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Week In Politics: Republican Primaries


To talk more about this, we're having our weekly political commentator David Brooks of the New York Times weigh in, and filling in for E.J. Dionne is Clarence Page, columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Welcome gentlemen.


DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So let's get going with those job numbers. Setback for the president, meaningful setback, David?

BROOKS: Well, there was a little irrational exuberance over the past couple months with the 300,000 dollar - 300,000 job numbers. My teachers in this have been two economists, Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinheart, who have emphasized for years now that after a financial crisis, you just don't get a V-shaped recovery. You get a long, slow slog. And if you follow what they're describing, this should not be unexpected. And so I think we should just learn to live with ups and downs and this kind of long slow recovery.

Now, politically, I think the shorthand way to think about it is any job number north of 175,000 is good for the president. That's more likely to make him reelected. Any number south of 175 is good for Romney, the challenger. That's likely to make him reelected. So this month's number is good for Romney. What the next month's - they'll probably go back and forth.

CORNISH: Yeah, and Clarence, how are you feeling about it?

PAGE: Well, the expectations were raised too high. This is about half of what the White House had indicated they were expecting for the month. The best they could say is, wait 'til next month, like a perennially losing baseball team or something. The best news about this is that it is on the positive side of zero. In other words, a job gain is better than a job loss.

CORNISH: So the bar is low here for you.

PAGE: Right, right. Well, the bar is low for now because it's springtime. When this really gets critical, of course, is August and later. September job numbers will have a direct impact on the election, no doubt. So for now, they can just brag that they've had a growing economy, but it's growing too slowly.

CORNISH: And, of course, that's what the Republican candidates are out there saying. This week we saw President Obama and Mitt Romney in sort of dueling policy speeches before the American Society of News Editors, which is interesting because, number one, Obama calling out Romney specifically, kind of naming his frontrunner. What did we learn about what a potential matchup would look like through these two speeches? I don't know, Clarence?

PAGE: Well, this was a declaration of ideals on both parts, for Obama and for Mitt Romney. Indeed, the president did mention Mitt's name. He also talked about how the Republican party has drifted too far to the right. Ronald Reagan wouldn't be able to get nominated in today's party, he said. And social Darwinism, a very interesting term for him to throw out there, sort of the liberal response to the socialism brand.

And Mitt Romney, at the same time, came back saying that the economy is growing too slowly. It would grow better with me. Obama is in over his head. Those usual kind of stump speech lines. He also declared that he would raise the age for Social Security eligibility, which is probably the most courageous thing he said, I think, because that, as practical as it sounds, is one that touches that third-rail issue of Social Security, which has proved to be volatile for any candidate running for office.

CORNISH: But did we really get a sense of what an election between these two would look like?

BROOKS: Well, we got a sense how nasty it's going to be. I mean, we're seven months out and this is about as heated a rhetoric as you usually get in late October. Obama was not like, oh, my word, the opponent and I disagree. It's they're irresponsible. They're a joke. They're social Darwinists. They're trickle down. It was full bore. And Romney was full bore back. So I don't know where we're going to be in seven months because it's bound to escalate.

But it'll be in unprecedented territory. The other thing we learned is what's going to be the major issue, unless something comes up, which will be a very traditional debate about the role of government. Obama went right after Paul Ryan's budget and Mitt Romney's budget. Romney went right after Obama for not understanding business. And so we will have a very traditional argument about the role of government, whether we should have bigger government, smaller government, business versus the welfare state.

That's a pretty traditional argument we have. Obama's advantage is that he is genuinely closer to the center than Romney and the Republicans are right now. Romney's advantage is people are really skeptical of government and so if he can play on that skepticism, he'll do fine. But we will have a pretty orthodox, very tough election.

CORNISH: And it seems like - I don't know about you - it seems like Paul Ryan is the most influential person in this race right now. I want to, lastly, get to the other candidates. Rick Santorum had a tough week. We spoke to one of his campaign advisors, John Brabender, about the calls for Santorum to leave the race and he had this to say about Romney's wins.

JOHN BRABENDER: Despite those, he doesn't seem to be able to put us away, in a sense. I mean, you know, he had a four-to-one advantage in Wisconsin in money. He had all these big endorsements. Yet he was barely able to beat us by more than 4 percentage points. The margin of error of a poll, if you will.

CORNISH: Santorum isn't walking away yet, though some people seem to be checking for a pulse. So, David, your thoughts on sort of what he's got to say here about Romney.

BROOKS: Well, there's no chance he can win. I mean, you just look at the delegate math. He'd have to win a phenomenal percentage here on out - an unprecedented percentage. So, the old rule used to be: If you have really no chance of winning, for the good of the party, you drop out. He's not doing that in part because Romney is weak. But just because Romney is weak doesn't mean that Santorum is not even weaker.

CORNISH: Clarence?

PAGE: Yeah, it was interesting to see Santorum's response to the three-state loss. He sounded like he wants to stay in. Well, he was making comparisons to the 1976 race, where Ronald Reagan ran but didn't win and neither did the incumbent, Gerald Ford. And people afterwards were saying, you see, we didn't go far enough to the right.

That's his new line now - that we're going to lose if we don't go farther to the right. It's not a winning line, I don't believe. But nevertheless, he's really throwing down now trying to further the divide in his own party, which I think can burn bridges for him in the future.

CORNISH: Well, no wonder people are already skipping to the parlor game of looking for a vice president candidate. I'm sure we'll talk about that more next week. David Brooks of the New York Times, and filling in for E.J. Dionne, Clarence Page, columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Gentlemen, thanks so much for talking with us.

PAGE: Thank you, Audie.

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