking. It's much more specific, much more pragmatic and much less anti-government. So if you look at some of the new conservative writers, they're looking at what is the problem, how do we get poor kids into accelerated programs, what do we do with people getting out of prison rather than just let's talk about government, whether government's good or bad. Much more specific, it's much more pragmatic, and that's part of the Rubio speech.

Republicans, really, if you're just anti-government, you have no positive agenda for real problems, and I think there's a slow, and I should emphasize very slow, evolution beyond that.

DIONNE: And if we could actually agree that there is a public role, and we also agreed that we wanted to strengthen civil society, we could actually have a real conversation. I'm just worried that a lot of conservatives are not yet ready to say what David said and to say that there is an important - there is a real importance to public action if we're going to deal with this.

SIEGEL: Thank you both for a real conversation.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post; David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.