Week In Politics: GOP Primary Dates; Herman Cain; Chris Christie

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 now, to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS: Shana Tova, Happy New Year.

BLOCK: Let's start with this race to the top of the primary calendar. How does that complicate the political fortunes or calculations of Republican candidates, David?

BROOKS: Well, I think it's a good thing. You get some minority voters, which you don't have a lot of in Iowa and New Hampshire; you get them a little earlier in the process. But, you know, I don't think it makes a change. We've had these dances year upon year, and I don't think it changes the calendar moving up and back. I can't ever think of a time it's made a difference.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I basically agree with that. I think it would make it a little harder still if Chris Christie gets in the race. I don't think he's going to run. I think someone who says, what do I have to do, commit suicide to make you believe I'm not running? - somebody who says that strikes me as having a strong view about not running. But I don't think this will have a material effect. But Florida could be interesting, to have Florida as an important state.

It is a genuinely diverse state. It's about 10 different states in one. And while Republican primaries are less diverse than Democratic primaries, it's probably more representative than any of the other early states - much as I love New Hampshire.

BLOCK: You were talking about Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. David, what does it say, do you think, that there is this draft Chris Christie movement, including from some big GOP donors who want the New Jersey governor to join the race?

BROOKS: A lot of rich guys love the guy. I mean, if you look at the people who are really lobbying for this, it's a lot of big Wall Street money, I think, is the prime force behind this. And they don't trust Romney. They think he's closet moderate. They see Perry underperforming. They haven't fallen in love with the Hermanator, Herman Cain, even though I think he's had a phenomenal couple weeks here, in part because he does realize that it's a - people want something big. And he's got his 999 plan, which has appealed to something.

I, myself, am a little down on Christie - not because I don't like him; because I don't think he's right for the times. These are very scary and uncertain times. And I think what the country is looking for is somebody who's orderly and secure - which Romney, more or less, is. Somebody who's big and bombastic is not going to actually reassure people - especially if there's another crisis, which is quite possible.

BLOCK: E.J., David mentioned the Hermanator, Herman Cain, former executive of Godfather's Pizza. Headline in your paper today in the Washington Post: Cain: Call Him the GOP's Next Big Thing? - question mark. What do you think?

DIONNE: Well, I think unfortunately for Herman Cain, we've had a lot of big things go away quickly. The Republicans have built this candidate destruction machine where you build him up, put him in the machine and they're gone at the end, you know, like Michele Bachmann. But I think that he has been a great way - as he said himself, when he gave the speech in Florida - a great way for Republicans to send a message. It's a message to Washington and President Obama, they don't like them, but it's also a message to the rest of their field that they don't like them very much, either.

I think that is the primary thing. But he is entertaining, so it's good to keep him around for a while, for all of us.

BROOKS: Yeah. I would also say it's the bigness. The bigness of this 999 thing, which is a tax plan, which would have some consumption taxes, some corporate and some income taxes - really, fundamentally, restructuring the tax code. I think that's his fundamental insight and that, people really are attracted to. And I think the major candidates, including President Obama, would be wise to have something equally as big.

DIONNE: Until they look at what 999 would do in detail, but...

BROOKS: You don't have to do exactly that, but something.

BLOCK: Let's spend some time talking about President Obama's re-election strategy, putting together constituencies that would win him re-election - not just within his base, but also among independent voters. David, what are you hearing? What are they thinking?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, I think they've shifted. I think for the first nine months or so after the 2010 election they thought, let's go to the center, let's win back those independents. It didn't seem to work - I would say because they didn't really try with any substance and now, I think they've decided they want him to be a fighter. And he's been mostly a fighter on the left, sounding much more like a conventional Democrat, rallying a lot of people. He's going to get great editorials in the New York review of books.

But I think he's alienating a lot of people in the center. He's not doing what he needs to do to win back the independents. So I think when your opponents are self-marginalizing themselves - which, to some degree, the Republicans are - you should try to occupy the center. And he's decided not to do that.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I guess I couldn't disagree more because I think that he was losing the center by not looking strong. And a lot of voters in the center overwhelming agree with him, for example, that it's time to do something about jobs; that high-income people should pay taxes at a higher rate than secretaries or receptionists, as Warren Buffett has said. And he's just looking happier in his work. And so, I think this new strategy will ignite the base, to some degree. I mean, liberals and the left were really, really dispirited.

And there was a real danger they weren't going to turn out and vote in the numbers he needed. He started taking care of that. But I think the middle-of-the-road voters who are actually accessible to Obama are going to like him better for fighting for something.

BLOCK: Of course, news today of the drone strike that killed al-Qaida terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Can President Obama make a compelling case of his record on anti-terrorism, on national security? David Brooks?

BROOKS: I think he can, but I don't thing that's ever going to be a campaign issue this year. Do people trust government? That's the thing that separates from Obama from the center right now.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I was talking to a foreign diplomat who said it was so striking to him that Obama was incredibly clear and decisive on foreign policy, and that that didn't seem to translate into domestic policy. Of course, there's one thing about foreign policy: The president controls it, and doesn't have to get it through the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

BROOKS: You, too.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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