MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And at week's end, we say hello once again 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: Let's start with the economy. The Dow today crossed the 14,000 threshold. It's at a five-year high. We got mixed jobs numbers and all of this follows a surprising GDP report this week that showed the economy slammed to a halt in the last quarter of 2012. And much of that decline is tied to a drop in federal defense spending and a drop in business inventories. E.J., are we seeing the effects of across-the-board spending cuts kicking in even before a sequester does?
DIONNE: Well, some of the decline in defense spending was technical, but yes, I think this shows how foolish it is for us to be here in Washington talking all the time about austerity and huge budget cuts when we are still not at a rate of economic growth that we need. We're going in the right direction, but we need to speed up the economy. And I would like to hope that the news this week will make Washington think twice before we just rush into austerity. It should be growth now and dealing with the deficit down the road.
BLOCK: David, what do you think as we look forward? What does this mean?
BROOKS: Well, first, I'm really struck by the fact that we seem to be happy when the news is extremely bad or mediocre. You know, I think it takes a long time to get out of financial crisis. And so for a lot of the time, it took a long time for people to wind down their personal and corporate debt. I think we're sort of out of that phase now and now when you talk to executives, you're much more likely to hear talk of sort of the fiscal cloud, the feeling that Washington is dysfunctional.
They can't cut a deal. They don't know what taxes are coming. They don't know what regulations are coming. And so, it's really this downer coming out of Washington that I think is suppressing their activity. I don't think it has as much to do - it has something to do with the cuts in defense and the sequestration, but they're pretty small. We're a $14 trillion economy. The idea that sequestration cuts, which are in the tens of billions of dollars a year are really going to have a huge effect on the economy, I don't really think that's it.
BLOCK: I want to move on and ask you about Chuck Hagel's performance yesterday at his confirmation hearing to lead the Pentagon. He faced fierce questioning from fellow Republicans. Here's how a Wall Street Journal editorial summed his performance up: Ill-prepared and evasive. He had to take two mulligans in the middle of his testimony. And Slate asked rhetorically: Did anyone tell Chuck Hagel there would be questions? David, he was widely panned. What happened?
BROOKS: I'm sort of mystified. I've always like Chuck Hagel. I've interviewed him a lot. He can answer questions. He was terrible. He projected weakness, not what you want in a secretary of defense. He projected laziness, like he hadn't prepared, incompetence. I just thought it was embarrassing. It was really painful to watch for those of us who like him, and I think he'll be saved. I think he'll probably get confirmed, but he'll be saved by partisanship. If people were judging on competence, he'd lose. But Democrats are going to stick with him, I suspect.
BLOCK: E.J., do you think the Obama administration should be dismayed by what Chuck Hagel said or what he didn't say?
DIONNE: Well, I think they're dismayed by his performance. I think everybody looked bad. I thought that exchange where John McCain was just badgering him did not make John McCain look good.
BLOCK: About the surge.
DIONNE: About the surge. And then he gave a very muddled response. But I think, in the end, David's right. I think he is going to survive. I think he could have shut it down. He could have gotten the Republican votes he needed if he had done great at that hearing. It's going to take a little longer now.
BLOCK: Let's talk also about immigration reform. On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators laid out its plan followed by President Obama's speech in Las Vegas on the same subject the next day. David, do you see the political will in Congress to getting a meaningful bill through and passed?
BROOKS: I'm moderately optimistic. I think there's a shape of reform that we all understand. If we're going to have any economic growth from anything else in Washington, immigration reform and high-skilled immigrants coming here could be the only thing we have. So the incentives to do it are just awesome, politically and substantively. My only fear is we're getting distracted by those side issues like what kind of fence to build, how to trigger this, will trigger that, when it should be focused on how much good more immigrants and normalizing immigrants will just do for the country's economy.
DIONNE: I am pretty optimistic, too, actually. I think that it's very important that somebody like Marco Rubio has come out and really said there must be a path to citizenship. Now there's disagreement about how fast that would be, how you kick it in, but I hope Rubio doesn't sort of respond to all the attacks he's getting from some people on the right and sort of back off, because I do think we need immigration reform and it's the best politics we've had in years to get it.
BLOCK: Does this become, again, as it has in the past, a fight over whether this amounts to amnesty for those already here illegally? David.
BROOKS: It does.
BROOKS: You know, but there is - I think we should have a path to citizenship. There are medium ways to do it. But I, like E.J., I detect many more splits on the right than there has been before that sunk it in 2007. So I think the prospect is decent.
DIONNE: Republicans got clobbered by Latinos the last time. They never want another election like that. So they're thinking a little differently on this issue now.
BLOCK: Let's end by taking a few minutes to remember Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, who died today in New York at age 88, a larger-than-life personality. He could be very funny and also very acerbic. And I knew there was a reason that I hung onto this piece of tape for all these years. We're going to hear the voice of Ed Koch from 1989. This is actually a recording that would blare from Sanitation Department trucks prowling through the streets of New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
BLOCK: I love that, vintage Ed Koch. David Brooks, first you, memories of Ed Koch and what he meant?
BROOKS: Yeah, I worked for his first congressional campaign in 1968. I was seven years old and in a senior position.
BROOKS: Handing out leaflets. You know, my memories, of course the thing - he did help save New York. He did have little witticisms. He was one of the main guys to say: I don't get ulcers, I give ulcers. One of the things he said in the height of a contretemps with somebody, he said: I can explain it to you, but I can't comprehend it for you.
DIONNE: You're wrong, I'm right. That was the classic...
BLOCK: That's a pretty good imitation.
DIONNE: Thank you, and...
BLOCK: How are you doing? How am I doing?
DIONNE: Well, exactly. And he - that was his characteristic line, and he devoutly believed it every time he said it. And Ed Koch could be infuriating. He could be divisive. He was full of himself. But there was something so incorrigibly him that he was so incorrigibly New York that it was impossible not to smile even when you were mad at him.
I covered him when he won in '77 and when he lost for governor in '82. And it was just - you always had the feeling that he was one of those politicians who would never compromise his identity. So how am I doing was his question. He did it his way and bless him for it.
BLOCK: OK. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, David Brooks of The New York Times, have a great weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.