Week In Politics: Financial Overhaul, Charlie Crist

Melissa Block reviews the week's biggest political stories with columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's been more than a year since the Obama administration promised to enact tougher regulations on Wall Street. This Monday, they could be one step closer. That's when the Senate Democrats have scheduled a vote on regulatory overhaul.

Yesterday, in Manhattan, President Obama made his case for the bill. In his speech he promised, among other things, more consumer protection and a reigning in of executive compensation. He also took on his Republican critics.

President BARACK OBAMA: What's not legitimate is to suggest that somehow the legislation being proposed is going to encourage future taxpayer bailouts, as some have claimed. That makes for a good soundbite, but it's not factually accurate. It is not true.

BLOCK: Well, joining us now are our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post; Brookings Institution): Thank you.

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

BLOCK: And, E.J., you've said that you think you hear signs of a more pugnacious president, not as conciliatory toward Republicans with the message that they are the obstacle to reform and agreement.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. I mean, this is a please-throw-me-into-that-briar-patch kind of politics. If you haven't seen Obama as a happy warrior like this since the campaign, really, and I think that's because he knows that the Democrats occupy the high ground. Democrats are saying to the Republicans, we dare you, we double dare you to stop financial reform and then allow us to paint you as tools of Wall Street.

And so, the Democrats are negotiating from strength. And it's a striking contrast to health care, where they weren't sure what the politics were. In this case, they know the politics is good for them and the Republicans suspect the politics is good for the Democrats, which is why I think the Democrats are going to win.

BLOCK: Well, David Brooks, if the Democrats are on high ground here, as E.J. says, where does that leave Republicans? How do they fight this issue without seeming like they're supporting fat cats on Wall Street?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, there's only one group in this country as equally unpopular as fat cats on Wall Street and that's Washington right now. And so, I think they I think Republicans morally or internally concede that we do need to regulate this. There are parts of the market that are just turned into a casino that have to be regulated. But their concern that we're opening so many avenues for regulators in the future to really get deeply involved in the markets in good and bad ways is what's raising their concerns.

I don't see the same sort of passionate intensity as you did in health care because it's not really a philosophical dispute. It's how are we going to regulate this? And Republicans just have a higher degree of skepticism toward regulation in general. But they're not passionately opposed to it.

BLOCK: Does it become an election issue, do you think, in November?

Mr. BROOKS: No, I really don't. I think we're there's one thing we're having this big argument about and that is, are you for government or against it? You know, we had the culture war, which was bitterly divisive. We had the war in Iraq, which was bitterly divisive. And some of us were hoping we'd get out of that bitterly divisive. But we've entered another war which is, what do you think of government?

And the Republicans are actually quite happy to have this war. This has been an awful year for Democrats, Democratic popularity has sunk 22 percent. The Democrats a year ago had 11 percent party ID advantage. That's entirely gone. So it's bad for people who don't like divisiveness. But so far it's been good for Republicans.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about one state where this is playing out. I'm talking about Florida and the race for U.S. Senate. You have Charlie Crist, the governor, a Republican, running in the primary. He's been trailing badly behind conservative Republican Marco Rubio. And now, Charlie Crist is considering running as an independent. And, E.J., this has caused quite a stir among Republican circles in Florida. Tell us about it.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. Well, down in Florida, the Republicans have said to the Republican Party said, I guess yesterday, it was reported in the papers today that if Republicans who support Charlie Crist continue to support him after he runs as an independent, if he does...

BLOCK: If he does.

Mr. DIONNE: ...they will be disciplined. You're seeing this all over the country, this kind of challenge. Ronald Reagan famously said that the problem in his administration was that the right hand didn't know what the far right hand was doing. And what you're seeing around the country are challenges to once-favored candidates who were pretty conservative from candidates who are to their right saying they're not conservative enough.

One of the most famous, obviously, John McCain being challenged by J.D. Hayworth in Arizona. McCain has been skittering to the right. In Kentucky, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, good name for an establishment. Republican, quite popular, very conservative, supported by Mitch McConnell. He is running 15 points behind Rand Paul, the son of the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul.

So you're really seeing this fight in the Republican Party. In the short term, I think the candidates farther right are generally favored. And I think in the long term, this will pose a real problem for the Republican Party.

BLOCK: It's interesting when you look at Florida, David, because Charlie Crist was considered a potential vice presidential running mate two years ago with John McCain. Now, he seems to be floundering, doesn't know if he'll run as an independent. And you see this loyalty oath from the Republican Party. What do you make of all that?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, well, for people like me who'd like to see a more moderate Republican Party, this is why you just want to go suck on the gas pipe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Don't do it.

Mr. DIONNE: Don't do it, David, yes. Better hold you down.

Mr. BROOKS: You got a guy like Charlie Crist who should be your moderate, responsible centrist, but he also does things that are completely unprincipled. You know, he vetoed a reform bill, an education reform bill, which was the exact sort of education reform that not only conservatives support, but the Obama administration supports. And he did it for pure political reasons.

BLOCK: It ties merit pay, I think, for teachers' performance.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. And tenure and things like that. And then there's the Social Security reform, which Marco Rubio is very honest about. We've got to raise the retirement age. Well, Crist does not. And so you want your centrist to have some principles. And so some of the problem with, for those of us who want to see that, is that Crist and people like him often don't, and they lose for good reason, aside from everything else.

BLOCK: You're saying not a good time to be a centrist.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it's a good time to be principled centrist. It's not a it's a very bad time to be a centrist, especially if you're unprincipled.

BLOCK: Well, David, stay away from that gas pipe and have a good weekend, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Brooks of The New York Times; E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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