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SCOTUS "Frightened" Of Ruling In Cheerleader Case; Does National Debt Still Matter?; Struggling to get to Herd Immunity; How can U.S. Solve Problem of Vaccine Hesitancy?; Is "Wokeness" a Problem for the Democratic Party?; SCOTUS "Frightened" of Ruling in Cheerleader Case". Aired 9-10a ET

Aired May 01, 2021 - 09:00   ET




MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: We're struggling to get to herd immunity. I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. This week, we reached a tipping point. In many parts of the country, supply of COVID-19 vaccine now outstrips demand. Consider that on Thursday here in Philadelphia at a mass vaccination site, there were 4,000 extra doses due to expire and for the first time, Los Angeles County was projected to not hit its weekly goal of administering 95 percent of its vaccine supply because appointments for the first dose have decreased by about 50 percent.

This after "The New York Times" had already reported that in rural, more Republican areas, there are far more doses of the vaccine available than there are people interested in receiving the jab. In a county in Wyoming, a local health official asked the state to stop sending first doses of the vaccine because the freezer was already stuffed to capacity with unwanted vials.

In an Iowa County, a clinic called people who had volunteered to give shots to tell them not to come in, because so few residents had signed up for appointments. A new CNN poll maybe tells us why. Twenty-six percent of Americans say they will not get the vaccine and among Republicans, that number is 44 percent. That's scary. Those folks jeopardize our ability to get to herd immunity faster.

If we don't get vaccinated and periodically boosted, we could prolong the pandemic and find ourselves continuing to fight this battle for years when we have the medical innovation to get back to living our normal lives in a matter of months. As law professor Shanin Specter argued at this week, "Without a better carrot or a bigger stick, many Americans won't get vaccinated, and we will suffer more death and dislocation."

With an eye toward Republican reluctance, this week, the Congressional Doctors Caucus, composed of GOP senators and Congressmen who are also medical professionals, released a video urging Americans to get over their hesitancy.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE) REP. GREG MURPHY (R-NC): It's obvious to me from a medical standpoint the only way to protect ourselves and your loved ones and to end the government's restrictions on our freedoms is to take action and get the vaccine.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): I look forward to the freedom that I, along with my loved ones, will regain once the vast majority of Americans are vaccinated.


SMERCONISH: But will outreach like this be enough to convince the vaccine hesitant and is the President's reserved approach sending the right message? His address Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress provided a perfect chance to demonstrate the vaccine's effectiveness and progress. The President could have entered unmasked into a room packed with vaccinated lawmakers also unmasked and touted it as a return to normal.

Instead, he entered with a mask to a sparsely populated room of masked and distanced lawmakers, conveying the message that nothing has gotten any better despite the fact that 100 million Americans have now been fully vaccinated. We saw a historic image of the President delivering an address to Congress backed by two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In that camera frame as President Biden spoke, Harris and Pelosi kept their masks in place despite the fact that all three have been fully vaccinated. As CNN medical analyst Leana Wen put it in "The Washington Post, "With masks and distancing, Biden's speech sent the wrong message about the power of our vaccines."

She further wrote, "Imagine if Wednesday's joint session had required that all attendees be fully vaccinated. Those who were not vaccinated were not welcome, but those permitted in could walk into the room, take off their mask, sit next to one another and listen to a presidential address just as they did in 2019. The science shows that could have been done. It would have sent an unequivocal message that vaccines are safe, effective and the key to ending the pandemic.

Instead, the American people got a different message, one that could impede the nation's vaccine progress at a time when we can least afford it."

On the subject of vaccine hesitancy, the Centers for Disease Control may have made things even more difficult with their new guidance on mask wearing. This week's edict was deemed by many to be confusing. The new protocols say fully vaccinated people can now exercise outdoors or with members of their household without a mask, dine unmasked at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households, hold small unmasked outdoor gatherings with others who are inoculated or with a, quote, "mix of unvaccinated people."

But the agency did not define how large those gatherings can be and it said Americans should continue to wear masks in crowded public places like sporting events, concerts or parades. You got all that? Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said this.



DR. SCOTT GOTTLIEB, FORMER FDA COMMISSIONER: The guidance that CDC put out, I think, is a step in the right direction, but it's relatively confusing. It's not very clear in terms of what they're prescribing ...


GOTTLIEB: ... and I think we need simpler rules if we're going to be prescribing something over society. We need to decide what our public health goal is.


SMERCONISH: He's not alone. Public health professor Daniel Halperin and infectious disease physician Monica Gandhi co-authored a piece in "The Wall Street Journal under the headline "Take Off Your Mask and Go Outside." They concluded Americans can be outside without masks except for a, quote, "Packed setting where social distancing is impossible."

At this point, those who remain unvaccinated are most at risk, but according to the CNN poll, when asked about returning to our routines, the group most comfortable with doing so are those who have not and will not get the vaccine, 87 percent of them. If we want to convince the unvaccinated to do their part, is the best approach to show them those who have had their shots are still wearing masks or would displays of our foregone freedoms in a pre-COVID world be more effective messaging?

That's the carrot. Here's another. In Chicago, the public health commissioner just introduced a vax pass which residents can use to gain access to summer concerts according to "ABC," Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago's public health commissioner, stressed that the forthcoming pass, quote, "is not a vaccine passport nor is it an app that businesses check before patrons can enter. Instead, it will be more similar to city passes that give residents the discounts, free admission to museums or let them skip lines to city attractions."

But if this sort of encouragement fails, there's also the stick which could be wielded by government and the private sector. Businesses have particular leverage as they can require employees to get vaccinations and restrict public access to private spaces like airlines, mass transit, most sporting and cultural venues, restaurants and movie theaters.

Writing in "USA Today," Michael Stern, a former federal prosecutor, said this, "Businesses should make vaccination a requirement for employment. A COVID outbreak can shut down a business and be financially devastating and failure to enforce basic health and safety measures is not fair to employees who have to work in offices, factories and stores where close contact is required. Things should get personal, too. People should require friends to be vaccinated to attend the barbecues and the birthday parties they host. Friends don't let friends spread COVID."

Well, he's right and our elected leaders were some of the first in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. They argued it was a matter of public health and public duty. Their next obligation is to demonstrate by way of doing that the jab has afforded them a new lease on life. Go to a baseball game, eat in a restaurant and sit side by side at a joint session of Congress.

Joining me now to discuss is Dr. Leana Wen. She's a CNN medical analyst, an emergency physician, public health professor and former Baltimore health commissioner. She's got a book coming out in July. The title? "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health." Dr. Wen, we're going to get to herd immunity through a balance of those who've had it and those who've got vaccinated. So this conversation is all about how that will be balanced and if we can get there through more vaccination, fewer people will get sick and die. How's that?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, I certainly agree with you on everything you said in your intro. I also, though, am not sure that we are going to reach herd immunity. I mean, the other scenario here is that we get a decline in the number of infections because of increasing vaccinations over the summer.

That's really good, but I also fear that people are going to get complacent. They're going to see that things are returning to normal, they can go about doing things that they can that they were able to before regardless of whether they were vaccinated and what I really worry about is that those people who are already on the fence don't get vaccinated.

We don't reach herd immunity come the fall and then with the winter, because coronaviruses are winter respiratory viruses, we have a big resurgence, maybe we have variants coming in from other countries and we could start this whole process all over again and have another huge pandemic come the winter and so that's why getting to herd immunity now as much as possible is really important and because we don't have the incentives in place, exactly as you said, I don't know that we'll get there.

SMERCONISH: OK. So how do we close the deal? I want to show you page one of "The New York Times" today because a reporter went to Greene County, Tennessee -- put that up on the screen -- and here's what they found. "A week here in Greene County reveals a more nuanced, layered hesitancy than surveys suggest. People say that politics isn't the leading driver of their vaccine attitudes. The most common reason for their apprehension is fear, fear that the vaccine was developed in haste, that long-term side effects are unknown.


Their decisions are also entangled in a web of views about bodily autonomy, science and authority, plus a powerful regional, somewhat romanticized self-image: We don't like outsiders messing in our business." How do we reach that mindset? WEN: Yes. It's a really good question. I think actually there are three buckets of people who have not yet had the vaccine and we have to regard these three groups very differently. There's a group that's truly anti-vax. They're anti-science, they may not be vaccinating their children. I actually don't think that that's the group that we should be targeting first.

The group we should be targeting first are those who actually really want the vaccine, but just haven't had it because they have other things in their lives to worry about, they have work, maybe they're working multiple jobs, they're taking care of elderly parents or young kids. We need to make it really easy for them to get the vaccine. I think we should be closing mass vaccination sites, redistributing vaccines to doctor's offices, pharmacies, getting pop-up clinics in churches, in schools, in workplaces. That's how we'll reach those people.

Then there's that big middle. I think that's the group that you were referring to, Michael. People who have specific concerns about the vaccine. We need to address these concerns, ideally by people in their community who change their minds, who initially thought I'm worried about these vaccines too, but here's what changed my mind, for those people to tell those stories and now show all these pictures of people reuniting with their families, going about their normal lives.

I think we should do -- just like people did the vaccine selfie, I think we need to have selfies of people now going to bars and restaurants with other vaccinated people to show what a return to 2019 pre-pandemic life could really look like.

SMERCONISH: I like your idea, in particular getting it into the hands of physicians who are trusted by their patients instead of the mass vax setup that we're currently operating under in many locations. Dr. Wen, thank you so much. You've written some great things on this that I encourage people to Google and read.

WEN: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish or go to my Facebook page. I will read some responses throughout the course of the program. What do we have from Twitter? "Just stop the drama. We aren't out of the woods yet, so of course we should still be wearing masks. Not even 50 percent of Americans have been vaccinated. Why wouldn't anyone interpret a mixed message between the vaccine uptick and the need to still wear masks?"

Lain Liberty, I'm suggesting that, in some circumstances, people who are wearing a mask are doing so in a context where the science doesn't support it and maybe, maybe, the way to encourage people to get vaccinated is to show them individuals who have been vaccinated and now are resuming what life used to be like before the whole pandemic began.

We've got to close this deal. You heard Dr. Wen say, we may not get to herd immunity. I said, well, we're going to get there sooner or later. Hopefully we can get there with fewer -- with fewer sick and dead and she said, hey, we may not get there at this rate. By the way, why aren't people looking at the film footage from India and saying the world still has a problem?

Up ahead, you of course remember the man who came up with the brilliant phrase "It's the economy, stupid." Well, his latest declaration is that wokeness is a huge political problem for the Democratic party. James Carville, the Ragin Cajun, is here to tell us why. We'll do that next and James and I both want to know whether you agree with him. This week's survey question at, wokeness is a problem and we all know it. Agree or disagree?




SMERCONISH: Stay woke, beware of the woke or somewhere in between? That's the conundrum the Democrats face. Woke meaning to be alert of injustice in society, especially racism. Nothing wrong with that, but my next guest thinks Democrats' blanket allegiance to all things woke will hurt the party at the ballot box. James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, said in an interview with "Vox," quote, "Wokeness is a problem and we all know it."

He went on to say, "There may be a group within the Democratic party that likes this, but it ain't the majority, but they don't want to say it out loud." It's also this week's survey question at Go and vote as to whether you agree with James' assessment. He's here to expand on his thinking. James Carville himself, the veteran Democratic strategist, the Ragin Cajun whose efforts helped elect Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992.

Make sure you are catching his podcast which he co-hosts, "Politics War Room" podcast, the "Politics War Room" podcast. Hey, James. Thank you so much for being here. We should make clear this is a political conversation. It's not that James Carville -- and you correct me if I'm wrong -- is questioning any one aspect of what gets lumped into wokeness, but I think you're saying, as a political strategy, this dog doesn't hunt.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST, PRESIDENT CLINTON'S 1992 CAMPAIGN: Well, no, it doesn't hunt on several levels. First of all, it sounds -- I call it the politics of the faculty lounge and in my view, if you want to -- in politics, you should speak the language of the people. You should speak clear, direct English and address people as they address each other, not like the humanities department at Amherst wants you to address everybody. I mean, I think this is simple ...

SMERCONISH: Is this the kind of an issue -- is this -- is this the kind of an issue, James, that is impossible to poll because people are going to lie to a pollster, but when they go in there and they close that curtain, they're going to do what they want to do?

CARVILLE: I don't have to poll it, all right? After the 2020 Congressional elections, there was a huge eruption in the Democratic caucus where people correctly pointed out that this whole defund the police stuff cost us Congressional seats. I can look at the voting results in the Rio Grande Valley, I can look at the voting results in Miami-Dade, I can relate conversations that I have with people every day.


People don't want to live like this, scared to address an issue because it might come out the wrong way and no one is using that language except for, you know, some of our people on television. If you go to -- if you need wokeness, just go listen to "NPR." I leave it on on my truck radio so I'll never fall asleep, but it's not getting you ...

SMERCONISH: Is it possible? Is it possible that the votes that you lose because of the wokeness conversation are more than offset by those who are enthused by this kind of dialogue?

CARVILLE: No. And most of the people that are enthused by this kind of dialogue live in Boston or Manhattan or Washington, but we're going to carry D.C. and New York and Massachusetts. We're not going to win an election in a faculty lounge. That's just -- that's just idiotic. I mean, I'm not saying you're idiotic. That whole assumption is idiotic.

And the number of people that have contacted me or had people contact me after this has been enormously gratifying. Everybody just wanted this temperature to break. I think that -- I get people saying they're woke and they're tired of being woke. People want to -- after this pandemic and stuff, people want to go about their lives, they want to enjoy it, they want to enjoy their friends. They don't want to be nervous about how you address them or talk to them or anything.

And, you know, that's just where people are and people have gotten fired over this, people have lost their jobs over retweeting academic research. I mean, time and time again, you hear this from everybody and of course people say I don't want to say anything because I'll lose my job. Well, it so happens that I'm just at a point in life where there's nothing to cancel me from, so I don't care. Do what you want to do.

SMERCONISH: Is your -- is your level of concern about the wokeness issue and the way that it plays such that you think it could cost the Democrats control of the House in the midterm elections?

CARVILLE: It almost did in 2020. We did not do well and any analyst I talk to, any politician I talk to ascribes it to the same thing and, you know, ask Congressman Gallego from Arizona. Univision does not allow the word Latinx on the air. Why? Because it's trying to get viewers and advertisers and no one talks like that except for the speech enforcers.

You know, nobody -- I don't know of anybody -- and I live in one of the more diverse cities in maybe the world. I don't know of anybody in New Orleans that says I live in a community of color. I just don't. They'll tell you what neighborhood they live in if they want to (ph) ...

SMERCONISH: Final question. Final question. Final question. Could Donald Trump ride wokeness back to the White House in 2024?

CARVILLE: Well, let's put it this way. He is a world-class buffoon. I mean historical buffoon, not just in the history of the United States as well and he came within 42,000 votes of winning reelection after he had flubbed up the worst pandemic, we'd had in 100 years. Somebody somewhere is trying to tell us something. Maybe we should listen to them.

SMERCONISH: James, nice to have you back. Thank you so much.

CARVILLE: Yes, Michael. Thank you for having me.

SMERCONISH: You got it. Let's see what you're saying through social media, Twitter and Facebook. Twitter, "Wokeness is both a problem and a requirement at the same time. We have many problems that we need to awaken and to solve. However, the path of wokeness as a shame/cancel approach is a problem." And I was trying to get at that, David, with my conversation with James. I think if you broke down some of the issues that get tossed into the bin of wokeness, you might -- I don't want to speak for James, but you might get his agreement on them.

I think largely what he's saying is, hey, politically speaking, you put it all together and people have had enough. I am really eager to see how this is going to turn out. I had this survey question on my website for my radio audience earlier in the week with a really decisive pro-Carville result. I think it was like 80/20. So let's have at it with the CNN audience. Right now, go to and answer this question. "Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it" -- Democratic strategist James Carville. Do you agree or disagree?

Up ahead, this cursing cheerleader's online rant against her school got her kicked off the squad. This week, she took her pep rally of one all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Why this is being billed as the most important student speech case since 1969 and why the Supreme Court is, quote, "frightened to death by the case."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" with W. Kamau Bell premieres tomorrow at 10:00 on CNN.

SMERCONISH: One case appears to have the nation's highest court feeling, well, a little nervous. It doesn't involve gun rights or civil rights. It involves a high school cheerleader and Justice Stephen Breyer put it plainly, quote, "I'm frightened to death of writing a standard." At issue is whether schools can punish students for speech that may disrupt the school even if it occurs online and off campus.


The case was brought by a high school cheerleader, Brandi Levy. She was 14 years old as a freshman on the junior varsity cheerleading team, but didn't make varsity and didn't get the position she wanted on the softball team either.

So that weekend while she was off campus Brandi took a photo of herself and a friend flipping the bird to the camera. She then typed the words at the center of this case. F school, f softball, f cheerleading, f everything.

It exploded. The school deemed the post to be disruptive to cheerleading morale, suspended her from the team for the rest of the year.

Earlier this year I asked Brandi whether she thought she should have been punished that way by the school.


BRANDI LEVY, SUSPENDED FOR PROFANITY-LACED SNAPCHAT POST CRITICAL OF HIGH SCHOOL: I feel like I shouldn't have been only because it wasn't on school grounds and I wasn't in any school attire.


SMERCONISH: The ACLU took her case to court saying her free speech rights had been violated. On Wednesday the case landed at the Supreme Court conjuring up Deja vu.

In the 1969 court case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that students do have free speech rights at school unless the speech is disruptive. But now in the age of the internet the justices are being asked to clarify whether and how schools can punish students for off campus speech. Not an easy task.

The school district's lawyers say Tinker, the Tinker precedent, should apply off campus, because off campus speech can also cause disruption especially when it comes to school media, social media. But the ACLU representing Brandi Levy said that once schools can discipline students for off campus speech it would automatically expand the disciplinary reach of schools that the court laid out in the Tinker case. Justice Stephen Breyer cut straight to the chase wondering whether online swearing off campus should even qualify for school punishment.


JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER, U.S. SUPREME COURT ASSOCIATE JUSTICE: I mean, she used swear words, you know, unattractive swear words, off-campus. Did that cause a material and substantial disruption? I don't see much evidence it did. And if swearing off-campus did, I mean, my goodness, every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing.

(END AUDIO CLIP) SMERCONISH: Then Justice Sonia Sotomayor weighed in saying this.


JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, U.S. SUPREME COURT ASSOCIATE JUSTICE: I'm told by my law clerks that, among certain populations, a certain large percentage of the population, how much you curse is a badge of honor. Kids basically talk to their classmates. Most of their exchanges have to do with their perceptions of the authoritarian nature of their teachers and others.


SMERCONISH: Justice Brett Kavanaugh acknowledged that even NBA legend Michael Jordan hasn't let go of the fact that he didn't make the varsity team in high school. Then he addressed the First Amendment implications.


JUSTICE BRETT KAVANAUGH, U.S. SUPREME COURT ASSOCIATE JUSTICE: So maybe what bothers me when I read all this is that it didn't seem like the punishment was tailored to the offense, given what I just said about how important it is and you know how much it means to the kids. I mean, a year suspension from the team just seems excessive to me. But how does that fit into the First Amendment doctrine or does it fit in at all in the case like this?


SMERCONISH: One concern raised by Justice Kagan along with Justice Sotomayor is the prospect that if schools can't discipline off campus speech in some capacity it will hamper their ability to address genuine problems like cyber bullying. All of the justices repeatedly asked for a rule that would guide schools as to how to handle these tricky questions. This majority conservative court typically pretty straight forward when it comes to First Amendment rights but if the court treads carefully which way might this go?

Joining me now, Yale law professor Justin Driver. He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O'Connor. He is the author of a book right on point "The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind." Professor Driver, you know that schools and school districts, they hope there is some articulable standard that comes out of this that they can apply. Will they get one?

JUSTINE DRIVER, YALE LAW PROFESSOR: It is a really good question after listening to an oral argument on Wednesday it seemed to me that the justices were groping for a rule. And some of them were attracted to a very narrow resolution to the case, which would offer educators and students and everybody else precious little guidance about when it's permissible to punish students for off campus speech.

SMERCONISH: Your book title comes directly from this line of cases. Is the Tinker precedent equipped to deal with the internet age? DRIVER: It's a really good question. Yes, Tinker says in 1969 that it can hardly be argued that students shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. And exactly as you stated, educators can punish students if there is a reasonable forecast of a substantial disruption.


That is an exception to the rather expansive free speech rights that students and adults alike -- enjoy alike when they are in nonschool settings. And so from my own vantage point it is extremely dangerous to allow the Tinker standard, which offers only diluted First Amendment protections to apply to students when they are at a convenience store on a Saturday night or at a sleepover or at a party. We don't want our young people to be living under a sort of surveillance state of fearing that any time they express themselves, like many adolescents do with profanity, that they're going to be punished by the government in this context at the school.

SMERCONISH: So to your point about the ripple effects, I thought there was a very interesting series of exchanges. Hat tipped to Nina Totenberg for coverage at NPR. It was Justice Kagan putting hypotheticals to the Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart. Let's put this up on the screen.

Wanting to know, is this school speech or not school speech? Number one. The student emails his classmates the answers to the geometry homework every day after school. Is that school speech or not school speech?

I love number two. Student emails his classmates they should all skip school tomorrow for an impromptu senior skip day. Is that school speech or not school speech? And so on and so forth. Your reaction?

DRIVER: Yes. Justice Kagan is an extremely effective questioner of oral argument. And the thing that she was trying to get at there was that you could have a very expansive conception of school speech.

In my own view, of course it is permissible to punish students for cheating off campus. In fact, most cheating when people are plagiarizing papers is happening from home. So, the idea that that would be protected speech is illusory.

But she went on in that exchange to say, what about if a student says, in effect, this school is really homophobic and you all shouldn't go there? And imagine, she says, that that creates a disruption. Should that be protected speech? Of course, that speech needs to be protected from my own perspective.

And nevertheless, it seemed to me that the solicitor general's lawyer may have held out the possibility that it would be permissible for the government to punish a student for that political speech that happens in the school context. And that is the important point to remember here. Exactly as Justice Sotomayor suggested, young people are often finding their voice by speaking about things that they know about. And school and the government in the form of the public school is something that is in their daily lives.

So, we ought not be too willing to allow schools to punish students for finding their voices because when they do so, they are exercising their rights as citizens. And I think we can all agree that we want citizens to be engaged with government functions.

SMERCONISH: Today is May 1. It's amazing to think that by the end of next month we're going to know which way this goes. Professor, thank you so much for being here.

DRIVER: Glad to be with you. Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Let's check in on your tweets and Facebook comments. From the world of Twitter. The justices trying to see if there was some clear line with this in which they could update their previous opinion was amazing.

OK. Robert, thank you for saying that. Wasn't it great to be able to play audio for you of the argument that took place Wednesday in the Supreme Court of the United States? Guess what would be better? Showing you the video. Why not?

Just like the Chauvin trial, cameras in the Supreme Court of the United States? I could sit here on a Saturday morning. I could show you Justice Kagan instead of putting the words up. But you're right.

Please make sure that you are answering this week's survey question at I, by the way, just fact checked myself. When I did this for my radio audience, it was an 80/20 outcome with like 7,000 people voting. So what will it be today for the CNN audience?

Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it. Do you agree or disagree with the Ragin Cajun?

Still to come, the price tag for President Biden's first three big initiatives is $6 trillion. What will this do to America's already $22 trillion debt? And shouldn't we all be concerned about what it will cost us?


ERSKINE BOWLES, CO-CHAIR, NATIONAL COMMISSION ON FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY AND REFORM: This deficit and this debt is like a cancer and it is going to destroy our country from within if we don't face up to it and face up to it quickly.




SMERCONISH: In President Biden's first hundred days he went big, $6 trillion big. That's the grand total of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal on the table and the $1.8 trillion in new childcare and education spending announced in this week's speech to a joint session of Congress.

Before the president's latest proposals, the national debt was almost $22 trillion or about $67,000 per citizen. His new era of big government has surprised even the progressive wing of his party but the question looms, what are the political and economic price tags?

According to a congressional budget office report back in March, by the end of this year federal debt held by the public would equal 102 percent of the gross domestic product or GDP. In 2031, 107 percent, close to its historical high that occurred around World War II. And by 2051 it would almost double to 202 percent of GDP.

If those numbers are too abstract maybe this graph will help visualize how off the charts we are headed. And, again, that was before President Biden's $6 trillion wish list.


As explained by John Harris at "Politico," "President Joe Biden's address to a joint session of Congress was the most ambitious ideological statement made by any Democratic president in decades couched in language that made it sound as if he wasn't making an ideological argument at all."

But not even Republicans seem to care about debt anymore. Conservative columnist Rich Lowry notes, "The conventional wisdom was that after the free-spending Trump years, Republicans would snap back to being deficit hawks when out of power. There's been some but that, but the relatively muted reaction to Biden's almost incomprehensible spending ambitions is testament to the fact that, no, Republicans simply aren't interested in fiscal issues anymore."

Joining me now to discuss is John Cochrane, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Does national debt still matter?

JOHN COCHRANE, ECONOMIST AT STANFORD UNIVERSITY'S HOOVER INSTITUTION: Good morning. Yes. Debt has to be paid off one way or another. And this is an enormous debt like you said like what we racked up to fight World War II. And we got to sooner or later think about paying it off. And if we don't, bad things come.

SMERCONISH: I came of age politically in the Reagan '80s where this was a perennial subject. Today it seems to get such short shrift. Why?

COCHRANE: We're very lucky that interest rates have been very low. And like a household in 2006 we look at the teaser mortgage and say, great, honey. Let's load up on it. But that won't last forever. And this amount of debt won't.

The debt, itself, is not, per se, a problem. We did have this much at the end of World War II. The real worrisome thing to me is that it is ongoing. There is no plan to stop immense borrowing and no plan to pay off this debt. And sooner or later bond markets notice you're coming to borrow trillions and trillions, and you got no plan to pay it off.

SMERCONISH: How does debt actually hurt the economy and hurt our financials given that we were still able to buy and borrow so much in the COVID era?

COCHRANE: I don't think it's a tremendous problem as it is. It does -- arithmetically the more the government borrows the less is available for private capital. That is just a fact. You know, this stuff comes out of savings.

But you are not noticing that problem tremendously. There is capital available for people who want it. I think the overhang of what happens when the bill comes due is a problem. So, it is not an immediate problem. And that's why politicians can afford not to pay attention to it. It's a can you kick down the road and let the next people worry about the crisis when it comes.

SMERCONISH: Earlier in the program I played some video from Simpson and Bowles. You of course remember that initiative. It was on President Obama's watch. We were told the sky would fall unless we got our financial house in order.

What would have happened if Simpson-Bowles had been initiative -- had been initiated?

COCHRANE: I think we would be in less danger of a problem. I think of debt like an earthquake. I live in California. I live on an earthquake fault. It hasn't ruptured in the last couple years. Does that mean you never worry about it? No.

So, debt is the same way. There was a big danger, and we avoided that danger. We skated on the thin ice and it didn't crack. But that doesn't mean that it is still not sitting there waiting.

SMERCONISH: OK. You don't seem too alarmed about this.

COCHRANE: I am alarmed about this. What do I have to do? It's not a pressing thing.


SMERCONISH: When does the -- when does the sky -- when does the sky fall? When does the sky fall?

COCHRANE: So, the way this works -- yes, this is like a financial crisis. It's like a run on the bank. It's like an earthquake. You can't predict -- if you knew it was going to happen, next year, it would happen right now because you'd run to sell all your government debt.

So, the sky falls when people lose confidence that the U.S. will pay back the debt. Then they run to not hold the debt. And then you get a massive trouble on your hands.

And we're skating close to that. So I would say the sky falls in the next crisis when the government needs to borrow another $10 trillion and bond markets say, you guys are not worth it.

SMERCONISH: Could we go the way of Greece? COCHRANE: Yes, except we don't have Germany to bail us out. We do have the option to print up money to pay off our debts. So we could have a big inflation instead of having a default. But that is roughly the mechanics. And remember, Greece looked great right up until the moment that it didn't look so good.

SMERCONISH: Thank you so much for being here. I appreciate the tutorial.

COCHRANE: It's always a pleasure.

SMERCONISH: Still to come, more of your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments and it's going to be really interesting. The final results of the survey question. Does the Ragin Cajun James Carville have it right when he says, "Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it"? Go vote at



SMERCONISH: When this survey question was put to my SiriusXM radio audience there was 80/20 agreement with Carville. Let's see the CNN results. Do you agree with James Carville, "Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it"?

Hit me with it. Wow! Wow! Seventy-six percent, just like 4 different from the radio. And that's with 27,000. Now they tell me it's like 30,000.

You've got to take something away from this, right? It's not scientific. We all know that. I do this because it's fun to do it on a Saturday. But if the CNN audience is saying three-quarters of us agree with James Carville, we've got a problem politically pushing this concept of wokeness, it should be a wakeup call.


Quickly, Catherine, what do we have in terms of reaction? There has never been a greater turnoff by Democrats as woke. Carville says what everyone else is thinking. Well, Mr. Objective, we just saw that 75 percent of people who are watching right now agree with you.

Another one, please. Smerconish, want a better vaccine carrot for Republicans? Easy. Require a vax card to vote. They've been screaming for voter I.D. cards. Well, there you go.

Yes. Wouldn't that be great? The little card that you get with two signatures on it, this now becomes your voter I.D. I love that. One more if I've got time and I think that I do. It's a great idea.

You're preaching to the chorus about COVID vax. The folks that need to hear you and your guests as well as the GOP docs aren't watching CNN.

I acknowledge that we need to reach areas that might not be caught up in this type of a conversation. I think Dr. Wen suggesting that physicians get the vax because in rural areas like the rest of America, we trust our local doc. See you next week.