ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, a step back view of the week in politics. And much of the recent talk is focused on wealth, who has it and how did they get it. Fairness was the theme of President Obama's State of the Union address.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.
SIEGEL: Or, he said, we can have an economy where everyone has a fair shot and everyone plays by the same rules. Last night, in the GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney went after Newt Gingrich for his million-dollar-plus consulting contract with Freddie Mac.
NEWT GINGRICH: We discovered, to our shock, Governor Romney owns shares in both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that. Governor Romney owns shares and has investment in Goldman Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians.
SIEGEL: That actually was Newt Gingrich's response to Mitt Romney and the former Massachusetts governor countered that just as his blind trust included mutual funds that held Freddie Mac bonds, Newt Gingrich's did, too. We thought of inviting two forensic accountants to duke it out this week and I think you'll be relieved to know that instead, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times are here, as they are most Fridays. Good to see you both.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: Good to see you, David. E.J. joins us from California. First, the State of the Union. It's an election year. The House and the president are at loggerheads. David Brooks, what did the president set out to do and how well did he do it?
BROOKS: He set out to be popular. You know, I think he had some big themes, the fairness and everything. What disappointed me about the State of the Union was the size of the proposals he had. We have some big problems, a huge debt problem, a huge wage stagnation problem, a huge distrust in government problem, but there was no big Simpson-Bowles plan. There was no tax reform. There was no sweeping out of all the special interest deals in Washington.
And then, instead, there were a lot of little tax credits. There were some good things, like getting community colleges to work closer with labor markets, but it was a bunch of medium-sized proposals which may be marginally good or marginally bad, but not up to the challenge we face.
SIEGEL: Well phrased, though? Well delivered?
BROOKS: Yeah, I thought well-phrased, well-delivered. I think the equality, he pulled back a little from some of the economic populism which, to me, doesn't sell. But, you know, they were series of popular policies that will appeal to independents. I just don't think they're big enough for the moment.
SIEGEL: E.J., your thoughts on the State of the Union?
DIONNE: Well, if populism doesn't sell, David has to talk not only to Barack Obama, but also to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. It sounds like we're all populists now. I mean, President Obama tried a big deal on the deficit and it didn't work. The Republicans weren't going to work with him. And he's been on the upswing since September, when he stopped pretending he could get the Republicans to do things in common with him and instead, started making an argument the way Ronald Reagan used to make arguments and Bill Clinton make arguments.
Obama's argument is about reducing inequality, increasing upward mobility and he's in favor of a careful but clear role for government in doing both of those. And I think the combination of a somewhat better economy and the Republican gutter fight between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney and this speech might get the president so happy that he'll sing an Al Green song again at a fundraiser.
SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you about the Republican gutter fight, I believe, was E.J.'s phrase. David, is there anything actually - setting Ron Paul aside, who's quite different from the three other candidates. Is there anything apart from attacks on how people made their money and what they said 10 years ago, is there anything actually different about the three leading Republican candidates?
BROOKS: No. What's remarkable about the Republican Party now is how incredibly unified it is. There's a basic agreement, you have to do a tax reform. You have to simplify the tax code, lower the rates and get rid of the deductions. There's a basic idea that you have to reform entitlements, either by introducing market mechanisms by means testing it so affluent people get fewer benefits. On the big proposals, no matter who gets the nomination, on the big things, Republicans are more unified than ever since I've been covering politics, I think.
SIEGEL: The question is, who's being most authentic about it, more so than what do they stand for?
BROOKS: Right. Though, I think you could say, even if they are faking it, the entire Republican Party is in favor of those things so that president will do those things. And the question is how committed. To me, the big thing that happened this week is Mitt Romney decided he was in a knife fight and he was going to pull out a knife. And that's what really impressed a lot of professional politicians, a lot of people in the Romney campaign.
He decided, I'm not going to lose to that guy. I'm going to be as savage as I need to be and, God knows, he was.
SIEGEL: E.J., I want to ask you about something that Newt Gingrich says often. As Democrats delight in the Republican fratricide and delight in the possibility of a Gingrich candidacy, it seems, he keeps on saying, hey, Ronald Reagan was 30 points back a year before the 1980 election. I'm now back, too, but I'll do what he did. Does he possibly have a point?
DIONNE: Well, I think every Democrat and liberal ought to be careful and remember that, but I think that a lot of people doubt that Newt Gingrich is Ronald Reagan. And so - but be careful what you wish for. Just on what David said, I think he is very charitable to the Republicans. Most of them really want to slash the revenue going to the federal government and so it will be very hard to have the kind of careful balance that David rightly talks about all the time.
I am struck with how whatever they are actually for is being lost in all these attacks. And I think it's a real problem in Florida. Florida is a state the Republicans really want to win and to have all these terrible ads up on the air just can't help them for the fall. Maybe it'll go away but it's not very good for them now.
SIEGEL: David, you spoke of political professionals. Those are people who sometimes are intended when people speak of an establishment. I've heard many references to the Republican establishment about - that supposedly supports Mitt Romney. Is there a Republican Party establishment?
BROOKS: No. Right now, the establishment - the definition is that somebody who actually knows something about Newt Gingrich.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROOKS: And those people really don't like him. And so, they served with him. They worked for him. Look at what he did this week. He's in the most important political week of his life. He gives a speech about whether we should have statehood on the Moon. This is not a guy...
SIEGEL: (unintelligible) the colony has been established.
BROOKS: Yeah, after the colony has been established. This is not a guy with a firm grip on how to be a disciplined leader and we saw it this week. And it's weird in the debate. He couldn't attack Mitt Romney 'cause it's hard for him to stop talking about himself. And so, he's just not a great candidate. So that's the establishment people know about.
SIEGEL: E.J., is the concept of a party establishment still germane?
DIONNE: Maybe it will be on Newt's Moon. I mean, I think that David is right, that the establishment right now are all the people who've worked with Newt Gingrich. And I am also struck by his lack of discipline. I mean, he came on really strong - did, you know, a heck of a job in South Carolina.
And now, he can't stop talking about Saul Alinsky, a name that probably means more to people on the left who like him than people on the right who've never heard of him. And this Moon idea might work a little bit. I mean, after all, the space program is headquartered in Florida. But it's a lack of discipline that strikes you once again about Newt.
SIEGEL: On that note, E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks to both of you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.