Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Robert Gates, Chris Christie and extending unemployment benefits. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Ramesh: So what do you make of Robert Gates’s claims about the Barack Obama administration? I was on a TV show yesterday where he was being treated as a naif for expressing surprise and dismay when Hillary Clinton and President Obama suggested they had opposed the Iraq surge for political reasons. Maybe I’m naive, too, but his story seems pretty damning to me. People should expect more public-spiritedness and less low political calculation on questions of war and peace. But then a lot of Democrats, possibly including Clinton herself, supported the war in the first place for political reasons. My main reservation about Gates’s book is that it’s going to make future presidents less likely to appoint Cabinet secretaries from the other party.
Margaret: Democrats do far more cross-party appointments than Republicans. I doubt we would have seen President Chris Christie holding over Secretary John Kerry even without Gates's book. Gates spends far more time on Hillary and Obama's votes on the war than the mendacity that railroaded the public and Congress into the Iraq war. I was prepared to stipulate that Hillary Clinton is a calculating politician, so her vote on Iraq won't necessarily hurt her. But the words about her are worse politically than any of the revelations about Obama, whom you're fond of calling a lame duck, because she is likely running for president. Some of us like the illusion of idealism in the Oval Office. Obama's selfies show a halo. He sees himself as idealistic, and it hurts to read about how much he isn't. Politics is a dark art that he doesn't practice until he does. Obama having mixed feelings about the wars he inherited isn't troubling. Gates's characterization of it is. Vice President Joe Biden's staff should go to ground right now and let Obama take the heat. And why do Republicans always fall back on Democrats not being comfortable with the military, for a salute insufficiently crisp? When a Democrat is demonstrably supportive of the military, like Kerry is, millions are spent to prove he isn't.
Ramesh: I agree that there's nothing wrong when a president has doubts about one of his policies; usually that's preferable to not having doubts. Sending troops on a mission you don't believe in -- which is what Gates says Obama did in Afghanistan -- is much worse. And I don't really see what was so deceptive about the George W. Bush administration's case for the Iraq war. Its convictions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were false but sincerely held and widely shared. There has been some Republican malfeasance in the news, though: Chris Christie aides seem to have shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor for not endorsing his re-election. That's going to hurt, and it should.
Margaret: Just as the Gates book provides drama to much of what we already knew -- Obama wanted to end Bush's wars and it was complicated -- the Christie e-mails pull the curtain back on what we all suspected. My favorite line is from a Christie aide who said "it will be a tough November for this little Serbian," a reference to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich -- even though Sokolich is Croatian. Some Port Authority people are gone; do you think Christie should fire his aides who were doubled over in e-mail emoticons over their mischief? It wasn't just inside-baseball political dirty tricks. Emergency vehicles were stalled.
Ramesh: I'm for firing people who use emoticons, period. I think Christie is going to have to do something more to get some distance from this scandal (and not just for the Serbian- and Croatian-American votes). If he does, I think this is just a blip for his 2016 campaign.
Margaret: We really are the United States of Amnesia. One day something represents the end of the world, and then it's gone without a trace. The bridge scandal adds to Christie's move-out-of-my-way-or-I'll-roll-over-you style in a manner that might not be so easily forgotten. Don't mess with people within the kingdom of their cars. People in traffic jams everywhere can relate to him messing with the commutes of New Jerseyans. Pols should hurt each other, not their subjects. As a politician, because you have the power to toy with the little people, you absolutely can't. I'm a pushover for Christie, who reminds me of my father. I loved "get the hell off the beach," although I winced when he overreacted to the person asking about his kids' schools. I'm now for him firing the aide most responsible, which seems to be Bridget Anne Kelly. And I'm with you on firing all who use emoticons.
Ramesh: Speaking of firing people, Congress is considering extending unemployment benefits. I think they should be extended: There are still a lot more job applicants than job openings. Find the money for the benefits from somewhere else in the budget: That's what the Republicans are saying, and I agree. I'd suggest farm subsidies as a good place to look for the money. Farm-district Republicans may disagree.
Margaret: Ramesh, you end on a note that's music to my ears. The farm bill is a disgrace, with subsidies to corporate farmers who don't need it. Regarding unemployment benefits, my brother has been looking for another job. He's a financial analyst who used to work for a drug company in the area outside Philadelphia -- since the recession, pharmaceutical companies have been especially hard-hit. Now my brother's doing construction, and happily, although he gets only a little more than he would on unemployment. My brother isn't alone in wanting to work. We hear the horror stories of people who don't want jobs, but mostly these people exist in the imaginations of talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. There's no music in the mindless listeners who agree with them.