TOPICS > Politics

Brooks, Dionne on Dismal Jobs Report, Romney’s Health Care Message

July 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne discuss the week's top political news, including the dismal June jobs report, why the stimulus recovery plan hasn't had a greater effect, and Mitt Romney's health care message and evolving relationship with the conservative base.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, filling in for Mark Shields.

Hello, gentlemen. It’s good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s the first Friday of the months. We have jobs numbers, David, disappointing. There was jobs growth in the private sector, but not as much as the economists predicted.

What does this mean for the campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is bad for Obama.

The rule of thumb had been 150,000 jobs a month is sort of the break-even point. You want to be above that if you are the incumbent. We have had three months in a row of bad numbers. So now to catch up, to get to the point where all the political science models — or many of them — say it is an advantage for him or at least not a complete negative, he has to have a quarter million job growth for the rest of the year.

That seems unlikely. So you go into election thinking the economy will be a pretty strong negative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pretty strong negative.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would think so.

And I have to say the downside risks are a lot better than the upside risks. It is very hard to see the economy really turning around and picking up. It is very easy to see Europe having something really negative happen. And then if Europe collapse, if the euro collapses, if you get more than a Greece withdrawal, then I think it is extremely hard for the president to get reelected. It is sort of out of his hands.

But up until now, it’s a negative. With a euro collapse, really strong negative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J., we heard a little earlier in the program from two spokespeople for the two campaigns.

Is there something different the president could be saying or doing that would make a difference at this point?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think what is striking is that you have had sluggish growth for the last three months, 90,000 jobs. And the president has maintained and in the swing states expanded his lead over Romney.

And so you are starting to wonder, can he live with sluggish growth? I agree with David. Obviously, if Europe blows up, if something horrible happens, then he’s going to be in trouble. But I think it’s remarkable that he has held up as well as he has. And I think are some underlying numbers that are helping him. One is that wages were up. Hours worked were up. The numbers are better in the swing states.

And while David is right in one sense that, yes, the overall number matters, there are a lot of studies that show that voters vote their own subjective or objective sense of how they are doing, and that people in the swing state feels that the environment they’re in makes them feel better.

So, I think the president — the president doesn’t have much choice at this point. He has got his policies in place. He’s going to say that he has more policies there that the Congress won’t enact. And we’re going to hear that a lot. And he’s going to say that we have had, you know, study but slow job growth, but we have added about 4.5 million jobs.

And I think he can probably live with the numbers as long as there is a plus in front of them. He can’t live with a minus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard Lanhee Chen, David, say there is just this policy uncertainty out there that is keeping people from hiring. Is there anything the president can do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, not in the short term.

I think historically if you look back on — just in the biggest possible picture of how he did, I think you would have to say vis-a-vis Europe, the stuff Tim Geithner did with the banks, the stress tests, that was superior to what Europe did, that we really did act in a way to shore up our financial system in a superior way than across the Atlantic.

The thing that I think will baffle historian — and this is a criticism of both parties — there was a reasonably broad consensus. You could have done an easy deal, short-term stimulus for long-term structural reform. That is to say, we will spend a lot of money now, but then we will put something in place, some guarantees that entitlement spending and other things will go down. Why didn’t you put those things together?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean last year?

DAVID BROOKS: Last year or any of the last three years or today.

To me, it is a vast mystery why that deals was not struck. And then the second thing to be said, it has been understood by a lot of people from the very first day in 2008 this was going to be a seven- or eight-year process. Why didn’t we take long structural things to take care of the deep structural problems that afflict us today?

E.J. DIONNE: And I think it is easy — it wasn’t an easy deal. I think it is easy to understand why those things didn’t happen, because the Republicans were going to resist any long-term budget solution that involved tax increases.

And I don’t see how you can solve the long-term budget problem with tax — through tax increases.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are saying it couldn’t have happened?

E.J. DIONNE: What David is saying is not a bad idea. It just couldn’t have happened.

The other thing is, I think the original stimulus should have been bigger and longer-acting. A lot of people in the Obama administration thought that at the time. They were cautious because they didn’t think it could get through Congress. And, indeed, when they did propose a largest stimulus, they had to cut it back to get those last three votes in the Senate.

So I don’t think there was an easy path for the president. I don’t think the Republicans were prepared to give him the kind of stimulus, long-term — short-term or a budget deal long-term that might have been better than what we have.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if he had — when he proposed the stimulus package, if he had said, listen, we have to spend now, but I understand we have to worry about the long-term debt situation, we can’t scare the market, here’s these things — and I’m going to put it in the long-term — to bring debt down long-term, if you give me the short-term stuff.

I think that is a marriage that would have certainly been open back in 2009.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think Republicans would have gone along?

DAVID BROOKS: 2009 was a much more fluid situation than it has since become.

E.J. DIONNE: I just disagree based on the votes in the stimulus. He gave them — a third of the stimulus was tax cuts, which weren’t particularly effective at boosting the economy. That was an effort to get Republican votes.

So I’m just less optimistic than David is about what Republicans would have done for the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal is out editorializing, saying that if only Mitt Romney would put out some policies of his own, that it is not enough to, hey, remind everybody that the president’s policies are working.

They said something like, Americans already knows the president’s policies aren’t working. We want to know what his prescription is.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, that is what we pundits do.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: We always want details. We want something to write about.

And so I believe that too. There is a big debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are you surprised The Journal is — a conservative. . .

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, there are a couple things here.

Why The Journal and Rupert Murdoch have been critical — and they are sharing a lot of criticism floating around conservative circles, which the Obama camp — which is that the Romney campaign has not been sure-footed, doesn’t have the A-Republican team on board. They have just been less than aggressive.

And so I sort of agree with some of that. But there’s a difference between campaign people and pundits. And we always want the substance. We want something to debate. And their strategy, whether it’s right or wrong, their strategy is let’s lay low. Let’s focus all the attention on Obama. Just lay low, be as boring as possible.

The country likes boring right now. Let’s focus on that guy. And that is their strategy. It’s really bad for us. And maybe, if you were running a campaign, it may be what you would opt for too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of the criticism from The Wall Street Journal?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, it is a really bad day in a Republican campaign when there is a long Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing your campaign.

And I think, on the one hand, conservatives have a point, because with 8.2 percent unemployment, the incumbent is not supposed to be ahead of the challenger by eight points in the swing states, which is what some of the recent polls show. So there is something to that.

I think the problem for conservatives is, what they want Romney to do is to go out and defend very, very conservative policies. The Romney campaign knows that a lot of these policies will not be popular. But Romney also doesn’t want to break with the conservatives. So, they’re stuck in this netherworld.

I think, if Romney did what the conservatives want him to do, it wouldn’t help. But, in the meantime, it’s not clear what his convictions are. So he’s in a real box.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And if I were Romney, I would probably err on the side of, I am going to say something unpopular, but this is what I believe. I think his primary challenge right now is to show the country that he actually believes in stuff, he’s consistent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you think he’s being too cautious by doing what you were describing. . .

DAVID BROOKS: I do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . just playing it close?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

So after the health care decision, Romney could have come out there. He has a health care plan. And it’s pretty detailed, at least within, I would say, this little box he keeps in the subbasement of his 12-car garage in deep secret.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: He’s not letting anybody know it, but it is a secret plan, and it’s a pretty good plan.

And I would like him to say what it is, in part so he can say, this is what I believe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know that he has a plan, but you are saying. . .

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he has announced the outlines of his plan. That’s public. I also know that he has the private details of the plan which is in secret.

But it’s just fleshing out the plan he has announced publicly.

E.J. DIONNE: And the problem is, it looks like the plan that John McCain put on the table four years ago, which President Obama, then Senator Obama, trashed to great effect in the election.

I don’t think the plan would be popular if he put it out there, which is why it is in the subbasement.

DAVID BROOKS: It happens to be popular with people like me.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that’s why he’s keeping it secret.

E.J. DIONNE: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s why, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because you are in the minority. You are a columnist.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I like. . .

E.J. DIONNE: He leaks it to you, but not to the public.

DAVID BROOKS: I like being a part of the reality principle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and one part of the health care story was that his adviser came out a few days ago and said, we disagree with the Supreme Court, that we think this mandate is a penalty. It’s not a tax. The court, as we know, upheld the health care reform law, but said only on the basis that the mandate was a tax.

Eric Fehrnstrom, who advises Mitt Romney, said, no, we think it is a penalty. Two days later — or a day later, I guess the governor came out and said, no, it’s a tax. So what happened there?

E.J. DIONNE: This was a terrible mess.

I think Romney lost in several different ways. I think Fehrnstrom was speaking for Romney and the campaign. That was quite clear, where Romney didn’t want to have to admit that he raised a tax in Massachusetts. So Romney was defending his own position.

Meanwhile, Republicans are out there calling it a tax, and they say to Romney, you can’t take this position. You have got to go with us on this. So a couple days later, Romney switches. So he gets stuck with the flip-flop. He looks like he is caving to pressure from congressional Republicans and the right wing of the party.

And it looks like the campaign is not competent, because you would have thought it was known for a long time that the Supreme Court was coming down with a decision. There were a lot of different possibilities. You would have thought they would have worked this out in advance. So, I think it was a loser across the board for him.

DAVID BROOKS: Which is why he should announce a plan, so it’s less about talking about the past, the Massachusetts pretzel he’s stuck in, and mostly talking about, here’s my option, here is Obama’s option, you decide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much is he hurt, if at all, David, by that little kerfuffle this week. . .

DAVID BROOKS: Oh.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . about the penalty, tax, penalty?

DAVID BROOKS: This is the ebb and flow of the campaign. The polls — I don’t take the polls seriously, particularly now.

In October, something will happen, and then people will decide. But the people who are going to decide this election, believe me, are not paying any attention now. And they’re the ones who tune in late. And there will be a bunch of ads aimed at them. And then the last week or so, they will make a decision.

E.J. DIONNE: I think the penalty-tax thing doesn’t matter to a lot of people.

I think Romney is in danger of crossing into territory where, A., he just doesn’t look like he has any clear principles on anything, or he is willing to adjust them. And, B., I think the Obama people really are going to play this, he will always cave to the Republican right or he will always cave to the Republican Congress.

And I think that is dangerous for him, not this particular thing, but the way it feeds this narrative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One good piece of news Romney got this week was a hundred million dollars in the month of June.

David, is money going to be the decisive thing in this election?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don’t think so.

I think, if you are running for congressman, if you are running for senator, if you are running for governor, money can matter a lot, or state legislator. In the presidency, there’s so much free media, I’m really — I’m very dubious that money makes a big deal. Both candidates are going to have plenty of money, enough to win this thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because the Obama people came right out and said, hey, we have got to catch up in an appeal. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . their support.

E.J. DIONNE: Well, and they do have to catch up.

In the broad sense, money — in a presidential campaign, people know both candidates, and they particularly know the incumbent. But this gives Romney a lot more room to maneuver.

Barack Obama vastly outspent John McCain in the last campaign. That allowed Obama to play in states that Democrats don’t usually play in. It’s part of why he carried Indiana. It’s part of why he carried North Carolina.

This time, by being outspent by Romney, he doesn’t have that advantage. And I think it’s going to increase pressure on the big donors, who have been very reluctant so for to give to the super PAC, who — they don’t like the idea of a super PAC. They have started to give money. I think this will raise the pressure on them to give more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We don’t like to end talking — start talking about jobs, end talking on money, but that’s the way it is.

E.J. DIONNE: That is the way of the world.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thank you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.