Week In Politics: Special Election; Jobs

Melissa Block 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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MELISSA BLOCK, host: And on that note, we turn to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

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

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

BLOCK: That notion that we just heard in Mara's piece, David, about a general softening of support for President Obama that goes well beyond the formerly Democratic district, do you see the results on Tuesday as yet another big red flag for the president and his campaign theme?

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm really struck by how locked in the polls have been. The climate right now is basically the same as it has been in 2010 when the Republicans did so well. And so what's striking to me is you really haven't seen that many shifts. And I think it - the most worrying sign for Democrats should be that Obama has made great efforts to appeal to independents with some of the budget deals, with some of the cuts he was willing to entertain. And he hasn't moved those numbers at all.

And so, independents have not flocked back to the Democrats and that's the warning sign, especially white, working class independents. I wouldn't extrapolate it into the presidential race, but I do think it should be a severe warning flag for the Democrats who want to keep control of the Senate. I think that's a much bigger danger right now. It's hard to read what the presidential race will be out of this.

BLOCK: E.J., a warning sign, do you think there?

DIONNE: It is a warning sign, although I think it's important to understand that district. I spent a lot of time there 'cause a lot of my wife's family lives there. And first of all, Obama got 55.3 percent vote in that district - a little above his national average, not much. The Democratic vote has been declining in that district. Obama actually got a little less than John Kerry did. It's a district that was hit very hard by 9/11, particularly the Bell Harbor neighborhood in Rockaway.

And there were only 27 of the 192 Democratic House seats, according to the National Journal, that have that low of an Obama percentage. On the other hand, I think the issue here is not the Jewish vote to which we've paid so much attention. That's important, but an Orthodox Jewish leader I was talking to this week noted that this is also a very heavily Catholic district. And I think where I agree with David is what you're seeing is a middle class, working class vote - that's the kind of district it is - that has been swinging away from the Democrats since 2008.

Obama didn't carry that vote, but the Democrats got absolutely clobbered among working class whites in the 2010 election. And I think this should remind them in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, maybe New Jersey, that this is a part of the - either the Democratic or potentially Democratic constituency where they have to do a lot of work.

BLOCK: There was a loud note of discontent being sounded this week from the former Clinton adviser James Carville, who wrote this: What should the White House do now? One word came to mind: Panic. And he says it's time for the president to fire somebody. No, he says, actually fire a lot of people.

E.J., alarmist, overly alarmist, what do you think?

DIONNE: Well, that's James being James. And you always end paying attention 'cause the way he says things. I once heard about a political campaign that was described as having two speeds: complacency and panic. And so I don't think either of those things is true.

I think what Carville is reflecting is Democrats looking at New York 9, looking at the president's approval rating, and then there was a little bit of a pulling away among Democrats or some Democrats this week from his jobs plan, where I think the president was making a lot of ground at the beginning of the week. So, I think there is nervousness among Democrats.

And what I was struck - I visited White House this week - is there's no complacency in there right now. I mean, they are aware that the combination of the bad economy and some other bad breaks, and possibly some decisions they made, have put them in a harder position than they'd like to be in. So, they're not panicking yet. But I think they're aware of some of the things James was talking about.

BLOCK: David Brooks, would you say that No Drama Obama would be well-served to have a bit more drama right now?

BROOKS: No. If you want to pick somebody who is opposite from James Carville, I think Barack Obama more or less fits the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: I think they are not panicking. They're concerned but they are overconfident, I think. They know they're in trouble but they still have too high a regard for the president's political skills and assume those will carry them through.

I too am struck by the weakening this week of the jobs bill, Democrats pulling away. And the way the Obama administration proposes to pay for it - in part by reducing the deduction on charitable giving - is just a political nonstarter. And a policy, it's a very bad policy. So, basically, it means that we will not get a jobs bill.

If I were them, I would've done something a little riskier, a little newer, a little fresher, something with political plausibility to actually get a jobs bill. I really think they should take a few more risks in that department.

BLOCK: David, any thoughts on new things you gleaned from the Republican debate this week?

BROOKS: We've seen erosion for Governor Perry, not so much in the Republican field but among independents. If you look at the matchups between Perry and Obama, Perry a couple of weeks ago was leading. Now, as the country gets to know him, they don't like it so much and independents are fleeing from him.

So I think Romney is in a stronger position because he can say this guy is not electable. And he's got a lot of evidence to point to.

BLOCK: E.J., I want to ask you about a moment in the debate on Monday. There were cheers from the audience when the prospect was raised: Do you let someone without health insurance die? And we may remember there was a moment during an earlier debate when the fact was raised that Rick Perry had overseen more than 230 executions as governor, there was big applause for that. Would do you make of that?

DIONNE: I think it was deeply disturbing. I've been struck by the number of right-to-lifers, sort of right to life liberals have said, wait a minute: this is supposed to be a pro-life party and first they cheer for the death penalty - this isn't about supporting the death penalty, this is cheering - and then some of those cheers for the idea of letting a person die.

I think this is very dangerous for the Republicans. I don't know how many people actually watched that debate, but the Tea Party has not improved its image at all. And I think it's beginning to taint the image of the Republican Party.

BLOCK: Okay. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks very much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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