Week In Politics

Host Melissa Block speaks with our regular political commentators, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So, an improved jobs picture, the White House says its measures to stimulate the economy are paying off. Republicans, though, fume that Washington continues on a spending binge that must be stopped.

And that's where we begin our weekly conversation with columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi, again.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): How are you?

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Hello.

BLOCK: No government shutdown, at least for now, we learned this week. But the budget battle goes on. Republicans are saying that a new round of cuts proposed by Democrats is either unserious by one measure or nonsense. The two parties seem to be about $50 billion apart. David, first to you, do you see a path forward that averts a government shutdown later this month when the temporary agreement runs out?

Mr. BROOKS: I don't see it, but I think it's there. If you look at the polling on who the country blames if there is a government shutdown, they blame both parties equally. So both parties have an equal incentive to avert a shutdown. And this week we saw a fair bit of pragmatism. So while I'm not quite sure how they're going to do it, I do think they - we've seen, among the Tea Party types, among Democrats, some more flexibility than I would've thought maybe a month ago.

BLOCK: Where are you seeing that flexibility? I'm curious because the war of words seems to be going on unabated.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. The war of words is the war of words. But if you look at how Republicans supported this package to avert the immediate shutdown, a few opposed - Michele Bachmann, a couple of others - but most of the Tea Party types and the ones I've spoken to have gotten lectures on what it's going to take to control spending. And they've become much more realistic, I think.

And then among Democrats you saw a split between some of the more moderates and Nancy Pelosi and the liberal wing. And there's a fair chunk of moderates who want to do it. Now, they're still far apart, but I think they both desperately want to avert a shutdown.

BLOCK: And, E.J., we've seen Vice President Biden sent to Capitol Hill to try to work out a deal. Are you seeing one in the works?

Mr. DIONNE: I see a lot of capitulation right now by Democrats. I mean, what really strikes me is that the Republicans, I think, you know, the president gave a speech today in front of a sign that said: Winning the Future. I think they're losing the present budget battle because the Republicans have been an infernal machine, $4 billion in cuts every two weeks. And I don't think that Democrats know how to stop that machine and I've heard that they're actually quite worried.

They have now put $10 billion in cuts on the table. And they've got exactly nothing back from the Republicans. They are denouncing them. And so I think it, you know, I'm wondering, at what point will you hear the president say, wait a minute, you can't do a billion dollars in cuts in Head Start and all these cuts in Pell Grants. And at what point are they going to draw the line and begin to shape the debate?

And so - and the other thing is I just don't see the framework for an easy deal out of all of this. And if Democrats start putting up any kind of fight at all.

BLOCK: Well, it's interesting because the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, is calling the Republican cuts mean-spirited. And I wonder what this says about perceptions of the mandate from November. If the message as it was originally taken was slash government, cut spending, in public opinion polls, it now seems there's a lot more nuance in what Americans really think. When it comes to specific cuts, they don't want them.

David Brooks?

Mr. BROOKS: That's right. That's why they need leadership. And one of the things that's happened among the Republicans is that they've come to town, the House freshmen said, you know, we're going to cut foreign aid and we'll balance the budget. Then they got lectures, no, you really have to deal with Social Security and Medicare.

And so they've actually taken that step. The Republican caucus is now basically committed to taking on entitlements in some way in next year's budget. And I think that's a heroic step. The country is not there with them. Even Republicans, even Tea Party types - do not touch my Medicare, do not touch my Social Security. It's going to take some national leadership to explain the actual realities. I'm not sure they've done that and they're taking a perilous route.

I do agree with E.J. about the White House's odd passivity through all this. They really had a head of steam during the lame duck session of Congress and they've sort of given all that away simply by playing rope-a-dope. It's kind of odd, though, I think they're playing rope-a-dope on Libya. I think they played rope-a-dope on a lot of things. It's a strange caution in this White House.

BLOCK: It's interesting, E.J., if you look, there's an interview that John Boehner, the new speaker of the House, did with The Wall Street Journal in which he said Congress should raise the government's debt ceiling, puts him at odds with the feisty Tea Party wing of his own party. Do you see him having a real struggle to wrangle those new members in his party in the House?

Mr. DIONNE: At the moment I see John Boehner pursuing a very clever strategy because he, when he walks into that negotiating room, he can point to these people outside saying, look, I'd love to make a deal, but give me more because I've got to buy these folks off out there. So I think right now the Republican position is quite functional.

And as long as we're just talking about big vague numbers as opposed to the real choices that we're making - what we're actually cutting - they're going to be in pretty good shape on this. And that's why I think that the level of argument really has to be raised or else they're just going to keep winning.

BLOCK: And E.J., what about David's point that the White House should be assuming more leadership on that? On the big questions (unintelligible).

Mr. DIONNE: I think they're going to have to speak out at some point soon. And there's a lot of impatience among Democrats on the Hill, saying we're carrying all this. He's sort of triangulating with us and yet his positions are actually more on the liberal side on some of these cuts. He really wants to avoid them, so he's going to have to do something.

BLOCK: Let's think ahead a bit to the presidential race in 2012 and how the Republican field is shaping up. There was a lot of anticipation yesterday for Newt Gingrich's news conference. He was expected to launch an exploratory committee. Instead, he launched a website, Newt Explore 2012. There are big money issues that he has to navigate around if he is to announce. How do you both see the Republican field getting in place for 2012? E.J., you first.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, Newt seems to keep exploring the possibility of exploring and that's very Newt-like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: I think that you may actually have a much smaller real Republican field than we've been talking about. I don't think Sarah Palin is going to run. I don't think Mitch Daniels, actually, is giving signs of running.

BLOCK: The governor of Indiana.

Mr. DIONNE: Although he'd be a very interesting candidate. I think you have Mitt Romney as a frontrunner with real problems. Two big problems, the Republicans being, he supported a health care plan in Massachusetts that looks like what the Republicans like to call ObamaCare. And he has flip-flopped, historically, on social issues. Yet, he's got some real institutional support. He's certainly smart and looks like a president.

Then you have Newt, who I think may be the most interesting candidate and is this odd mix of provocative and interesting, on the one side, and outrageous on the other side. Then you've got Tim Pawlenty. Tim Pawlenty could be the remainder candidate.

BLOCK: The former governor of Minnesota.

Mr. DIONNE: He's the guy - former governor of Minnesota. He's the candidate with the fewest obvious flaws and the least baggage. And what this reminds me of is the 1988 Democratic field, people called it the Seven Dwarfs back then. Tim Pawlenty looks like Mike Dukakis to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: And I'm from Massachusetts, so I don't mean that as an insult.

BLOCK: That's not a bad thing for you.

David Brooks, a couple names - I think that we're not on...

Mr. DIONNE: Although Dukakis did lose the general election.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah.

BLOCK: Noted.

Mr. BROOKS: Tim Pawlenty played hockey. I don't think Dukakis would've (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: A couple other names, I think, that weren't on E.J.'s list, David. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, governor of Mississippi, I don't think E.J. mentioned. Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, now ambassador to China, but not for long. Anybody else that you're looking at?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I wish Mitch Daniels would run. I think it's an extremely weak field without Daniels in it. I don't think Newt Gingrich - do not let that man near a management job. Very interesting to listen to, don't let him run anything. As for the others, Haley Barbour, a pretty good governor, kind of a good spokesman. Do we really think a former tobacco lobbyist from the South is going to win the nomination? I really kind of doubt that. And as for Huntsman, the guy served in the Obama administration, not a great resume line for you running in a Republican primary.

I really hope it gets down to Pawlenty and Romney, of the people in front of us. It's so sad to be so narrow so fast. I don't think Huckabee's going to run. And so it's really down to these two sort of establishment figures, around which so far there's not much definition or excitement. Maybe they can generate it. But so far I'd say a lot of Republicans feeling some letdown.

BLOCK: And you agree with E.J. that Sarah Palin, you think, is not going to enter the race?

Mr. BROOKS: No way. And even if she were to go to polls, she'd do terribly. Republican voters sort of like her, they're not going to vote for her.

Mr. DIONNE: And it's astonishing how quickly she's dropped in the polls. I think all the speech around the time of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting really hurt her among Republicans, which is where it matters.

BLOCK: OK. Thanks to you both. Have a great weekend.

Mr. DIONNE: You too.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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