This Week in Politics, from Wisconsin to Libya

Jonathan Alter on NBC's Meet the Press in 2006

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowJonathan Alter, correspondent for Newsweek and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, previewed the week in politics ahead.

Fourteen Democratic state senators from Wisconsin have been in hiding across state lines for weeks, their absence leaving too few legislators in Madison for a vote on Governor Scott Walker's controversial budget to take place.

But no vacation lasts forever. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the missing senators will return to Madison soon, finally allowing a vote that protestors have been railing against 24/7, and which Democrats are certain to lose.

So far, the Journal is the only publication reporting that the senators have plans to come back to the capitol. It's unclear how reliable this information is, but it appears that the Democrats were bound to return sooner or later. Gov. Walker still refuses to budge, even after weeks of round-the-clock protests against the anti-union proposals in his budget. Jonathan Alter thinks that the Democrats, if they have indeed decided to return, may be banking on Walker's popularity being sufficiently crippled in the long run.

The bottom line is, they don't have the votes, but they do have the public, because polls have been very unfavorable for Walker in Wisconsin and nationally. He just overplayed his hand, so we'll see how it plays out over time. I think there's a consensus among the public that there need to be major concessions on these contracts and pensions from unions, but the idea of busting them by eliminating collective bargaining for everything except wages is kind of a non-starter at this point.

Recent polls have also shown that about 60 percent of Americans believe unions should be able to keep collective bargaining rights for everything except wages. At the same time, though, a majority of Americans also favors asking unions to take pay cuts and make greater contributions to their own pensions and health care. That's right: Americans are supporting compromise. Alter said this was unusual and, in a way, refreshing.

The good news is that there is a basic common sense to the American public—not necessarily the holding of two opposing ideas, but here was a complexity that the public had to sort through. It reminds me of something President Clinton said to me once...He said, if you give the American people enough information and time, "they always get it right." I'm not so sure I agree that they "always" get it right, but I think he's on to something important: if the press can focus enough and provide enough public information, the public can make these subtle distinctions and can hold contradictory ideas in their head at the same time.

Speaking of controversial policies and opposing ideologies, the United States finds itself in another quandary with regard to the situation in Libya. Calls have started coming from the political right, urging President Obama to authorize direct military intervention in the conflict between Col. Muammar Qaddafi and rebel forces in the nation. Senator John McCain has even recommended instituting a no-fly zone over Libya, which he says would "send a message" to Qaddafi.

Why hasn't the administration listened to McCain? According to Jonathan Alter, expecting Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi to become intimidated or change his mind about anything is laughable. There are people in the Obama administration who feel the same way.

Defense Secretary Gates thinks it's a bad idea right now, and he has tremendous influence in the administration. When McCain talks about sending a signal to Gadhafi, I'm not sure what he means. Gadhafi is crazy. There's no incoming signal reception there. It's not like if we do something, he's going to start acting in a rational way. He's a lunatic.

Alter said it was also mistaken to think of imposing a no-fly zone as anything besides military intervention. In other words, it's not an alternative; it's a preamble.

That means going to war. That means bombing anti-aircraft installations so they can't endanger American aircraft that are enforcing the no-fly zone...You are crossing a line to military action, but as we learned with the no-fly zone in Iraq under Clinton in the mid-'90s, it doesn't necessarily mean the regime is going cry uncle...It's a nice buzz word, but most people don't really know much of what it entails. It's not a solution for this lunatic.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has recommended arming the opposition forces in Libya—which we've tried before in Afghanistan, with less-than-desirable results.

Ultimately, the decision President Obama makes in response to the Libyan crisis will either continue his commitment to staying out of Middle East revolts, as he did in Tunisia and Egypt, or set a new standard for when the administration feels intervention is necessary. Alter said that regardless, he expects the president to seek more international consensus ahead of military action than his predecessor did.

I think there are some bigger questions about what kind of foreign policy Barack Obama really believes in here. He doesn't want the U.S. to take direct military action without having true international involvement—not just a coalition of the willing, like President Bush had (that's not real), but something where our allies genuinely join us in addressing this problem. If you don't do that, it becomes the U.S. and one or two other countries staging military action. You give the Arab leaders, the dictators, a lot of recruitment opportunities.