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Week In Politics: Wisconsin Recall, Presidential Race


And now it's time for our regular Friday political observers, columnists David Brooks of the New York Times, and joining us from NPR West in Culver City this week, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome back to both of you.

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

SIEGEL: And we'll get to exchanges about the economy in a moment. But first, what some people called a dress rehearsal for November took place in Wisconsin this week. The move to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker failed. He is now a right-wing rock star and conservatives are writing obituaries for the public employee unions. David Brooks, what's the meaning of the Wisconsin vote for you?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm happy to have any right-wing rock star beyond Ted Nugent. You know, we went - I'm not sure it's a preview of November. I really don't think so. I think it's a preview for the next 20 years. We went through a period where states could afford to give out pension promises, benefits, and also pay for prisons, schools, water projects and all the rest. That era is over.

We're not in a period of austerity. We can't afford both. Voters, not only in Wisconsin, but also in San Jose and San Diego, decided they had to scale back some of the benefits and some of the pensions for public sector workers, people who are earning above the median. And so they made that choice. And so I think it's about how we're going to make decisions in an age of austerity.

I don't think it matters much for November. I don't think it's a sign against big government. It's just that people think the promises made to public sector workers have gotten out of control.

SIEGEL: E.J., you wrote in a column this week, this was not an ordinary election. The right knew this. The left seemed to forget.

DIONNE: Yes. Well, I think there were a series of tactical errors. I mean, some Democrats, including a lot of the Obama folks, thought the recall was a bad idea to begin with. They should have concentrated their energy on winning in November. But also, they made a number of mistakes, one of which was to have a primary. They couldn't get their own side together to avoid a primary.

The Democrats were vastly outspent by the Republicans and then turned around and wasted at least $4 million or more picking the candidate when they should have been running with that candidate all the way through. I think there are some long term lessons here, although I don't quite draw the same conclusions that David does. I think that the anti-government idea is still very strong and I think liberals have really been too reluctant to just come right out and say they believe in government, they believe government can do good things.

And I think they've got to take the conservatives on frontally. That also includes a willingness to reform government. Here I think the public employee unions have to do some thinking and they've got to figure out how to embrace the cause of government reform, something the American Federation of Teachers has begun to try to do. But they should be on that side.

But I agree with David on one thing, which is I don't think this is a good preview for November. The exit polls showed that the same electorate that kept Governor Walker in office would've voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. So I think it's not a predictor.

SIEGEL: David, what about the money, though, that E.J. just referred to. The parties, the campaigns, actually, Walker's campaign outspent Barrett's 7-1. And even if he had a lot of outside money, the Republicans still did very well. They're not going to do that much better than Barack Obama in the fall.

BROOKS: No. And I don't think this money really mattered. It was 2-1 if you throw everything in the kitchen sink. So they had an advantage, but you know, if you look at the basic issues, do you think pension promises have been too high? A majority, yes. Do you think that we should re-change(ph) some of the negotiating rules? Yes. The majorities were just on the issues. At the end of the last final weeks, the Democrats weren't raising the pension issues, they were trying to change the subject to anything else.

So this electorate, as E.J. said, a lot of union members, a lot of Obama voters, as well as those in San Diego and San Jose, they're not right-wing Republicans. They just decided things have gotten a little out of control and they were going to rein in the public sector unions, and we have now learned that if you don't force a lot of these public sector workers to pay for those unions through the state (unintelligible)...

SIEGEL: (Unintelligible) the benefits of it.

BROOKS: Right.

DIONNE: You know, David's - there's a difference here between cutting back on pension promises, which is happening in a lot of states, Democratic as well as Republican-controlled, and cities. This was about fundamentally altering the structure of the relationship between unions and government and really trying to undercut these organizations.

And I disagree. I think the money really did matter. Scott Walker was on the air for months and months, through a loophole in the law. That clearly helped him. I'm not sure how much impact this is going to have on the presidential election, where I do think President Obama is going to get outspent when you put everything together.

The Obama people are nervous about that. It could have an enormous impact on House and Senate races, particularly House races where outside groups can come in and just overwhelm candidates with outside money. They don't have any limits on what they can raise or spend, and that's where it's going to have a real and I think scary impact this fall.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to the economy. In his news conference, as we heard Ari Shapiro report, the president talked about the European economic crisis. Less demand for our products in Europe, he said, could mean less business for manufacturers here. Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House, said he's trying to deflect blame. David, is our presidential race, are our politics generally hitched to Europe's wagon right now and in for a rough ride?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think I said several weeks ago Angela Merkel has more to do with our election than Barack Obama or Mitt Romney does, and I still basically believe that. I'm extremely nervous about Europe. I've spoken to a lot of smart people who think there's a significant chance, 30 percent chance, that they could really have a meltdown, something worse than 2008.

Europe's problem is the same as it's been since, you know, 1468: There are too many countries in too small a space. And you can try to cover that over with a single currency, but if they don't have the same fiscal policies, if they don't have the same values, if they don't have the same rule of law, the political values, it's not going to work.

And essentially they're running into that reality, and we're seeing the Germans not want to subsidize people who haven't done reform. The Spanish saying subsidize us or else. The Greeks, probably leaving. It's an extremely fraught time. There's not much the president can do. I think he's doing the right things, but he's really the victim of circumstance right now.

SIEGEL: What he did or what he said, E.J., today was that there's a problem if everybody keeps cutting, if you pursue only austerity, you can depress demand generally. Should he be taking more of a lead? Is the U.S. needed to lead Europe out of its problems?

DIONNE: Well, I think that we're doing all we can, and we don't have a lot of power there. We don't have a lot of stray money sitting around, as we might have had, say, in 1999 to help them out of their mess. And so I think we're as involved as we can be.

But when you were listening, we were listening earlier to Eric Cantor and the president, we have two parties living in two completely different economic worlds. Cantor saying this is all about cutting the debt, and President Obama gave a very nice lecture on Keynesian economics and what happens when every government cuts at the same time.

I think you are going to find that the president and the French president, Mr. Hollande, are going to be on the same side in saying we need to rev these economies up a little bit. And the good news about the bad jobs numbers is I think it will bring pressure on central banks, including our Fed, to do something to try to speed this up.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I would say Obama's Keynesianism is a little pure and a little naive. I think there's a good case to be made that states should be hiring more workers, but we've gone into further debt by $6 trillion since the financial crisis hit. Do we really believe if we went into debt by $6.2 trillion or even 7 trillion, the economy would be humming? No.

People are terrified of Europe. They're terrified of a bad political system. There are deep structural problems that are not going to be cured by a little more stimulus spending.

DIONNE: More debt short-term could mean less debt long-term.

SIEGEL: E.J., you got the last word. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of once again.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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