Week In Politics: Primaries And Payroll Tax

Melissa Block talks to E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the National Review, about the showdown between Republican presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney in Michigan and Arizona ahead of those states' primaries, and the extension of the payroll tax cut through the end of the year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So, a Santorum surge and a Romney slump in Michigan. Go figure. Here to make sense of the political week is E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Hi, E.J.

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

BLOCK: And filling in for David Brooks today, we have Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the National Review. Welcome back, Ramesh.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.

BLOCK: Let's start with you. To add insult to injury today, one of Mitt Romney's top supporters in Ohio, the state attorney general, former Senator Mike DeWine, flipped. He switched his endorsement to Rick Santorum. Do you think the Romney campaign is in freefall?

PONNURU: I think it has been a bad several weeks now for Governor Romney's campaign and the DeWine news is just the latest bit of bad news that they've had. And I think it's pretty clearly a reflection of the fact that Romney is doing so poorly.

BLOCK: How do they turn it around?

PONNURU: Well, it's not clear. There has been resistance from conservatives to Romney all the way through and that is why he has always been an extraordinarily weak frontrunner. And in Rick Santorum, he is facing, in some ways, the toughest challenger he's ever had - somebody who doesn't have the baggage of Newt Gingrich, doesn't have the lack of experience of Herman Cain. It's going to be a real problem for him.

BLOCK: E.J., we heard in Ari Shapiro's story that Mitt Romney is in danger of losing his home state, Michigan. It's the state his father served as governor. It should be a gimme, most people would say. I want to play some tape. This is by way of illustrating that, the trouble that Romney seems to have connecting. This is him before a Chamber of Commerce yesterday in Michigan.

MITT ROMNEY: A little history. I was born and raised here. I love this state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height. I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. Just something very special here, the Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan. I love cars. I don't know...

BLOCK: And it goes on for quite some time. E.J., what do you make of that? Is it emblematic of the Romney enthusiasm problem we've been talking about?

DIONNE: Can I just say, I love NPR because these microphones are of a perfect size. I've never seen a more perfectly sized microphone in my life. What a weird couple of - what a weird week he has. We're quoting all these lines that he was a severely conservative governor. Has the word severely ever gotten such careful analysis? And I use the word weird and you may recall that some months ago, the Obama campaign let it out quietly that they were going to present Romney as weird.

And then, they got a lot of pushback. These responses of his are feeding that very sense. And again, this view of him totally contrasts with what people who have worked with him in business say he is. They say he can be a warm person. But in public, he has been so awkward and he hasn't seemed to learn, as the campaign has gone on. It's, in fact, gotten worse.

BLOCK: The fight over contraception and religious institutions is continuing. And today, a number of Democratic women senators took to the floor. They were condemning what they call an attack on women's health care by Republicans and several of them mentioned a hearing yesterday, a photo out of that hearing, showing an all-male panel of religious leaders and professors. It was a hearing on government required health coverage for contraception.

Ramesh, the Republican chairman, Darrell Issa, says it's religious liberty, not contraception that's at issue. Do you think women voters are going to see it that way or do they have a problem here?

PONNURU: Well, I think that is the big question about the politics of this issue. If it is defined as some people on the left are calling it, a war on contraception by the Republicans, then, I think, you do have the potential to mobilize not just women, but a lot of voters who are obviously not going to be for something like that. On the other hand, if it is seen as a war on religious liberty by the administration, the way the Republicans are looking at it, you could have a problem with Catholic voters, among others.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: That was really one of the dumbest moves the Republicans have ever made, when you put together a panel like that. There are plenty of religious women out there who agree with the Republicans. They could've put one woman on the panel. Not only that, they bounced the Democratic woman, who is a third-year law student at Georgetown, and said, well, this is not relevant 'cause she wants to talk about contraception.

As long as Obama was stuck where he was before he reached this accommodation, they really had a religious liberty case. It's switched now to a contraception case, but Obama still has to be careful. He's got to be true to his word as he negotiates, even if the bishops keep pushing back hard and, I think, excessively, he's got to make that deal stick. But right now, the issue has totally flipped in a week.

BLOCK: Let's end by talking about the payroll tax bill that's headed to the president now. Today, Congress passed the package. It includes the payroll tax cut, also an extension of jobless benefits and it puts off the scheduled pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients. Ramesh, template here for future bipartisan agreement, do you think, or an anomaly that will not be repeated?

PONNURU: Well, I think it is an anomaly because here you have a situation where Republicans were resisting a tax cut and Democrats were pushing them to continue it and that is not a situation that happens normally. I think if the Republicans had put themselves in the position of being blamed for a big tax increase, that would have been a serious problem for the Republicans. They understood that, eventually, and that's why you got the deal you did.

BLOCK: And you have the Congressional approval rating, what, in negative digits at this point now, E.J.?

DIONNE: Right. The Republicans - I think this is a sign of Republican weakness, even though they did get some concessions out of that. A lot of Democrats did not like this burden on new federal employees on pensions and I think it's a dumb idea for a lot of reasons. But the Republicans knew, as Ramesh said, that they could not be seen as tax-raisers.

This is the first kind of normal negotiation you've had in the Congress in a long, long time. And it may be a sign that Republicans may start accepting that perhaps President Obama is going to get re-elected, and maybe we should do some deals with him now so we will, too.

BLOCK: We'll have to leave it there. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review, also a columnist for Bloomberg View, thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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