This Week, February 28, 2010: The Roundtable with Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Vargas, George Will, Cokie Roberts, and Sam Donaldson

Watch this broadcast on Video: Part 1, Part 2, Green Room (not transcribed)



PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (UNITED STATES): I'm going to start off by saying, here are some things we agree on.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (UNITED STATES): We agree more than we disagree.

CONGRESSMAN (US CONGRESS): I think we all agree on that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (UNITED STATES): All parties in both chambers should be able to agree.

CONGRESSMAN (US CONGRESS): I agree with that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (UNITED STATES): We agree that there have to be some. We agree...



CONGRESSMAN (US CONGRESS): We certainly agree with the premise you stated.


CONGRESSMAN (US CONGRESS): You're right. We agree with that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (UNITED STATES): You agree that we should have some insurance regulation.

CONGRESSMAN (US CONGRESS): The main point is, we basically agree.

JIMMY KIMMEL (HOST): And I'm happy to announce that no agreement was reached.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): But we are agreeing to go to our roundtable now, with George Will, Sam Donaldson, Paul Krugman, and Cokie Roberts. Good to have all of you here this morning. And let's...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): And we're all going to agree.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And we're all going to agree, exactly.


ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Exactly. Thanks to you, Sam. George, what did you think of the summit? Did, did, did it mean anything?

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Well, let's put it in context. The country having said we wantto concentrate on the economy and jobs, not health care, the President doubles down on health care. And days after he unveils a commission that will propose remedies for our Ponzi entitlement structure, he pushes ahead with a trillion-dollar new entitlement. The country having said it's too expensive, he melds the House and Senate bills and comes up with a bill that's $70 billion more expensive than the original Senate bill. The country having said let's do it piecemeal, he says - and he may have a point here - he says, look, this is such a complex system that you can't do piecemeal. It's like a Calder mobile. If you touch something here, something jiggles way over here. So, at the end of the day, it turns out we have two parties for a reason, and they have differing views about, A, the purposes and, B, the competence of government. And so we slog ahead.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Well, he comes up with a bill that the Congressional Budget Office says over 20 years will save billions of dollars. You can argue it if you want, but that's what they say. The thing that the summit demonstrated, if there was any doubt in anyone's mind, is the Republicans are not going to play on anything. It's not a question of, let's meet in the middle, or even, you're the majority party, so you're going to get most of it, but give us something. They're not going to play. So what the Democrats have to do now is pass the bill, put back the public option, since it's their bill, and pass it. And President Obama...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): But you can't pass it with the public option.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Well, oh, wait a moment. If 51 votes in the Senate, they can.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): They can't get it.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): It's unclear even then. But...

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Let me just finish here, because I want to say the final thing. The President has to drop his George B McClellan mask and become Ulysses Grant. Be ruthless. That's what a Franklin Roosevelt would have done. That's what Harry Truman would have done.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And, Sam, that's a good point, because, Paul, you've been arguing that the President should be more ruthless, that he should be...

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): Well, you know, I mean, I think the summit actually served its purpose, from his point of view, which was to demonstrate that the Republicans are not going to give on anything, that they're not going to - you know, they're going to make every possible claim, they're going to say things that aren't true, like premiums are going to go up under this bill, which isn't, isn't going to happen. And, yeah, I mean, I prefer - I mean, and George and I actually have the same view, but I think the better metaphor is it's a three- legged stool. You have to have guaranteed issue. You can get - you know, pre-existing conditions are covered. To make that work, you have to have universality. You have to have a mandate. And to have that work, you have to have large subsidies. So the bill has to be more or less what it is. It has to be a comprehensive reform. And the Democrats, you know, from their own point of view, they actually have to do this. They have to - they can't go into November elections...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Well I mean and, and that's the big question. That is the big question. There's no certainty at this point that there are 217 votes in the House and 51 in the Senate, no matter what procedure they use. So that is still where they are hung up, which is where they've been hung up all along. Now, the White House did a couple of smart things in terms of what people were upset about. You heard Senator Alexander talk about, in the dead of night, 2,700 pages, Christmas Eve. Those are the talking points. And, and so the White House puts it up on the Web, has a, you know, seven-hour meeting, and takes out the special provisions, particularly for Nebraska. And so that, you know, they're trying to fix the things that they see are - that the public has had problems with. And it is true that you can, you can sing it round or flat, George, about whether the public's for this bill or not. In a recent poll that we came out with, 58% - a Kaiser poll - 58% said they would be angry or disappointed if a bill didn't pass. So I think that that is what the Democrats are going with.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): They want something. They're just...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): They want something, and the Democrats just have to, you know, say their prayers, and vote for a bill, and hope it works for them.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): But, Cokie, it's true. I think in the short run they're going to lose seats, because they dropped the ball...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Sure they are. They're going to lose seats anyway.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): They dropped the ball last summer. The Republicans brilliantly picked it up. It probably won't be reversed by November. But this is the only chance in how many years to do this?


SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): And I think history will show that they were right if they get it done.


GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Two things. First of all, Sam, you want the President to be Ulysses Grant, who won the war by his wonderful indifference to his own casualties, and I think some members in the Senate and in the House would not approve of that.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Did I not just say that they may lose some seats? Were you listening?

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): By the millions. Now, second, now, Paul says that, in fact, the Republicans have no ideas. They do, cross-selling across state lines, tort reforms, all those. Just a second, Paul. Then you say they're telling whoppers. That was your view about Lamar Alexander when he said, for millions of Americans, premiums will go up. You said in the next sentence in your column, I guess you could say he wasn't technically lying, because the Congressional Budget Office says that's true.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): No, it's not what it says.

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): But listen...

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): Can I explain? This is...

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Wait, wait, wait. Let me, let me set the predicate here, because you then go on and say the Senate does say the average premiums would go up, but people would be getting better premiums.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): Look, let me explain what happens, because you actually have to read the CBO report. And what the CBO report tells you - in fairly elliptical language - is that what it will do, what the bill will do is bring a lot of people who are uninsured, who are currently young and therefore relatively low cost, into the risk pool, which will actually bring premiums down a little bit. It will also have, however, let - lead a lot of people to get better insurance. It will lead a lot of people who are currently underinsured, who have insurance policies that are paper thin and don't actually protect you in a crisis, will actually get those people up to having full coverage. That makes the average payments go up, but it does not mean that people who currently have good coverage under their policies will pay more for their, for their insurance. In fact, they'll end up paying a little bit less.

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): One question. If the government came to you and said, Professor Krugman, you have a car. We're going to compel you to buy a more expensive car, but it's not really more expensive, because it's a better car, wouldn't you tell them to get off your land?

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): But that's not - it's not - you know we've done - Catherine Rampell did a very good piece in the "Times" blogs recently which said that the main obstacle to the people who are uninsured is not that they are choosing not to be insured. It is income.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): It's that they can't afford it. Right.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): It is, in fact, young people who are not buying insurance because they're not being able to afford it, will be brought in through the subsidies. And that will end up being better even for the people who are currently insured.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): One of the things that the, the Congress has failed to do until now is convince people who have insurance, which is most of us, that this bill will work for them, and that's why this argument is important. But the, the one thing that has been added on, apparently, since we haven't actually seen the bill in the last week, is the decision to have the federal government regulate rates, and that could be extremely popular with people...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): The rates insurance companies charge us.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Us old guys, they say to us, we're going to cut your Medicare. They're not going to cut Medicare benefits, not touch them. What they want to cut in the bill, as I understand it, is Medicare Advantage, which was put in with a government subsidy of 15 cents for every dollar, take the 15 cents away. The private insurers now can compete on their own and use that money elsewhere, and you could argue where it should be used, but it's not correct that they're trying to cut Medicare.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): I do want to get to one other issue related to this health care bill, which is the language on abortion, because it almost died in the House, the health care bill, because of abortion. There was the Stupak amendment, which attached highly restrictive language to when abortions could be covered, and there - Bart Stupak says this is unacceptable, this current bill, as Obama has proposed it, and he says 20 other members of the House will, will have problems with it, too. Will abortion kill this thing in the end?

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Well, Alan Frumin's 15 minutes of fame have arrived. He is the hitherto obscure, but soon to be quite famous parliamentarian of the Senate, and it will be his job to rule on what can and cannot be passed under reconciliation. That is, is it a budgetary-related thing? You can argue about a great many things in the health care bill. Can you say that's budget-related? No one thinks you can change the abortion language under reconciliation.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): Let me just point out...


PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): ...That in 2001, the Senate parliamentarian was in doubts about the - some of the things Republicans were doing through reconciliation, and they dealt with that by firing him and replacing him.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And, Cokie, can Speaker Pelosi, given this issue, if they can't get through on reconciliation some sort of changing of the abortion language can she find the votes?

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Can he pass the bill? It's going to be very, very tough. That's what I said at the beginning. I mean, this, this bill is not at the moment passable by Democratic votes.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): She'll get the votes.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): I think in the end she will, too.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): In the end, the Democrats understand the old phrase, "We hang together or we hang separately."

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): At the moment...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Well, and they're on record already taking an unpopular vote.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): ...the calculation...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): It's going to kill them in November.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Right. The calculation that they've made all along, and I personally think it's a correct calculation, is that it's worse to do nothing than to do something and that, in the long run, people will like this bill.

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Can I say something that Paul and I might actually agree on?


GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Twenty years from now, the country is going to be spending a larger portion of its GDP on health care than it is now for three reasons. We're getting older, and as we age, we get more chronic diseases that interact with one another. Second, we're getting richer, we can afford to buy more medicine. And, third, medicine is becoming more competent. Therefore, we're going to spend more on health care.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): But there's a...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): The other thing is, you know, the health care industry is the biggest employer in most of our cities now. So when, when the speaker talks about a job creation bill...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): A jobs bill, exactly.


ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Let's shift a little bit to Charlie Rangel, because we heard Speaker Pelosi talk about the fact that what he did didn't endanger national security, but it doesn't look good. We've got a handful of Democrats who have now started to join Republicans in calling for him to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a powerful post in the House of Representatives. Can he hold this post, Cokie?

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Yes, he can hold it, as long as people - you know, his colleagues say he can hold it. But whether it becomes too hot for him to hold is something that, you know, sort of evolves. And you see what happens in the papers in New York and all of that and whether he can withstand it. But, you know, in terms of that Ethics Committee report, there were two sets of issues they were dealing with. One was this trip to the Caribbean that was apparently paid for by corporations. The other was donations to members of Congress who then provided things in legislation for the people who gave those donations. I think that's a far, far more serious offense.


COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): And, and the Ethics Committee basically said, no problem. That's the kind of thing that really makes people very uncomfortable about the Congress and feel like the Congress is all on the take.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Now, let's talk about - talk about the man for a moment. Years ago, he wrote his autobiography, titled, "I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since," referring to the day in Korea when Sergeant Rangel, pressed by the enemy, led his men over a steep, frigid mountain pass to safety and got the bronze star for it. I didn't know him then. But when he came to Congress, having unseated Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem, he came as a reformer. He was on the Impeachment Committee and the Judiciary Committee for Richard Nixon, the real impeachment process. And through the years, we've watched him. Now, if these charges before the Ethics Committee - and I agree with you, they're much more serious than the one for which he's been admonished...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And there are further ones...

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): If, in fact...


SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): ...That's - it's all true, he has to give it up. He has to -be taken away from him. And I think his being in the House has been good for his constituents and good for the country.


GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): To know Charlie Rangel is to like him.


GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): He's a wonderful spirit and all that. Still, one has to wonder. Suppose a Republican has revised his disclosure form and suddenly his net worth doubled and he came upon not one, but two checking accounts with $500,000 in them...

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): They're serious.

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): I mean, this is - there comes a point at which the tax writing committee should be headed by someone without these problems.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Well, and Speaker Pelosi and Steny Hoyer were all calling for Tom DeLay to relinquish his post when he was also admonished by the Ethics Committee.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): Yes, this is - you know, it's - it is worth pointing out that none of these things actually seem to affect national policy. You know, when Billy Tauzin...


PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): When Bill Tauzin basically wrote the drug - the Medicare drug bill then left Congress to become head of the pharmaceutical lobby, that was much more serious, but it didn't actually violate House ethics rules. So, yeah, I'm unhappy with this. I wish Rangel would go away. But it's - you know, it really has no national significance.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And now let's go to the New York governor, because the state of New York has quite a brouhaha playing out this weekend, the end of last weekend, this weekend. Governor David Paterson stepping down amid allegations that he and his state police contingent improperly tried to influence a woman involved in a domestic violence dispute with one of his closest aides.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Tried to keep her from testifying against a man who had abused her. It's really...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And domestic violence was his signature issue coming into office.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): It's just unbelievable. The idea that he would use the state police and himself - he called her himself to basically say - or is alleged to have - to say, don't show up in court to testify against my friend, who beat you up. You know, that is, that is the worst kind of harassment of women who are already very reluctant to go the court on domestic violence issues.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): He has said he will not run for election in November...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Yeah, because he couldn't win.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): But this weekend, Democrats in New York are meeting because they're not sure he can govern for 10 more months.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Well, that's a real question. You know, Basil Paterson, one of the great power brokers in New York...


SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): ...Democratic politics, his father, is a man of great substance. His son has proved not to be. And I think one of the lessons here is, when you run - because they run as a team in New York, governor and lieutenant governor - you ought - just like a president and vice president - you don't put someone on the ticket because there's a political advantage who is not capable of stepping in, as he has proved not to be capable. And I think it's a real question whether he should serve out the rest of his term.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): And, George, what a bumpy term for him. He's got terrible approval ratings, a huge budget problem, and he managed to infuriate the Kennedys by his mishandling of Caroline Kennedy's - you know, when she, when she tried to take over for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): You mentioned the budget problem. I mean, New York state spending has increased almost 70% in a decade. It is dead heat with California as to see which is the worst governed state right now. So a lot of New York's problems predate and will follow Mr Paterson. Whether or not he should resign because he can't govern, who can govern that state? The state legislature governs that state badly.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): And locks people out and does all kinds of...


PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): From my, from my home state of New Jersey, I think we're in the running there.



GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): Well we're going to see whether Andrew Cuomo can govern. He's going to be the Democratic nominee.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Well, he's, he's the attorney general, who is currently investigating Governor Paterson, and has expressed interest...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Yeah. Well it's just a little...


COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): ...currently investigating the governor who he wanted to defeat.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): But the White House had tried privately to encourage Governor Paterson to step...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Privately? It wasn't so private.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): It wasn't so private, to step aside, so I guess they're probably looking at this as a positive development, that he's not running for election.



COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Oh, sure. Yeah, but, you know, this business of using the state troopers, which, of course, Eliot Spitzer was also - I mean, it was all of these - all these echoes of, you know, the wife standing by as the governor admits to, you know, some perfidy. And the state troopers, really, if I were the state troopers, I would find a way to just not do what the governor says, because it just gets them in trouble over and over again...


COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): ...and then there was Arkansas.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS) (Voiceover): And then, of course, this weekend, we have a brand-new White House social secretary appointed to replace Desiree Rogers, a close friend of the Obamas who is exiting after a bumpy tenure, I would say. Cokie, you spoke with her. She, she was highly criticized after the Obamas' first state dinner in which she arrived, looking absolutely gorgeous, but in what some people later said was far too fancy a dress.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): But most importantly, that was the state dinner that was crashed by the Salahis, who walked in without an invitation when the social secretary's office didn't have people manning the security sites.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Well, I talked to - I did talk to her, Desiree, yesterday at length. She is from my home city of New Orleans and a fellow Sacred Heart girl.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): What's the name of the city?


SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): I love to hear her say it.


COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): But - and she has lots of good explanations about that dinner. And basically, the bottom line is, it's the Secret Service. But she - but her, her major point is, and I, and I completely take this - is that she, she put on 330 events at the White House last year and did open the building to all kinds of people who had not been there before. And they had wonderful music days of all kinds of music, where you had during the day, the musicians would work with kids in Washington and teach them things before coming on at night.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Cokie, that's irrelevant.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): Well, I don't think it's irrelevant.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): I mean, it's irrelevant. People who work for the President understand or should understand their place, which is to be spear-carriers. There are two stars in anyone's White House, the President and the President's spouse. After that, this passion for anonymity that once was a hallmark of people who worked for a president, has been lost. She wanted to be a star herself and that undid her.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): It's long been lost. Look at all the people who work for presidents and then go out and write books about them.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): I think you're right.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Do you think she was - did she quit, or was she asked to leave?

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): She was asked to.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): She says she quit.


COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): And she certainly has lots...

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): And to spend more time with your family.

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): No, no, to go into the corporate sector and make some money, where she'll make a lot of - she'll do fine.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Good luck to her. I don't wish her ill. It's just that she didn't understand...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): She'll do very well.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): ...she was not a star in the sense that she should make herself prominent.


GEORGE WILL (ABC NEWS): It is axiomatic that when there's no penalty for failure, failure proliferates. She failed conspicuously in her one great challenge, which was the first state dinner, and she's gone. If she's gone because she failed, that's a healthy sign.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): The big question, of course, because she was one of that close contingent of Chicago friends is whether or not she's just the first to leave or if we'll see other...

COKIE ROBERTS (ABC NEWS): But you'll see people leave. I mean, that's what happens. It's a perfectly normal thing that happens in administrations, is that people come, and they come in at the beginning, and then it's time to, to go back to life.

PAUL KRUGMAN (ABC NEWS): Can I say that with 20 million Americans unemployed, the fact that we're worrying about the status of the White House social secretary...

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): It's unlikely to end, Paul.

SAM DONALDSON (ABC NEWS): Paul, welcome to Washington.

ELIZABETH VARGAS (ABC NEWS): Thank you, thank you. All right. You can get the political updates all week long by signing up for our newsletter on Thank you, everybody. And coming up next, we remember a woman who soared to new heights serving her county. And of course, later, "The Sunday Funnies".

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Originally broadcast, 2.28.10