Week In Politics: Sandy And Election Day

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 the new jobs report, the political impact of superstorm Sandy and Election Day.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, our weekly talk about politics with columnists David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. It's good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

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

SIEGEL: This is our last get together before the election. I'd like to hear what you both make of it all. But first, what you make of something we saw demonstrated this week, the inescapable truth that extreme weather events make strange political bedfellows. Here was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, pugnacious GOP partisan at an October 19th Romney rally in Richmond, Virginia. The subject was President Obama.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: We watched what he's been like for the past four years. He's like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can't find it and he won't find it in the next 18 days.

SIEGEL: And here was the same governor of New Jersey on the same President Obama one superstorm later.

CHRISTIE: I said this to him before he left, but I'll say it again publically. I thank him for his caring and his interest in our state and its people, and I look forward to continuing to work with him over the next number of days and weeks.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, he didn't say months and years. But what do you make - what happened here?

BROOKS: Well, politics stops at the water's edge maybe, you know. When you're state gets walloped, it's an emotional thing. It's a deeply emotional and shocking thing. And from somebody who's going to be helping you, whether you're president or anybody else, you're going to be profoundly grateful. And you can, at one time, have that opinion, the gratitude for what Obama's doing, and an extensive agreement of what we all think government should be doing and at the same time think he's a bad manager of the economy, bad at budget deals and bad at other things. So within every political disagreement, there's lots we agree on and those agreements tend to come together in times of crisis.

SIEGEL: Although he was effusive about the president's good management of this crisis and extremely...

BROOKS: Yeah, I think we all agree the government has a role in helping people recover from storms and other disasters.

SIEGEL: E.J., what did you make of the odd couple of New Jersey?

DIONNE: The - what Chris Christie now the most popular Republican governor among Democrats and the least popular with Rush Limbaugh among others. Look, I think that Chris Christie was affected, as David suggested, by the incredible ravaging of New Jersey. And I also think that people try to say, well, it's either politics or good government. In this case, politics and good government went together.

Chris Christie knows that when he's up for reelection next year, he'll be judged, in large part now, by how he handles the recovery from this storm. He also knows that Barack Obama, for the next three months, is very important to him and, I think, he was grateful for what Obama did. I am always reminded of one of my favorite quotations from Senator Bill Cohen, then a moderate Republican from Maine. He said: Government is the enemy until you need a friend. And that's where government is right now in New Jersey, New York and a lot of other places.

SIEGEL: OK. By this time next week, we'll either be talking about the coming second Obama administration, the incoming Romney administration or why they count votes so slowly in Ohio or someplace else. So I want to hear some closing thoughts about these candidates and what their victory might stand for. I'm going to begin by asking each of you to talk about something the other wrote.

So first, E.J. David Brooks wrote this today. The president got sucked in by short-term things, the allure of managing the business cycle so that the economy would boom by re-election time instead of taking the midterm defeat as a sign he should move to the center or confound the political categories. He seems to have hunkered down and become more political. Washington dysfunction now looks worse than ever.

DIONNE: I guess I disagree partially with my friend David. I think that President Obama moved not only to the middle, but to the center right when he tried to make a budget deal with John Boehner during the debt ceiling crisis. And I think he was presented with a radical Republican Party that was unwilling to make a deal on any terms Obama or anyone in the center, let alone on the left, could accept.

And so once the debt ceiling fight was over, Obama said I've got to win the philosophical argument before we have a chance of negotiating again. And so from then forward, he tried to win the argument and we're going to find out if he did on Tuesday.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: Well, I guess I think where we've got huge problems, well, inequality, stagnant growth, bad family situations and there was a moment for largeness. It was a moment when Simpson-Bowles came out. He could've said I'm going to go big. And I don't agree with everything in Simpson-Bowles, but I understand the need for big change and tax reform, welfare state reform, something serious to address inequality. And I think he let that go because he was caught in a very political mood, I've just got to avoid losing.

SIEGEL: Here's something that E.J. wrote in TIME magazine where he makes the case for Obama's reelection in this issue. He says: Obama should win a referendum on his stewardship, but this is also a choice, a big choice. This as Romney says, between moderation and a return to an approach to government more suited to the Gilded Age than to the 21st century.

BROOKS: I guess I agree on - disagree on both sides. First of all, I don't think Obama's that moderate. I think he's generally more liberal than he thinks he is, sort of statist, and I don't think the Republicans are moving us back to the Gilded Age. Look, if you took the Romney budget, we'd be spending about 20 percent of GDP on government.

If it's Obama, it's probably 24 percent. So that's a significant difference, but it's not, you know, totally black and white. If Romney wins, we're probably going to have something that looks like some of the Republican governors - Mitch Daniels, people around the states - that's what we'll probably get on a national level.

If Obama wins, I think he's not a far-out liberal by any means. I think he's a center-left pragmatist. But I do think it's not as quite as Manichean as E.J. puts it.

SIEGEL: Not the big choice. What do you think about that, that Mitt Romney, when you come down to it, will be that guy, if he's elected, will be that guy who was governor of Massachusetts and a fairly pragmatic character?

DIONNE: I think the chances of that are very, very small for a couple of reasons. One is it's not just Mitt Romney who's being elected, it's the Republican Congress. There's a famous Grover Norquist line that all we need is someone with fingers to hold a pen to sign the legislation that comes out of Congress.

Romney has shown he responds to pressure from the Republican right. I think that would happen. And I think that what you are seeing in Republican rhetoric and in a more subtle way from Romney's rhetoric is an attempt to sort of jump back to before the New Deal, in some ways jump back to before the Progressive Era. And he can't get rid of all of these programs instantly, but he's going to make a real try at it, and I think it is much more radical than it sounds.

BROOKS: You know, you look at - I would look at the actual budget, as I say, spending on education will go up, spending on most things will be sort of flat. We're basically stuck with a situation where we're in a politically unsustainable world, and so I think he's trying to address that problem.

SIEGEL: Very quick, short-answer question. Which state are you most interested in looking at on Tuesday night? David Brooks?

BROOKS: I guess I'd have to say Ohio. It's banal but true.

DIONNE: Ohio and then Virginia.

SIEGEL: Ohio and then Virginia. E.J. Dionne of New York - excuse me, of The Washington Post; and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks so much.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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