ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Obama, this week, defended one of his cabinet secretaries and did not create a vacancy at the Department of Veterans Affairs when General Eric Shinseki visited the White House. But as for delays, backlogs and allegations of cooking the books at VA facilities, the president sounded adamant.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable. It is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period.
SIEGEL: That's topic number one for our Friday conversation about politics with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hello.
E.J. DIONNE: Hello.
SIEGEL: And sitting in for David Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review and Bloomberg View. Good to see you, Ramesh.
RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Gentlemen, the problems at VA facilities lead Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma who's an MD to blame the very idea of a Washington-run national system for its own problems. Is a scandal the story becoming a surrogate issue for a bigger question about the size of the federal government, E.J.?
DIONNE: Well, you know, I think that there were a lot of conservatives who want to have that argument and want to blame the VA not just on their own failures, but also on the fact that they are some representative of big government. The fact is, the VA, until recently, has had a very good record in providing healthcare and providing it very efficiently.
I think what you're seeing here is the VA being overloaded with cases that they can't handle because they don't have enough physicians, enough facilities and instead of a straight up conversation about how do we fix this, there was a cover-up inside the VA, they were trying to hide the fact that they really didn't have enough resources so yeah. But the president does have something to answer for here. It's a legitimate attack on management, but there's also an issue here of whether we're asking the agency to do more than it can with the resources we're giving it.
SIEGEL: In fairness, when I interviewed Secretary Shinseki and asked him about this, he said the department is very well resourced. President Obama has budgeted very well. The alternative that Coburn talked about, Ramesh, is what John McCain campaigned on in 2008, a kind of a card, a voucher. You're a veteran. You go to any place in the country, you get medical care paid for that way. A new conservative idea of the kind that you traffic in?
PONNURU: You know, I think that the kind of argument that McCain and Coburn are making makes enormous sense, that a lot of veterans, I think, would be better off if the government were to continue to support their healthcare, but support them by giving them the tools to participate in the market as opposed to having the tight control and a government-run system the way it currently is because those kind of systems do tend to control costs by creating waiting lists.
SIEGEL: Because there are protests that there are things that veterans hospitals are good at that a normal hospital, an ordinary hospital, wouldn't be good at.
PONNURU: That, to me, sounds like an argument for choice, for letting the veterans determine the flow of dollars.
DIONNE: But, again, I think we have to face the fact that we have had two very long wars that are really testing the resources and not just how much money is there, it's how much - do we have the personnel we need. And I think there's a real shortage in that area.
SIEGEL: Onto this week's primaries. On Tuesday night, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, easily survived a primary challenge in Kentucky. And while he's now going to run against Democrat Alison Lundergren Grimes, it is pretty clear whom he really plans to run against.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Kentuckians are not going to be deceived. Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama's candidate.
SIEGEL: To which Grimes, Kentucky secretary of state, said this...
ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: Senator McConnell, this race is between you and me. That's the name that appears on the ballot.
SIEGEL: Ramesh, Is - first, is Senator McConnell in any trouble in Kentucky and can Republicans like him still run effectively against Barack Obama?
PONNURU: Senator McConnell never wins his elections in Kentucky by large margins and the polling suggests this is a tight race, but just as in the sixth year of the Bush presidency, a lot of Democrats were running against Bush and not the Republican who was on the ballot against them, that's going to happen this year, too, but with Obama.
DIONNE: I was in the Louisville hotel ballroom when Mitch McConnell launched that attack on Grimes as an agent of Obama and Reid and you felt like a nuclear weapon had gone off. He was just so forceful. And I think the Kentucky Senate race will become ground zero for the political fury of both sides. McConnell is trying to turn Grimes into Obama and to take out - have conservatives take out all their frustration on Grimes.
Grimes is taking McConnell and saying, look, he is the agent of obstruction that is preventing anything from getting done. I think McConnell has never lost an election. He only wins close and it's a red state. That's on his side. But he's feared, but not loved and that's on Grimes' side and she's proving to be a tough Kentucky woman, which means we're going to be hearing that old Neil Diamond song a lot in Kentucky this year.
SIEGEL: But in the case of McConnell, he's trying to nationalize an election, now, Ramesh. I thought that almost never works.
PONNURU: Well, you know, it has worked in some occasions. What's interesting is that it's being nationalize in the other way, that it's not the party leader who is trying to localize it, as Daschle did. It's the party leader who's trying to nationalize it.
SIEGEL: OK, one other thing. President Obama offered a group of fundraisers his take on congressional Republicans as a group of rigidly ideological conservatives, and he was very much against moral equivalence, people saying there's gridlock in Washington. His view, E.J., there's not gridlock, they are Republicans blocking progress.
DIONNE: Yeah, I thought this was a very important step for the president because he has often himself, to the annoyance of Democrats, kind of blamed Congress. This time he was very specific. What's broken now, he said, is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to a whole series of ideas. He also went at the media, which is interesting for him to do.
The false equivalence he was attacking was the false equivalence of the media, which kind of says it's both sides' fault. And he's really making a strong argument that no, it's their side, not our side.
SIEGEL: Ramesh, you've been working with the conservative YG Network, the Young Guns Network it stood for, trying to develop new conservative ideas. Is there really a hunger on Capitol Hill among Republicans for new policies, or would they - frankly would most people frankly run against Obamacare a couple more times?
PONNURU: Well, the interest on Capitol Hill in new conservative ideas has been rising. And I don't think that people think of it as an alternative to running against the kinds of ideas that President Obama laid out at that fundraiser, but as a way of closing the case, that is there are all these problems with Obama's agenda, but there's also a better way.
SIEGEL: Ramesh Ponnuru and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you. Have a good weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
PONNURU: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.