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Brooks, Dionne on Romney’s Vulnerability, Gingrich’s Swipes at Media, SOTU

January 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne discuss the week's top political news, including President Obama's State of the Union address, his election-year agenda, Mitt Romney's vulnerability, Newt Gingrich's hostility toward the media and what's at stake in Tuesday's Florida primary.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who joins us from Los Angeles. Mark Shields is away tonight.

So, David, yet another turn in Florida, some strong ads, a couple of strong debates, and Romney back up?

DAVID BROOKS: He’s up. Now he’s Mr. Inevitable again.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Every other week . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Just as you told us weeks ago, right?

[President Obama's State of the Union] is not Bill Clinton running for a second term amid peace and prosperity . . . God knows Obama came in with that kind of agenda . . . This was a bunch of little tax credits for little things . . . that he has marginal control over.David Brooks, The New York Times

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. You just have got to ignore the little rough patches he had. He had a terrible week.

And what was interesting was — a professional politician once told me, don’t judge a candidate by how good they are. Judge them by how much they improve. And so Romney shows the capacity to grow. And so he had this period where he said, oh, I can tell the country that I will release my taxes in April. That will work.

And everybody who had ever been through this said, no, that will never work. And so finally he admitted, oh, yes, that was a mistake. And so he was able to learn. And the second thing he was able to learn was that he might lose. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he might lose. But after the rough week in South Carolina . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Even though it happened once before, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Right. You would think he would be used to it. And he’s lost a lot in his career.

But he thought, I could lose. And not only that, I could lose to that guy, Newt Gingrich, which he definitely didn’t want to do. And so he toughened it up. He decided, I have to just cut him up, and I’m going to relentlessly cut him up. And he cut him up relentlessly during the debate. And it worked, and even to the point, in the middle of the debate, I was thinking, ease up. You’ve killed him. Ease up.

And he kept at it. And so that just shows a sign of a candidate who can evolve.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, E.J., of course, he got a lot more help this week from the establishment.

E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: Right.

Well, the Republicans who know Newt really seem to not want him to get the nomination. Let’s put it politely. I think Lawrence O’Donnell told a great story this week. And these are the kind of Newt stories that are floating around.

He apparently asked Bob Dole, “Why do so many people take an instant dislike to me?”

And Newt — and Bob Dole sort of grunted and said, “It saves time.”

And it’s stories like that, that are floating around about Gingrich among established Republicans that are hurting him. But I think it’s something else. I think that Newt has really done very well in this campaign because he has not come under that much attack. He has been the attacker.

And he has been able to bring the attack mostly to journalists. And I think one of the problems he’s had is that he hasn’t had as many openings to attack journalists. And the other is that he had never seen a Mitt Romney like the Mitt Romney he has seen this week.

Now, the problem is, we are all saying once again, ah, it’s Romney’s to lose. David is writing a book about humility.

(LAUGHTER)

E.J. DIONNE: And I think punditry will be an excellent subject, because if anybody should be humble these days, it’s political pundits on this Republican race.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chapter one, David, is campaign 2012.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t know it personally, but yes.

No, no — and we go through these cycles, and some of it is just who is in the electorate. In the South Carolina electorate, there are a lot of evangelical conservatives, in the Florida electorate, not so many. And so it’s a natural ground.

But the striking thing about the debate last night was that Newt Gingrich didn’t really strike back. Why was he so passive? And one cynical person said, well, a second that Newt Gingrich is attacking Mitt Romney is a second he’s not talking about himself, and so that’s not a good second for Newt Gingrich. He likes to talk about himself a lot.

But it was weird how he was hit and he didn’t respond. Within the Romney camp, the argument is, when you hit a bully, he is sort of disoriented. That is their spin. I don’t know if that is fair. But he was relatively passive.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, E.J., what about the attempt to . . . I’m sorry.

I was going to ask you, what about the attempt to push against Romney over the — to portray him as the rich guy, using the tax shelters? How did he fight back at that?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, you know, I think that he has been tougher on the stump than he seems to have been in these last two debates.

And I don’t know why he didn’t continue to hit Romney on his wealth, on the Cayman Islands, on Swiss bank accounts which are now closed, because those did raise some real questions on the electability front.

And, you know, when they were asked at the end of the debate about who is more electable, I was really surprised that Gingrich didn’t take it right to Romney and say, look how much trouble you had on the question of releasing your taxes. Look at all these questions about your investments.

Instead, he did kind of campaign boilerplate. It was very, very surprising and in some sense un-Newt like. Whether you like him or not, he’s a skilled politician and he can be a skilled debater.

JEFFREY BROWN: So . . .

DAVID BROOKS: The vulnerability, as Rick Santorum showed — and Santorum had an outstanding debate — is on health care. And I thought Romney — when Santorum said, you’ve got Obamacare, you are the progenitor of it, I thought Romney’s defense was pretty lame. It was actually a good defense of Obamacare.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about — what of Santorum?

E.J. DIONNE: Exactly right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What of Santorum?

E.J. DIONNE: Exactly right. And I think David’s on to something, that it will be complicated for Romney in the end if he gets the nomination to really go after the president on the health plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: David, Santorum — you brought up Santorum. He had a stronger night last night.

DAVID BROOKS: Very strong.

And it’s always been a bit of a mystery to me. If I’m a Tea Party Republican, I don’t like Mitt Romney. He’s a Massachusetts moderate. I just don’t trust him. So why am I thinking that Newt Gingrich is my guy? Why aren’t I thinking that Rick Santorum is my guy? Santorum has a lot less baggage — in many ways, a much more humane story.

I thought they had this silly question — though I like the silly questions — why would your wife be a great first lady? Santorum gave a great answer to that. He’s just a more humane guy. And he was — had — a very skilled debater, really took it to Mitt Romney in a way that Romney really wasn’t ready for or at least didn’t have good answers to.

And I don’t know. Santorum has not had the bumps, aside from the obvious Iowa thing, that his debate performances merit.

JEFFREY BROWN: E.J., Rick Santorum?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, Santorum should sue the Iowa Republican Party, since he won that and no one gave him credit for it for about two weeks.

But, secondly, I think he needed a little bit more money, because, usually, when you have two candidates going at each other, the way Gingrich and Romney are, you have an opening for a third candidate.

But I think the problem for the Tea Party is the side of Santorum that I probably like best, which is the side of him that believes in some government, believes in some government action, and I think that some of the Tea Party folks know that he is not as anti-government as they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, switch to President Obama, because this week, he, of course, got his national audience, right, in the State of the Union.

David, starting with you, a few days later, what strikes you?

DAVID BROOKS: I think less of it the more I went on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Less of it a few days later.

DAVID BROOKS: And I remember the night. I was sitting here and I said it was a very well-delivered speech, very good speech, will appeal to independents.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do. And we have the tape.

DAVID BROOKS: And I still agree with that. I mean it was the sort of policies that will appeal to independents.

The question is, is it right for the moment? I think this is an election about national decline, about averting national decline. It’s an election in the wake of a huge debt wall that is about to land on us, wage stagnation, inequality, gigantic issues. And this is not Bill Clinton running for a second term amid peace and prosperity.

I think you need an agenda that’s equal to the moment. And he came in — God knows Obama came in with that kind of agenda, huge agenda. Now, this was a bunch of little tax credits for little things, little things that were good ideas that he has marginal control over. Today, he was out in Michigan campaigning on behalf of lowering college tuitions.

Does the president of the United States really have control over how much the University of Michigan charges for tuition? No.

JEFFREY BROWN: But realistic — haven’t Republicans — isn’t the feeling that Republicans have shown that they aren’t going to go along with big things, so he puts out . . .

DAVID BROOKS: Well, so my argument would be, what you do is you have to establish a governing majority to overwhelm the Republicans who will never work with you.

And that has to be a center-left majority that starts with a big, like, Simpson-Bowles budget deal. And you announce it. You don’t just talk about it in backrooms, a big tax reform, so people trust Washington. That’s how do you it.

JEFFREY BROWN: E.J., how do you feel about the State of the Union a few days later?

E.J. DIONNE: I agree with David that the underlying issue in American politics is, how do we avoid decline?

I disagree with him on the speech. First of all, I don’t think Simpson-Bowles is center-left at all. And it’s one of the reasons Obama pulled back from it. But I actually think that speech was effective, because he did two things at the same time.

On the one hand, he is making a big argument to the country about the cost of inequality, the fact that we have lost the kind of upward mobility we used to have. There was this wonderful black-and-white movie feel to it. I thought of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he went back to his Kansas grandparents and talked about how we felt as a country after World War II, when we took off like gangbusters and the middle class took off like gangbusters.

And he’s arguing government needs to do some things in order to allow people to have decent upward mobility again and to reduce inequality. And then he proposed some very specific commonsensical things that he hopes he might get through even under these circumstances.

I think there is a big vision there and some specific proposals, a lot of which I think might even be up David’s alley in terms of education, in terms of community colleges and in terms of tax fairness. He should have had Mitt Romney up in the presidential box, because Romney was exhibit A . . .

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there is an interesting tie between Republicans and Democrats when you speak about this inequality and fairness issue.

But is that not, David, a kind of overarching theme, as E.J. says?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, but you have got to have some policies to actually address it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah.

DAVID BROOKS: And I agree. Community colleges, they should be strengthened, they should be tied into labor markets. But is that going to really change it? I’m sort of dubious.

And then the second thing is, E.J. talked about the black-and-white movie. Well, he’s building a bridge to the 20th century. He talked about manufacturing — 90 percent of American workers work in the service sector. We are a service economy. I’m all for boosting the manufacturing sector, but the idea that’s going to get us out of our problems, that’s not the economy we live with today.

And so I think that was sort of a misdirection. And so I would liked to have seen something obviously much more ambitious for his point of view and for the country’s point of view.

JEFFREY BROWN: E.J., pick up a little bit more on the fairness and inequality issue. Does it resonate with all voters, some voters? Who is the president appealing to here?

E.J. DIONNE: I think it resonates on the left and in the center. And that’s the key.

The one thing — one thing I do agree with David on is, he does need to build a center-left majority. And, obviously, people on the progressive side have talked about rising inequality for a long time. And Occupy Wall Street, I think, deserves some real credit for really forcing that issue to the forefront.

But a lot of middle-class, middle-income, middle-of-the-road voters also sense that the opportunities that they once enjoyed aren’t there for them, aren’t there for their kids. So I think this argument about inequality — and there’s — we can talk about dueling polls, but I think the polling is pretty clear that a lot of voters are concerned about this.

They’re not concerned about it because they don’t want the rich to do well. They’re concerned about it because they think opportunity should be more broadly shared in the society than it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, David, because we talked about this with the Occupy movement, but you think that there are some limits to that . . .

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I think it’s the wrong way to phrase it. It’s not about inequality. It’s about opportunity. Are you giving people a lift up?

And the president would say, that’s not intentioned — that’s not intentioned with each other. But if all you’re talking about is taxing the rich — listen, I’m for raising the taxes on the rich — that’s not helping people move up. That’s not about growth and expanding the pie. It’s about giving people who earn success the ability to work hard and get ahead. Inequality, sociology is not the way to talk about it. Morality is the way to talk about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, E.J., your last word. You say Obama should take it out there, right?

E.J. DIONNE: It’s why he’s talking about manufacturing, because there is an opening to bring some manufacturing back. It’s why he’s talking about training.

I think countries that are less unequal than we are actually have more upward mobility. So I think our disagreement is, I think inequality and the mobility question are linked, and David doesn’t. And we’ll see who is right in November and 10 years from now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks so much.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.