Week In Politics: Economy, Foreign Policy

Audie Cornish 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 and President Obama's positions on the economy and foreign policy. They also cover racial divisions in the election.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And joining us in the studio now are our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

CORNISH: So let's pick up there where Ari left off. John Sununu saying that President Obama has created more racial division than any administration in history. But this kind of adds to an ongoing conversation about what percentage of the white vote that President Obama has at this point. A recent poll from Washington Post/ABC saying it's about 37 percent. Obama won with 48 percent.

What do you make of this kind of last minute racial math going into the home stretch?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I've enjoyed John Sununu over the years, in fact. But I found this comment terrible at the end of a campaign because you can't help but see it in political terms. And by the way, I don't know any president who did less for race relations than James Buchanan who supported the Dred Scott decision.

I think the overall national numbers are affected very much by the white south, that when you look inside these numbers, what you find is Obama's only getting support from about 20 to 25 percent of white southerners. He's getting in the range of 40 percent or more among whites in other parts of the country. It looks like he's carrying white voters in the northeast. So I think, as one always has to do, it's hard to talk about one big block of Americans. White voters have a lot of different views and they vary a whole lot by region.

CORNISH: And David, before we get to the polls, your response to Sununu and this walking back of things.

BROOKS: Oh, well, he's the dumbest (unintelligible) of the year. I mean, every week Sununu says something odd and embarrassing, and I guess this is another of those.

CORNISH: He's also the top surrogate. I mean, he's out there quite a bit.

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm mystified by the surrogates of both parties, frankly. Both parties have plenty of good surrogates they could go to. They seem to go to the most aggressive and most partisan, the people they think they can trust the most. But they tend to say - they tend to be the most gaffe prone at the same time. I don't think it has to do with Barack Obama, why we are racially divided. I think the electorate, though, is more racially polarized than any recent election.

I think that has more to do with the parties. And E.J.'s right, it's disproportioned in the South, but it's pretty much proportioned around the country that we are becoming divided along party lines, conservative, liberal, especially white working class has swung more to the Republican side over the last few decades. And so, I do think it's part of the general segmentation of American life that goes along many lines, religious lines, especially important this year, marriage versus non-married people, is a very important divide. But also ethnic lines, and so I think it's just part of a larger story of segmentation.

CORNISH: And as we heard Governor Romney talking about the economic numbers today, but I also want to point out a speech that flew under the radar a little bit and this one was by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, which focused on the poor and social mobility.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PAUL RYAN: The number of people living on food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. One in four American students fails to attain a high school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don't graduate. Half. In this war on poverty, poverty's winning.

CORNISH: We don't hear much about poverty generally in this campaign. David, what's going on here?

BROOKS: You know, I thought this was an important speech to give. In part, because it was one of the few substantive speeches we've had all year. And I think it's nice that the Romney/Ryan campaign is at least laying out some substance at the end. I lament the fact that the Obama campaign is going toward what's trending on Twitter. It's not an uplifting campaign at the end.

I thought it was important, especially, for Ryan to give it in part to debunk the myth that he's sort of some devotee of Ayn Rand. He's a devout Catholic.

CORNISH: But he's taken a lot of criticism...

DIONNE: And he was a devotee of Ayn Rand.

BROOKS: He was, but he...

DIONNE: As recently as three years ago.

BROOKS: Well, he has given out her books, that's true. But he is a devout Catholic and this book was about compassion and conservatism. It was about the collectivity of society. And so I thought it was important to talk about how communities create social mobility. The weakness of the speech was that in some communities are so disorganized, community service organizations aren't big enough to do the job of reforming communities.

So it'll probably take some government action. So there was some weakness in the speech. Nonetheless, I thought it was important, especially for the Republicans to talk about the importance of community, the collective obligations.

CORNISH: E.J.

DIONNE: Well, I always love it when people talk about community, but I thought that there's a big difference between a nice-sounding speech and a good speech. First of all, a lot of this was conservative boilerplate. I mean, Mike Gerson, President Bush's speechwriter, wrote better versions of the same speech back in the mid-1990s.

But for me, the worst thing about this speech is that Mr. Ryan was hiding some rather brutal budget cuts in programs for low-income people behind all kinds of words of praise for faith-based and community groups. I love these groups. I've done a lot of work over the years on the work of these groups. I think liberals should embrace them.

But these groups can't make up for the kind of budget cuts that Ryan is talking about. Sixty-two percent of his cuts come from programs for low-income people. Bread for the World, the great hunger group, says that to make up for his food stamp cuts alone, it would cost 50,000 a year from every church in the country. So I'd like some deeds and not just some nice words, even though it's nice he says the word community.

CORNISH: And we're not hearing anything about poverty really from the White House at this point. So, I mean, is it about kind of making a mark in a way that they think the voters will remember?

BROOKS: I think so. Well, I think the Democrats have decided to talk about poverty, they get accused of being too liberal. They want to focus on the middle class, which I think is lamentable. You can talk about social mobility the way Ryan did in a way that includes all groups.

The thing I would say I agree with E.J. is some of the Ryan budget cuts fall too hard on where they shouldn't, but it is nonetheless true that unless you tackle Medicare, Social Security and interest payments on the debt, there will be no government money left for these programs. And I would give Ryan the advantage of at least talking about those entitlement cuts.

CORNISH: I have to stop you guys there. So sorry, E.J. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you both.

BROOKS: Good to see you.

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