Week In Politics: Romney And Obama On Education

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. They discuss Mitt Romney and President Obama's respective education policies.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, our Friday regulars, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: We just heard Mara reporting on the strangely intertwined stories of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, health care, the individual mandate. At some point soon, the Supreme Court will tell us how much of the Affordable Care Act is still standing, if there is going to be an individual mandate. E.J. first. Is it likely to be a first tier issue somewhere just behind jobs in the fall?

DIONNE: I think it's very hard for Romney to make it a first tier issue. I think Mara's excellent piece just talks about what a shame it is that our politics is where it is right now because in their different ways both Romney and Obama came to the conclusion that while the individual mandate has a lot of problems with it, it was one way to solve the problem of the uninsured and the free rider problem. And now for almost entirely artificial reasons, we have this division.

So I think Romney's got to hope this court overthrows the health care law because he still has a lot of explaining to do about how he could be for Romneycare and repeatedly attack Obamacare.

SIEGEL: Although the president was a pretty eloquent critic of the individual mandate back in 2008.

DIONNE: I think one of the least honorable parts of his 2008 campaign were his attacks on Hillary Clinton on the mandate. I think at some level he had to know better and had to know that at some point he might get there.

SIEGEL: David Brooks?

BROOKS: I found his critiques quite compelling. I thought it was pretty good. Listen, I don't think either of them is going to want to run on this. One, Obama's not going to want to do it because it's quite unpopular. A majority of Americans would love to see the mandate go. Health care reform has not gotten more popular as people learn more about it. Romney's in a little different boat. I think he's edging toward a plan.

And there's a lot of debate within Republican circles about his plan. He's edging toward a plan which is pretty radical, I think quite effective, and pinpoints exactly what's wrong with Obamacare. It's crazy to have an employer-based system. It's crazy to have tax credits encouraging people to spend too much on health care. It's crazy to have a fee for service system. Romney is edging toward a plan which would change all that.

I think substantively it's exactly the right plan. It also happens...

SIEGEL: You mean unhinge health insurance from employment?

BROOKS: Right, exactly. So I think it happens to be also quite fundamental and it would probably be quite scary and unpopular.

DIONNE: It might make Obamacare popular at this point.

BROOKS: Right. So it's substantively quite good, electorally pretty bad, so I think they'll both avoid it.

SIEGEL: What's your sense of the parties now? The last Republican to be - high-profile Republican to be identified with such an idea was Senator Bennett of Utah, Wyden Bennett would have done this. He was defeated for renomination in Utah by a candidate far to his right. Can the Republican Party really embrace something like that?

BROOKS: I think he was defeated, not because of the substance, but because he dared work with a Democrat and that was unpopular. I think this is pretty much where the Republican Party is these days. It's not too far from where John McCain was four years ago.

DIONNE: But it is - when you look back at the last Congress, the alternative the Republicans propose to Bill Clinton's health plan looked a whole lot like the plan that Barack Obama put forward. And then when Barack Obama put it forward, they had to be against it. And I think that's part of the sickness inside our politics right now.

SIEGEL: Okay. Here's another issue, one that Mitt Romney addressed in a speech this week.

MITT ROMNEY: Here we are in the most prosperous nation on Earth, but millions of our kids are getting a third-world education. And America's minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era, and it's the greatest challenge of our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Education, David Brooks, should we prepare for no education policy left behind?

BROOKS: Well, they're embracing everything. You know, I thought Romney's speech was fine. It's a little - I think Obama's been quite good on education. He's really challenged the unions in a way that's pretty good. Romney goes a little further, as you'd expect. He's for the D.C. voucher system. He's for lifting the caps on charter schools. He would create a lot more creativity.

I was disappointed in it, though. I thought it was pretty conventional. We've spent 30 years since Nation at Risk Report in 1983 rearranging the bureaucratic boxes - more charters, more vouchers, all that stuff. It gets you so far; it only gets you so far.

The fundamental fact about education is people learn from people they love, and if you're not dealing with the individual relationship between a teacher and a student, you're avoiding the core issue. And I think it's time for a second generation of education policies that focus on getting really great teachers in there.

Romney is too much rearranging the bureaucratic boxes, not enough focusing on that relationship.

SIEGEL: E.J., education.

DIONNE: I think that on the one hand, as a political matter, Romney can sound compassionate by talking about education and then take a series of conservative positions and bash the unions. So politically it may work short-term for him.

But what really disappointed me is the comparison between Mitt Romney's speech and what George W. Bush tried to do as president. I don't usually praise George W. Bush at this microphone, but the fact is that when Bush ran in 2000 and when he was president, No Child Left Behind was a very coherent approach where Bush was willing to put up more money to help poorer schools while also demanding reform and accountability.

He was willing to work with Ted Kennedy and George Miller, Democratic congressmen from California, to get this passed. This is so much more ideological. It's - I think Bush looks very good by comparison to where Romney is.

SIEGEL: Although the rhetoric from that speech was very reminiscent of the - was it the bigotry of soft - or of low expectations, which was the language behind No Child Left Behind.

DIONNE: Right, you're quite right. The rhetoric was there, but the substance, Bush had a lot more substance.

BROOKS: Well, the substance is partly there. I mean, he does want to help poor families get into the kind of schools they deserve to be into, and I think that's right. But E.J.'s right to the degree that using government as a lever, using the federal government as a lever to encourage local reform, which Bush did, which Obama is doing, that's something Romney doesn't want to do because he doesn't want to be for a federal role in education as much.

SIEGEL: I just want to hear from you both about the Democratic side of the presidential campaign. There is some punditry out there this week saying that the Democratic, the Obama campaign, by focusing on Bain Capital, has been off-message and has been attracting unnecessary criticism about the president's appreciation of capitalism. Was this an effective week or did they miss it, E.J.?

DIONNE: I think it ended good, it ended pretty well for them. At the beginning of the week, all the talk was about Corey Booker on "Meet the Press" saying this is a bad idea. Obama, by embracing it, said I believe this, and he's got to undermine Romney's claim that private equity is about job creation, and I think he did.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think it makes him look like a conventional politician. The ad that they released had two claims. One that the steel company that Romney took over was a successful company. That's false. The second was that Romney threw people out on the street. He was gone by the time that all happened. So I think it makes Obama look more conventional.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, good to see you again.

DIONNE: Good to see you.

BROOKS: Good to see you.

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