Week In Politics Examined

It has been a week of turmoil in the economy, in Washington and in the presidential race. Political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times offer their insight.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is All Things Considered. From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block. We figure there are, well, one or two things to talk about this week with our regular political commentators, columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: David, let's start with you. How do you figure it is that the Bush administration seems to have more friends among Democrats in Congress at this point than his own party?

BROOKS: I asked a House Republican this morning how important the Bush lobbying was - and this was a conservative Republican. He said, those guys have no juice.

BLOCK: No juice.

BROOKS: They have no power up there. The House Republicans are feeling pretty good about themselves right now. There are - 90 percent of them are against this bailout. The calls to Capitol Hill are running a hundred one against - in some offices, hugely against. They think why should we subsidize a bunch of the rich people. They think, you know, how do we know even if we infuse capital into the markets, it's going to work? Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I think they think that there going to richer deal not for 700 billion, some smaller number with some changes, but there's going to be a deal with say 80 Republicans voting for it.

BLOCK: And apparently, in an unusual thing for him to do, President Bush has been on the phone himself trying to persuade these recalcitrant House Republicans to come over. E.J. Dionne, what's going on?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I think a lot of Republicans wanted to run against the Bush-Pelosi Wall Street bailout. And they were hoping they could package these together to clear their independence from Bush. But this thing is going to pass because they are petrified. Never will a bill be passed that is so unpopular with the people voting for it or with their constituents. The calls are going a hundred to one against this, but they are petrified. I talked to Barney Frank last Sunday, the Chair of the Financial Services Committee and he said something was going to pass because what's the alternative? I think the administration has not done a great job of selling this.

You know, the administration that tries to sell a war by saying Saddam Hussein was on the verge of getting nuclear weapons doesn't have a lot of credibility when it says, the sky is falling. But I think you have a sense that enough people worried that the sky might fall if they don't pass something. that I think your seeing the Republicans in the House give in, more or less, and John McCain who's been, it seems, on a number of sides of this, this week is also going to go along.

BLOCK: I'm glad you mentioned that, that salesmanship, because it seems like that's part of this whole strategy or will have to be, that they have to figure out a way to make this palatable. Maybe it means you don't call it a bailout plan - you see, you're calling it a rescue plan. David Brooks?

BROOKS: Call it a happiness plan. Spreading the wealth plan for rich people. Yeah, the one thing that I would disagree is that I think that the momentum is now with the Republicans. They feel the wind is at their sails. They think they're going to demand fundamental change, because the members of the administration and the financial community have come to them and they can't assure them what the Paulson plan or anything related to it is going to work. So they don't want to be held out there, hanging out there, because they know that if this go south, the economy goes south and they are the road block. They will be the smoot-hole of the 21st century.

BLOCK: And the Democrats don't want to be the ones with exposure backing this plan without the Republicans backing them up.

BROOKS: Well, that's absolutely right. But I think they've already given in. I mean Eric Cantor, one of the leading Republican rebels against this plan backed off, or partly backed off, a proposal he had admitting that Paulson had been right. That because some of these instruments are so exotic, their idea of having, you know, kind of insurance on these assets wasn't going to be good enough, so that they, you know, they're going want to play both sides of this and they're going want to say, well, we fixed the plan. But in fact, I think, with this final plan, will look a lot more like what was agreed to before this thing blew up yesterday than not.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about where all this is intersecting with the presidential campaign. You had the meeting, which sounds like an extraordinary meeting at the White House yesterday with both John McCain and Barack Obama, President Bush, Henry Paulson at one point, apparently, on bended knee before the House Democrats point...

BROOKS: That's scary, the Treasury Secretary...

BLOCK: Jokingly asking him not to blow the whole thing to pieces. David Brooks, this morning Democratic Senator Charles Schumer was urging the president to respectfully tell John McCain to get out of town. He's not helping. He is harming. He is out of town. He'll be at the debate tonight in Mississippi. Did he harm the process, do you think, by coming in?

BROOKS: No, I don't think he did. I don't think he helped as much, but he didn't harm it. The fundamental harm was that Republicans, House Republicans thinks it's a bad idea. They think it's a bad bill. It's sucks, but has nothing do with presidential race.

Now John McCain, when he came in, was typically John McCain. He was improvising. It was pretty clear he had no plan what he was going to do. Nonetheless, when he got to Capitol Hill, not in that White House meeting, but when he got to Capitol Hill, he played an important role. He told the House Republicans I'm with you. I understand your concerns. Nonetheless, we're going to have a deal. So I think he move out Republicans a little more toward that deal.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: You know, I think McCain has been giving off an impression of recklessness under pressure or willingness to roll the dice one time to many. I mean, his decision to put barely vetted Sarah Palin on the ticket is looking more and more reckless, given her obvious lack of preparation in that very strange, to be charitable, interview she had with Katie Couric this week. I think sort of contributes to that impression. And then, he jumped out of this week's debate, said I got to focus on this, then he comes to Washington, and then he says today, never mind I'm going down the Mississippi. So I think that he has created an image for himself that hasn't helped. And Obama - people say Obama is too cool, and maybe he is sometimes a little cool, but I think coolness under pressure this week, relative to McCain, probably helped Obama.

BROOKS: But they're (unintelligible) substance. This bill is phenomenally unpopular. I fundamentally support it, but the 80 percent of the American people don't. And If McCain is seen as more skeptical, then than will politically not hurt them. I think it maybe a reckless thing to do, but politically, it's probably a good thing for him to do.

BLOCK: Do you think if there isn't a final bill. But do you think they would support if they understood it?

BROOKS: I have no idea. I just know that idea of people say, hey, I'm not getting bailed out of my mortgage. And that is just ripe through out the body politics. And so that's what's driving a lot of skepticism about this. So it's sort of elite fears about a complete meltdown, which I think are completely legitimate against the pretty strong popular upsurge.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the debate tonight in Oxford, Mississippi. E.J., what do you need to hear tonight from Barack Obama?

DIONNE: I think - first of all, they're going to address this - and I think this financial crisis, no matter whether they call it a foreign policy debate or not. And where I agree with David is that a lot of people out there who are hurting say, wait a minute, this $700 billion, that's a lot of money, that could help an awful lot of people in the country. And that's why I think the case for this hasn't been made to an awful lot of people and there's just deep skepticism. I think he has to address that he said, there are a lot of things about the plan needed to be fixed. Some of which were done.

More generally, I think he's got to bring the debate to the question of who has a better judgment at the beginning of a crisis. McCain is going to want to get - talk a lot about the surge. Obama is going to say, look, I was against this war in Iraq, which hast cost us so much money that we clearly can't afford. It hasn't gotten us where we want to be and he wants to get it to judgment and use Iraq as example number one.

BLOCK: And David Brooks, what do you want to hear from John McCain?

BROOKS: Well, they got to remember the fundamental rule of TV, which is that nobody remembers what you say, they remember how you say it. And so that's - it's all about demeanor. McCain, as E.J. says, has this recklessness problem. He's got to be seam prudent and mature. Obama has a bit of the nuance problem - he's got to be seen clear and striking and bold. So to me - I'll be looking more towards demeanor and signing than maybe content.

BLOCK: And eye rolling. OK. Thanks to you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, and E.J. Dionne with the Washington Post and Brookings Institution.

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