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Gore Earns Nobel Nod; Thompson Debuts with Debate Performance

October 12, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the analysis of Brooks and Dionne, New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Mark Shields is off tonight.

So, E.J., Al Gore has to move aside his Emmy and his Oscar to make room on the shelf for his Nobel medal.

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Or maybe he’ll make a new shelf for it. I mean, this is extraordinary. And I think now there’s a consensus on global warming, even when people argue around the edges.

When Al Gore started doing this, a lot of people thought he was cranky, he was boring. The first President Bush used to make fun of him and called him “ozone man.” And he was, as it were — he cared about global warming before it was cool.

And so I think this is the product not of some short-term thing, not of some fad, but of a life’s obsession that turned out to be an obsession about something very, very important. It’s unusual that somebody gets that kind of satisfaction in their lifetime.

RAY SUAREZ: Satisfaction and maybe vindication, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think so. I should, since E.J. said I should mention it, the Supreme Court has ruled that George Bush is actually going to get the prize instead of Al Gore, one of the many jokes I’ve heard today on the subject.

E.J. DIONNE: It wouldn’t be a surprise.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think it is vindication. I mean, the guy, as E.J. said, has been at this forever. And he deserves it. Of course, it’s now prompted a mountain of speculation, will he get into the presidential race?

And I think some Democrats think so. James Carville, the Democratic consultant, said there was still a 25 percent chance that he would get into the race. I personally think it’s extremely unlikely, and I think others in the Democratic Party have said it is extremely unlikely in part because the race is so well-developed and in part because the candidates in there actually have superior political talent just as campaigners.

But I would say — and this comes through. And when you see Gore, and when you see him speak about this issue, it is true, even on the Democratic campaign trail, the candidates talk about global warming. But let’s face it, it’s issue number 13. It is not top of the issue. There’s health care; there’s middle-class squeeze; there’s a lot of much bigger issues.

And if Gore actually says this is the crisis of our moment, there would be some plausible reason he would at least want to get in, because, let’s face it, if he doesn’t, it will be an issue that everybody gives lip service to, but nobody will really call for sacrifice for.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this change the shape of the ’08 race at all? Do you agree with David?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I agree to this extent. I’d be very surprised if Al Gore got into this race. And my sense is there’s a very simple reason for that: He’s really happy. He’s enjoying his life.

Al Gore joked at an interview a couple years ago, “You know, there’s one thing I’m not very good at, and that’s campaigning.” And it was a sort of sweet remark, but it was also realistic. He was realistic about himself. I mean, he’s gone through a year where he wins the Academy Award, he wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Why would he want to wreck that?

The day he gets into the race, Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, who praised him to the skies today, suddenly that changes. Suddenly you’re under attack. And I disagree with David only on this. Of course he’s right that global warming is not going to be the central issue in a campaign that’s going to be dominated by Iraq, economic inequality, health care.

But there is a kind of growing consensus, certainly in the Democratic Party, and I think getting in the race might not raise the profile of the issue. Maybe it would turn it into a divisive campaign issue. So I think he’s better off where he is.

DAVID BROOKS: There’s certainly a consensus, either about some sort of cap-and-trade approach, or I think there’s also a consensus among economists that some sort of gas tax is the right approach, but that doesn’t mean any living politician is actually going to ask for sacrifice.

To actually enact this consensus, I think there’s a big leap there, and I think, right now, we are right to be pessimistic about some actual policy being enacted, no matter who’s elected.

Thompson's coming out party

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
[Fred Thompson] just didn't make a big splash, and I think he needs to do more than that to really get into this race.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, pursuant to what you said earlier about getting in late, we saw one candidate who got in kind of late this week, the coming out party for Fred Thompson in a Republican debate. How did he do?

DAVID BROOKS: OK. I thought he would do quite poorly actually, in part because the other candidates have been debating for two years. They know the answers to all the questions already. And in part, because as I mentioned last week on this show when I saw Fred Thompson give speeches, he was horrible. He gave boring speeches with no content.

In fact, in the debate, his presence is still very good. He's got a great actor's manner. He can put one word in front of the other. And there was one little scintilla of actual substance in what he said during the two hours, which compared to some of his colleagues was a mountain of substance, because there really wasn't that much there, and that was on the subject of entitlement reform, and Social Security, and reducing benefits over time to make the system more sustainable.

And that was, a, politically courageous, and, b, politically serious. And it was only one sentence, but it was one sentence more than some of the others gave us.

E.J. DIONNE: I agree on the last point. It was one of the only serious points out of the debate, where -- you know, it was remarkable. It was supposed to be about economics, and I think the only candidate who said things that might have connected with voters who are concerned about their economic circumstances who aren't on the top is Mike Huckabee. I think he is -- maybe that means he's the only Republican who could play in a Democratic primary.

But I think Thompson has a bigger burden on himself than he seems to realize, or at least that's how I see it. But this race was shaped when he got in. He took too long to get in. He needed to change the dynamic, to change the equilibrium.

His announcement week wasn't bad, but it didn't set off many sparks, so he didn't really change the equilibrium then. And in this debate, you saw how set this dynamic is, with all of the interchanges between Giuliani and Romney, who clearly see each other as the primary contenders.

And while David's right that that was a substantive point -- it probably hurt him in the general election, but it was a substantive point on Social Security -- while he had a good joke at Romney's expense when he said, "Well, I guess I'm not the only actor on the stage," which had a lot of implications, given the charges of flip-flops against Romney.

He just didn't make a big splash, and I think he needs to do more than that to really get into this race.

Feelings of economic insecurity

David Brooks
The New York Times
And what's striking is, you look at that debate, they're talking about the line-item veto? Well, how many people are sitting around the kitchen table thinking about that?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, let's talk a little bit more about the economy, because large numbers of people are telling pollsters that they're feeling insecure, that they're feeling pressured, that the country is on the wrong track. And yet we saw all the candidates during this week's debate one-upping each other about how great the economy was going. Are they going to have to do a hard pivot when it comes to running nationally?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, they'll have to do a pivot. The polls are all over the place. Is the country going in the wrong direction? Some of them, at 70 percent, 80 percent, a record numbers say it's going in the wrong direction. Are you satisfied personally with your own life? Ninety-one percent say yes, so there's a lot of weirdness in the polls.

Nonetheless, it is certainly true there's a greater sense of economic anxiety among the middle class, people making $40,000 to $60,000, $70,000 a year. And those people, at least white people in that income group, are the core of the Republican Party.

The Republicans won the white working class by 23 percentage points in the 2004 election. And if you looked at that debate, you would say, what on Earth are they offering these people? Nothing. There was no conversation about what they're going through, what barriers they may have to mobility. There were no proposals, and there really are no proposals out there.

Hillary Clinton has come out with a proposal twice a week, concrete, actual proposals on savings, on health care, on education, paying for college. And the Republicans have sayings.

And what's striking is, you look at that debate, they're talking about the line-item veto? Well, how many people are sitting around the kitchen table thinking about that? They're talking about reducing corporate taxes. How does that touch directly to these people's lives?

It's airy-fairy. It's abstract, that kind of debate, and that's one of the reasons so many conservatives are sort of dispirited, a loss of touch with the way actual voters live.

RAY SUAREZ: But, E.J., during the same week, the president came out and hit the road also talking up the economy in much the same way the GOP candidates are doing.

E.J. DIONNE: Right. And I think that speech to a certain segment of the country that's doing very well, a lot of those folks are Republican -- I think Republicans have had the idea that, if only we keep saying it, people will start believing it, forgetting, I think, that what people are worried about -- people out there who are worried are not irrational.

They are worried about real things, like health care. They're worried about what's happened to their pensions. And they're worried about the new economic competition, which has threatened a significant number of people in the middle class, not with poverty, but with a decline in their living standard.

I was talking to a Republican pollster recently who made a very good point that actually dovetails with what David said, that Republicans keep talking about, "We need a new Ronald Reagan." And this Republican who likes Ronald Reagan just fine said, "No."

You know, in Ronald Reagan's time, he had a set of ideas that matched the problems of the time. The economy was a mess. People were willing to take a flyer on his tax cuts. We seemed weaker abroad. People wanted that tough rhetoric.

Ronald Reagan's answers don't match this time, and the Republicans need something very different than these candidates are offering.

The widening income gap

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
It suggests a lot of turmoil in our politics and potentially a lot of struggle in the economy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just this week -- and, David, I'd like to hear from you whether this may be part of the explanation -- came the statistic, the top 1 percent of American earners made 21.2 percent of all the income in 2005, the latest year we have the statistics for. The bottom 50 percent made 13 percent of all the income earned in America. That gap is widening; it was the widest it's ever been in decades in that latest year.


RAY SUAREZ: Is that a problem?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are sort of two issues here. One is the widening inequality, which is indisputable, and I think that has a lot of different causes, some of them having to do with the rising rewards for education, some of them having to do with globalization, the fact that employees who are regarded as fungible get very low pays and the superstars get very high pay.

So there are a whole bunch of deep factors here. I personally don't think that's the fundamental issue on the electorate's mind. People don't mind if Warren Buffett is making a ton of money; it's whether their own standards are rising and, even more importantly, whether they can see their children's rising above them.

Now, objectively, living standards are going up, nobody disputes that, more cars, more TVs, bigger homes, but wages are not going up for a lot of people, and especially for men in the middle class. And so those people -- and then insecurity, for the reasons E.J. talked about, are also going up.

So it's sort of a complicated economic picture, but the bottom line is that we're seeing huge productivity gains. And those productivity gains are not being translated to middle-class workers with medium to low skills. So what are you going to do for those people? And what are you going to do for those people to remind them that their kids are going to have better opportunities than they have?

And, frankly, I think I don't agree with all the proposals, but the Democrats have proposals. I'm not sure the Republicans have proposals about that.

E.J. DIONNE: You know what you're seeing is not only the education premium. You're also seeing a shift from unionized jobs for blue-collar folks that used to pay a lot of money -- we've just seen all this turmoil in the auto industry in the negotiations.

There were a lot of those jobs that paid a lot of money. The jobs are moving to sectors that are not unionized for the most part, where workers don't have a lot of bargaining power, so that's another factor in this.

Pew had a very interesting finding recently, where they asked the question, "Are we a country of haves or have-nots?" Twenty years ago, only about a third of Americans said that was the case. Now the number is up to almost half.

So people have sort of intuited the numbers that you just read, and a lot more people feel we are divided like that. That's a dangerous number for the long run. It suggests a lot of turmoil in our politics and potentially a lot of struggle in the economy.

House vote on Armenian killings

David Brooks
The New York Times
There's a line that all of history is divided between causes that are right but repugnant and wrong but romantic. And this one is right but foolhardy.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we go, a little bit of a hard turn. The House vote on Turkish genocide against Armenians, what did you make of that?

E.J. DIONNE: This is fascinating. First of all, this issue has been around a long time. Of course, it's been around all the way back to the original genocide, but it's been around Congress for about 20 years.

It looks like a partisan issue right now, because Nancy Pelosi has agreed to bring this up. In fact, when you look at the co-sponsors of the bill, they actually have a majority of the House co-sponsoring it, 226, of which 61 are Republicans. So it's actually not entirely a partisan issue. And on the Democratic side, Rahm Emanuel, an important Democratic leader, actually doesn't think going forward with this is a good idea.

I mean, you've got two things going on. I think the sentiment that it's important for Turkey to recognize that this happened in its history, in the Ottoman part of its history, is a reasonable sentiment. The Armenians have always had a good case on this.

But it happens that Turkey is our close ally now, it's our close ally in Iraq, it is a Muslim democracy, the moment when we as a country are arguing that we want to promote democracy in the Muslim world. So this vote creates a particular problem for now.

Two of those Republicans in that 61 have already peeled away to vote with the president. The president doesn't want this.

The last point is this often seems a Congress-president issue. Last time this got close, 2000, who asked the Congress not to pass it? Bill Clinton. He's not a Republican, last I checked.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I'm reminded, there's a line that all of history is divided between causes that are right but repugnant and wrong but romantic. And this one is right but foolhardy, which is essentially, I think, E.J.'s position, that is, the Armenian genocide happened, the Turks are vastly overreacting for reasons that probably have entirely to do with their domestic politics.

E.J. DIONNE: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: But that doesn't mean we need to stick their eye in it at this point when we need them.

RAY SUAREZ: Stick a thumb in their eye, you mean?

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly, yes, thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: And, of course, advocates of this are saying the Turks are sort of playing hardball, that they don't want the United States not to be their friend. And so the House may well vote, go ahead and pass this thing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, coming as it does while the Turks are threatening to move over the Iraqi border, a tense weekend. Gentlemen, thank you very much.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.