Week In Politics: Campaign Spending, Juan Williams

Robert Siegel speaks with 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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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More politics now from our regular observers: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Good to see you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And we just heard about the California Senate race. Here's an item from The San Francisco Chronicle website this week: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a $1.25 million advertising campaign against the Democratic candidates in California for senator and governor. That's on top of more than 3 million the chamber's already spent against Barbara Boxer.

David, you wrote a column about this kind of spending, arguing that all the big money by outside groups that's now permitted under the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, you argue, has actually dwarfed by what the candidates in the parties are spending - don't worry about it.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, that's factually true. I mean the independent money is out there: The chamber 22 million, AFSCME, the public sector employees' union are spending 87 million. Karl Rove has a group, American Crossroads, spending 20 to 30 million, NEA 40 million. So the money's out there, but most donations go to candidates and to parties.

And so the independent expenditure is about a tenth of the money spent by the parties and the candidates, so all this focus on the outside groups is really focusing on the tail and not the dog.

When you look at overall spending though, what you see is Democrats spending a lot more this year. According to the

SIEGEL: More than Republicans.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Democrats in the 100 closest House races are spending 66 percent more than the Republicans. And according to the Wesleyan Media Project, in overall, Democrats are spending $1.50 on ads for every dollar the Republicans are spending.

So the advantage is on the other side. I don't think it matters much. I think if you've got a Senate race, say in Colorado, where each of the candidates are throwing 5,000 ads against each other, whether one candidate throws 7,000 as opposed to 5,000, I don't think it makes a difference at all.

SIEGEL: E.J., not your narrative of money in the 20 (unintelligible).

Mr. DIONNE: I don't think I've ever disagreed with a piece by David as much as I disagreed with that one. I even liked a mixed review he gave a book I wrote years ago before we knew each other better than I liked that piece.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: I mean, if money doesn't matter, why - is Karl Rove helping to raise and spend all this money just for fun? Is he wasting his time? Does the Chamber of Commerce believe it's buying nothing? David's numbers, I think, vastly underplay the advantage that these secret money Republican-leaning groups have. They're outspending the Democratic groups by seven to one.

And I think the secrecy here really matters. Secret money corrupts. It's dangerous. We saw that in Watergate. This is unaccountable money. These, as I say, these shadowy groups will spend a fortune.

Is money everything? No. A really bad candidate or a candidate totally out of synch with the times, even if he or she spends like Donald Trump will lose. But it can make a huge difference at the margins in close races, and the House and Senate will be decided at the margins in close races.

SIEGEL: David, you buy it.

Mr. BROOKS: No, I think it matters in Washington. It matters to what gets raised and what doesn't. That's why they're spending it. If you're a tort lawyer and you give a lot to the Democrats, they're not going to raise tort reform. But does it actually change votes at this level? It matters if you're a challenger and you're unknown. Then you need money to be equal. But incumbent spending certainly doesn't matter and challenger money, once you get it, the name recognition level, I don't think it matters.

Mr. DIONNE: I just have to say, I've been traveling as David has, and you go to any market, media market, with a big race in it and you turn on the TV in the morning, people buy the morning shows a lot. And it's one attack ad by these outside groups after another. I do think this money is going to make a big dent.

Mr. BROOKS: And people write it all off. It's all the (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: Okay. Since you both are traveling around the country looking at races, let me ask you, any especially interesting or surprising race that you're looking at this week, E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think the Joe Sestak closing the gap in Pennsylvania is a very big deal.

SIEGEL: He's against Pat Toomey for the seat that Arlen Specter holds.

Mr. DIONNE: Against Pat Toomey. Yeah. And Toomey has had a lead for quite a while. The Sestak people believe they're helped by Christine O'Donnell. It's the same media market. They're arguing that Toomey is very right wing. I think it's crucial that Democrats hold a seat like that, both for the long term and to hold the Senate.

SIEGEL: David, any big surprises?

Mr. BROOKS: To me, the odd thing is that nationally the momentum is still with the Republicans. But in Senate race after Senate race it's closing, but in both directions. So in Pennsylvania, the Democrats are gaining on the Republicans. In California, the Republicans are gaining on the Democrats. In one Senate race after another, we got razor thin margins closing in both directions.

Mr. DIONNE: I think two other closing races just to mention quickly. Michael Bennet in Colorado who seemed almost dead partly because of all this outside money has really closed it very tight. and Russ Feingold seems to be back in the race where he had been written off in Wisconsin.

SIEGEL: In Wisconsin. One other item: NPR got into the news this week when news analyst Juan Williams was fired. Every other panel of journalists in Washington is going to talk about this this weekend, so why not you guys? David Brooks, anything to say?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, obviously we here in this room know and admire - at least I know and admire both people on all sides, nonetheless, I thought it was a very poor decision. I thought the merits of what Juan said, if you take the totality of what he said, was certainly within the realm of acceptable discourse. I thought it was in the realm of what NPR people have said at other public venues.

I'm more concerned about the damage to NPR. Let's face it, this is a network that we love, but which has had a reputation of being sort of a lefty granola-eating thing. And over the last 10 years because of a lot of rigorous reporting, I think that stereotype has been completely unfounded. And now because of this event, I think people are again going to begin to see it as an ideological organization, which it is not. But the reputation will be hurt.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I partly agree with that. I think it was unfortunately handled. I think he should've been given a chance to talk. If you want to raise questions about somebody being on Fox and working for NPR - I'm a critic of Fox. I completely understand that. I think it's an issue that should've been raised before or should've been raised quietly, not just right off the top on this.

The other thing I'd say is I think there's a lot of double standards here, a lot of conservatives complain about this firing, but not others. And I just hope NPR doesn't overreact now having made this unfortunate decision.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks so much.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Great to be with you.

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