Week In Politics: Iowa Caucuses; Year-End Overview

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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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, politics with our regular observers, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, who's with me in the studio in Washington, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us from Des Moines. Welcome to both of you.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: David, anything happening out there?

BROOKS: Yeah, it turns out there are human beings running for office. I actually ran into Gingrich last night in a hotel lobby and he was sort of riding a high. He was ebullient and self-aware, but his numbers are collapsing out here. And this morning, I was at an event for moms and he was asked some personal questions and he said he was a sadder and slower person than he was a few years ago.

SIEGEL: Yeah, here...

BROOKS: And then, he was asked about his own mother and his face just dissolved into tears and he really choked back. And I've never seen him cry before, but he cried several times just trying to resolve himself. And I'm not sure it'll sort of be a Hillary Clinton moment, but, you know, these are human beings and he is, in particular, under a lot of stress.

SIEGEL: Yeah, here's actually a bit of that Gingrich event for mothers where he did talk about his own mother.

NEWT GINGRICH: And my whole emphasis on brain science comes in directly from dealing - see, now you got me emotional - from dealing with, you know, the real problems of real people in my family. And so it's not a theory, it's, in fact, you know, my mother.

SIEGEL: What was that whistling going on there, do you know, David?

BROOKS: That was a baby. It was for moms and there were some kids in the room.

SIEGEL: I see. There were some kids in the room. E.J., any observations on Iowa from afar?

DIONNE: Well, you know, Hillary choked up four years ago and it helped her in New Hampshire. I'm just not sure crying helps you in a Republican primary, but we'll see. But God bless Newt for that moment. I see three dynamics. The most interesting one to me is the Santorum/Perry dynamic at the end. Rick Santorum is clearly surging and the one person who can get in the way of a surge for him is Rick Perry, who's spent a lot of money.

He's run the most explicitly Christian campaign there since Pat Robertson, the Reverend Pat Robertson, and I think the question is can Santorum consolidate the evangelical vote that he's almost consolidated now. So a lot will depend on what pastors and churches say on Sunday. Do they push people away from Perry and toward Santorum or not? If he gets all that vote, he could challenge Romney and Paul. Romney, it strikes me that none of these candidates are really going after him hard because they're so busy going after each other.

And that could actually help Romney consolidate where he is. And Ron Paul, I think there's something very interesting going on. The Republicans - conservatives are going at Paul for being anti-interventionist or isolationist in foreign policy. That could hurt him or it could bring out nontraditional caucusgoers who agree with Paul on foreign policy.

SIEGEL: David, you talked about Newt Gingrich today, but Mitt Romney, who does appear to be, well, locked with Ron Paul up at the top of the race in Iowa. How is he doing? Are you really finding people so indifferent to him or negative about him or is there some enthusiasm for Mitt Romney there?

BROOKS: He's getting some big crowds, at least by the standards of this year. Even at the rainy event today, he had big crowds. Windswept event, his hair didn't move. He is projecting confidence and his people are projecting confidence. They're sort of like a corporate machine. It reminds me of the Bush campaign of 2000. They're just rolling along as if no one else is in the field. And so they're feeling pretty good about themselves.

The Santorum thing is the big wild card here. Most people here think that there's an upside to him that even the polls don't reveal. The difference between Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who won four years ago, is that Huckabee was genuinely a pleasant and very fun campaigner. Santorum's a bit of a downer, uses much more negative language than anybody else. So it'll be interesting to see if that actually appeals to people.

The big takeaway I get from just this day of going to a bunch of events is that there's definitely an apocalyptic mood. There's definitely a sense that the country has strayed from the path of virtue, a very negative mood in all these rallies.

SIEGEL: Now, this is our last talk together this year, so I'd like to do a little wrap-up of 2011 with the two of you right now. At the beginning of this year, the winners of the 2010 Republican landslide took office. You may recall John Boehner assumed the gavel of the Speaker of the House, pledging hard work and tough decisions.

JOHN BOEHNER: No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual and today, we begin to carry out their instructions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: By year's end, we have witnessed the battle of Madison, Wisconsin, a Tea Party governor versus public employee unions, the deadlock over the debt in Washington and in the fall, the Occupy Wall Street protest introduced us to the people's microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCCUPY WALL STREET PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Mike check! Mike check! Mike check! Mike check! My name is Justin! My name is Justin! I was a public high school teacher! I was a public high school teacher! In Brooklyn, New York! In Brooklyn, New York! Until my school! Until my school!...

SIEGEL: So I'm curious what the two of you figure will prove ephemeral and forgotten from politics in 2011 and what you think people may remember of this year long after midnight on New Year's. David Brooks, you first, what's your appraisal of this year?

BROOKS: Yeah, this was a rotten year. This was the year when the economic down cycle looked more like economic big structural problems. And as for politics, I think it was the worst year I've ever covered. This was a big year for kicking the can down the road. The big accomplishment was not shutting down the government and Europe didn't completely collapse. So this was kind of a rotten year, at least for the stuff I covered.

Stuff that's memorable? I don't know, Lady Gaga. Kanye West and Jay-Z have a pretty good album. That's about it. I'm depressed about this year, looking forward to the next one.

SIEGEL: E.J., you depressed?

DIONNE: What? No, I'm not as depressed as David, although I'm counting on him to be a human microphone for me for the rest of this piece. I mean, it seems to me, we started the year with the Tea Party triumph and then we had the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. So, we talked a lot about the deficit at the beginning of the year, we ended the year talking a lot about inequality.

Obama, President Obama started the year trying to deal with the Republicans. I think he ended up looking weak in the process. Starting in September, he went on the offensive against the Republicans and that seems to give him a new life in the polls. And he went into the year better than he started - next year better than he started this one.

And lastly, the Republican campaign has been mostly comedy and melodrama. You can use a primary to make an argument to people. I don't think the Republicans did that very well in 2011. It doesn't mean it's going to turn out that way in 2012. But I think the progressive side and President Obama are better off now than they were 12 months ago.

SIEGEL: You agree with that, David?

BROOKS: Well, I'm not exactly sure. I mean, he is - President Obama is more vitriolic. I'm not sure that'll turn out in the long run. And E.J. and I've had this argument; I really do not believe the Occupy Movement represents the broader country. If you ask people, is the country divided between haves and have-nots, fewer people say it is than did before. If you asked should we distribute, fewer people say they're in favor of redistributing money to the - downward the income scale.

If you ask people who do you fear, big government or big business, 65 percent fear big government. Only 25 percent fear big business. So I just don't - I think the Occupy movement is a real thing. I just don't think it's representative of the broader country.

SIEGEL: Both of you, in your columns and in your appearances here, are very good at finding ideas - expressed or implicit - that seem to be animating political behavior in the country. And I just wonder whether you find us full to the brim or utterly bereft of ideas here the end of 2011. Is there anybody out there with a smart idea you find compelling at year's end, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I think that this is something David and I actually agree on. I think both of us think that communitarian ideas, which is a response to a kind of radical individualism we've seen in politics, are destined for some sort of rebound. And I think this whole sense of American decline, which I don't believe is the case for the long run, is going to inspire, someday, people to think hard about how do we get the country moving again, more practical approaches than we've seen in these crazy showdowns that have been very, very partisan.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks?

BROOKS: Yeah, I completely agree with that. We cover Rahm Emanuel, who left the White House as chief of staff and became mayor of Chicago. I've never seen a guy so happy in Chicago, because in city governments, and not only in Chicago, and in state governments, things are actually working, unlike Washington. And so, I think, you know, the community where people are dealing with real concrete problems, just a lot better off.

And then, President Obama, in the speech where he invoked Teddy Roosevelt, had a great story about a factory in Minnesota in which they don't lay off people. They stay rooted in their community. And rediscovering those values and building them by using government in some ways, that, I think E.J. and I would agree, is a fruitful path ahead.

SIEGEL: Well, on that note of agreement, of comity, thanks to both of you and Happy New Year.

DIONNE: Happy New Year.

BROOKS: You too, Happy New Year.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of The New York Times joining us from Iowa. And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post here in Washington.

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