Roundtable: Souter Replacement Showdown?

Joining me on our "This Week" Roundtable today was PBS' Gwen Ifill, New York Times columnist, economist and ABC News contributor Paul Krugman, Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib and ABC columnist George Will.

We discussed the political fight over retiring Justice David Souter's replacement, the fallout from Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party's efforts to rebrand itself this week.

Watch it here:

--George Stephanopoulos

SPECTER: I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV.: I welcome Senator Specter and his moderate voice to our very diverse caucus.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY.: Obviously we are not happy that Senator Specter has decided to become a Democrat.

OBAMA: Let me tell you, Arlen Specter is one tough hombre.

MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN: This has nothing to do with philosophy and principle and all those wonderful sounding words, but it's a cold and crass political calculation.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Michael Steele saying good riddance to Arlen Specter. Republican senator became a Democrat this week, bringing the Democrats one step closer to 60 in the Senate. Lots of different implications to that switch we're going to talk about on the roundtable today.

Let me bring in George Will, Jerry Seib of the Wall Street Journal, Paul Krugman of the New York Times and Princeton, and Gwen Ifill of PBS.

And I want to get to the Republican Party later, George, but let's begin with the implications of this for the Supreme Court. Of course, Arlen Specter was the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He's out right now. As this goes forward, we're going to learn a lot about President Obama, his party and the Republican Party.

WILL: We are. This will not change the balance on the court because this is a liberal being -- will be replaced by presumably a liberal. You may be admiring my necktie.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I love your tie.

WILL: That is the silhouette...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Tell me what it's about.

WILL: The silhouette of James Madison. This is the tie of the Federalist Society. And when I wear it on television, sleeper cells all over the country are activated...


WILL: ... to go to war. But there will be no war over this. He has a majority. He's no fool. Whoever he nominates will be confirmed. And then he may be disappointed, because Justice Souter disappointed George Herbert Walker Bush. Justice Felix Frankfurter disappointed Franklin Roosevelt. These people take on lives of their own when they get onto the court.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, George, you say there will be no war, so let me bring in Gwen Ifill right here. I think George is probably right on that everything we know about President Obama shows a temperate nature. Yet, he is getting a lot of pressure already from liberals who say, you know what, you've got -- you'll have 60 votes this summer. Go pick someone, even if it means getting 30 Republican no votes.

IFILL: Because that's the way it works in Washington. There's always a war, even if the outcome is predetermined about something like this.

By the way, Justices Alito and Justice Roberts did not disappoint George W. Bush, so there's a lot to be said for -- and probably a longer track record of Supreme Court nominees who do do what is expected of them. That's why...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Breyer and Ginsburg got overwhelming votes, but they turned out to be pretty steadfast liberals over there.

IFILL: Well, I don't think anybody was confused that they were going to be pretty steadfast liberals. That was at a time when people thought it was the thing to do, that unless this person, this nominee really was horrible and in some way was not worthy of the seat, you gave the president his choice. That clearly is not what happens anymore, and what really has to happen for these -- for anybody that a president nominates not to be confirmed is, you know, especially with 60 votes now, it looks like maybe perhaps in the Senate, it would take a lot more, but...

STEPHANOPOULOS: A personal problem.

IFILL: A personal problem. Something -- and even -- and there are people on the court who had personal problems who still managed to get confirmed, so it would take a lot. But I think there's still going to be a fight because there's always a fight.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you one of the liberals who wants a big fight?

KRUGMAN: I'm not sure I would make a fight over this. But there are people certainly who do. You know, Obama is having problems some problems with people, progressives who expected him to be more dramatically different than he is. You know, in some sense, people who are disappointed over Tim Geithner are going to be depending on a more liberal justice appointment. Obama has not -- you can say lots of good things, even progressives will, but he's not been quite the crusader for liberal causes that a lot of people had hoped he would be.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Jerry, I was talking to a White House official over the weekend who said the president is not looking to throw a grenade into the middle of this process, but he did lay out an interesting series of criteria, very deliberate on Friday afternoon. Everyone is focusing on the empathy, but he also talked about integrity, excellence, and respecting the rule of law.

SEIB: Right, and he used the term independence of thought as well. And you're right, everybody is focusing on empathy because nobody is quite sure what that means. It may be a code word for liberal activists, which I think Senator Hatch told you just a few minutes ago. It may mean, other people think, a sign that he wants somebody who is not out of the judicial system now, somebody with more real-world experience, a governor perhaps, or somebody who's got a sort of a nitty-gritty feel for what's happening in America today, not a judicial feel for it.

WILL: What is a liberal activist these days? Because until January 20th at noon, liberals wanted someone who would rein in presidential power. I'm not sure that's what this president wants anymore, so liberals can be situational constitutionalists too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And then the president has said in the past if you look back at his service in the Senate, also during the campaign, that he does value people who come from outside the judiciary, on the one hand, but also that he wants someone especially who will stand up against overreaching executive power. So it's going to be a fascinating series of hearings.

But, Gwen, it also will I think set up a series of possible traps for both Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats, the risk is overreach. Trying to do too much, trying to go too far with the pick. For the Republicans, could be put in a real box especially if President Obama picks, as some people think he will, the first Latino for the Supreme Court, who happens to also be a woman. Sonia Sotomayor is only one possibility.

IFILL: And actually, that would be very tempting for the president to do that, just to put them in that box.

I find it kind of -- the whole situation to be kind of nice. It's nice to have a different litmus -- a code word, empathy instead of litmus test, which has always been a code word before, and we really never knew what that meant either. That was also one of those words or terms that was used depending on where you came from.

So yes, they're both in a box. I do agree with Paul that the liberals really would like an opportunity to push this president a little bit more, because they don't think he has been sufficiently liberal to suit their tastes, but I don't think they'll object to anything that he comes up with.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And in the short run, Paul, whoever he picks is not -- as George suggested at the top -- going to change the nature of the court dramatically unless this person has a special ability to get Justice Kennedy to switch sides on most big issues.

KRUGMAN: But think about the timeline here. Just four years ago, we were looking at, everyone was saying, we have a permanent Republican majority. We're going to have a definitive conservative Supreme Court. It's really all going to change, and all that has changed now.

So, yes, the person may not be more liberal than Souter, but the person will be younger than Souter, and so we're going to end up with -- Obama will probably get other appointments, so we're going to be looking at a court that is in fact not going to be that right-leaning court that almost everybody thought was inevitable.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And Jerry, let me pick up on that, because I know that the thinking in a lot of circles around the administration is this is the first of three picks for the president. There's actually been a very elaborate sequencing worked out. Souter decided to retire only after he checked with Ginsburg and Stevens. Next year, either Ginsburg or Stevens will retire; the year after that, the last one will go, and the president is expecting -- no guarantee -- but expecting three picks.

SEIB: I think that's right. If you would just look at the actuarial tables going into the administration and think that's a likely way to look at it, and it actually enables President Obama to kind of strategize how he picks, what kinds of people he picks, knowing that the one pick isn't the last one, it's the first of several.

But it's also worth remembering, I think, that there's still going to be a fairly young conservative block on this court, you know, the Roberts/Alito alignment. They're not going away anytime soon either, so this is going to be an interesting -- an interesting time to remake the court, or not remake the court, as you suggest.

There's one other thing I would mention here that I think has gotten relatively little attention. You cannot have this hearing at this time and not have the abortion issue come up. And it's really the first time in the Obama presidency when that -- that is going to be raised. And I'm not sure that's really what the White House wants to engage in a debate about right now, but you can't really avoid it.

I was talking with a Republican, a conservative Republican senator earlier in the week, and I asked him, I said when does abortion arise as an issue in this administration? And he said not until there is a Supreme Court vacancy, and then two days later...


STEPHANOPOULOS: The president was pretty clear Wednesday night at his press conference when this question of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade -- he said, listen, I'm for it, but it's just not my priority. I don't want to push it.

SEIB: Well, now, we'll see. Yes.

WILL: Well, one thing the president could do here is to do something that would break the streak now. We have nine justices who are former appellate judges, and he could go for the Earl Warren model, someone from politics.

Earl Warren famously would have a law come before him and constitutionality would be challenged and he'd say, well, is the law right? Is it nice? Is it good? Interesting questions, but not judicial questions. The question is, is it constitutional? There are lots of things that aren't right that are constitutional.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He may do that. And I have to say, as someone who has been in the middle of some of these meetings to pick a justice, that is always the first inclination at the first meeting. You want something way outside of the box, something -- someone in the Earl Warren model. And then the longer the process goes on, you go back to that appeals court just about every time. It's happened, as you say, nine times in a row.

WILL: Cautionary word -- Harriet Miers was outside the box.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Outside the box as well. Let's switch subjects now...


STEPHANOPOULOS: Another fallout from the Specter switch, obviously, the question of what does this mean for the Republican Party? There's been a lot of soul searching, even though Michael Steele and others, Gwen, saying this says a lot more about Arlen Specter than it does about the Republican Party. Yet it comes at a time, according to our Washington Post/ABC News poll, that the Republican Party is at its lowest point in more than 25 years.

IFILL: I think 21 percent of people identify as Republicans anymore, which may have something to do with just sinking party identification all around. But what's interesting about this is the refreshing nature of Arlen Specter's admission.


IFILL: He did say at some point, well, the party left me, I didn't leave the party. But then he went on to say, I looked at my polls. A politician who admits that he reads the polls -- even the president won't do that. We know that's not true.

He's admitting that he can't win. Now, what it also raises the question of is whether it's more important that he be re-elected than that the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, however it's composed, be represented. It's been a very interesting thing, because I think the real thing you can tell about how concerned Republicans are, are people like Kay Bailey Hutchison, is not a raving liberal...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator from Texas.

IFILL: ... who says that she's worried about it. People like Lindsay Graham, senator from South Carolina, who is not a raving liberal, who says he's worried about it, he's worried about the direction of party and what this says about it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have got a whole bunch of top Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Eric Cantor of Virginia, coming together, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, coming together in a new group yesterday to talk about outreach for the Republican Party, rebranding the Republican Party. Here is Jeb Bush in Northern Virginia.


JEB BUSH: Our ideas need to be forward-looking and relevant. I just -- I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia for the good old days in the messaging, and it's great, but it doesn't draw people towards your cause.


STEPHANOPOULOS: The party clearly seems to be concerned at the top levels, George, of being branded as the party of no in the wake of President Obama's election, but also having a hard time. It feels like when you talk about rebranding and outreach, you're avoiding the core question. Is this a problem that Republican ideas are out of favor, or is it just a communications problem?

WILL: Well, the scale of the problem can be measured this way. It is estimated that there are 10 states with only 93 electoral votes in which the Republican Party is sort of durably strong. Now, that's a regional party is what they're becoming.

I happen to believe that no is a pretty good word in politics. Most beautiful five words in the English language are the first five words of the first amendment. "Congress shall make no law," period. But beyond that, in fact, Mr. Obama, by the clarity of his program and the energy of his program, is going to help the Republicans redefine themselves. They are going to be an opposition to this. They're going to be again a party of more limited government, and if Mr. Obama's program works, he wins. If not, the Republican revival assured.

KRUGMAN: But just think about rebranding. So who do they get together to rebrand the Republican Party? The brother of a much disliked ex-president, whose popularity has fallen since he left office, the guy who didn't get the Republican nomination. It's not a -- they don't have any very new faces to do this rebranding, and they are becoming a party that is shrinking in on itself. It's a kind of a death spiral, in which the moderates got driven out of the party, lost, and what's left is a more conservative party, which is getting further and further away from the mainstream. If Obama fails big time, maybe that works, but if not, they really have marginalized themselves.

WILL: The last time, Paul, the last time they talked about the Republicans in a death spiral was after the '64 election when Goldwater carried six states. Four years later, the Republicans began the string of winning 10, seven out of 10 elections. So these death spirals can be reversed in a hurry.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's true, but if you go look at the example of the Democrats in the 1980s, during the age of Reagan, they had to go through a similar experience to this, Jerry Seib, and that's where you saw the Democratic Leadership Council coming up with reform ideas. But it wasn't until -- and this picks up on Paul's point -- it wasn't until there was a candidate, Bill Clinton, to carry those reform ideas forward that you actually saw the success.

SEIB: Right, and there's no obvious candidate for that spot in the Republican Party right now, but there wouldn't be at this stage of the cycle.

I think what's interesting about this particular fork in the road is that it's produced this debate among Republicans about whether the path back to health comes from having a more ideologically coherent, conservative voice that implies a narrower base, or to spread out the party and have a bigger tent. Which is the best way back to power? Is it by having clarity of ideas or a broader outreach? And I don't think that issue was resolved, and I think until it is, you are not going to know what the Republican Party that we're talking about really is going to be in the next two or three years.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that comes back to, Gwen, the social issues. The Republicans can unify around a lot of the economic issues, around the principle of liberty. But when you bring the social issues to the table, gay marriage, abortion, the environment to some extent, that's where a lot of the young Republicans are saying, we have to have more moderation here.

IFILL: Well, and that's where the danger of those five words that George was talking about comes, because it doesn't -- there's not a period after Congress shall make no law. It continues. And -- I spent the past week in St. Louis, talking to people who kind of aren't in our bubble and are watching this very carefully, and who didn't necessarily vote for Barack Obama. I mean, Missouri is the one battleground state he didn't win. And they seem to be really patient with the possibility of government's role.

Now, they're a little nervous about the deficits, a lot of folks. They're a little nervous about the spending, but they are also saying, completely in sync with the polls we've been reading, that they think maybe this might work, or they don't know where else to go. But I don't think telling these people that we're going to say no to everything, to every possible solution is the message that Republicans really mean to send.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the president's solutions that's not so popular is one that he had to deal with this week, and that was the bankruptcy of Chrysler, and the president seemed quite defensive about the fact that the government was taking so many -- such a large stake in so many private businesses at his press conference on Wednesday, and he was actually asked about what kind of a shareholder he would be.


OBAMA: I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. But I know that if the Japanese can design an affordable, well-designed hybrid, then doggone it, the American people should be able to do the same. So my job is to ask the auto industry, why is it you guys can't do this?


WILL: I assume the president is talking about the Prius. It's affordable because Toyota sells it at a loss, and it can afford to sell it at a loss because it is selling twice as many gas-guzzling pickup trucks of the sort our president detests. So as an auto executive, he's off to a rocky start.

Let me ask people around this -- this question. If the UAW will own 39 percent of General Motors and the government is going to own 50 percent, how do you negotiate? You've got a government in part elected by the UAW negotiating with the UAW? And then there's Chrysler. If Chrysler is going to be owned 55 percent by the UAW, is the UAW on both sides of the table when they negotiate a contract?

KRUGMAN: Well, this is ultimately -- all of this is going to depend on the continuing inflow of money from Washington, so ultimately, you know, the government is the shareholder. And that's the point in a way.

Now, in a way, that's probably going to ensure tougher bargains, because this is tremendously unpopular. Nobody wants to do that.


STEPHANOPOULOS: The president will drive a hard bargain. The UAW had to give a lot of concessions.

KRUGMAN: We've gotten significant wage cuts here. Now, it may not be enough. There's a problem, and this is certainly not a problem -- this is not something Obama wanted to do. But it was not conceivable to just let the thing collapse without doing something, without at least delaying the process. This is I think mostly about making things move enough in slow enough motion that we might have an economic recovery before everything goes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And Jerry, the administration considers it I think a major victory that Chrysler, they believe, will be a viable company, they hope, when it comes out of bankruptcy.

But the difficult question, I think, on both Chrysler and GM is, OK, the government is in there now, but what everyone has to figure out is the exit strategy, and no one knows what that is.

SEIB: No, and John Dingell, the congressman from Michigan, who's been around forever, told me when this all came up, he said, you know, I was a bankruptcy lawyer once. People forget how hard it is to get out of bankruptcy. It is much easier to go in than it is to get out, regardless of what people say at the moment like this when it all starts.

So I think the exit strategy is the question here. I don't know what it is. I'm not sure anybody knows what it is. But I agree with Paul. I don't think Barack Obama wants to run auto companies, but that doesn't mean he's not going to be stuck doing it for a while. And I don't think he wants to tell the auto companies how to run their business, per se, but it's pretty clear he does want to use his influence to convince them they ought to be making a different kind of car.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And in fact, it was only -- he probably only got a deal, Gwen, because he was willing to put bankruptcy on the table in a real way. And I was struck by how much leeway Michigan politicians who supported him were giving him on this.

IFILL: Well, and also I was struck by his decision to really lash out against hedge funds, which is standing in front of a microphone with all of your economic team behind you, that's not a hard thing to do, I suppose. No one knows what hedge funds are and it sounds like an evil thing. So let's say it's a bad thing...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But four times, I'm not on their side.

IFILL: Because they weren't on his side. He had no choice but to put bankruptcy on the table. It's not like the president has had a wide array of choices here in trying to stop this. Their way of looking at it, there was not an option for failure for these auto companies, and so then, if you assume there's no option, you're not going to let them collapse, then what do you do?

WILL: It seems to me that the bankruptcy we sort of tried to prepackage in the administration before it goes to court is in the subjunctive mood. It will not be final until a judge speaks, and the president's proposing overturning certain premises of bankruptcy law.

Second, we talk about an exit strategy. Thirty years ago today, Margaret Thatcher won the election that made her prime minister, and we had the retreat of the state continue for almost 30 years. Now it's been reversed in a big way, and I'm not convinced that once the political class comes to relish the pleasures of having this enormous slush fund to intervene in the economy, turning bank loans into shares in the banks, et cetera, I'm not sure they're going to want to exit at all.

KRUGMAN: I can't predict, but right now, let me tell you, they really don't want to run banks. They so badly don't want to run banks, I think it's actually kind of hamstringing their ability to deal with them. Because they don't want to go where they just went with Chrysler on the banks. And this is definitely not a socialist-minded administration.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you get out, though?

KRUGMAN: You know, the only thing you can say is, auto sales right now are so low that looking at the current situation is not a good guide. Right? At current rates of sales, it would take 27 years to replace the existing stock of automobiles. So we know that automobiles -- you know, cars don't last that long. So automobile sales are going to go up. So things are going to look better, even if they do nothing, even if they just hold the fort. Not enough to make these going concerns as currently structured, but maybe it is going to be easier. You know, what looks impossible now may look doable in a year.

SEIB: You know, there's an interesting political effect that you referred to briefly, George, which is that in the White House, people are sort of likening the president's willingness to use the bankruptcy threat and follow through on it here to Ronald Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers, to say that you show toughness, it has an effect on the immediate situation and it has a ripple effect down the line. It makes people realize you're willing to do tough things. Now, it may or may not turn out that way, but there is the potential here, as messy as this current situation is, to have a sort of a broader impact.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And the hedge funds may be even less popular than the air traffic controllers were.

SEIB: That's almost certainly true.

IFILL: That's what we're counting on.

STEPHANOPOULOS: In 1981. You know, George, we only have about a minute left. The political world lost -- the Republican Party lost one of its stars overnight, Jack Kemp, of course, former congressman, former vice presidential candidate, a HUD secretary under Ronald Reagan, succumbed to cancer last night. He was a good friend of yours.

WILL: He was a good friend. He was a good friend of all people who encountered him. He was a big-hearted man, very strong convictions, but didn't know how to make an enemy and didn't know how to hold a grudge. He was just a terrific fellow.

SEIB: And always an optimist. And Gwen and I were talking before, didn't seem possible he could be 73, because he was such a youthful guy and had that youthful energy start to finish of his political career.

IFILL: I covered Jack Kemp when he was secretary of HUD and also when he ran for vice president, and he was the original happy warrior for the Republicans as opposed to the Hubert Humphrey mold. He was kind of that way. He really thought he could be elected vice president in 1996, when nobody else thought so, and he also thought he could expand the Republican Party and make a broader umbrella, something which is proven not to be so.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And one of the nicest men you'll ever meet in politics.

This roundtable is going to continue in the green room and on And when we come back, more of remembering Jack Kemp.

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