03/03/2013 10:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

BOTH SIDES NOW : Woodward and Scalia -- Too Big to Care?

By Mark Green

This week it's Eliot Spitzer and Mary Matalin alternately clashing and concurring. Our March Madness includes a slow-motion government shut-down, perhaps a 'Vatican Spring,' and "twistifications", in Jefferson's phrase, by two Washington poobahs -- Antonin Scalia and Bob Woodward. Then: Ted Cruz and Karl Rove respectively represent Tea Party and establishment GOP approaches. Who's more right?


On the Sequester. With their different political accents, Eliot and Mary seem to concur on the latest tax/spending/deficit impasse: the impact of $85 billion in across-the-board spending will be modest (Mary says "infinitesimal"), at least at first, and there's a deal to be had if the president conveys that he's willing to make significant enough entitlement cuts to convince the GOP to accept loophole closings. Everyone should go to Camp David, say both, and not leave until there's a deal... sort of like a fiscal Conclave of Cardinals.

At the same time as our taping, the president is holding a press conference responding to those who seem to put the onus entirely on him. "I'm not a dictator" who can stop McConnell and Boehner from leaving a room and flying home emphasizing that the pain will be significant and avoidable (thousands of teachers getting pink-slips and hundreds of thousands of children losing WIC and Head Start, millions of the unemployed losing 10 percent of jobless checks, numerous flight delays, 800,000 Pentagon employees furloughed... 700,000 jobs and a half point of lost economic growth).

Who blinks -- a popular president worried about slowing the economy or an unpopular House worried about losing its majority in 2014? Eliot courageously responds "I don't know" ... but does know that Obama daily is losing the opportunity to push his second term agenda while this continuing crisis crowds out other initiatives; Mary thinks that Obama will buckle and that the long-term threat of entitlement spending dwarfs the short-term problems of lost jobs and services.

Host: Who's to blame and how bad will it be? Both are technically responsible for the indiscriminate cuts since Congress passed and the president signed the Budget Control Act mandating the sequester if all else failed. But morally, when the House GOP was recklessly refusing to lift the debt ceiling in mid-2011, the president offered a way to burn down only a room, not the whole house. To conclude that the sequester was "his idea" completely ignores the meaning of duress in hostage negotiations.

As for the effects of across-the-board cuts, it seems like a perfect example of the frog-in-boiling water paradigm, not realizing that it's being boiled to death little by little. Best guess: after daily, dueling attacks, there will be a non-grand bargain to avoid calamity, probably this Summer as the debt ceiling comes up again.

On Cruz and Rove. Freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz has hit Washington like a meteor over Siberia. But is he the next Reagan or McCarthy? Is he essentially a brilliant Allen West if you combine his oral skills, swagger and straight-line Tea Party nihilism?

After listening to his insinuations about Chuck Hagel's speaking fees (North Korea?) and McCain's chastisement, Mary sides with Cruz generally. "Any articulate, full-throated conservative can expect to be demonized," especially one who beat the Texas establishment and doesn't care about being in the Senate club. Eliot agrees that he's very smart but thinks it "very, very dumb" that his office repeated his earlier charge that there were a dozen communists on the Harvard Law faculty when he was there. An amused Spitzer (Harvard Law, '83) claims not to remember any; Matalin agrees that the Senator should avoid such rhetorical excesses and present more positively, "like Marco Rubio." (Is there room for two 41 year-old Latino Republicans with presidential ambitions in the Senate? As for having been born in Canada, Cruz's mother was a natural-born citizen so presumably he's constitutionally eligible, for what that's worth.)

On the other side of the GOP divide, Karl Rove -- after getting reamed by his donors for letting the Akins and Mourdochs sinking his ship -- has created a Conservative Victory SuperPac to raise many millions to keep wingnuts from becoming Republican nominees. Does this make him a "Chicago machine pol" in Gingrich's phrase or a "politburo" in Woodward's (who certainly had a busy week)? Here a triple consensus: it can't be a crime to be politically smart in the business of elections. Mary cites the irrebuttable Buckley Rule that her team should "support the most electable conservative."

On the Catholic Church. Mary's a practicing Catholic, Eliot's not. In that context, we ask their thoughts on a once-in-600-year development of a Papal resignation after a decade of scandalous headlines.

Blaming a "despicable" press frenzy, Mary rejects the assumption that her Church tolerates any more child abuse than other denomination or institution and wonders why the media rarely notes all the loving, pure priests and good works of Catholic Charities. Eliot agrees that other institutions -- academe, Wall Street, government -- has their owns sets of scandals but also wonders about possible doctrinal changes to modernize the Church, like allowing priests to marry. No way, she replies, since it's a 2000 idea that priests are "married" to the Church so they can focus only on their clerical duties.

While it's weird to seek Nate Silver-like odds on will win the Papal election, our commentators are asked about desirable attributes of the next Holy See, given all the controversies "A good communicator, young-ish, a good traveler and pure of heart," says Mary, who will be going to Rome for the Conclave next week.

On Scalia, Voting and Race. What do they make of Justice Scalia's assertion from the bench that the historic Voting Rights Act is the "perpetuation of racial preference"? Eliot expresses surprise that he'd make such a racially incendiary, tone-deaf comment that treats the avoidance of discrimination as an unfair privilege. Mary explains that the Justice is a federalist who properly respects state sovereignty in this case; Eliot regards him as a selective federalist a small case called Bush-Gore.

Host: The bench comments of Scalia, Kennedy and Roberts about the Voting Rights Act law outliving its usefulness completely exposes their result-oriented hypocrisy. Here are constitutional originalists who want muskets two centuries ago to control gun laws today and lecture that courts should interpret not make law (remember justices being merely "umpires calling balls-and-strikes" from Roberts's confirmation hearing?). Yet when it comes to race, these three seem to be substituting their personal belief for legislation re-enacted 98-0 in the Senate after Congress concluded there is still discrimination against minority voters in the covered jurisdictions. On a scale of judicial activism, Brown and Roe pale in comparison.

On Obama the 'bully.' The Washington press corps has recently complained that the president manipulates the media by going around or trying to intimidate White House reporters. While obviously there's no Nixonian Enemies List, do Obama's people bully the press more than other administrations or simply use proven Reaganesque techniques to maximize good coverage?

Eliot thinks that the recent criticism here overwrought. Since forever politicans make their case forcefully and the press has to vigorously cover them, pushing back if they take shots at them. Mary claims that her media friends tell her stories of Obama people not merely complaining about coverage but "cutting them off... which we never did in the Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 White House." She highlights the Woodward-Sperling kerfuffle where famed Watergate journalist and author Bob Woodward this week claimed that WH aide Gene Sperling tried to intimidate him. He went on Hannity to worry how such a hazing might scare not him, of course, but young journalists.

Host: Speaking of Watergate, Woodward has been exposed by a smoking gun, i.e., the email exchange supposedly threatening Woodward. Neutral observers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times -- and Erik Erickson and Jay Tapper -- have unanimously concluded that Woodward was overreactingand exaggerating. Sperling's email profusely apologies for yelling at the reporter because of a dispute over the Sequester issue and says that Woodward would come to regret his assertions since they're not true. Indeed, Woodward replied, "Gene, you do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should be more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice." Oops.

It gets worse: After Politico released the emails, Woodward went on Hannity and neither of them mentioned Woodward's inconvenient reply that portrays him as a self-promoting whiner than heroic journalist.

Mark Green is the creator and host of Both Sides Now.

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