Week In Politics: The '47 Percent,' Senate Races

Robert Siegel talks to 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's "47 percent," new polls on the presidential race, and close Senate races.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now David Brooks and E.J. Dionne with our weekly talk about politics. Good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And E.J., in the interest in full disclosure, since the three of us spoke last, Moment magazine determined, based on saliva samples, that David and I share 10 centimorgans of DNA, apparently making us fourth cousins. And despite this newly discovered, extremely remote kinship, I shall still strive for fairness.

DIONNE: I have no doubt. I know I like David better now.

SIEGEL: So Cousin David, you - you weighed in very, very early - very, very critically on the by-now-notorious Romney fundraising video. Is there anything more to say about Governor Romney and the 47 percent or now the 14 percent tax rate?

BROOKS: Can I just say, first of all, I was most surprised that our ancestors worked together on National Schtettle(ph) Radio, a program called "All Pograms Considered." So that was the big shocker to me. You know, it continues to dog him. His campaign is now in a sort of a state of crisis, I would say. The Republican elites are in somewhat panic.

You're seeing - the whole electoral map has sort of shifted. Some polls don't show it. The Gallup poll, to be fair, shows the race still tied, but basically, if you look at the whole electoral map, you have Obama up by five points in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, maybe five in a bunch of others, eight in some others. And then you're beginning to see the states, the key states - Ohio, significant Obama leads, all the swing states, with the possible exception North Carolina, all shifting Democratic.

And so, I don't know how bad it's hurt him, but the electoral map is shifting in the Democratic direction.

SIEGEL: What do you make of that shift, E.J.? Is it just a terrible week with several more weeks to go in the campaign or did the wheels just fall off the Republican campaign?

DIONNE: Well, I think it's a sign of the trouble the Romney campaign is in that to change the subject, they released their tax returns, not exactly a subject they love, but it's better than the last week. We don't know yet whether this is permanent. I think the first debate will determine whether this is really permanent. But I think there are a couple things going on here.

First, that 47 percent speech was really harmful, and there were a lot of conservatives who wrote very powerfully. David, for one, Mike Gerson for another in the Washington Post, Henry Olsen at the American Enterprise Institute; all these people said there is something just terribly wrong about saying that half of Americans are effectively takers and not makers, that they rely on other people...

SIEGEL: Think of themselves as victims.

DIONNE: Yes. And it was just an awful statement. And so, that hurt him, but he's had a whole series of other troubles. And that the swing states have been moving Obama's way for quite a while. These polls simply confirm that. And I think some of it is something that came out at the two conventions, which is in the end, the Republican Party really has moved quite far to the right of where most Americans are, and as more information has gotten out, more Americans realize that.

And I think that's a real problem for Mitt Romney.

SIEGEL: David, what do you think about that? Is it really an issue of substance or is it terrible messaging and terrible appearances?

BROOKS: I think it's mostly Romney, frankly. I think the country would like to vote against President Obama if they had a plausible alternative. But Romney is the only candidate in modern political history where his unfavorables are higher than his favorables. John McCain, Al Gore, people who lost, had double-digit advantage in favorable.

So people just don't like Romney. And the core problem is he's insincere. It's an insincere campaign. He's a non-ideological person in an ideological age and he's pretending to be something he's not.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about some of the Senate races around the country. Melissa Block is out in Wisconsin. She's taking care of the Thompson/Baldwin race for us. But I'd like to hear at least about the Scott Brown/Elizabeth Warren Senate race in Massachusetts and perhaps the Kaine/Allen race in Virginia. E.J., which one do you want take on first?

DIONNE: Well, let me take the Massachusetts race. This is a case where the movement in the presidential numbers seems also to be accompanied by a movement in Senate races. And there are a whole slew of Senate races where the Democrats were behind, as in Massachusetts, or even where the Democrats have gone ahead. Warren's been up in three of the last four polls.

You could tell that Scott Brown knew he had to change the direction of the election in the debate they had last night, where he came out right on the attack, bringing back up an issue from the spring where Elizabeth Warren had said she had Cherokee blood, challenged whether she used this for advantage at Harvard and other places.

She said no. And he was just relentless last night in attacking her. And I think that suggests that that race seems to be moving in her direction. And that's also true of the race in Florida, and I'll let David talk about Virginia. But there's another case where the race was very close...

SIEGEL: Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democratic Senator in Florida...

DIONNE: Has now - has a pretty big lead...

SIEGEL: Over Connie Mack, the congressman.

DIONNE: And then George Allen versus Tim Kaine, where that had been close, now Kaine seems to have a lead.

SIEGEL: David, what do you see?

BROOKS: Well, first I - in Massachusetts, I think that's the most fragile. Basically, what's happening is the national climate is shifting and mitigating candidate quality in all these states. So it's all shifting Democratic, especially in these blue states. I think Warren's lead, which does seem to be a lead, is more fragile because what Brown is going after is the idea that she's a stereotypical Harvard professor.

And even in Massachusetts, that's not popular. And so I think that's a little more fragile. In most of the other states, the leads, especially like Ohio, the leads seem to be significant for the Democrats. Tim Kaine in Virginia made a little goof in the campaign in his debate where he said...

SIEGEL: He's the former Democratic governor.

BROOKS: Governor, who is now the candidate. And he said he would be open to the idea of a minimum tax, of having middle class people and lower middle class people pay more taxes and Republicans jumped all over that. One thing Republicans know how to do is exploit the tax issue. But nonetheless, the odds of the Republicans taking over the Senate severely diminished in the past couple weeks.

SIEGEL: And a year ago, it seemed a reasonable proposition that the Republicans would take over the Senate.

DIONNE: Five or six months ago it seemed a reasonable proposition, just on this professor thing. It reminded me of Scott Brown kept calling her Professor Warren. The most interesting exchange on that was in 1976, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan challenged Senator Jim Buckley, and the first time Jim Buckley said Professor Moynihan, Moynihan replied: Ah, now the mudslinging begins.

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: And so that bodes well for Professor Warren.

SIEGEL: Well, I mean, Massachusetts is unusual among the closely contested Senate races because the polls suggest, not surprisingly, that Obama, President Obama, should win Massachusetts in a walk. So there have to be hundreds of thousands of people who will vote for Barack Obama and Scott Brown for Brown to win.

BROOKS: Right, but he has been named by many people the most bipartisan senator in the Senate. He's charted out a good course. He's much more personally popular than she is. And, you know, we have to distinguish between our versions of liberalism here. E.J. knows this more than most, but it's - there's a big difference between working-class liberalism and Cambridge liberalism, and Brown is trying to exploit that.

DIONNE: He is a very personally popular guy in the state. He's worked the state really well. But that's where his debate strategy last night, I wonder about because he really had to be - snarky was the word Barney Frank used in going after her. And I wonder if that has blowback given his popularity in the state.

SIEGEL: Given what the political map looks like these days, we're going to have plenty of other Senate races to talk about in coming Fridays, and I hope you'll both be following that where: North Dakota, Missouri? What are some other states on the map now?

BROOKS: We've got - I'm looking at North Dakota, which is a surprising Democratic possibility. Are we almost out of time here? I want to thank you for letting me into your family.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: That's E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you, Cousin Robert.

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