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This Week In Politics: Sebelius, Civil Rights And Immigration


And now, we turn to our Friday political commentators - E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post; and David Brooks, of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

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

BLOCK: And David, we just heard President Obama say about the Sebelius resignation, the final score speaks for itself, talking about the 7.5 million or so people who signed up, ultimately, for health insurance. Is that how you see her legacy? Or how overshadowed is that by the botched rollout of healthcare.gov?

BROOKS: It's pretty overshadowed. She definitely leaves under a cloud. I've never been sure how much to blame her. There's a lot of passive-aggressive behavior in government. It's very hard for a Cabinet secretary to really run their department. You got to be a super bulldog and she was not that. And they brought in this outside team to actually get some change going there.

I do think, you know, they did recover. I give them all the credit in the world about that. I think the one thing that's been the tragedy of the whole government - the website fiasco is that it's distracted attention from what really is the crucial and core issue with the health care, is what about costs?

During the recession, the health care cost inflation was on the way down. Now, it's spiking back upward again. And so we - she and the whole success of Obamacare really depends on bending the cost curve, and all the attention has been taken off that; and I think she's part of that problem.

BLOCK: E.J., could you make the case that Kathleen Sebelius really should have resigned when the launch was so badly bungled, take responsibility for that?

DIONNE: I think, actually, that would've made things worse at the time. I think the administration didn't want her to resign because it would be a kind of admission of failure. I think they're much better off that she left now after the good news was in, and I'm not sure prices are spiking quite the way David said.

She's a very interesting person. I mean, when you go back, she led a Democratic era in Kansas. That takes more doing than a Democratic era in Maryland or New York, for example. And she did fight hard, and effectively, to get the Affordable Care Act passed. There was the website disaster for which she bears some responsibility. I agree with David - I want to know someday exactly how this mess happened.

But she gets to go out war-weary, as Scott Horsley rightly said, but having the Affordable Care Act on a pretty good track. So it was a good day for her to leave.

BLOCK: Well, we heard Kathleen Sebelius referring to President Obama's speech yesterday at the LBJ Library in Texas, talking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and in the context of doing that, talking about Medicare, which her father helped to pass. President Obama said in that speech yesterday, the office of the presidency humbles you. And he compared himself to a relay swimmer in the currents of history.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates, by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by reimagining the world as it should be.

BLOCK: And E.J., without specifically talking about the health care overhaul, that did seem to be the clear echo that the president was reaching for there.

DIONNE: Right. And I think it's fair enough to say that Medicare itself was passed as part of a long democratic effort to get some sort of national health insurance passed. Lyndon Johnson settled for a very expansive program for the elderly, and Medicaid for the poor. And so this is an effort to finish that job. So I think that's legitimate.

There were a lot of comparisons of LBJ and President Obama, and why can't he be the schmoozer and arm-twister that LBJ was; and I think one of the things we forget - we forget a lot of things - but one of them is that LBJ governed in a much more consensual time, when the parties were less polarized. There was much more diversity in each party.

And I was thinking a lot about LBJ this week. His favorite passage in the Bible was from Isaiah: Come let us reason together. That was actually possible in 1964. There really isn't much coming together to reason these days.

BLOCK: David Brooks, your thoughts on the LBJ legacy and in particular, the social safety net and where we are now.

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm really struck by the way the president emphasized the limits of the office, and we imagine LBJ as this all-powerful president. But in fact, he was riding social movements. And in some of the reflections on the Civil Rights Act Memorial - I think too much attention has been given to LBJ, and not enough to the movement that created it. It's worth remembering the year before, when Bayard Rustin and Philip Randolph wanted to have a little march on Washington. Most of the major civil rights groups were against it, and they had to fight some real resistance to actually have that march, affected by events in Birmingham. And it was that march, and it was the social movement behind it, that allowed LBJ and the politicians to be the icing on the cake. I think it's very hard for a president to really start something that big unless there's a groundswell underneath it.

DIONNE: I just want to second David. I think the social movement was very important, and there hasn't been quite the same kind of social movement behind progressive change in this era.

BLOCK: A question about 2016 presidential politics, if I might. I know it's only 2014, but I'm going to go there. There does seem to be building Republican buzz around Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, as a presidential contender; and he made some news this week. He was speaking at his father's presidential library in Texas, and he talked about illegal immigrants crossing the border to provide for their family, or to put food on the table.

JEB BUSH: Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony. It's kind of a - it's an act of love. It's an act of commitment to your family.

BLOCK: David Brooks, are you hearing much enthusiasm for a Jeb Bush candidacy among Republicans?

BROOKS: Not among those earning under a couple million dollars a year. You know, among the donor class, among some of the richer - more moderate, frankly - Republicans, there's an idyllic sense that he'd be a good candidate. Most people don't have that, and I assume he's not going to run because he's never shown the desire.

You've got to have this intense desire to want to traipse around Iowa and New Hampshire and all these states, put your family through it all. James Carville used to joke: Once you have the desire, it never goes away. It's like sex; nobody ever had sex once and said, OK, that was fine, I'm done with that.


BROOKS: Once they get the desire to run for president, they want to do it forever. But if they don't have the desire, they really don't run, and Jeb Bush has never shown that fire to run for office. So until I'm proven differently, I assume he's not going to be running for president.

BLOCK: E.J., top that.

DIONNE: I'm not going to top that - the Carville comment. But, you know, first of all good for Jeb Bush for speaking that way about immigrants. There was another Bush who spoke that way, and his name was George W., and he got elected; and he got elected because he got 40 percent of the Latino vote.

I think David may be right that Jeb isn't running, but he's making an awful lot of moves that suggest he would like to run, and he is filling a space left by the decline of Chris Christie. A lot of the people who are moving to Jeb, particularly in the donor class, were Christie people.

There is one thing he has, and I think it's a problem - that it's the past. And running against Hillary Clinton, you know, time for a change so let's have a Clinton-Bush race? Again, that is problematic. But he's got a kind of optimism when he speaks. I heard him speak about a month ago, and the Republican Party these days is very gloomy about the state of the country, about where we're going. And at least he speaks optimistically. So I think there are problems with a candidacy, but I think that optimism is something some Republican has to pick up on.

BLOCK: And Jeb Bush's mother, Barbara Bush, has now backed off her comment from last year, where she said we've had enough Bushes. She's now...

DIONNE: It's hard when you have to spin your mother's comments.


DIONNE: That's a real - sort of barrier there.

BLOCK: I think we'll leave it there for today. Have a great weekend.

DIONNE: Great to be with you.

BROOKS: You, too.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution; and David Brooks, of The New York Times.



You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.