MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now, presidential candidates and big ideas. It's always seemed to me that some candidates get elected on the strength of a big idea or two. Ronald Reagan saying, let's cut back government and let's pursue victory in the Cold War instead of detente. Some loose with a clear big idea - George McGovern running against the war in Vietnam, for example.
Others win by saying - in many more words, of course - I'm better, stronger, older, younger, more energetic, more caring and more something than the other candidate is. So what about this year's field of presidential hopefuls who are already commuting between the early primary or caucus states and the money belts of New York and Los Angeles?
Well, we've invited our two regular guests, political observers to survey the field in search of a big idea or two: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to both of you.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Opinion Writer, Washington Post): Thank you.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times): Good to be here.
SIEGEL: And I'd like to ask you first about the Republican field, starting with Senator John McCain, who's here to you speaking at the International Association of Firefighters last week.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Should we fail in Iraq, the damage to our interests and the repercussions we will confront would be so serious that we could be drawn into a wider and more terrible war. Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations would be strengthened and encouraged to attack us everywhere we are vulnerable, including here at home.
SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, is Senator McCain running as a candidate attached to some larger idea than his own impressive biography?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, he does it so much have a big idea is that he's stuck with a big idea called Iraq. Now this was consistent with the kind of national greatness campaign, to quote David actually, that he was running the last time. The last campaign, he linked that to his strong sense of reform at home. And I think one of his problems is a lot of that reform and stand-up-for-something-more-than-yourself part has been washed out a little bit, reduced down to Iraq. And other current circumstances, that's not so helpful.
SIEGEL: What do you think, David?
Mr. BROOKS: Well, I don't think he has given the sort of big speeches he gave 8 years ago. You know, usually the campaign start with a series of big long policy speeches, which tend to be a little oxymoronic. People call for practical idealism or a new beginning because an old beginning would stink.
And so, but he hasn't given that. I think the reason is, partly Iraq, partly because the campaigns are much more poll-driven and base-driven, but partly because of the fact that he is a Teddy Roosevelt Republican in his soul. And there are about nine of us. And so he's trying to run a much broader kind of campaign that'll appeal to everybody. But as a result, he doesn't really define himself.
SIEGEL: Well, astonishingly to many, he's trailing in polls of Republican or people who say they would be Republican primary voters to the former mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani.
Mr. RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York): The biggest concern that we have is the war on terror. It's the biggest concern because it involves our future, and these people want to come here and kill us. And they still do, and they're going to want to do it for sometime.
SIEGEL: He was speaking in February in California there. David Brooks, is Rudy Giuliani, does he stand for something larger than Rudy Giuliani's leadership?
Mr. BROOKS: Not yet. He's the most unformed of the candidates. His campaign is much less mature. He's running very much on what he's done. He hasn't yet formulated what he's going to do. And I think his policy will arrive at this thing, I can execute better than the other guys because I've actually managed something. But he really hasn't come very far. His speeches are much more like the sort of management leadership speeches he was giving as a paid speaker than there are campaign speeches.
Mr. DIONNE: I think that clip was perfect because so much of his campaign is based on don't forget 9/11 and what I did that day, and by the way, don't forget 9/11 and what I did that day. And I don't think that's sufficient going forward, because I think the country, while still remembering 9/11 and what he did, has moved to a different place in terms of wanting solutions, say, in Iraq. He has a potential big idea if he wants to go all the way back to how we governed in New York City, a kind of conservatism based on a strong government they could produce an orderly city, but not get rid of all kinds of government protections. He could form a new idea, but he doesn't seem to be doing it yet.
SIEGEL: Well, the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, announced his campaign in February and here's part of what he said.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts): How was the American family made stronger? With marriage before children, with a mother and a father in the life of every child…
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. ROMNEY: …with health care that's affordable and portable.
SIEGEL: So David, is there an adjective or an idea that we can use to describe Governor Romney?
Mr. BROOKS: Business-like. He's also become the most orthodox conservative in the race, hitting all the normal conservative points…
SIEGEL: With his family values…
Mr. BROOKS: Family values, low taxes - things like that. His problem is he didn't believe a lot of it a couple of years ago, and he's changed a lot of his positions, so people doubt his authenticity. He's running the most orthodox, normal, by-the-numbers Republican campaigns so far.
SIEGEL: But he's also saying, E.J., I was the governor of the state. I organized the Olympics. I'm a good - I'm an efficient, smart leader at things.
Mr. DIONNE: Well, unfortunately, it's going to boiled down to he was for abortion rights and gay rights before he was against them. And why is it that people from my native Massachusetts get stuck with this flip-flopping thing two campaigns in a row? And I think the controversy over how much he has changed his position has gotten in the way of any effort to run as a plausible candidate of competence, managerial skill, which is not a bad sales point after the years of George W. Bush.
SIEGEL: Okay, let's hear what you think of what the Democrats stand for, if there's some big ideas represented in the Democratic field, starting with Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): A group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for the grand sum of $13,000 a year.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
Sen. OBAMA: And I accepted the job, sight unseen, motivated then by a single, simple, powerful idea: that I might play a small part in building a better America.
SIEGEL: Building a better America. E.J. Dionne?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think the other part of that clip is really revealing, that Obama is, in some ways, a radical Democrat. He believes in democracy from the ground up - that's what community organizers believe. It's possible, I think, that he can weave that into a narrative that certainly appeals to people on the left, but also appeals to a lot of conservatives who care about what happens to communities and in communities.
At the moment, it's a little watered down, because he tends to be talking more on the whole about, well, gee, they have to stop fighting each other in Washington. But this radical Democratic appeal is not a bad idea for this period.
SIEGEL: David, do you hear that? That radicalism in the Obama message?
Mr. BROOKS: No, not really. I mean, the potential is certainly there. He stands right now for a way of doing politics which is different. Not necessarily a new substantive set of policies which is different. And he stands for conversation, the idea that you can have a normal conversation in civil politics.
And the great thing about Obama is that when you have an argument with him, he summarizes your own position better than you can. He has that facility. But he has not certainly created a set of policies. He has not come with any policy which is not orthodox Democratic policy. So in that way, he has become very traditional. But he may change. It's early days yet. But so far, the policy innovation isn't there.
SIEGEL: Here's something that John Edwards, former North Carolina senator, said when he was speaking out last week at the International Association of Firefighters.
Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): I believe in my heart and soul if we want to grow the middle class in this country, if we want to strengthen the middle class, if we want to lift millions of Americans out of poverty, the most important piece of that - certainly one of the most critical pieces of it - is to grow the union movement.
SIEGEL: And he was addressing a union of firefighters at the time, but E.J. Dionne, a mention of the unions by somebody seeking the Democratic nomination.
Mr. DIONNE: At the moment, maybe in the whole set of candidates, he is the most coherent. He has - and it goes back to his two Americas speech of the last campaign. He talks more consistently about economic inequality, more consistently about how the economy has become more unfair, and he wins the Sidney Hillman Award for mentioning unions the most - Sidney Hillman, the great labor leader of the 1930s and 1940s.
SIEGEL: David, like it or not, do you hear a coherent set of big ideas around John Edwards?
Mr. BROOKS: I do. And I agree with E.J. He's the most coherent of all the candidates. He's worked out longest, thought about it most carefully. And it is sort of that factory-floor populism, which is suspicious of globalization, pretty socially conservative and very class-based on income inequality. And he's the only one who actually has so far put together a coherent policy proposal on health care.
And so, he's the one is farthest along. And I think he happens to represent a very strong tendency in American life, which is this anti-globalist populism, which is especially strong in the Mid West, and it's not where the party was 10 years ago under Bill Clinton.
SIEGEL: Well, both former Senator Edwards and Senator Obama are challenging the frontrunner in the Democratic polls - New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You know, as parents, we're supposed to protect our kids. And that means taking care of them when they're sick and keeping them healthy when they're not. But so many hardworking parents in America cannot afford even basic health care for their children.
SIEGEL: An issue with which she was associated, obviously, as first lady. E.J. Dionne, does Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign connect to a larger idea? Can we sum up what it is she stands for?
Mr. DIONNE: She wrote a book called "It Takes a Village" a long time ago. When you go all the way back, her first political activism was with the Children's Defense Fund. And then she was associated, of course, with the health care issue.
There is a very strong, old-fashioned sense of the government needing to act to protect people, especially children.
I think a lot of that gets lost because all the speculation about Clinton is about what's going to happen with her husband; what kind of campaign is she running? And it runs kind of crosswise to the image of toughness of her apparatus, which goes against his nurturing image she conveys in that speech.
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I'd say like McCain, she has frontrunner-itis. She's trying to appeal to all segments of the party and trying to unite them, and trying to project the strength, you know, all fear the power that is Rome. And I think that's dulled down any distinct theme.
You know, her husband had a very distinct theme, the third-way, Tony Blair-Bill Clinton theme, which reconciled left and right. The party has abandoned that. She can't go back to that. But she's got nothing distinct so far except for this vague sense that she's a middle class person from the middle of the country.
SIEGEL: Thinking back to presidential elections past, do you think that it is necessary or even advisable for a successful candidate to connect up with some large idea that represent some coherent approach to politics? Or is it just as well for a successful candidate to just get people somehow to trust him personally, feel good about him, and get elected on the basis of being liked?
Mr. BROOKS: I would say, first, this is a campaign based on temperament more than any other we've had, because people are reacting sort of to the mental landscape of George Bush. They want somebody in there who are going to measure their mental landscape.
Nonetheless, I think it's tremendously important to have a theme the way Bush had compassionate conservatism, because it organizes your message and then it organizes your presidency. If you have no theme, you're just wandering about, going day to day.
SIEGEL: E.J., do you agree with that?
Mr. DIONNE: There were some campaigns where, like, ability or competence are sufficient. I think George W. Bush, in the election of 2000, squeaked into the White House because just enough people in enough of the right places decided that they kind of liked him.
I don't this is such a campaign. But a theme doesn't have to be positive. At the beginning we talked about Ronald Reagan saying he was against government. He was against communism. If there is one coherence on the Democratic side, it's this desire to move far away from the legacy of President Bush. And while there's no big theme in either party, I think there is a clear theme organizing the choice in the next election.
Mr. BROOKS: Well, I don't think George Bush is going to be on the ballot. And I think the Republicans, where there's a McCain or Giuliani or Romney, are going to be running a very different kind of a campaign. And there is going to be - you can look at the key issues, how do you deal with entitlements? How do you deal with the Islamic extremism? How do you deal with health care? How do you deal with globalization? You've got to organize your views on all those issues into one coherent message so people can reflect on who you are.
SIEGEL: Well, I'd like to thank both you for coming here and talking about the present field of presidential candidates and what big ideas are or are not out there. Thanks a lot, guys.
Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.
Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the David Brooks of the New York Times.
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