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Week In Politics: Economy; Herman Cain; Mitt Romney

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Politics now with our regular Friday observers, columnists David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Now, let's begin by staying on the subject of the economy. As we've just heard, unemployment has come down a little. For now, at least, those forecasts of a double-dip recession appear to have been wrong. The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, when he was asked about a budget deal, says if Democrats offer entitlement cuts, he could see what he called room for revenue. Anybody here see any room for light at the end of this rather long tunnel? David, you first.

BROOKS: You know, economically we're pretty much in a typical financial crisis. I still go back to the work of various economists who've said after financial crisis, it takes like seven or eight years to fully get the unemployment rate back. You've got people with a lot of debt. They don't know what their houses are worth. You got debt crisis, like in Europe. You got low demand. You've got all these things. It just takes forever. And to me, the crucial question is are we going to use this winter of recuperation to address the structural issues we just heard about?

We've got the wage stagnation. I just heard a very good piece by George Mason, economist Arnold Kling, arguing that we're going through a structural problem where a lot of white collar workers in clerical work are now losing their - that sort of job. And I ran into a CEO recently, he was lamenting the terrible economy and he said, it's fine by us, we've learned to adapt. We're becoming very productive. We're not creating jobs, but we're doing okay. And that's a sign of structural problem.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, you asked about the light at the end of the tunnel. My favorite sign, or one of them, from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations read, "Because of budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off." And I think when you look at these numbers, they are not encouraging at all. There are structural problems in the economy, as David says. But there is, short term, a very strong case for, say, a jobs bill, as the president said.

But the Republicans blocked another one this week and it struck me that many Democrats are now saying outright what they were kind of mumbling before, which is that Republicans are deliberately sabotaging the economy for the election. But on the budget cuts, if you look at what Speaker Boehner said afterward, that call for revenue increase, it sounded good. It sounded balanced, but then they clarified by saying, he wasn't really talking about revenues as most of us understand them. He was talking about government land sales, asset fees, co-pays for health care.

That wasn't as promising as it first looked for a deal.

SIEGEL: But David, I wonder, are the kind of changes, the structural improvements you're talking about, do they require public investment by the government? Is there a role for Washington to bring that about?

BROOKS: Yes. I don't believe in the short term. I think when you've got all this de-levering going on, I don't think a stimulus plan can do much in the short term. But you can do some fundamental things in the long term. The big infrastructure problems you can do. The human capital policies you can do. You can adjust the tax code so we have a much simpler and growth-oriented tax code. That stuff is going to take a long time to do, but we're in a long problem and so we should use this winter of recuperation to build, so when we have a spring, when we have growth, it's broad-based and it's deep.

DIONNE: I just want to say almost every economist, including some conservatives, disagree with David that a short term jolt to this economy wouldn't help it. It would help it and we could use it. And, you know, The Financial Times and other non-socialists are saying this sort of thing. And in the long run, I agree with a lot of what David's for, but as you suggested, Robert, that requires revenue.

BROOKS: But it's just not true...

SIEGEL: David, as they say in the debates, you've been referenced by...

BROOKS: It's just not true every economist...

DIONNE: Most - a vast majority...

SIEGEL: Well, let's leave the short term and long term problems of our economy aside and move on to what's really occupied the political press all week, which is Herman Cain, who's been asked about sexual harassment complaints from the '90s and the cash payments that the National Restaurant Association made to two women who complained. David, you first. Is this the beginning of the end of the Cain phenomenon?

BROOKS: There was no beginning. He was a TV show that lasted for a little while. Listen, let me stand up for elitist insiders. This is a job for professionals. Running for office is a job for professionals. Governing is a job for professionals. What Herman Cain did this week - let's leave aside the harassment - his handling of this was completely unprofessional. Every amateur candidate knows how to do a better job than this. You find out the information. You lay it out clearly.

And he couldn't do the ABCs of running for office, so as far as I can tell, he is what he has been, an entertaining, very likable TV show who will - when it actually comes time to cast votes, people are going to go with the only one candidate who seems plausible and that's...

SIEGEL: For the time being, they're neck and neck in the polls.

BROOKS: That's because we're in the silly season. Why not in the early part of the season go for the guy who makes you feel good? It's free and it's easy.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne?

DIONNE: I think he may end up as an entertaining television show when this is all over.

BROOKS: He had a radio show before.

DIONNE: Or a radio - yeah. I mean, agree with David that on the lack of professionalism here, I mean, and - but the lack of professionalism also is he kept changing his story, which is a real problem. And politically, when he started blaming Rick Perry, he was taking away his best, you know, Rick Perry for putting out this story, he was taking away his best opportunity, which was to blame the liberal media - which then they went back to.

It does show, though, that a lot of Republicans just can't get to Mitt Romney. Romney stays there at around 23, 24 percent. And all the other Republican primary voters shift around. Right now, they've identified Cain.

I think the guy who wishes he were still there is Tim Pawlenty. This might have been his moment if he had not dropped out.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, does this all show there's a great weakness in Mitt Romney, that there's somebody in that number two spot giving him a good race all the time?

BROOKS: There's nobody in the number two spot, there are certainly weakness. I'm struck by the fact that a lot of people just don't like him. I remember when he ran for office last time and four years ago, all the other Republican candidates really got along well with each other. But when Mitt Romney would walk in one of those pre-debate green rooms, the emotional temperature would just drop.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: And so, there's something about him. Maybe he's too perfect, too good looking, whatever it is. And then the fact that he's from Massachusetts, a lot of people think he's too moderate. There is some resistance to him in the party. But at the end of the day, my own view is - and this week exemplifies it - no alternative.

SIEGEL: His nomination, you figure is just about inevitable.

BROOKS: Well, I hate to do that because I got this...

SIEGEL: I know. I just wanted to push you a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: ...wrong before, but it looks that way right now.

DIONNE: I agree with David on the emotional temperature and the fact the party can't embrace him. That's why I still can't see it as inevitable yet.

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

DIONNE: Thank you.

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

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