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Week In Politics: Election, Fed Scandals


And now to our regular political columnists - E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brook of the New York Times. Welcome back.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: Let's think about those numbers we just heard in Peter Overby's story about fundraising. Any messages that you see emerging from those figures, David Brooks?

BROOKS: I'm heterodox on this issue. I don't think fundraising matters in presidential races. They've got a ton of free media. They've got these big national debates. Does anybody not know who Barack Obama is? And so I think fundraising matters a great deal in determining who votes in House elections and local elections, but I think it's a myth that they have a huge affect on national elections. Obama vastly outraised McCain last time. Does anybody think McCain would have won if it had been even? I really don't think so.

BLOCK: So the impact of negative ads and all of the ads that this money can buy, you think, is overstated.

BROOKS: Well, the interesting wrinkle in this campaign - unlike all the others - will be, do the superPACs hijack the campaign? Do the candidates actually control their message, or are they swamped by the much bigger numbers that come from the superPACs? And in that case, you might have some people shooting their own candidate in the foot.

BLOCK: E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: I agree with David on the last point. I think it's very troubling that the superPACs may take over the campaigns. And it's totally unaccountable money because it's not a candidate who puts up an ad and you can say, what an outrageous ad that candidate put up. They can say anything. I disagree on the role of money in the campaigns. I think it did give Barack Obama a really big advantage over John McCain.

Obama could spend money everywhere. He could spend on anything he wanted, including very innovative ways of organizing. And I think that hurt McCain the last time. It's a tale of - it's two stories here. On the campaign side, I was talking to somebody recently who was very involved in the Obama operation the last time, who said they're way ahead of where they were four years ago in terms of how to identify donors, how to raise small money, how to get people to double up and triple up.

So I think on the regular campaign side, Obama's going to have an exceptionally good time. SuperPACs are a huge problem, and I think that's where Romney could swamp Obama.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk a bit about where both campaigns found themselves this week, very deliberately so. We had President Obama first in North Carolina, and then Mitt Romney going there; and then President Obama went to Lorain County, Ohio, on Wednesday; Mitt Romney followed him there on Thursday. Let's listen to a little bit of tape from those speeches. First, from President Obama in Ohio.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right now, we have two competing visions of our future, and the choice could not be clearer. And let me say, those folks on the other side, I am sure they are patriots; I'm sure they're sincere, in terms of what they say. But their theory, I believe, is wrong.

BLOCK: And then the next day, we heard from Mitt Romney in that same county in Ohio.

MITT ROMNEY: You know, the other day, the president - I guess it was just yesterday - he was in Ohio, and he said that this campaign is going to come down to his vision, his vision for America. If you want to know where his vision leads, open your eyes - because we've been living it for the last three years. It leads to lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams. It's time to end that vision, and have a vision of growth and jobs and economic vitality.

BLOCK: I like that Mitt Romney there is saying, I guess it was just yesterday - as if this weren't all very carefully orchestrated. David Brooks, when you think about the broad narrative that these campaigns are trying to - or starting to lay out, first, what are you hearing from the Obama campaign?

BROOKS: Well, what they're trying to do is, trying to figure out whether we're going to have a serious campaign or not. There are these side issues; I think of the Buffett Rule as a side issue, or whatever some surrogate says. But at the core there, we could have a serious campaign. They have totally different versions of what just happened to America. The president says we had years of deregulation - finance got out of control; corporate power got out of control; and they're beginning to put that back into some sort of balance.

Romney has an entirely different vision of what just happened - that we've had decades and decades of the slow agglomeration of power, the confluence of Wall Street and government; and that's had this stagnating, restricting effect on American dynamism. Those are entirely - two different historical theories. And they're pretty good at fleshing that out. What I think both campaigns are really bad at fleshing out is what the story is from here; what the story of - the next four years look like.

Neither campaign has really gone there, in part because it involves some pretty tough choices.

BLOCK: And E.J. - talked about those tough choices a lot, in terms of reforming Medicare, Social Security; all of the big questions. Interesting to me that Mitt Romney chose as his backdrop yesterday this gypsum factory in Lorain County that had been shuttered - actually, closed under President Bush. But his argument was look, this would've reopened by now, but it's still empty - blaming the president for the fact that those jobs had not come back.

DIONNE: Right. Well, there are a couple of things. One is, Romney wants the election to be about the fact that things aren't good enough yet. And Obama wants the election to be about, things were a lot worse when I took over; they are getting better. And a lot will depend, of course, on what the economic numbers are between now and Election Day - as to which of those narratives is more powerful. Until recently, Obama, I think, has had the upper hand on that but, you know, slowing job growth would create a problem for him.

But there is this big, underlying argument - I think the Republicans, and the Ryan budget, symbolizes this - are for more cutbacks than they've ever been before. It's a really different view of government. And Obama, I think, has laid out in a series of rather philosophical speeches, a real defense of balance - that you can't have a successful private sector without a successful and reasonably strong public sector.

That is a big argument for the voters. On the budget, you are seeing the outlines. Obama is saying, you cannot balance this budget without some substantial tax increases - and we'll start with the rich. Romney is saying, we can cut our way there, and I can cut taxes for the rich - and, he claims, other people; but it's mostly for the rich - even more. I mean, if people like big choices, whether they like the candidates or not, this is a big choice.

BLOCK: I'd be curious if you have any thoughts on the scandals that have been the subject of some attention this week. First, the General Services Administration getting reamed out by Congress for lavish spending, and then the scandal of the members of the Secret Service in Colombia picking up escorts, getting into a brouhaha down there with some - now, some departures from the Secret Service. Both of these are part of the executive branch. Does this reflect in any way, do you think, on President Obama and his administration? David Brooks.

BROOKS: I personally don't think so, in part because while I'm not a fan of government, I'm sort of a fan of government workers. I think they're actually - and Republicans will say this, who hold office - these people are actually, surprisingly effective. And they're in it for the right reasons. And I happen to think the Secret Service is a phenomenally good agency. They had this scandal. The GSA has this scandal.

I generally don't think too many federal workers, frankly, are living high on the hog. And I don't think it's a Barack Obama problem because he, himself, is not the living-high-on-the-hog kind of guy.


DIONNE: God help me, I agree with just about all of that.


DIONNE: I think the challenge to Obama is, even if it's not his fault, these things happen when he's president, and you've got to take the blame. I think the big political question will be, was there a history of these problems that predated Obama? I am worried about the Secret Service scandal, to the extent that they compromise their ability to protect the president. And if that happened in any way, that is really troublesome.

But I think it'll be hard to stick this on Obama, but the Republicans are going to try. And I don't particularly blame them 'cause he's the guy in charge.

BLOCK: OK. E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks so much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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