Week In Politics: Perry; Obama's Bus Tour

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Robert Siegel talks with E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, about this week's events.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: The frenetic market has been the backdrop for a pretty active week of political campaigning. President Obama took a bus tour of the Midwest, selling his ideas and his candidacy, and the initial public offering of Texas Governor Rick Perry sucked up much of the oxygen in the Republican presidential campaign. Here to talk about those stories are, first, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Nice to see you, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And with David Brooks traveling in east Africa, joining us is his colleague from the New York Times, op-ed page columnist Ross Douthat. Ross, good to see you here.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Let's start with Rick Perry and the Republicans. Perry used the word treasonous in connection with Chairman Bernanke. He claimed, against all evidence, that scientists are abandoning the idea that global warming is, in part, caused by human activity. He described evolution as a theory that's out there and got some gaps in it. Is there room, first of all, for those ideas on a winning Republican national ticket or is Rick Perry simply too far right? What do you think, Ross?

DOUTHAT: Well, I think what we're seeing with Perry this week is an example of both his enormous strength and his potential weakness. I think that the secret of Perry's success has always been his ability to sort of, what you might say, channel the right wing id, in a sense. He's a politician in a deep red, very Republican state, who has played politics in that state very effectively by always getting a little bit out in front of whatever the current conservative mood is.

And you saw this in his primary campaign against Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson where he effectively rode the Tea Party wave almost before people realized there was a Tea Party wave.

SIEGEL: But do you hear a candidate being tactical or a man who's just impulsive and can't control what he's saying?

DOUTHAT: Well, I think with many successful politicians, it's hard to separate sort of impulse from successful tactics. I don't think anything that Perry has said this week is necessarily going to hurt him in the early Republican primary states and that's obviously what he's focused on right now. But it is - clearly, he's a more problematic candidate for the general election than, say, a Mitt Romney would be.

SIEGEL: He led Jon Huntsman, E.J., to tweet this, "To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

DIONNE: I wonder if that helps or hurts Huntsman among Republican primary voters. I mean, I just want to say that I will never accuse my friend Ross of treason, no matter how much I disagree with him. And I think his reaching for that told us something about Rick Perry. That's not a word you reach to first when you disagree with someone. I think this is someone who is quite capable of verbal self-immolation. I agree with Ross. Right now, he does channel the Republican id.

But I think if unemployment is above 11 percent, then this strong and somewhat demagogic guy has a chance. But I think if it goes much below 9 percent, which I pray and hope it does for all of our sakes, I think a lot of middle-of-the-road voters are gonna look at him, particularly outside the South, and say, this is too much.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about President Obama, whatever can be said for his economic program - and that's usually things would be even worse but for it - economic growth is down. There are real fears of another recession. A lot of his supporters don't hear the president making an energetic and persuasive case, E.J. How did he do in the Midwest this week? Did he win anybody over?

DIONNE: I think it was a start, but he's got to go further than he did this week. I think it's about time that he starts at least raising some questions about the Republican congress, beginning to channel Harry Truman, who had a rather successful time running against a Republican congress back in 1948. And I think you're going to see more of that. But given how deep this economic mess seems to be, I think he's gonna have to go farther. I think they should put aside their qualms and put out a full program that includes a lot of stimulus.

There are a lot of business folks, not left-wing Democrats, who are saying that the world economy needs to be stimulated right now and then also put out a long-term deficit plan. It's risky, but I think it's less risky than just trying to play it at the edge. And if the Republicans reject it, he can have a fight with them, but it'll have no chance of passing if he doesn't propose it.

SIEGEL: Ross Douthat?

DOUTHAT: I basically agree with E.J. in the sense that I think the president has been trying to play the margins all year long on the assumption that an economic recovery is right around the corner. And his strategy - I mean, I think the - from a purely political perspective, the bus tour got a little better as it went along because by the end of it, he was actually attacking his opponents a little bit. But at the beginning, you know, he goes out in sort of a dry run for the campaign and starts talking about how Washington is broken.

And, I mean, that was his line when he was running for president three and a half years, three years ago, but that's not really an effective line for a sitting president to use because he's the guy who was elected to fix Washington. And it might be possible for him to go out and persuade voters that, you know, Washington was just so broken that he couldn't handle it, but that's not a case for his own reelection.

DIONNE: And it's got to become more pointed. I mean, he has fundamental disagreements with the Republicans. Even the modest stimulus proposals he has, some of which Republicans were sympathetic to - for goodness sake, patent reform was negotiated with both parties. If they're going to try to block things they're actually for, how is he going to get anything through? So I think he does have to be more pointed, but he also has to be more visionary. This is not a time to be playing it cautious, not with what's going on all over the world.

DIONNE: And I think he's got to reach out to people abroad, to the Europeans, and say let's get together again and see if we can fix this global economy.

SIEGEL: You're saying he should go global?

DIONNE: Yes. He's got to go global.

SIEGEL: Okay. Quick, short answer question for both of you. Should he - should the president be at Martha's Vineyard right now? Ross?

DOUTHAT: No, but I think it's ultimately inconsequential for his reelection.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: It's a cheap shot to go after him for going on vacation but politically I wish he were on the Outer Banks or on the shores of Lake Michigan.

SIEGEL: Well said. E.J. Dionne and Ross Douthat. Thanks to both of you.

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