Week In Politics: Midterms, 'Don't Ask'

Melissa Block speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times about the week in politics.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And for more on the week in politics, we turn now to our regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Thank you.

BLOCK: And you both wrote columns this week bemoaning what certain election campaigns are saying about the state of politics today. E.J., let's start with you. You were writing about the New York governor's race and certain comments by the Republican candidate, Carl Paladino.

Mr. DIONNE: Certain comments, by the - yes. Talking - I saw a tabloid headline - put the kids away from the radio - that referred to Paladino condemning gays in Speedos and gay grinding. And so we have our politics coming down to witches and Speedos and maybe Second Amendment remedies. It's defining democracy down.

In Paladino's case, this is somebody who had a real shot here. The state was - New York is very angry. They're angry at their state government. The state government was under control of Democrats. Upstate New York has been ailing for a long time economically. An I'm-mad-as-hell campaign could have been very effective this year, and instead Paladino threw it away.

But I think in general, the quality of this campaign is not matching the problems we face at the broader level. We're just seeing vague talk about, well I'm against government, I'm against taxes - but really no one's talking about well what are we going to do to move forward? So Paladino is an extreme case of a general rule.

BLOCK: And David, you were focusing on the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois - Barack Obama's former seat. No Speedos and grinding in this campaign. There's something else you're looking at.

Mr. BROOKS: At least not on the surface.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Why do we have some relatively weak candidates? It's because most normal people, I would say 100 percent of normal people, don't want to run for office these days. And so I wrote about a guy named Mark Kirk who had a very outstanding career as a naval intelligence officer, at the World Bank, State Department, very successful career, 10 years in the House as maybe the only moderate Republican. And so he goes through this process. Some of it is self-inflicted - he embellishes some of his reports, some of his career achievements - but then he gets dumped on by ads and he's in a very cynical political climate, where the things that you do that are subject to ridicule get played up while all the things you've achieved are forgotten, and so you're entire reputation really goes to the toilet. And why would a normal person want to go through that? And I think that's one of the reasons that we have people like Paladino. Because a lot of good people just don't want to run.

BLOCK: Hmm. I was struck by the poll that was published this week in The Washington Post. A Post-Harvard-Kaiser Family Foundation poll talking about people's views of government, and it just struck me that there was a really huge contradiction between what people's views of government are - bad, majority - and their views of government programs - social security, Medicare, anti-poverty programs, education, unemployment - all those are great. David, how do you reconcile those two strains?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, this has been a long strand. I think that what's shifted, recently, is people have a sense of national decline. And I'm not sure they know why we're declining, but 65 percent of Americans think we're a nation in decline. They think the Chinese are eating our lunch. They think our fiscal situation is out of control. So I think what they're looking for is disciplined but effective government. I think they have a lot of - and personally, I have a lot of - some nostalgia for the 1950s government which did the Interstate Highway Act, which did some big things and massive programs, but did it in a way that was disciplined, but where the money was not swallowed up frankly by pensions for prison guards, which is not probably the most productive way we should be spending our money. So a disciplined but effective government, I still think would be unpopular, it's not being offered by either party.

BLOCK: E.J., how do you read those numbers?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think we've also gone through a long period where government has been demonized. I mean, in the '50s, people had a generally more positive view of government, maybe because government had helped us win World War II and gotten us through the Great Depression. And then the whole image of government changed.

But I think people have always had this inconsistency. Americans, I think, have it, especially, of sort of being skeptical of government in the abstract, but wanting it to do a whole lot of things.

When I was in New York, I talked to a Republican state senator who said that in another poll, New Yorkers said we've got to cut the budget deeply. And then they took the five things government does the most of -its state government - and all those areas the voters wanted an increase.

So I think that that's they way we are. And I think government has become this abstract term that's disconnected from the things it does and the services it renders.

BLOCK: Let's talk about another issue in the news this week, and that's the military policy on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We had a federal court ruling from California this week. The Pentagon saying that it will stop enforcing the policy banning gays from serving openly in the military to comply with that ruling, but at the same time telling service members, don't come out with your sexual orientation now because you could get in trouble in the future. The Obama administration does want Don't Ask, Don't Tell overturned but is going to defend the policy in court. David Brooks, where does this leave President Obama?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, governments have to upend the things they oppose because it's the law of the land. You have to defend that. I think the wise course here is patience. The Defense Department is coming out with a report in December. I think this is an issue which over the long term is going to take care of itself because public opinion is shifting so strongly in one direction. But it seems to me the danger is by pushing too hard and too fast, really forcing a reaction among the middle of the military and especially the people who are toughest on this are the parents of potential enlistees.

If you scare them too much you'll get a counter reaction which would be counterproductive.

BLOCK: And E.J., briefly.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah. Obama is in an odd position though of appealing a ruling where he actually agrees with the result. I wish he didn't do that. The answer is there are votes in the Senate to repeal this. It went down earlier this year for political reasons. The Senate in December should just get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

BLOCK: Okay. Thanks to you both. Have a great weekend.

Mr. BROOKS: You too.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of a columnist for The Washington Post and David Brooks with The New York Times.

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