Week In Politics Reviewed
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
It's not been a good week for the president or for Democrats for that matter. And we have a lot to discuss with our regular political commentators: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome both of you.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to be with you.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be with you.
BRAND: Well we just heard from President Obama in Ohio. He sounded, I thought, a little bit defensive. He focused on the economy in a real-people kind way. And David, are we seeing the White House trying to come out as a populist now, as re-embracing this populist tone?
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. He's dropping the Gs again - Truck drivin' school. He's gone from Mr. Reinhold Niebuhr to Huey Long based on one election. I don't think it's a particularly good tactic on two levels. One, it's not genuine. He's not a genuine populist. He's a thoughtful articulate guy who went to Harvard Law School. I just generally don't think politicians should fake it. And he's trying to fake it. Second, I don't think he's at any point since the Massachusetts election said I hear you. I understand that maybe we misread the country, maybe we need to adjust. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California did a big readjustment and it paid off. Bill Clinton did a big readjustment and it paid off. He has, I think, dodged around a lot of the complaints that people had in Massachusetts and people frankly have around the country, which is they have an intense distrust of Washington. And he has done everything in the year to magnify that distrust.
BRAND: However, a lot of people were saying after the Massachusetts election that this was a referendum on populist anger.
Mr. DIONNE: You know, a lot depends on how you asses what happened in Massachusetts and how big you think it is. I mean, first it's got to be said, Scott Brown ran a great campaign, Martha Coakley's campaign was flawed. The national party was asleep. That's all true and they've really got to fix their political operation. But I think the larger message is that if you look at Barack Obama in 2008, he excited progressive voters and won over the middle. What you saw in Massachusetts is that progressive voters were dispirited and he was losing the middle.
And he's not going to solve his problem unless he fixes both ends of that equation. And David may argue that he is not a populist politician at heart and I agree that temperamentally he is much more policy guy and an intellectual than a populist politician. But the policies he is in favor of, especially now, when he started making adjustments before Massachusetts, are populist in the sense that they tip against the very wealthy in the society and toward other people and he's finally making that clear.
Before he looked too close to Wall Street, he is fixing that. The health care bill stood - sat around forever and started looking to people like a bottle of curdled milk and that was a major mistake. I think they've got to pass that and get it out of the way. And he suffered from the contradictions - and here's where that word fight comes in. He was saying, I'm going to do a lot of big things and I'm going to work with the Republicans. Well, guess what? The Republicans are against a lot of what he wants to do. And if he wants to get things done, he is going to have to pick some fights and so I think that word fight you're going to hear a lot between now and next November.
BRAND: And yet you have a column this week, E.J., where you say that the Senate race exposes the contradictions of Obamaism. What do you mean by that?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, just what I said in terms of this promise of, you know, I'm going to work with everybody and I am going to fight for these big changes. And that couldn't - you know, I think they stuck so long to a bipartisan message that the Republicans were making hay with these middle-of-the-road independent voters without hearing a coherent narrative from Obama about how he was changing things. If you really want big change, you've got to make a consistent argument the way Ronald Reagan did. Ronald Reagan hit a real bad patch in an economic downturn. Yet he made a consistent argument against the failed liberal policies of the past as he saw those. You have not heard that from Obama. I expect in the next ten months to Election Day you will.
BRAND: And David, I imagine that you disagree. You have a column today where you say that Obama is hubris defeated caution.
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, this is a country that has an intense distrust of government almost at historic levels. And I think they thought Barack Obama would transform Washington, get rid of the silly, you know, deals and the things that go on. And instead, he has done those sort of deals with pharmaceutical companies and unions and key senators. He's involved in a health care plan which concentrates enormous amounts of power in Washington. The health care plan was the single biggest issue on voters' minds according to the final polls in Massachusetts.
It's tremendously unpopular with the country. If you average the latest polls, 40 percent or so say it's - they support it, 51-52 percent say they oppose it. So, this has become an albatross. And I have to say just hanging around Capitol Hill in the last few days since Massachusetts, after the vote, I thought well, maybe there's a 55 percent chance health care goes down completely. Now, having spent time on Capitol Hill, I have to say I have to think it's a 75 percent or 80 percent chance that nothing at all happens. I personally don't think that's a good deal, but that's the mood, that's the reaction among the political class to what's happening in the country.
BRAND: And E.J., what do you think that the president should do about that, given that grim reality?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think there is slightly - I would put the odds slightly better at getting health care done. There are some ideas around about how the Senate and the House can figure out a way to pass it. I think it's a political risk to pass it because of its unpopularity now, but I think the risk of not passing it is greater. Both Houses voted for it. Either you believe in this thing or you don't. And I think Democrats will looks feckless if they invest a whole year in this and don't get it passed, don't get something substantial passed.
There's one other reason, by the way, why I think a populist message is going to start to resonate and that is this truly outrageous Supreme Court decision this week that essentially opened the floodgates to corporate money, ripping though precedents of 30 years and really about 100 years of practice. You know, I was reminded this week that Justice Roberts talked about how a judge is like an umpire calling the balls and strikes. In this case of judicial activism, what you had is a conservative group of umpires canceling the game and just making up the score themselves. And I think this issue, it's a first-time campaign finance issues are going to have a real substantive base.
BRAND: And David, do you agree?
Mr. BROOKS: First on the health care, I think the country is saying, listen to us, listen to us, respect us. I think if the Democrats don't show any sign of listening and they just push through this bill, they are courting a disaster. On the campaign finance decision, I actually thinks it's a very bad decision for the country, one. But I don't think it's essentially going to be too bad for the Democrats. What do corporations want from government? They want subsidies and they want to block competition. Both parties seem to like to do that when they get donations.
BRAND: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you both for joining us. Our weekly political commentators, David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.
Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.
Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.
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