Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
President Barack Obama renews calls to close Guantanamo. Criminal charges are filed against three friends of the Boston bombing suspect. And the latest housing and unemployment numbers. A panel of journalists provides analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- David Leonhardt Washington bureau chief for The New York Times and author of the e-book: “Here’s the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth."
- Ruth Marcus columnist and editorial writer at The Washington Post.
- Ron Elving senior Washington editor for NPR.
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Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said this week that she questions the high court’s decision to review Bush v. Gore. O’Connor was the fifth vote in a ruling that decided the 2000 presidential election. David Leonhardt of The New York Times said it’s clear that she regrets the vote because of how the tenor of the court changed after the decision. “There is an element of Greek tragedy in Sandra Day O’Connor and this case, and I say that without some moral judgment,” Leonhardt said.
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MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's off today and will back on Monday. President Obama renews calls to close Guantanamo. The Boston bombing suspect tells officials he and his brother considered suicide assaults and striking on the fourth of July.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSAnd the economy added 165,000 jobs in April. Joining me for the domestic hour of the Friday News Round-up: Ron Elving of National Public Radio, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. Welcome to you all. Good morning.
MR. DAVID LEONHARDTGood morning.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning, Steve.
MS. RUTH MARCUSHey.
ROBERTSYou can call us as always, 1-800-433-8850, email email@example.com, find us on Facebook, send us a tweet. We want to hear what you have to say. Let's start with the president's press conference in itself. It was kind of new since he doesn't hold very many of them. And, Ron, one of the things he did say was that he wants Guantanamo closed. He says that it harms our relations with allies, that it help recruiters -- the bad guys recruiting terrorist. And yet he's been saying this for four years.
ELVINGYes, he has.
ROBERTSWhat's the latest situation?
ELVINGGuantanamo, now, is dominated, of course, by the hunger strike. You have 100 of the detainees who are still there refusing food. They're being force-fed. This is not a -- this is a painful process. This is not something that most people are familiar with. But the detainees there are objecting to their treatment, objecting, of course, to being incarcerated. And at the same time, this is, in the minds of most Americans, where they ought to be. They don't want them brought to the United States.
ELVINGThey don't want them tried in our courts even though that would be the normal way that we would treat terrorists if we caught them today. The Tsarnaev brothers, for example, if we had them both, we would probably trial them in federal court. They're not going to be shipped off to Guantanamo. But you did hear a few people suggesting that's what ought to happen. The president has been trying to close Guantanamo back to the very beginning of his administration.
ELVINGIt was one of the things he promised to do running in 2008. He's been frustrated by Congress which wants no part of that and doesn't want these people to be brought into the country. And the controversy becomes, what else could the president do? How hard could the president press? How much could the president do to move these detainees away from Guantanamo, if not to be tried in the United States, then sent back to countries of origin?
ROBERTSNow, Ruth, there are 166 detainees there. And as I read it, 86 of them have been cleared to be returned to their home countries. Many of them are originally from Yemen. Why doesn't that happen, at least among those 86?
MARCUSThat's a good question. And I point out, it's not just that he's been saying it for four years, the president has been saying it for six years since before he was president, when he as running for office. And part of the explanation for why that hasn't happened is the intractability -- and he talked about demagoguery, I think, in the news conference -- of Congress, which has been a problem.
MARCUSBut part of it has been a failure of attention on the part of the administration. So that, for example, the liaison who was in charge of trying to repatriate these detainees, that office was -- that person was closed, transferred, and they didn't replace him. And you can't get the job done if there's nobody in the bureaucracy whose job is to get that done.
MARCUSSpecifically on the Yemenis, that was a determination on the part of the President because of the unsettled dangerous situation in Yemen, that he didn't want to be sending these detainees, who may well be radicalized now if they weren't radical before, back to a country that really couldn't be counted on to adequately monitor and house them.
ROBERTSAnd you can imagine the political fallout if one these were then to commit an act of terrorism. How -- David, how the political risk there of returning them home is considerable, the risk of keeping them there lower level.
LEONHARDTThat's right. And it's not as if we have enormous thought of the United States government where people have enormous faith in these other governments, right...
LEONHARDT...that we think they have the same interests that they have in mind. I think this is another one of these cases in which it's hard to figure out exactly what to think because, on the one hand, it is true that we placed too much attention on Obama, right? This isn't just Obama. He can't do whatever he wants. On the other hand, the White House comes out and says, the president's doing everything he can.
LEONHARDTWe haven't made any mistakes. There's nothing we can do besides what we're doing. And it strikes me that the truth probably lies somewhere in between those two. He's not a dictator, but that doesn't mean he's doing everything he could to get what he wants done.
ROBERTSI mean, there's really a black hole here, Ruth, right? I mean, they -- this -- no one really knows quite what to do with these people. No one -- everybody says do something, but no one really has an answer for what exactly to do.
MARCUSWell, if you remember back in the 2008 campaign, both of the candidates said, let's close -- what -- we want to close Guantanamo. And I think we in the press failed to ask them, exactly how do you propose to do that? I think you make a very good point about the risks that the president faces. And by the way, it's a black hole in two senses. First, we don't want to think about it, right, and then it's just an intractable problem.
MARCUSBut if you -- there's an interesting linkage between the Guantanamo issue and the Boston bombing, which is damned if you do and damned if you don't. So if you let them go and something happens or if you investigate this guy and you don't have probable cause or anything to keep going on to keep investigating, you get blamed. But if you hold on to them, if you charge Mr. Ricin guy and he turns out to be the wrong guy, you get blamed for that. Life is difficult in governments. It's easy for us to criticize.
ROBERTSAnd, Ron, another issue that the president talked about at his press conference, also one that's caused a lot of controversy, is the whole issue of morning-after pill, complicated issue. But several years ago, scientists at the FDA said that this is safe. It should be available without prescription to women of any age.
ROBERTSSecretary Sebelius overruled that in a sense and said, OK, only people over 17 could get it without a prescription. Now she's reduced it to 15. But still, there's a court case out there which says the scientists were right in the first place. Anybody should be allowed access here. And the president said he's comfortable with age 15. But he's kicked up some protests from his own supporters on this.
ELVINGThat's right. Supporters of reproductive freedom, supporters of women's rights have been very strong in condemning the president on this, saying, what is the magic about the age 15? We did have previously an age 17. We've tossed around different ages at which people feel comfortable, and I think that's the word we hear frequently, comfortable making this drug available to these young women, to teenagers. And the president is obviously trying to draw what would have to be described as a political balance here.
ELVINGHe's not looking to science. He's not saying, this is that the courts are telling us to do. The courts are saying, on principle, you can't say it's OK at 16 and not OK at 15 or 14. There's really no principal reason or scientific reason to set that age. So the president is trying to strike a political balance between people who would like to have the drug available to anyone who wants it and needs it and those who feel uncomfortable, politically, with the idea of very young women going into a drugstore and getting this.
ROBERTSDavid, is this part of a larger attempt by the president to make sure he doesn't go too far to the left on some issues to kick up political opposition?
LEONHARDTYes, exactly. I mean, I think you see a long history of this president and this White House trying to avoid conflagrations on talk radio and on Fox News. What they don't want, particularly on issues that they don't view as either the most significant of the day or where they have a lot of odds of success, they don't want the whole political debate dominated by these issues. In a larger sense, it's why they had decided to leave guns totally alone.
LEONHARDTI think in their heart of hearts, they don't think the gun issue is as important as something like universal health care. And there's actually some evidence to back that up. More people arguably are killed by lack of insurance than by guns. And more than that, they do think guns are important. They just didn't think they could succeed. Then Newtown happened and it changed it. And you see the same thing here. They want to pick their battles.
MARCUSCan I just make one quick point in slight defense of the administration?
MARCUSThey did argue that the White House was not involved in the decision to appeal the judge's ruling. There is an argument from the Justice Department that the judge went beyond his brief, if you will, in terms of the scope of the order. He ordered more relief, I believe, than one of the parties in the case which was asking for age 15 had sought.
MARCUSThat being said, the 15 rule, and I come at this from the point of view of having teenage daughters, my initial reaction when this first came up was, I don't want them taking this kind of serious medication without my knowledge. Then I learned a lot of things, including that speed is of the essence, that it's very expensive. So you're not going to have 15-year-olds repeatedly anteing up $50 to do it.
ROBERTSFifty dollars a pill.
MARCUSAnd the dangers are not that low. So now you're telling -- now you're not only setting it at age 15, you're telling this 15-year-olds to come up with I.D., government I.D. that shows their date of birth. I can tell you my 15-year-old daughter -- she actually just turned 16 -- couldn't have come up with that. You don't want to put barriers in the way of people, whatever age, who, for whatever reason, have unprotected sex and want to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.
ROBERTSBut as you originally pointed out, there also is this view of parental rights. And the president also has teenage daughters. And, Ron, you're nodding your head. The president, more than once -- in fact, many times -- has filtered some of his views through the lens of being a parent. This is very important identity. We mentioned that at Newtown, he talked very much as a parent.
LEONHARDTYes, he did.
ROBERTSAnd is this part of what's going on here too?
ELVINGWe use the term political, and oftentimes, it has a connotation of somehow being less than worthy. Anything that's a political calculation is supposedly a bad thing, whereas what does it really mean? You're just trying to be sensitive to what people want. You are ultimately trying to please the greatest number of people that you respect the opinions of.
ELVINGI think the president respects the opinions of people who feel uncomfortable, again, with their, shall we say, 12, 13 -- 'cause we're not just talking about 15-year-olds -- any young woman who suddenly goes into the drugstore and, for whatever reason, does have the money and, for whatever reason, does have the ability to do this.
ROBERTSNow, Ron, I want you to -- I know you wrote about this too. Final point on the president's press conference. One of the values of press conferences is temperature taking, gauging the mood of a president when he has to answer questions without a script. A lot of people said he seemed bored, despondent this week. Your take on that.
ELVINGWell, you can pick just about any negative adjective you want. It was not a great performance by the president, especially because he has had some tour de force performances recently with a script, for example, the White House correspondents' dinner last Saturday night where he was extraordinarily funny, a better comic than the hired professional comedian. And people were saying a lot of great things about what a communicator he was.
ELVINGAnd then again, we discovered that when you put him in this kind of a situation with questions that are not necessarily terribly hostile -- they were challenging questions. They were good journalistic questions -- the president seemed ill at ease. He seemed ill-prepared. He didn't seem, on policy, to be ill-prepared, but in terms of his mood and his presentation and what he had to say to the American people, he seemed not exactly diffident, but always kind of pushing the question away and saying things like the Republicans won't let me. That doesn't sound very presidential.
ROBERTSThat's Ron Elving of National Public Radio. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, David Leonhardt of The New York times are with me. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. We'll be back talking about the economy in just a minute, so you stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And this is the domestic hour of our news roundup. Ron Elving of NPR is with me, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, David Leonhardt of The New York Times. And, David, also this morning, new jobs numbers.
ROBERTSOne hundred sixty five thousand jobs, short -- small downtick to 7.5 percent unemployment, lowest in four years. What's your -- you're an economics columnist. What's your best reading of these numbers?
LEONHARDTThis a good report, and it's a good report because you never want to put too much weight on one month of numbers. And so if you look not only at the numbers we got about April, but the revisions to February and March, the job market is stronger than we thought it was before we got this report. And what that really shows us above all is we're not going into the spring swoon. We've talked about that on this show.
LEONHARDTLots of people have talked about it, the idea that economy was weakening and might even be at risk of recession. That doesn't seem to be the case. There is a big caveat, however, which is, don't over-read the strength here. Job growth isn't accelerating, and it's really not growing considerably faster than the population is growing.
LEONHARDTAnd so we're not making a lot of progress here. And given how terrible the financial crisis is, that's not great.
ROBERTSAnd this week also, the Fed weighed in, Ruth, with its view. And its -- the word it used was moderate growth. I mean, good, not great. Certainly, decision to continue their stimulus efforts by buying bonds in marketplace, $85 billion a month. So their approach seems to square with David's view of where we are. Good but not great.
MARCUSThe Fed always follows David Leonhardt, in my view.
MARCUSIt's -- we'd all be better off. I think the Fed is taking a very wise course because, look, at the same time that they're pursuing their policy, it's in counterbalance to really a policy of fiscal contraction that's being implemented by default by the government, not technical default in terms of the sequester and the slowdown in government spending as a result of that.
MARCUSI love these numbers not just because they show that the economy wasn't doing as badly as we thought, but because they're a fantastic reminder of something that David said, which is we shouldn't take any month all that seriously. The revision here in March was huge, from 88,000, which was the number that we were wringing our hands about in March, jobs created, to 138,000. That's a big delta, as the economists say. And just a good reminder, everybody needs to stay a little bit calm.
ROBERTSNow, Ron, but Ruth makes a point, which the Fed stressed. She said counterbalance. The Fed was actually even more critical here saying, look, there's a contradictory policy at work. We're expansionary. We're following a policy of stimulus by investing in these bonds, and yet the sequester and reductions in federal spending are having exactly the opposite effect on the economy. So you got two different federal agencies or two different parts of the federal government following contradictory policies.
ELVINGThat's right. And the fiscal drag that's created by the fiscal policy is not invisible in these numbers. We don't see it much yet. It's not the crushing of the economy that some people might have expected or predicted. But the sequester effect is just beginning. One thing we've seen back through the last several years is that even as private employment expands, public employment, government employment has been shrinking.
ELVINGSo, for example, in this particular report, it's 166,000 jobs added in the private sector but a continued contraction in the public sector. So another 11,000 jobs lost in this good report on the public side from all signs of government. And we're seeing this in the federal government. We're seeing it with the sequester. We're also seeing it in the state governments. And that has a breaking effect, a drag effect on all of us.
ELVINGNow, some people are going to say great. Government needed to get smaller. The public sector needed to shrink. The private sector is where real, sustainable economic growth takes place, and those people should be very happy with this report. But as we go forward, as David suggested, we may not see the accelerating job creation that one would expect at this point when we are recovering from such a deep recession. And one of the reasons we may not see it is because growth will be retarded by this shrinkage of the public sector.
ROBERTSAnd there is this conundrum for liberals who, on one hand, have counseled for years, the shrinkage of defense spending, and yet it's having -- now that it's happening, it's having a negative effect on economic growth.
ELVINGWell -- and, you know, federal employees and government employees are all people too. They buy things. They invest in things. They have homes. And when they lose their jobs, it has the same kind of effect that it has when private sector people lose their jobs.
ROBERTSSpeaking of homes, David Leonhardt, there's also a report this week on home prices booming, highest growth in seven years in home prices. Take us behind those numbers. What's the significance of it?
LEONHARDTThe housing market got so weak that it eventually has to get stronger, right? There are people delaying purchases. And not only do they get so weak that eventually it has to get stronger, but mortgage rates are really, really low, as anyone who's gone to get a mortgage or refinance knows.
ROBERTSI've done it twice.
LEONHARDTThe only thing I'd say about that is I don't think we should treat housing prices as something we want only to go up. I'm going to have a piece in this Sunday's Times about how poorly young people are faring. And, you know, when home prices go up, it's mainly good for older people who own homes, and it's not that great for younger people.
LEONHARDTRemember, one out of every three households in this country doesn't own. And when home prices go up, it makes it harder for them to get there. So I don't think we should treat home prices sort of like as a home team score that we're rooting for, going only one way. But they do have big positive effects, like employment.
ROBERTSAnd -- but, Ruth, one of the concerns here is that what's driving up these prices. It seems to be a surge into that market of large investors who, taking advantage of low interest rates, are buying up these homes. And there's real fear of a speculative bubble here, which we've gone through before in the housing market.
MARCUSYeah. (unintelligible) It's very interesting because credit, despite or in addition to the low interest rates, which are fantastic -- I can't even remember how many times we've refinanced -- but credit has become tighter. Standards have become tighter, so ordinary folks are having a harder time, and probably justifiably so, getting some of those jumbo mortgages or mortgages that way exceed their capacity to afford the house long term.
MARCUSBut you see the capacity for this speculation driving up prices, which has the negative effect that David pointed out. To some extent, if investors are doing this and they're speculating, that's going to end up being kind of their problem because it's hard to see them getting bailed out in another crash.
ROBERTSWell -- but another dimension to this, you know, and the reason -- one of the reasons why this is such an odd patchwork because another player in this field are the homebuilders themselves. And while the speculators are being able to raise cash to buy these homes that are on the market, there's an absence of new homes being built in part because the homebuilders are having trouble getting money. So you have a -- several factors here working to crunch the market right now.
LEONHARDTAnd we still have some of the overhang for the -- from the unbelievable building boom during the bubble years.
ELVINGAnd the regionality of this is worth noting, too.
ELVINGI mean, there are some places where the increase is percentage-wise much, much greater than the national, in the Bay Area, for example...
ELVING...where prices did finally go down a little bit and younger couples that David was talking about finally had a chance to get in, they were up 20 percent in the last year.
ELVINGTwenty percent, and in Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley, that area, 37 percent. That's an enormous leap in one year.
MARCUSBut that -- prices are unaffordable there. But the good part of the surge is places like Phoenix, where the housing market completely collapsed...
MARCUS...which is back up, I think, 23 percent below where -- well below where it was, but back to a level that's...
ROBERTSAnd you do have some people who have been underwater who are now saying, finally, I can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Prices are rising to the point where I can get out of this house and actually make some money. Ron, let's go to Boston and the ongoing investigation of the marathon bombings. The president, at his press conference, talked about this as well. Said he was satisfied, that the FBI had handled things well, but at the same time, ordering a review of the intelligence process here. What do we know?
ELVINGWe know that the brothers may have been planning some other kinds of attacks. We know they were in contact with some other people, but whether or not those other people were really conspirators, is not entirely clear. I think everyone wants to know. Do the Tsarnaevs represent two guys? Or do they represent some kind of a strain among people from various parts of the world who have may -- who may have various grievances based on their home countries or based on their citizenship attempts and frustrations as we saw in this particular case?
ELVINGWe want to know how big this is. We want to know how great a threat it is going forward. How isolated was this? And when we go back to wondering about the FBI and the CIA and the information they had from the Russians years ago, we want to know is there something systematic in place to keep an eye on people that we have at any time identified as potential terrorists or potential people who have violent intentions?
ROBERTSAnd there are -- by the way, we just got news from AP. Dow Jones average broke 15,000 for the first time this morning. Back to Boston. David, there are contradictions here, though. On one hand, as Ron says, the American people want to know whether there was an intelligence breakdown. But there are two other factors at work here.
ROBERTSThe president himself mentioned one of them, which is if these young men had -- were self-radicalized -- that is, through the Internet, watching fiery preachers on the Internet, learning how to make bombs -- the trail to find them is much harder. You know, conspirators, in an odd way, are harder to -- are easier to find because they leave a trail. And this is one of the potential alarms here when you get people like these who don't leave a trail.
LEONHARDTThat's right. I think the comforting thing is that people who are self-radicalized, there are probably limits to how much damage they can do. You often need to be part of a conspiracy to do massive amounts of damage. I don't want to minimize what happened in Boston at all. But everyone would agree it was a totally different scale from Sept. 11, right?
LEONHARDTAnd so the questions here are, one, were there little clues, were there crumbs, in their contacts in Russia and other places that our intelligence agencies should have caught, and can we learn something about this to maximize the odds we prevent the next one? And then the second question is what self-radicalized them -- if they were self-radicalized -- and how do we go after those kinds of things?
LEONHARDTHow do we try to make sure that these Awlaki videos aren't having a big effect? Who do -- who is the next Awlaki? Those questions are ones that make sense to do in the wake of something like this, regardless of whether the FBI did well or did poorly.
ROBERTSAnd, Ruth, that raises another question, which is we're a country that prizes civil liberties. Putting a video on the Internet, counseling revolution is not a crime in this country. Even bomb making instructions are not a crime. What you -- what the law enforcement is faced with is at what point does talk become action, and does American law and tradition allow you to step in?
MARCUSAnd reading those instructions and listening to those sermons is particularly not a crime. And in that sense, I actually disagree with David. I don't take comfort in the notion of the limited damage of self-radicalization. It makes me really scared for a bunch of reasons. First of all, because it's impossible without creating a police state with incredible surveillance that none of us would tolerate to do a very good job of finding and stopping these folks.
MARCUSSecond of all, because it is -- you can make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom, as we have all found out. Third of all, because, yes, it is difficult for two brothers acting on their own to bring down the twin towers, but it always struck me that al-Qaida's desire for the big bang and the big-impact attack was totally the wrong way to go that you could completely traumatize the country with a lot of little attacks, and we're traumatized by Boston. We probably would have been more traumatized if it had happened on July 4.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Speaking of July 4, Ron Elving, in the questioning of the surviving Tsarnaev brother, news reports say that they were planning to detonate these explosives July 4, actually finished making the bomb...
ELVINGSooner than they thought.
ROBERTS...sooner than they thought. And there's also the angle here of three young friends who have been charged with somehow hindering investigations. What do we know about all this?
ELVINGThe obstruction of justice charge is kind of a catchall for someone that the police feel or that, in this case, the federal authorities feel did not come forward with the information that they could have. In this particular case, there was a backpack that was disposed of, and that was something that they should have brought to the police, of course. Anybody who did anything to help the brothers after the fact is obviously going to be legally culpable.
ELVINGAnd also what the authorities are doing here is they're trying to put these people in a position where they need to protect their own future and therefore may come forward with more information than they would have were they simply being questioned as, you know, subjects of interest. But now that they're really on the griddle, one hopes we're going to get more information about whom they may have been in contact with and how wide this circle might have been. How many people were talking this kind of talk?
ROBERTSAnd there's also, Ruth, the role -- potential role of the widow of the older brother, who -- reports say that female DNA was found on some of the bomb fragments. Now, the reports say, but it wasn't her. What do we know about her?
MARCUSShe's a very interesting figure here because she is -- was born in the United States, not to a Muslim family, met the older brother, converted to Islam, became increasingly observant, insists through her lawyer that she had no clue what was going on, that she was working very hard as a health care nurse to help support her family. And -- but she is obviously really intriguing. The fact that -- apparent fact that this was not her DNA on the bomb fragments opens up another intriguing question. Whose...
ROBERTSWhose was it?
MARCUSWhose was it? But her -- I actually find her to be one of the more interesting characters in this whole thing because it's just so hard to understand the journey from regular upper middle-class American family to, at the very least, wife of bomber.
ROBERTSAnd I think a lot of people were jolted, as I was, to see a photo of her in full black Muslim dress with an American name, Katherine Russell. We hadn't really understood that she was a practicing Muslim.
ROBERTSDavid, one more political story I want to touch on briefly, Kelly Ayotte -- the young, dynamic and fast-rising star, Republican politics, a first-term senator from New Hampshire -- voted against the Manchin-Toomey amendment that would have provided background checks, expansion of background checks on gun purchases, coming for a lot of criticism back home, demonstrations, some of them generated by Michael Bloomberg's organization. Significance here.
LEONHARDTI think it's very significant. I think we don't know which way it's going to go. So the hope of advocates of tighter gun control -- Michael Bloomberg, President Obama, many other people -- is that there will be blowback to the senators who voted against Toomey-Manchin, who voted against expanding background checks, and that they will then essentially have to reconsider their vote. And maybe you change the bill in some ways to give them some cover so they don't have to say they changed their mind. They say, oh, this is a better bill.
LEONHARDTBut I don't think we know yet whether that's going to happen. I mean, there is a whole bunch of polling this week that suggest that, yeah, background checks have 85 or 90 percent support, but that doesn't mean that people, by anywhere near that margin, say the Democrats are doing a better job than the Republicans are.
LEONHARDTPeople tend to retreat into their partisan camps. We had a great quote in our CBS-New York Times poll from a guy who said, you don't break up with your party over one issue. He said, yeah, I support background checks, but I'm still with the Republicans. And I think we don't yet know how much heat Kelly Ayotte is going to take. If they can't put enough heat on her -- she is the first suspect for changing -- then I think stronger background checks aren't going to happen. If they can, then they start to look to people like Rob Portman and some of the Democrats who voted against it.
ROBERTSAnd they need a -- just in the Senate, they need at least six votes to change that.
LEONHARDTThey do need six, but probably some start to fall if they can get one or two.
ELVINGThe Republicans need to fall first. The Democrats, like Heidi Heitkamp, will come along if they can get a couple of more Republican votes. Maybe Jeff Flake from Arizona is still a gettable voter.
ROBERTSWe'll be right back with your comments, your emails, your phone calls. So stay with us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And we're now discussing as always on our first hour in Friday the domestic news of the week. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post is with me, David Leonhardt of The New York Times and Ron Elving of National Public Radio. I have some emails I want to read. This one comes from Chris in Maryland: "Why not make the Guantanamo prison more accessible to lawyers and the media? Could this help relax the American public about moving the prisoners to the mainland?" Ron, you were talking about this issue.
ELVINGIt's hard to see how it would relax the American people by making more access and making these prisoners more available. The basic fear here that was stoked at the time that the president first tried to close Guantanamo and bring people here for trial is that by bringing people into this country, you would heighten the prospect of more terrorism here. That -- not that these individuals could perpetrate anything but that other people seeing them symbolically being tried in New York would be, in some sense, were another inspired to strike.
ROBERTSWe have several emails on the subject of Plan B, Ruth. Miriam writes, "Can your guest please inform listeners as to whether emergency contraception is covered under most health insurance plans before the ruling to make it available over-the-counter, and is it covered now?"
MARCUSBoy, that's a good question. I would guess that it is not for the reason that it's not a prescription medication. It's over-the-counter, and we've all -- there's been interesting move recently over a number of years to move medications from prescription status to over-the-counter status and many of us have found that that means we're shelling out more out-of-pocket. I think that Plan B is in that category, and actually there's a simultaneous discussion about whether regular birth control pills should be available over-the-counter which could end up making you actually pay more than you do now.
ROBERTSAnd here's a tweet on the same subject. I want you to answer because I wouldn't dare. "Men on 'The DR Show' totally do not get the emergency contraceptive issue." This tweet says, "Would you rather have your daughter get pregnant or take a completely safe preventive?"
MARCUSI want to stand up for the men on "The Diane Rehm Show." I think you're all very sensitive good guys who don't want your daughters or anybody else's daughters to get pregnant if they don't want to. And I would just want to reassert my reaction as a mom was just the same as President Obama's reaction as a dad, which is I don't want my daughters doing this without my knowledge and approval.
MARCUSIt was the science of the medication and that safety record and the absence of any scientific information that suggested it wasn't safe in any way for younger girls that made me convinced that the president was just not following his own admonition to follow the science.
ROBERTSWe have -- David, we have several tweets and emails and phone calls on this subject. Let me read this one to you from Joaquin, "What is it that the FAA figured out to get Congress and the White House to make an exception in the sequester? I read that they caved into pressure. Who applied that pressure? Can the method be copied and applied in other circumstances?"
LEONHARDTJosh Barro, who's a sort of heterodox conservative writer for Bloomberg, I think, had some of the best commentary on this. And he said, look, people who fly have more political influence than people who are in head start. And he said that as a criticism, right? But the reality is that people who fly include top politicians, top executives, some top journalists.
LEONHARDTYou name it.
MARCUSMembers of Congress.
LEONHARDTMembers of Congress. I mean, basically, yes, flying has become a form of mass transportation which, I think, is a big success story mostly about deregulation, as unpleasant as it is. But it still skews upper, right? Whereas a lot of the other things, head start, jobless benefits, skew lower. And so the Democrats -- Ruth covers this in her column today, the Democrats made a big miscalculation here. They thought they could hold firm on things like flight delays and use them to get head start reinstated. And they were wrong, and they folded.
ROBERTSAnd also from a journalistic point of view, the long lines at National Airport are very visible. The 10 minutes from the -- from downtown Washington, it takes no problem or creativity at all to send in the camera out there and interview disgruntled travelers. So it's also very easy to cover and very visible.
LEONHARDTYes. I was sort of covering the political science, and you're covering the psychology, and I think they both play a role.
ELVINGLet's look at the other thing that got an early exemption from the sequester, and that was meat inspection. Now, that doesn't necessarily just skew upper -- everybody wants to eat meat. Everybody wants the federal government or somebody to inspect it and then reassure them that it's safe to eat. And therefore people very quickly carved out an exemption for meat inspection, which was right on the cusp. I mean, if you start messing with meat inspection, some of these places have to shut down. A lot of the places that produced the meat have to shut down.
ELVINGSo nobody wanted the higher prices, nobody wanted a shortage of meat. This was something that affected everybody, but it was seen as a completely legitimate federal regulatory role as is air traffic control. And when you're talking about things like that, people, generally speaking, will support government.
ELVINGWhere the Republicans start to push back is when you start talking about benefits for other kinds of people, as David said, Head Start, people in federal housing programs, the housing bite. People who are suffering in terms of housing and not getting the benefits that they otherwise would be getting are really quite acutely affected by the sequester already, and that's all over the country.
ROBERTSLet me turn to some of our callers and open this up. And Dan in Washington, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome. What's on your mind this morning?
DANI'm concerned about the Guantanamo issue in that, you know, we had German prisoners of wars in this country during the World War II. We even, unfortunately, put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, and we were able to deal with these people. And why the few that are in Guantanamo can't be in this country mystifies me. And I heard the earlier comments about the fear of what they might represent and if they're seen on trial on New York.
DANBut we've already seen terrorists on trial in New York, and it is a true failure of the Congress. And change would -- and if to some degree with racism in that these, you know, we didn't have any problem with the Germans here, and from what I've read, they were treated not only leniently but they weren't really confined over -- it wasn't an over -- a burden for them all the way here.
ROBERTSRight. Thanks for you call. I really appreciate it. Ruth, what's you reaction to this issue?
MARCUSWell, there's two different questions, one is, where the detainees are held? Are they held in Guantanamo, or are they held as President Obama had once wanted in a kind of supermax Guantanamo north facility here in the United State? Congress has told them we don't want them here. They can't come. That's a little bit silly because the facilities are just as safe. But the second question which is the really difficulty one is, how long are they going to be held for?
MARCUSGerman prisoners of war were held for the duration of the war and then repatriated. These are actually not prisoners of war. They have not been -- many of them have not been charged with crimes, and they've been held for 11 years, as the president quite elegantly explained. This is just not in keeping with our system.
ROBERTSAnd yet, off the air, we're having this discussion about will ever be terror free, and the feeling is we're never going to be able to say the war on terror is over, and that's part of the factor here too.
MARCUSRight. How long are we going to hold them? And that's not an -- there's not an easy answer to that question because some of them are people who we have determined we may not have the evidence that we can try them with, but they would be very dangerous if we let them go.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Tom in Rockford, Ill. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Tom.
TOMThank you. I'm calling regarding the gun control issue. I'm getting tired of hearing the NRA say that we need to focus more on mental health issues, yet, at the same time, they deny the need for deeper background checks. To me, they're talking out of both sides of their mouths, and the same thing goes to the Republicans that support them.
TOMI say shame on the NRA to what they're doing. I'm saying shame on Congress for not acting on gun control. How many more people need to die? How many more children need to die because people are using guns against other people? It just frustrates me terribly.
ROBERTSThank you, Tom. David, you were talking about this issue.
LEONHARDTI mean, I think to me one of -- look, clearly, mental health plays a role in gun violence. But the thing that I've never quite seen persuasively argued is why we have such higher rates of gun violence in this country if mental health is the real issue, right? We don't differ from other countries by having vastly higher rates of mental health problems. We do differ from other countries in terms of having vastly higher rates of gun violence. And so it seems to me that the mental health plays a role. But if you want to reduce gun violence, it doesn't to me empirically seem like the linchpin here.
MARCUSAnd in addition, the gun debate is so immune to basic factual logic. It's so -- I share the caller's frustration. Yes, there's mental health component, but that shouldn't be an either/or thing. Why can't we look at mental health, see what we can do in that area -- there are significant civil liberties questions there, too -- and also strengthen background checks?
MARCUSSen. Ayotte's argument, which she made last night against background checks, was that she thought it was going to create a privacy concern down the road. That is not a legitimate argument for two reasons. First of all, we already have a system of background checks in place, so either if she wants...
ROBERTSFor 60 percent of the gun sales.
MARCUSSo for the ones that are done through licensed dealers. So either she thinks that system creates a privacy concern and should be dismantled or it doesn't. Second of all, if anything, the privacy concerns that she has which stem from this quite paranoid suggestion that there might be a gun registry ensuing once we had background checks ought to be ameliorated by the Machin-Toomey bill, which adds to the prohibitions -- the existing prohibitions of creating a gun registry and increases the penalties for almost even thinking about creating a gun registry.
ROBERTSBy the way, we have an email from -- apparently, Ron, you said that everybody eats meat, and one of our emails...
ROBERTS...wanted to point out that that is not true.
ELVINGOf course. Of course. Of course, it is not true. I apologize to my vegan friends and relatives.
LEONHARDTA shrinking majority eats meat.
ELVINGBut what I should have said was most everyone wants this to be available. And it was clearly wrong of me to say that everyone eats meat.
MARCUSNo meat today.
ROBERTSBut the, you know, our listener of "The Diane Rehm Show" will catch you if make a mistake like that.
ROBERTSBut let's talk to a couple of more of our listeners here. And Greg in Indianapolis, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Greg.
GREGHi. Thanks for taking my call. I understand that one of our political parties is very much anti-big government. And I'm personally concerned about the fact that with all of the compromising, and all of the backbiting and backstabbing going on back and forth between political parties in our governmental process that we really don't have enough meat inspectors. And we really don't have enough tax examiners to catch the 10 percent of our population that are cheating on their taxes, at which point we would have no national debt.
GREGAnd I'm also concerned about the lack of access to mental health care having been -- I'm a psychiatric social worker for 35 years. And I'm just wondering how would they bring pressure to bear on our electorate to actually address these issues without having enough Indians to do what the chief's decide needs to be done with respect to these rather impressively large issues.
ROBERTSOK. Thank you, Greg. I'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ron, your reaction to Greg.
ELVINGThere are a great number of federal employees who are feeling abandoned at this moment, a great number of people in government, as we talked about earlier, the shrinkage of the public sector. Our feeling disrespected by the way that people in public office and people in the media tend to scapegoat them and think that there is no disadvantage to just shrinking the size of the government.
ELVINGAt the same time that people are demanding more services, people are demanding that more be done, and people are ignoring the fact that if we have and we do have a long-term debt problem, a long-term deficit problem in the United States, it's because of the wide array of benefits that go to the middle class and the upper class and everyone else and not because we have some hugely over rewarded and hugely oversized public sector.
ROBERTSAnother political story or at least a historical story has note that emerged this week, David, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the fifth vote in Bush v. Gore who determined the election of 2000, said that maybe it was a bad idea for the court to take that case. And a lot of commentary, now, you tell us.
ROBERTSBut 25 years later, significance of her comments, you think?
LEONHARDTI think that there is an element of Greek tragedy in Sandra Day O'Connor in this case. And I say that without some sort of moral judgment, meaning, from her own perspective, she did help decide that case. Jeffrey Toobin covers this very well in his book "The Nine." And then for a series of sort of accident, she retired before she was quite ready. She would have stayed on the court.
ROBERTSWell, actually because of the illness of her husband.
LEONHARDTThe illness of her husband but then he died very quickly, and Rehnquist died, and she didn't want to retire at the same time as him. And had things been just a little different, I think Sandra Day O'Connor might still even be on the court or have just retired. She helps decide the case for Bush. She retires in a way that, in retrospect, she regrets. She is replaced by Samuel Alito.
LEONHARDTNow, Sandra Day O'Connor is a Republican, but she's a moderate Republican. And Samuel Alito is a very conservative Republican. And I think it's clear that in many ways, she regrets that vote in some ways because she regrets what happened afterwards even apart from the legal questions in there.
ROBERTSYou mean the fact a Republican president then was able to, you know, named a more conservative justice?
LEONHARDTI think she would have been happy with a Republican replacement for her but not one as conservative as Samuel Alito, who on affirmative action, who on voting rights, who on all sorts of things, including probably abortion, would vote differently from Sandra Day O'Connor.
ROBERTSThat's an interesting perspective. Ruth, you've written often about the court. What do you think?
MARCUSI have -- Justice O'Connor, better late than never. She is right. The court should not have intervened in the case. Illustrative that that decision that it issued, which it said at the time was kind of only good for these set of facts, has never been cited by as precedent by the court. Again, we may well, at the end of the day, if the court hadn't intervened, ended up with George W. Bush being president after the ballots were counted.
MARCUSThat would have been better for the country and even more than better for the country because the country actually got -- to some extent -- got over it. It would have been better for the court because the court tarnished itself, made itself look like a political institution that was responding to the political urgencies of the moment rather than reading the Constitution a little bit more remotely and calmly.
ROBERTSAnd final word here, Ron. This comes at a time when also there's growing focus on the president's selections for federal courts and the politicization of the process of approving justices. It's not just the judgment is being rendered by the courts but the politicization of judicial process is now affecting the ability of the president to name new judges into the federal bench.
ELVINGThat's right. To the district courts, to the appellate courts and perhaps we'll see before this term is over perhaps for a Supreme Court justice. The Republicans have dug in their heels and said, we've gotten away. And there has not been much public reaction to this with holding up, with delaying, with actually delaying some appointments to the point where they just simply were not considered and the appointee withdrew.
ELVINGWe've gotten away with that thus far with no real political pushback, not a heavy one at least. So, perhaps, we could either do that with a Supreme Court justice. We'll find out when the president gets his next opportunity.
ROBERTSVery quickly, Ruth. With a new Democratic president -- president having the second four years, do you expect a retirement from the bench?
MARCUSI don't think so because the oldest justice, Justice Ginsburg, who has had some health problems in the past, seems to be quite spry and quite enjoying herself. So I'm not poised to have my summer taken up with a nomination, which probably means I'm wrong and it'll get ruined.
ROBERTSThat's Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, David Leonhardt of The New York Times, and Ron Elving of National Public Radio. Thank you all for being with us this morning. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And thank you, our listeners, for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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