Week In Politics: Alleged Assassination Attempt; Free Trade Agreements

Oct 14, 2011
Originally published on October 14, 2011 6:28 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Robert Siegel, with a look back now at some of the big events in politics in the past week.

And joining me, columnist David Brooks of The New York Times is in the studio. And today from Cambridge, Massachusetts, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Welcome back to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

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

SIEGEL: And it's not every week that the Justice Department and the FBI accuse a foreign power of plotting an assassination on U.S. soil. They said Iran planned to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. And Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that wasn't all.

PREET BHARARA: The Saudi ambassador's assassination was allegedly intended to be merely the opening act in a series of lethal attacks, cooked up by the defendants and their cohorts in Iran.

SIEGEL: First, David Brooks, what do you make of all this?

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm coming to the conclusion that the jobs are obviously going to be a big issue in this election, but Iran will be close - a major issue in this election. I say that because of a series of interviews that I've had with defense and intelligence officials and you can see the uptick in concern they have about Iran, not only by actions about this.

But they say, first of all, the Iranian nuclear program is back on the fast-track and will likely to come to fruition within a year - that is before the election. Second, they say the Iranian leadership, such as they understand it, seems to have no brakes. Third, they say the Israeli leadership - there were generals and other people who were restraining Netanyahu - Bibi Netanyahu from attacking Iran, and a lot of those generals have been retired or been replaced.

And so, they look at the Iranian situation and they see all the brakes coming off. And so, they - you've seen this upsurge in concern about Iran, surpassing Afghanistan, surpassing Pakistan. So this is part of that larger picture.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think - this could be the year of Iran?

DIONNE: Well, I hope David is wrong about all of that because God help us if all of that turns out to be true. First of all, if you look at this plot, if you sent this in as a thriller plot, a publisher would just send you a rejection letter saying, how implausible is this, which is in a way what makes it even more scary. And I think that this will obviously, it has to strengthen the administration's hands with our allies.

But I think that Iran also, the Iranian government is very split internally. And I think one of the fascinating things that I hope we learn about this is, were there parts of the Iranian government involved in this? Was this, you know, the entire government that sanctioned this? I think it could set off some real internal problems inside Iran, too.

SIEGEL: Let's go onto another matter. It appears that Washington finally found its point of consensus in economic policy. President Obama won approval from Congress for free-trade agreements with South Korea, Columbia and Panama. That's taken several years of negotiating, both diplomatic and domestic, as well.

David, does it matter?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think it's an important bill, especially the South Korea part. It'll create jobs. It's a sign that there actually are functional relationships between the White House and Capitol Hill. I asked some senior administration people, you know, can you guys actually talk to each other still? And they said, yeah, on some issues we can still talk to each other. So that's sort of a good sign.

If you take the trade bill in the patent bill, which passed a couple of months ago, those are actually there kind of wonky. But they're actually quite important for the economy. And so they're good things and the Obama administration is very proud they got trade along with this trade assistance, to help the workers.

SIEGEL: But, EJ, there were some Democratic voices saying that the trade agreements will cost more jobs than they'll add. Is there still a strong pro-labor, anti-free trade bloc in the Democratic Party?

DIONNE: Well, you bet there is. And some of these votes were the larger share of the Democratic House ever to vote against a trade agreement. The one that did best was the Korean free-trade agreement, partly because I think it has important foreign policy implications in Asia. But partly because it was the one deal supported by the United Auto Workers Union. They thought they had gotten a decent break out of this.

So trade is still very unpopular with - free trade is still very unpopular with Democrats. But what this shows is that what the Republicans really want to pass, they can pass. Which opens the question, well, why don't they pass the jobs bill, too, and let this comity extend to a much broader field?

SIEGEL: That was comity, C-O-M-I-T-Y.

DIONNE: Yeah. Amen, yes. So we've had enough comedy with a D already.

SIEGEL: David, you're holding your breath for comity of the jobs bill?

BROOKS: Yeah, they just don't fundamentally believe in it. You know, a temporary payroll tax deduction, I think, is the most likely to pass as a piece. But I'm not sure in this climate too many people are going to pass it. I think the payroll - a temporary cut is going to lead to long-term jobs.

SIEGEL: I want to play something for both of you. This is something that President Obama said in his speech in Michigan today. He was talking about his administration's decision to save General Motors and Chrysler.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We made a deal with the auto companies. We said if you're willing to retool and restructure, get more efficient, get better, get smarter, then we're going to invest in your future because we believe in America. And generally, most importantly, we believe in American workers.


OBAMA: And today I can stand here and say that the investment paid off.


SIEGEL: So here is my question - I'm truly puzzled by this. In dealing with the auto companies, President Obama rolled the dice to save - I believe it was to said - 800,000 jobs in the upper Midwest. His policy was innovative. He thought big, much bigger than anything they thought about the housing crisis, say. He got sacrifices from stockholders, bondholders, auto workers, auto executives. This seems to have worked. And then, voters in the very states that benefited from all this dealt the Democratic Party some of its worst defeats last November.

First, David Brooks, what happened? Explain that one to me.

BROOKS: Yes, well, I agree it was a successful policy. And as E.J. might remind you, I didn't write that at the time. I thought it was a bad policy at the time. But I think people think it's unfair. They think that our capitalist system is based on the idea that you're tested in the marketplace, and those who succeed thrive and those who fail don't. And there is a fundamental moral link between effort and reward.

And I think while they might acknowledge the discrete benefits of this or that bailout, the idea of bailouts seems to violate that distinction - that link between effort and reward. So they fundamentally are bothered by weakening that link and they think it's unfair.

SIEGEL: What do you think, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, David and I have disagreed fundamentally on this from the beginning. I was one of the world's only, outside of Detroit, enthusiastic supporters of this policy. Because I thought letting the Detroit-based auto industry go down, and all of the ripple effects across the Midwest, would have been an irreversible decision for our country.

I think what's gone on here is the classic split - two political scientists I love to quote, Fried and Cantrow(ph), that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. They tend to say we don't want government to do this or that. They want smaller government but they actually like the fruits of what government does. They like the results of government policies...


DIONNE: I have a hunch...

SIEGEL: We only have a couple of seconds here. But in Ohio and Michigan and Illinois, the very places where the jobs are sold, Democrats were slaughtered last November.

DIONNE: And I have a hunch that between now and November of next year, this policy will look a lot better to those voters. And if Obama can't sell this policy in that part of the country, he's going to have a lot of trouble elsewhere.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.