Week In Politics: U.N. General Assembly, Debates

Melissa Block 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 the upcoming presidential debates, the UN General Assembly, and the return of the NFL's regular refs.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now to our Friday political commentators - E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post; and David Brooks, of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: It's good to be here.

BLOCK: Let's look ahead to next Wednesday, when we're going to have the first of three presidential debates. David, let's start with you. What would it take for Mitt Romney to turn around a campaign that's been skidding, in just about every poll; that has a lot of Republicans gnashing their teeth?

BROOKS: A cold day in Hades. You know, I think what he has to do - I sort of think he's seeing the wrong take. I understand why he's trying to humanize himself, why he's trying to appeal. But I think there's only a limit to how far that is and given the momentum of the race, I really think he has to turn it into a product race. I'm offering you four products. You don't really have to love me. But I'm going to - we have some sick institutions. I'm going to reform them; I'm going to organize them - the tax code, the energy system, the education system, and the political system in Washington. You don't love me, but here are the four things. I'll do them for you.

BLOCK: You hear a winning message there, E.J.?

DIONNE: I don't know. Maybe David could pull that off; it doesn't strike me as enough. I mean, I really do think Romney has so much to do that he may need a three-debate strategy because - and I think his problem is that on the one hand, he really has to remake his image. In that ad Brian Naylor described, in the earlier piece, Romney actually says, at one point - and I'm paraphrasing here - that President Obama and I both care about the middle class and the poor.

When you have to hug your opponent for validation, you have a problem. So he's got to solve that problem, and he's got to change the subject. That's where David's list might come in. I think the danger, for Obama, is that he doesn't want a lot to happen in these debates. And if he plays it too cautious, Romney might be able to dominate - or at least gain a foothold, in this debate. We got to remember, he destroyed Newt Gingrich in a debate; was ferocious, last June. And then the other thing is, the president cannot look overconfident, in this debate. So I think he's got to play it careful, but he can't play it too careful.

BLOCK: We have been already hearing a lot of premortems about the Romney campaign; assuming that it's fatally wounded. David Brooks, you think that's premature?

BROOKS: Oh, yeah. That's for sure. You know, he's behind, probably, by five. It's worse in the swing states; he's behind by six, seven, eight in some of these swing states. So he's significantly behind. But, you know, a lot can happen - and Obama's still vulnerable. You look at, where is consumer confidence? Where - is the country headed in the right direction? Does the president deserve re-election? He should be losing, and so there's still serious vulnerabilities.

And to me, Obama's biggest vulnerability is that he has no second-term agenda. He hasn't laid out an agenda. He put out a great album in 2008; he has no second album. And so, to me, that's why I think Obama - or, Romney should be very substantive, with four big agenda items; to fill the vacuum that Obama has left him.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: Just thinking of that album metaphor, he needs Bill Clinton to play the long version of the song for him. I think that it is too early for premortems 'cause Obama's lead isn't big enough yet. But I think if the campaign stays on the current track, Romney will lose. And you sense that his own campaign feels that way, from the kind of ads they're running - particularly because of that 60-second ad, which is really a defensive ad.

And I think that Romney has another problem - which is on the economy itself, the swing state polls are showing that more voters - by narrow margins but nonetheless, more voters - have confidence in Obama about the future. They're feeling a little better about the economy, and that means Romney is losing his biggest weapon. And he looks like he's scrambling around, to find another issue. So it's too early, but it's on - really, on the wrong track for him.

BLOCK: There was an unusual moment yesterday at the U.N. General Assembly, in New York. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, held up a cartoonish drawing of a bomb, representing Iran's nuclear ambitions. And he took out a red magic marker and drew a line across it, to illustrate the red line that he's been talking about. David Brooks, how do you see this playing out in the presidential race, the chances - the chance they have an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?

BROOKS: To me, the big news of that speech was that "Bibi" seemed to say that there will be nothing until next spring; that hidden in there was - that he talked about how Iran is making progress to hitting that red line. And he seemed to say that it's going to be several weeks or months, or even into next year. And my understanding is that Israeli intelligence, and American intelligence, are pretty much on the same page. So if you're looking at this strictly in political terms, the first thing you'd have to say is, it's probably not going to happen before the election, complicating the election; and maybe not till significantly thereafter.

I do think it still is fundamentally true that the administration has been really good on one thing - the Obama administration. They've said Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. They've made that as clear as can be; they've been very forthright. But how that is actually going to be prevented, they've been extremely vague about. And that's what's frustrating the Israelis.

BLOCK: There's a group called Secure America Now, E.J., that's been running an ad in Florida; using footage of Netanyahu saying, "The world keeps telling Israel to wait." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Wait for what? Wait until when?

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The world needs American strength, not apologies.

BLOCK: An ad that resonates among - especially Jewish voters in Florida, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I was struck that that ad did not take a direct swipe at President Obama. And in a sense, it was put out of date by the Netanyahu speech. I thought, politically, in terms of our election, the most important thing was toward the end of the speech, when Netanyahu said, "I very much appreciate the president's position, as does everyone in my country. We share the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."

Netanyahu is well-known for tending to favor Republicans over Democrats, and that statement struck me as being about two things. One is, he's probably coming to terms to the fact that President Obama may be re-elected - has a decent chance of getting re-elected. And two, he's run into some opposition in Israel, from people who are not in favor of an attack on Iran, who want to be cautious about it - including people in the military. And they don't like the idea of an Israeli prime minister picking a fight with an American president. And so, I think that line was something that made the Obama campaign very, very happy.

BLOCK: Last little bit of time, we have to touch on the NFL referee lockout being over; replacement refs have gone back to their jobs at Bank of America and the Lingerie League. David Brooks, good news for America?

BROOKS: I thought so. You know, Yom Kippur - we're supposed to ask God to forgive everybody's sins. I really had trouble asking God to forgive the referees - the replacement people.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: But the lesson for listeners is, if you think we're bad, the replacement pundits would be worse.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I hate to step on that; I agree with that. But I thought there was a very large lesson here. Ray Anderson, the VP for operations, said, you've never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate the game. Guess what? The guys who make all these people rich, they really matter to the game. They are the referees. And so, I see this as a rebellion against anybody who says average workers aren't wealth creators.

BLOCK: All right. Thanks, guys. We are not going to lock you out.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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

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