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Commentary
2:00 pm
Fri April 13, 2012

Week In Politics: Santorum Makes His Exit

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And joining me now to talk more about politics are our regular Friday observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

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

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: So with Rick Santorum ending his campaign for the Republican nomination, this was the week when it was said the general election campaign began in earnest. We just heard Governor Romney. Earlier in the week, President Obama was in Florida where he talked about income inequality, historically low tax rates for the wealthy, his proposed tax on millionaires and the choice that he says we face.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Do we want to keep giving those tax breaks to folks like me who don't need them or to give them to Warren Buffett, he definitely doesn't need them, or Bill Gates, he's already said, I don't need them, or do we want to keep investing in those things that keep our economy growing and keep us secure? That's the choice.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, sound like the key note of the campaign to you or just a fitting theme for the week before income taxes are due?

BROOKS: Oh, I hope he gets serious because what he said this week was not particularly serious. The Buffett Rule is a triviality. First of all, it would yield about maybe 5 to $7 billion a year in revenue. In an era with trillion dollar deficits, that's completely trivial. Second, if you want to actually make the rich pay more, close the loopholes, reform the tax system so you close the loopholes and don't just stick a Band-aid on top of it.

But the president doesn't want to talk about doing something serious, which is, you know, a big tax reform. And then, finally, don't give people the impression that you can keep the current benefits you have and somebody else is going to pay for it, just a few people at the top. There's just not enough money at the top. And so I thought this was sort of a distraction and not a particularly promising opening for the campaign.

SIEGEL: E.J., what about that? The Buffett Tax, if it were enacted, wouldn't balance the books in Washington. It's not comprehensive tax reform. How important is it?

DIONNE: You know, I would say that briefing that the White House did this week and their argument about the Buffett Rule, which I think is morally right, is that you can't get to tax reform without first getting everybody to acknowledge, we need more revenue. And the Buffett Rule is tax reform where it's small, which is saying, look, we're going to begin by limiting the loopholes available to the people at the top.

We're going to - they'll be worth less to people at the top than they will to others. The administration also points out that it's still on the record as favoring eliminating the Clinton - the Bush tax cut for people at the top end. And they think they can get to at least $1.5 trillion that way. But I think, politically, they're smart to start with the Buffett Rule. It is a really serious argument.

If you want to invest in the country - and I thought it was important that he linked taxation to spending that we need - you're going to have to start somewhere. And the way to begin to win the argument is say, first, let's agree to limit the loopholes for the wealthiest people and then we can move on from there.

SIEGEL: David, a first step that primes the country for the bigger discussion?

BROOKS: Well, maybe. I think it distracts people. As I said, I think it just gives you the impression you don't have to sacrifice. We're going to have a big blowup come December, when a lot of things expire and we've got to have a president who does three things. One, get us fiscally sustainable, second, more growth which probably needs tax reform, third, more social equity. If you don't run specifically on big plans, the next president will have no mandate to do what needs to be done.

And so far, neither of them have even hinted at anything close to what needs to be talked about.

DIONNE: And see, just very quickly, I think that people talk about tax reform as if it's easier than just raising taxes. And I think tax reform is much more difficult and it's being used as a dodge to evade the fact that you need more revenue. I think if you can get everybody to agree on the need for more revenue, then you can begin to talk about tax reform.

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear from both of you in this now beginning of the real 2012 presidential election campaign, which seems to be - the conventional wisdom now that's taking shape here inside the capital beltway and that is, number one, Mitt Romney is a weak challenger. He has problems of personal authenticity, political inconsistency, lack of appeal to women and Hispanics. And the fact that this looks like it's going to be a pretty close presidential election race says something about President Obama's real weaknesses as a candidate; his inability to win over the country decisively on health care.

And he must be - he's got to be doing terribly, E.J., among Anglo males if he has these huge leads in the polls among Hispanics and females and still seems to be just a few points ahead.

DIONNE: Well, he's ahead in many of the polls, the recent Washington Post/ABC poll by about the same margin he won by against John McCain the last time. That's pretty good after an economic roller coaster that we've been through over the last four years.

I think Mitt Romney's problem is that he needs not just to win white voters, particularly men, he needs absolutely to overwhelm Obama in that group. He is beating him by a substantial margin in that group but not by enough to win the election. McCain carried this group by a lot, too, and he didn't win the election.

BROOKS: Yeah, I would say the focus for Romney has to be high school-educated women. Usually Republicans do well in that. They don't do so well among upscale women. But they usually do well with - the cliche we have is waitress moms. And what mystifies me about what Ari just reported about, about his speech in the NRA convention is it's all about freedom and liberty. It's all a very individualist and getting government off your back.

Well, if you're trying to appeal to high school-educated women, that's not the message that works. That's you're on your own, sister. And that will not work. And so, I'm a little mystified by the very libertarian theme he's got.

SIEGEL: Well, then what is the Republican appeal then to women, to the waitress women, as you say? What is it if not...

BROOKS: Well, I would say its community. You know, George Bush had a compassionate conservative. It was a conservative vision but it was about us all being in it together and it's about social mobility. It's not you're on your own. And so, that's a less-orthodox Republican theme. But that seems to be the only one that has a plausible chance of winning.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne.

DIONNE: I actually agree with David on that. And I think it's impossible in the current Republican Party to be in any way communitarian or to be a compassionate conservative. That's what Bill Clinton understood way back when we were talking about soccer moms. Women, and particularly women who are mothers, care about having a decently sized government that will protect people who are in trouble. And they're not getting that from the Republicans.

SIEGEL: David, is the GOP pragmatic enough so that if Mitt Romney gave a couple of speeches and the needle started to move with the key group - they'd say, well, maybe that is a good idea.

BROOKS: I hope they're opportunistic. But they may not be.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: They may rather lose.

SIEGEL: This may not be the year, is what you're saying.

BROOKS: But I think of substance and the opportunism is on the same side here.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you, David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.