Week In Politics: Haiti Quake, Mass. Senate Race

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times talk with Robert Siegel about the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti and the surprisingly close Senate race in Massachusetts.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And we're going to begin our weekly conversation with our regular political commentators with the subject of Haiti. I'm joined by E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to both of you. And E. J., first any thoughts on what's happening in Haiti and this country's response to it?

Mr. E. J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Well, you know, I guess what I hope doesn't happen is the fact that Haiti has enormous governance problems, and David wrote about them eloquently today, doesn't become an excuse for us not to help a country that's in great, great trouble. And I'm not in the habit of saying a lot of nice things at this microphone about George W. Bush, but I think one of the things that must be said about him is that he really pushed hard for quite a lot of foreign aid to very poor countries.

And I expect if he were the president, Katrina not withstanding, he would be out there saying we got to help Haiti and I hope his absence doesn't push Republicans and others - it's not partisan - away from giving help to people who really need it.

SIEGEL: David, you wrote today that the devastation in Haiti should lead us to, in your words, rethink our approach to global poverty.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Yeah. I mean, the first point is this is a poverty issue. It's not a natural disaster issue. We had a 7 magnitude earthquake in this country in the Bay Area some 15 years ago and 63 people were killed. Here we have 45-50,000 people killed. So, it's a poverty issue. And the problem is, first, that we don't really know how to use foreign aid to generate economic growth and reduce poverty. That hasn't worked out so well. We have a lot of people in Haiti doing micro project.

We've about 10,000 people who are NGOs doing micro projects and they're doing wonderful work, but so far it doesn't seem to have amounted to a comprehensive change in the country. And so, to me, this in the medium and long term means we have to think seriously about redoing the way we do aid. And the challenge is redoing our policy of intervention. We've had this long history of anti-colonialism, not trying to be paternalistic, and Haiti was, of course, one of the first great slave revolts. But if we're going to try to create a successful state there, or not a failed state, it seems to me we have to be more intrusive on a multilateral level with local leadership, much more aggressive.

SIEGEL: Okay. I'm sure, we'll hear lots more of course about Haiti on today's program, but I'd like to take you guys now to a domestic matter: a surprisingly close U.S. Senate race, so close that President Obama is hitting the stump on Sunday. He has made a commercial in which he cites his efforts on health care, financial reform, and the environment.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

President BARACK OBAMA: The outcome of these and other fights will probably rest on one vote in the United State Senate.

SIEGEL: One vote from Massachusetts where Republican Scott Brown is surging in the polls against Democrat Martha Coakley. In this commercial, Brown talks about the stakes of the Massachusetts Senate race in Washington.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Mr. SCOTT BROWN (Senate Candidate, Massachusetts, Republican): Recently there has been a tremendous amount of talk on Twitter and Facebook about how I would be the 41st Senator who could stop the national health care bill and its higher taxes, increased spending and more government in our lives.

SIEGEL: Which is just what he would like to stop. E. J. Dionne, is it possible the Senate seat once held by John Kennedy and Edward Kennedy could mark the defeat of health care?

Mr. DIONNE: I mean the short answer is yes, although already in Washington, Democrats are scrambling to figure out how they can get around this if they lose that seat. I mean, I think there are a lot of myths about Massachusetts. If you think that Massachusetts is Cambridge and Martha's Vineyard, you've never been to Dracut, Millis or Gardner. Republicans in open races typically get at least 45 percent of the vote. Secondly, Brown has run a very aggressive kind of exciting campaign, whereas Martha Coakley, she is a statewide elected official.

SIEGEL: She's attorney general.

Mr. DIONNE: The attorney general of the state is not an exciting candidate. So, there have been problems there. And obviously the national mood is not the best for Democrats right now. I think Obama is smart to go up there because he is going to take a huge hit if that race goes badly. He would take that hit even if he didn't up there. If you're about to lose 90 percent of your chips, you might as well go all in. And his approval rating is much higher than the share of the vote Coakley seems to be getting. So it might make a difference.

SIEGEL: David, E. J. says the national tone is not good for Democrats. If this is Massachusetts, what's the rest of the country like for November?

Mr. BROOKS: I guarantee there are a lot of Democratic senators who are asking themselves that very question. I mean, partly it is Coakley. She made the disastrous decision in a year where they have the outsider, she ran an insider establishment campaign, terrible decision, but I think the larger factor is national. You could be a terrible candidate and Democrats should be winning in Massachusetts. It should not be close, so I think we're all stunned that it's close. At the end of the day, I frankly do not thing that Coakley will lose. I happen to think the Democratic machine will get out enough votes. Nonetheless, the fact that it's close means that there is a national reaction which we've talked about before and it's a reaction against health care, it's a reaction against Washington, it's a reaction against everything. And Brown is channeling it. And making health care so specific, means that it won't just be a vague protest vote, this is a protest vote against the health care plan.

Mr. DIONNE: Which is why Barack Obama is going up there to try to make sure he saves it.

SIEGEL: On another matter, E. J., you wrote this week about the administration's dilemma of being - at least perceived as being - too close to Wall Street. Yesterday, the president announced new fees and taxes on the biggest banks and he said this about federal bailout funds.

Pres. OBAMA: We want our money back. And we're going to get it.

SIEGEL: Pretty terse, uncompromising words from president there.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah. And I guess the short answer is it's about time and I think that this - his - the sense that the administration is too close to Wall Street doesn't just hurt with liberals. It hurts with a lot of middle class people who still don't understand bonuses of the size that people have gotten. But I hope this raises a larger debate. I think that over a period of time, we've been taxing income from manufacturing and services much more heavily than we tax income from the financial industry.

We've really cut capital gains taxes so low, labor gets taxed more heavily, so Warren Buffett likes to say that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his receptionist. So, I hope this particular tax to get back the TARP money is part of a larger discussion to shift the tax burden a little bit more to finance and investment.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what do you think, is it a new wave of populism in the Obama administration?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. Well, I have a confession to make. I have a retirement account and it's held in mutual funds and they're traded on Wall Street. I am part of the Wall Street problem, which I guess is evil these days. So, I feel bad about that, but, you know, I don't think so.

Mr. DIONNE: You don't look like you feel bad about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: You know, I don't think this is going anywhere legislatively, but politically...

SIEGEL: The taxes on...

Mr. BROOKS: No, no, there is no way this will get through the Senate, but what it does is it forces House Republicans to either vote for a tax increase or to vote with the bankers. Either way...

SIEGEL: It's a fee, by the way, according to the White House.

Mr. BROOKS: Excuse me.

SIEGEL: It's a fee.

Mr. BROOKS: A fee - excuse me. But either way, it's a bad vote for House Republicans. I have to say, I don't find Barack Obama too persuasive when he does the populist shtick. I don't think it's the most natural and authentic thing for him.

SIEGEL: What do you think, E. J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Oh, I agree that populism comes very hard to him. It always has. If you go back to the primaries, Hillary Clinton started gaining ground when she sounded much more populist and Obama had to learn populism on the run and he started doing it better. Nonetheless, I think the substance of his policies are such that he shouldn't have a problem with a lot of this stuff, that I think the notion that the very rich in finance have paid too little of their share of the burden is an idea that Barack Obama, the policy wonk, can relate to. And I'd be surprised if this tax, or fee as the administration is calling it, were killed in the end. And in fact Democrats would love to call the bluff of the tea party movement. Are they populists? Are they willing to tax the banks or not?

SIEGEL: Well, on that note, we'll wait and see the fate of the fee or tax proposal in the Senate and see which one of you had it right. E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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