Week In Politics: GOP Presidential Field

Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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SIEGEL: And the Republican field for next year's election is taking shape with the official announcement of Mitt Romney's candidacy for president. Here to talk politics now are our regular commentators, David Brooks of the New York Times and joining us from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Welcome back, both of you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): Good to be here.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): (Unintelligible).

SIEGEL: E.J., you were at the Romney announcement yesterday in New Hampshire. He's taking aim at the anemic recovery under the Obama administration. Does he seem to be landing some punches?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I tell you, first of all, it was a beautiful event. There was a big white barn, bales of hay, a sweeping landscape, although apparently it took some federal money to preserve that landscape. And yes, you're right. His message yesterday was much more general election message focused on the economy and job creation than it was a primary message. And so all of that's good news for Romney.

Couple pieces of bad news. One, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani came into the state and stepped all over his message. And Palin's visit to the New Hampshire seashore really seemed to drown out Romney to some degree. The other thing is, once again we saw his dilemma on health care. That's still going to be a problem for him.

SIEGEL: David, there was a Pew poll out yesterday that showed Romney to be well known and acceptable to a broad part of the electorate. He's been a governor and a business executive. Those are both positive traits according to that poll. Could this be his year?

Mr. BROOKS: It could be. And if the economy's weak, it helps him, obviously, because the first thing it does is it drops health care down the issue ladder and makes the economy the central issue, which is his strongest issue. It's really the only issue on which he's perfectly sincere and authentic. And so, that helps him.

The thing he has to worry about his clearest route to the nomination is if Michele Bachmann does extremely well in Iowa. The entire Republican Party goes into a complete panic and they run to Mitt Romney. I think that's the likeliest avenue for him. If Michele Bachmann does not do as well, then he finds himself in a contest really with John Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.

And there, it's a much more confused path. Then it really becomes a class-based system, where Pawlenty says, I'm a working-class guy. Mitt Romney, you're the guy who supported TARP. You're the guy from Bain Capital. And that becomes a very complicated race to run.

SIEGEL: You interviewed Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, today. Is he saying such things about Mitt Romney, you're the investment banker?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think he's certainly contrasting his upbringing. He's a working-class kid. Mitt Romney is not. He's certainly going to be attacking Romney on supporting TARP, which Pawlenty did not. Romney did. Aside from that, the issue differences are trivial at best, except for health care. But it's interesting to see a class-based difference emerge on the Republican Party.

SIEGEL: E.J. go ahead, E.J., yes.

Mr. DIONNE: I think David's right that Bachmann doing well in Iowa would be great for Romney, much as Pat Buchanan doing well in Iowa back in '96 was good for Bob Dole. The one thing I would add to that is wandering around New Hampshire a little bit and talking to Republicans, Huntsman former Utah governor, John Huntsman really is working this state hard.

He's picked up some pretty, really good republican activists in New Hampshire for his campaign. And if you look at this, a poll done recently, CNN and WMUR here, Romney is way ahead. Huntsman is a way back, but Pawlenty hasn't gotten anywhere in this state, either. And only four percent in this state have definitely decided their vote, according to the poll. So it's very open. And I think Huntsman maybe a dark horse with a shot here.

SIEGEL: I want to read to you what one commentator said about the Republican field and the Republican Party today. This is a quotation. "It's impossible not to hear in the clamor for boldness, for massive cuts in entitlements, a distinctly fevered tone and one with an unmistakable ideological tinge. Not the sort of pragmatism that inspires voter confidence."

That may sound like E.J., but it's actually the quite conservative Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal, David. She's asking...

Mr. DIONNE: I thought she was very shrewd today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: What does that say about the Republicans?

Mr. BROOKS: E.J.'s hacking into her word processor there. You know, the Republicans are gonna...

Mr. DIONNE: Let's not go there, David.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I was tempted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: The Republicans are going to run a completely orthodox race. It's going to be: They want big government, we want small government, end of story. And that will be a completely orthodox Republican-Democratic race. And if the unemployment rate is at nine or 8.5 percent, that's a pretty good way to run. And that's simply how they're going to run. This will not be an intellectually interesting race, because it's going to be very conventional Democrat-Republican race.

SIEGEL: But will - and E.J., did it sound to you like it might be an optimistic, a hopeful race about ideas that could make the American economy work better?

Mr. DIONNE: Not really. I mean, Romney had in back of him a slogan: Believe in America, which sort of was a combination of hope and change we can believe in. That's hopeful.

It was funny, when I read that column this morning, Dorothy's column, a Romney person - somebody on the campaign I spoke to yesterday - was emphasizing that he was talking about jobs primarily and not cutting government, as the opening shot of the message. So I think as a general election matter, he's very aware of that.

But then to me, he stepped on that argument when he said we're only inches away from ceasing to be a free economy. Well, maybe 5.2 quadrillion inches. And it was sort of he's got to do some of that Tea Party rhetoric even if he wants to do a job message.

SIEGEL: David, do you think the Tea Party is going to be decisive for the Republicans this year or next year?

Mr. BROOKS: No, I really don't think so. This is going to be an election about national decline. And so the Republicans can say let's get back to the traditional small government role. That's their message.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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