Week In Politics Examined

This week, voters in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and some other states head to the polls. Political commentators E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post, and David Brooks, of The New York Times, offer their insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Capitol Hill has been a busy place all this week for policy and for politics. And next week, the off-year election could be a political weathervane for the Obama administration and Congress. There are governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia, and there's an interesting special election to fill a vacant congressional seat in upstate New York. A strong showing by Republicans could signal a loss of confidence in Democrats on some core issues. Well, joining us now our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back.

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

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post): Thank you, good to be here.

SIEGEL: First E.J., what do you - what do you find of interest in next Tuesday's elections?

Mr. DIONNE: These are all fun. I think the weathervane is going to be going in circles in the end. I mean, what you're looking at in New Jersey, an embattled Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, on today's numbers is likely to squeak out a narrow victory. He's run a very, very tough campaign against Republican Chris Christie. It's as if Corzine lost the referendum on himself, then he turned it into a referendum on Christie, and Christie lost that one. And there's a third party candidate called Chris Daggett who's drawing off enough votes that Corzine will come through. And Corzine has hugged Barack Obama as hard as he could. Obama's going to be up there this weekend, that's helped him.

In Virginia, you - Democrats are in trouble. It looks like Democrat Creigh Deeds is going to lose by quite a lot to Republican Bob McDonnell. Two lessons there, I think: One is McDonnell has run as centrist problem solver. He's a conservative. His roots are in the Pat Robertson world. But you couldn't tell that from looking at his commercials. And unfortunately for Deeds, there was a very dysfunctional relationship between his campaign in the White House. He was worried in the summer when Obama's numbers went down that Obama would hurt him. Now, he needs Obama's help to pull out young people and African-Americans. But that looks like a Democratic loss.

SIEGEL: David, what do you find of interest in these elections?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I'm looking at the House race in upstate New York, in New York 23, where you've got a moderate Republican named Dede Scozzafava, who's running not only against a Democrat, but running against a third-party, more conservative candidate, a guy named, Doug Hoffman, who is a - who was a favorite of the tea parties of the Rush Limbaugh-types and increasingly of a lot of people who want to run for president for the Republican nomination, including surprisingly Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor. And basically, this is a race for the soul of the Republican Party. Scozzafava has a voting record which puts her at the exact middle of the political spectrum. And the question is: Can Republicans have a centrist and still be a Republican? Newt Gingrich thinks so. He thinks you need moderate Republicans. A lot of Republicans apparently don't think so. And so she's in real trouble.

SIEGEL: This is a race that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have talked about it -they don't see her as being centrist. They see her as a liberal.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, maybe from their point of view, but people have actually done voting analyses of her voting record and it's almost exactly in the center of the national spectrum. In New York state, it's probably a little right of center. And so, really it's an attempt to define the Republican Party as almost a permanent minority party. It's a narrow casting of the Republican Party. Newt Gingrich is on the right side, a lot of people are not.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I basically agree with David on this. I think it's a fascinating race because of the national import and the - some of the more moderate Republicans up there are trying to gain some traction for Scozzafava by saying, look, these are national guys coming in using our district to make a national point. But that doesn't seem to be a working. And right now, Doug Hoffman, the conservative, is closing the gap with the Democrat, Bill Owens. Owens hoped to win on this Republican split.

The paradox, I think, is if Hoffman wins, conservatives will hail it as a great victory. But I think it'll send exactly the wrong signal to the Republican Party. What you've got - the right signal is McDonnell, the right-winger who's moved to the center in order to win. And if they take out of this that tea-partyism(ph) is the way of the future, I think it'll be a long-term problem for the Republicans.

SIEGEL: Well, in the not so long term, but near term for the Republican Party, 2010, David, would you expect to see lots of conservative challengers of any Republican who would mention the center as a desirable place to be?

Mr. BROOKS: It seems that. I mean, there will be a strong reaction against Barack Obama in it. And there will be a temptation ago further and further to the right, which will - may pay off in the short term. There is a reaction against Obama in the country. If you look at the number of the people who call themselves conservatives - all-time high. Public opinion is clearly shifting to the right in reaction against Obama. It's a short-term gain and out of 2010, the victories they do pick up will probably, and I agree with E.J., send the wrong message nationally when you get a younger electorate, a more representative electorate than you get in a midterm.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, I was looking at some numbers this morning. And yes, this Gallup number shows a slight shift toward the conservative side in the ideological question that they ask, but it wasn't a big shift. But what I was struck by is a really sharp divide between opinion in the South and opinion in the rest of the country. And I think that the south really has turned - the white South, obviously - has turned negative on Obama. And I think when we analyze 2010, we're going to have to look at, you know, Southern Democrats are probably going to be in some trouble. But outside a few states, the democratic numbers and the Obama numbers are holding up pretty well in the rest of country.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I would say on issues, on abortion, there's been a significant shift to the right, on gun ownership, on attitude toward business, on hostility to labor unions. There's been this interesting phenomenon where people are reacting against the Obama administration. Not only on party ID - in fact, not on party idea. Conservativism would be doing great except for the Republic Party. And that's essentially it's problem. But there is a conservative tie.

SIEGEL: Well, we'll see what happens next Tuesday in the elections in New Jersey, Virginia and Upstate New York, and perhaps we'll talk about it afterwards. Well, thanks to both of you, David Brooks and E.J. Dionne.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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