Week In Politics Examined

This week, the Republican National Committee elected Michael Steele as its chairman, President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan passed the House with no Republican support, and Obama criticized near-record Wall Street bonuses. Political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times weigh in.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's been an eventful week in politics, and here to talk about it are E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brooking's Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back, guys.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Brooking's Institute; Political Commentator, Washington Post): Good to be here.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Let start with the number zero, which was the number of Republicans in the House who voted for President Obama's economic stimulus bill. Does it tell us as White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs would say, that it takes a while for Washington to change it ways, or does it tell us that it's going to take very little time for the Obama administration to change its expectations of bipartisanship in Washington? Who wants to go first?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think that the Republicans in the House are first of all, a more conservative group than the Senate, they tend to represents safe seats and they've have been reduced to more to their conservative core, so that's one. But even moderate Republicans voted no. I think in the long run this is going to be a mistake for them. In the short run it may be simply a negotiating maneuver, that Barack Obama said he wants bipartisanship. This raises the price of bipartisanship to Obama, and we're going to see how much he is going to be willing to give up in the Senate out of the stimulus package.

SIEGEL: We'll go over for drinks to the White House, David, but you get no votes?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, if you can - that's the difference between style and substance. Obama was great on style, and he was great in having a conversation. He had the Republicans over, he went to see the Republicans, they had a serious conversation. The problem is the bill was written by the old bulls in the Democratic Party, the old chairmen. They allowed no input by the Republicans. They created a bill which was - which took the stimulus ideas, which were good ideas and were bipartisan, and they married it onto, basically, on old, quite liberal and quite sprawling permanent government-spending package, which no Republican could sign on to. And I think they, you know, I'm the biggest big-government conservative you can possibly imagine.

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Mr. BROOKS: And I hated this bill. So if I hated it, believe me, every elected Republican is going to hate it.

Mr. DIONNE: I'm glad we can disagree again after this brief period of comedy between us.

SIEGEL: Yeah, the era of good feelings is over here.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, number one, the Republicans chose not to play in this game. It wasn't like they were completely locked out. Number two, a lot of the spending that the Republicans dislike the most is spending for Obama's core programs, notably to expand health coverage and a lot of education spending. And so, I think that this is not just about, you know, spending that Pelosi and David Bonior, who helped write the bill, put there. A lot of this is Obama's program, and it's going to be interesting to see what he's going to fight for.

Mr. BROOKS: Larry Summers, who is Obama's chief economist, has been spending the year talking about what should we have in stimulus package. It should be timely, targeted and temporary.

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Mr. BROOKS: If they had put together that kind of bill, it would get bipartisan support. They put together a bill that had a wish list that was sprawling, that will increase the deficit, no Republican can support that.

Mr. DIONNE: Any bill is going to increase the deficit.

SIEGEL: Different question about the Republicans, E.J. The Republicans today picked a new Republican national committee chair, Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He's the first African-American to be the chair of the Republican party. What does it say to you, David?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it's certainly a good step. He's from a democratic state. He talked today about winning back the northeast. That means you can't have a Republican party that's all southern, very conservative, very Barry Goldwatereque. Now, having said that - so I think it's a good step.

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Mr. BROOKS: Whether this party is ready to make a significant move, I'm dubious. It's going to take a while. You look at the way they attack the stimulus. They attack it on stupidest grounds, that it'll help illegal immigrants. And that is the dumbest possible way to attack the stimulus package because there are still a lot of bad habits in the party.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you make of this?

Mr. DIONNE: Hey, I think this is a good sign for the Republican party. They desperately need to broaden out from what has become a narrower and narrower base. Steele is quite conservative, but he's a more moderate conservative than some of the people who were in the running for this job. And you know, I'm thinking - I've been thinking that strong leaders changed the opposition party. Margaret Thatcher spurred changed in the British Labor party. This might be the beginning of a sign that Barack Obama could force the Republican party to change at least a little bit.

SIEGEL: You think?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think they know they have to change. But getting to a point where you can have positive role of government to solve education, to solve health care, that takes more than a leader. It takes an intellectual evolution.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you about something else that happened this week. President Obama took out after Wall Street executives who got big year-end bonuses and it was noted that - I think it was the sixth biggest year ever for bonuses, and no one would claim it was the sixth best year on Wall Street by any means. Was he right? Was it wise of him to go after people who were getting very highly compensated in an awful year, or is it what Republicans often called class warfare?

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, the big defenders of Goldman Sachs are going to rise up in the streets and protest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: No, of course, it was right. I mean, what the people on Wall Street don't understand is they work for us now. They work for the American people because we are supporting them, and they've got to do things that don't seem morally offensive to 99 percent of Americans. They have to do it, and to be realistic about this, they have to do it in a way in which they keep their superstar employees. So I understand why there are the bonuses. But Obama was right to crack that.

SIEGEL: Which is the tougher uphill fight, E.J. - for the Republicans to win the northeast or for Obama to convince Wall Street that they now work for the people of United States?

Mr. DIONNE: I think it may be easier for Republicans carry the northeast. This was a smart move. And I love it when David sounds socialist. I think that this is not only an echo of FDR but it's a sort of toughness - a little bit of populism which Obama has shown very little of. But also I think it's a tactictal move on the stimulus. The stimulus bill has been tarnished by the failure of the TARP, the bailout of the big banks, and I think he wants to draw a big bright line between the stimulus, which is supposed to create jobs for ordinary people, and what's going on on Wall Street.

SIEGEL: Well, on that note, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, thanks once again for talking politics with us.

Mr. BROOKS: Good to be with you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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