ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
More on politics now from our regular commentators: columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): How are you?
SIEGEL: This was a week when, as we've just heard, President Obama hit the road, when conservatives met in Washington in a triumphful mood and heard Dick Cheney forecast a one-term Obama presidency, when centrist Democratic Senator Evan Bayh said he is heading back home to Indiana. And when you, E.J., wrote: President Obama is losing, Democrats are losing and liberals are losing. Why are they losing?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think they're losing for a couple of reasons. Well, let's go to Bayh first. Evan Bayh said when he quit that the Senate wasn't working and there's no room for moderation. Well, he is absolutely right that the Senate isn't working. But he's not right that there's no room for moderation. And when you look at what's happened in the Senate on two big issues, the moderates won. They won on the stimulus. It's probably two or three hundred billion smaller than Obama thought it should be because they had to get moderate votes.
And the Senate health care bill is a moderate bill. There's no single payer - it wasn't even on the table - no public plan, no Medicare buy-in, you know, this - we're governing from the middle. The problem is the Republicans have successfully just said no and they made it a very effective strategy. And they're making this argument that where the economy is a mess, Obama and the Democrats are for big government. Big government is responsible and they hang the whole mess on them. Democrats can wimp out and stop governing and cower in fear or they can start doing things.
And I think what Obama said today is right. They just have to press ahead and say, yes, we're going to pass a health bill, yes we're going to have - pass a jobs bill and then the voters can judge.
SIEGEL: David, what you make of E.J.'s diagnosis? Democratic (unintelligible).
Mr. BROOKS: I agree Democrats are losing. That's where we start...
SIEGEL: That was the first thing E.J. said.
Mr. BROOKS: ...and then we differ.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROOKS: You know, the Republicans were dead in the water a year ago. They didn't suddenly turn into messaging geniuses overnight. The reason the Democrats are in a bit of trouble, one, we're in an era - this is historically a country where people are very suspicious of government. We're in an era where people are historically suspicious of government. And the president has come out with a whole bunch of spending and government activism proposals.
He has a mentality - he wants to hit a lot of home runs. I think if he had tried to hit one or two home runs, maybe he would have succeeded, but when he came at them with all these different things, people recoiled. And we see that in poll after poll, suspicion of government, moving to the right. And so, it's not the specifics of any particular bill, frankly, I don't think is causing all this. It's all of them in total have caused this recoil and this turn toward the Republicans and even toward the Tea Party on the edges.
Mr. DIONNE: Democrats are in trouble because employment is at or near 10 percent. If unemployment were at five percent, no one would be talking about big government or big government failures. They would be talking about some success on Obama's part. So, I think what they need is to pray the economy gets better, do a little something to goose it, and govern in a way where people can see the results of what they do. I was told that a Democrat in a caucus said look, I was around in '94, they called us socialists then. The one thing the Americans hate more than socialists is ineffectual socialists. And they just can't keep looking ineffectual.
Mr. BROOKS: No, they actually hate effective socialists, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DIONNE: Has one ever governed in America? The mayor of Milwaukee.
SIEGEL: Well, next week there will be a White House health care summit. And this will either be some genuine attempt to find some possible compromise on this huge issue or it'll be a case of rope-a-dope politics, which proves that the other side is incapable of compromise. Do you think the country is actually as incapable of agreeing on what should be done with the health care system as the two parties in Washington are, David? Or is Washington in fact out of sync with a country that does have a center at there somewhere?
Mr. BROOKS: Well, I do think generally there is a center. It's tough to find on health care. The parties have two different philosophies of how to tackle health care cost. The Republicans want a more market-oriented base with consumers and consumer choice policing prices. Democrats want a more centrally controlled set of regulations mostly from Washington. And so there are two fundamental approaches.
Nonetheless, I think if E.J. and I sat down, we could put together a bunch of things that we could probably fit together - maybe the excise tax, maybe take some Republican ideas like malpractice reform, being - allowing people to shop across state lines and then throw in some of the Democratic insurance reforms. I bet reasonable people could actually come up with something...
SIEGEL: So there's no reason--
Mr. BROOKS: ...if they didn't have to run for office.
SIEGEL: If they didn't have to run for office. So elections rob us of our reason is what you're saying.
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I don't think...
Mr. BROOKS: We have two highly inflamed sections on either edge of the country. But there's a Stanford political scientist named Morris Fiorina who has shown time and time again there is a center in this country.
Mr. DIONNE: Look, there just aren't many David-Brooks-on-a-good-day, that's with hyphens, Republicans left anymore and that's part of the problem. And I think what this health care summit is going to reveal is how little Republicans really want to do in this area. There are two majorities in the country: one majority wants to fix health care, another majority fears government will mess it up. The Republicans have activated that second majority. Obama has got to activate the first majority.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about Republicans for a second. There was the big conservative CPAC conference in Washington this week. Does the enthusiasm on the right breathe life into the Republicans, David, or does it threaten to paint the GOP into an unelectable corner?
Mr. BROOKS: Both.
Mr. DIONNE: Yeah, both is right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROOKS: In the short term obviously they're doing fantastically well in Senate race after Senate race. But if they think this is a reason to suddenly turn to Marco Rubio or to the more extreme Tea Party sides, that's just crazy. If you look at the Republicans who've won recently - Governor Christie in New Jersey, McDonnell in Virginia - they're pretty moderate types. And that's still where the country is. And if we go from one ideological overreach to another that helps no one.
SIEGEL: E.J., the last word.
Mr. DIONNE: In midterm elections, enthusiasm on the right may be enough to win this for them if the Democrats continue to flounder. But I agree in the long run this is not going to help the party. I am struck that Sarah Palin is Mitt Romney's best friend right now because I don't think she's going to run for president. She's blocking out anyone else who could compete with him. And I think he's very happy to have her around and he was pretty well received there.
SIEGEL: Columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.
Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.
Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.
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