GWEN IFILL: For more on the tax issue and to preview the big speech, we turn to New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.
David Brooks, how did this become, this Republican debate be about relative wealth? How did that happen?
DAVID BROOKS: It’s a little weird, because the party is actually going the other way.
One of the odd things about the South Carolina Republican electorate is, it’s going down-market. So the number of college grads is lower this time than it was four years ago. So it’s a working-class party. And they have got two normal working-class candidates, one a buck-raker in Washington, the other a big financier in Boston.
And so it’s thrust up. I personally don’t think it’s going to have a big political effect. I think a lot of Americans assume that the people who run for president are super rich. And if it’s a choice between the lobbyist and the Bain Capital guy, well, neither is Joe Six Pack exactly. I think, right now, they’re looking for the most assertive manly man.
DAVID BROOKS: And, right now, that’s Newt Gingrich.
GWEN IFILL: Ooh, well, that goes right to you, Ruth.
RUTH MARCUS: That’s enough for me.
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
RUTH MARCUS: A manly man, or whatever.
I think I disagree that it’s not going to have an impact. First of all, in this race, you — yes, people are looking for anger, but they’re also looking for authenticity. And what you have here is the battle of the inauthentic: I wasn’t a lobbyist, but I had to hire a lawyer to tell me exactly the difference between being a lobbyist and staying on the right side of that.
Nobody buys that.
GWEN IFILL: That’s what Newt Gingrich said, yes.
RUTH MARCUS: That’s what Newt Gingrich said. And nobody buys that.
He may not have technically triggered the requirement to lobby, but he was a strategic adviser/lobbyist. And that’s why he was getting the big bucks, not as a historian. I think that turns people off and it undercuts his “I’m the outsider, I’m the insurgent, I’m not of Washington” message.
And I think the same thing for Gov. Romney. It is very difficult for — the down-market guy in South Carolina or anyplace else going forward may imagine that he’s going to have great wealth, but 40-something million dollars in two years, and then just not — and paying the same amount of taxes on it that other people do?
It might be legal, but it doesn’t feel fair.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s go to the other side of the aisle.
The president tonight has his big stage. Among other things that — they have released early excerpts — the president plans to say is that he — “I intend to fight obstruction with action.”
That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that is going to get him a whole lot of applause on the Republican side of the aisle.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, the agenda, we understand, that he’s going to propose is sort of moderate.
I think the two questions to ask, first is the thing that strikes me just on what we know they have been working on is it’s less cyclical this time than the last State of the Unions. It’s more about the structural elements of the economy. And the president believes the middle class is under big threat. He wants to do some big structural things — or least structural things. Let me withdraw the word big.
DAVID BROOKS: Because the second thing — and this is what I think people should really register as they’re watching the speech — is, he’s going to describe some pretty big problems with the economy, wage stagnation, outsourcing, high unemployment.
Are the programs that he’s producing big enough to counteract the problems he’s describing? I have my own view, but I think that’s going to be a question.
GWEN IFILL: Well, as he walks out tonight in the middle of an atmosphere of pretty partisan divide, not only in Washington, but also out there on the campaign trail, what does he have to do tonight? Or does it matter? It’s a State of the Union. People forget them.
RUTH MARCUS: Well, it is a State of the Union, and people forget them.
And what I loved was the prebuttal from Governor Romney that this a terrible, divisive attack on fairness and everything, more class warfare. He probably got the excerpts also, but I think he spoke before the excerpts.
Look, every State of the Union is really kind of a disappointment, as far as I’m concerned. They’re all mishmashes. And we used to talk about being budgets being dead on arrival. Well, when you have got a divided Congress and a president running for reelection, you can be guaranteed that everything he proposes is going to be dead on arrival.
So what I look at this to see is really the sense in which it’s going to be his argument not to people who are sitting there, because some of — one set of them agrees with him, one set of them disagrees with him — but his argument to the American people, not cast as a campaign speech, but trying to convey to them the vision that he has for what he would do in a second term, if they give him the job again.
GWEN IFILL: But how do you walk into a joint session of Congress when most of the country thinks that we’re headed in the wrong direction and say the State of the Union is strong?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Well, we’ve heard it before. It could have been worse. And so I guess he’ll say that.
But I do think the scope of people’s anxiety, when you go around to these campaigns — and I think it’s true of Democrats, too — are you worried about your kids? Are they going to match up to you? Every hand raises up, every hand. So you have got to have a big agenda.
And you may not like the Republican agenda, but the stuff Romney and Gingrich and Santorum are talking about is pretty big. Turning Medicare into a voucher program, that’s pretty big. Scrapping the whole tax code, that’s pretty big.
I think the president really needs to be of scale, different, but of scale with what they’re offering. And I’m not sure, even within the administration, as they think about the next four years beyond this to the campaign, I’m not sure they have come up with those policies yet. And so I think that is a sort of an intellectual concern for what they’re. . .
GWEN IFILL: I wonder how you can be of scale, whatever of scale is, at when you have been consistency turned away on the things that you fought for, including taxing the wealthy, other fights that the president has fought and lost this year.
RUTH MARCUS: Right. Well, this goes to David’s point about the lack of cyclical proposals that he expects.
So, that means there’s not a lot of money to spend now to try to right the economy. People have sort of been there, done that, it ain’t going to happen, so why propose it?
But I would go back and say, yes, Gov. Romney, Speaker Gingrich and others are proposing big things. I’m not sure they’re big things that exactly speak to the anxieties that people have. They’re big new tax cuts that would flow primarily to the wealthy. So you have me sort of ginned up there.
And there is no magic silver bullet solution to the woes for the country that the president sees. And so you’re going to see some kinds of smaller things, more talk about infrastructure, more talk about help for people to obtain education and get college degrees, things like that, making the tax code fairer.
It’s not going to be the sort of, “Hey, honey, did you hear him say that?” kind of speech necessarily.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we’ll be watching it together tonight, as you join us later tonight for our special coverage.
David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, see you then.