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Week In Politics: Romney, Koch Brothers, Budget

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

That's quite a lineup. Well, a third Mitt Romney White House run is not to be. Let's bring in our Friday political commentators E J Dionne, of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, of The New York Times. Welcome back.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: You know, I heard Mitt Romney list a lot of reasons today why he should run for president, right? He's convinced he could win, he has financial support, ahead in the polls, he said he has the best chance of beating the Democratic nominee. I didn't hear him give a clear articulation of why he's not running. David, is it a fire in the belly problem?

BROOKS: I don't think so. It's a fire in his followers' bellies. There are probably millions of heirs, heiresses across the country who are rising to support him, but not too many other people. You know, people think he had a chance. He had a chance and he ran a campaign that was mediocre and OK, but not so good. And now there are just a thousand candidates, as we just heard. There are more candidates than there are Republicans.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And so the people are sort of intrigued and excited. And as you watch this race unfold you see different candidates getting their moments already. Scott Walker had a great week. He gave a talk to a group of conservatives, and Scott Walker, who is thought of mid-Western bland, gave a fiery talk that fired people up. And so people are sort of excited by the prospect of a bunch of quality candidates and not excited by Mitt Romney.

BLOCK: And, E J, we heard Mitt Romney say in Tamara's piece just now that he hopes and expects the Republican nominee will come from the next generation of Republican leaders, somebody just getting started as he put it. Sure sounds like a jab at Jeb Bush as we just heard. Do you see this, though, as the pollster said, a clear victory for Jeb Bush, that he's the winner in this decision?

DIONNE: Well, I think that two people may win - one is Jeb Bush on the grounds that, as Tamara said, most of the money people who were going - might go to Romney are going to Jeb Bush and some of the supporters. But I also think it's good for Scott Walker because Romney was probably going to run to Jeb Bush's right. All the indications were if he did run and I think some of that support goes for Walker. You know, Romney made a lot of money as an investor because he was a realist who looked at the data. And I respect him for looking at the data and saying this wasn't going to work. I don't want to say that nothing became him like the leaving of the political fray. But I think it is an impressive decision when you really, really believe, as you pointed out, that you ought to be president that you can walk away like this.

BLOCK: This week we did learn the eye-popping amount that the Koch brothers - the conservative billionaires - plan to spend on the 2016 campaign along with their network - nearly $900 million; more than double what they spent in 2012. And most of those donors will be secret. E J, $900 million puts the Koch brothers pretty much on financial par with the two major political parties. Where does this lead?

DIONNE: Well, I think we ought to start having formal sponsorship of political parties, like we have of stadiums. So it could be the Charles and David Koch Republican Party on the ballot. I mean, this is really quite astonishing. We really are back to the gilded age of Mark Hanna and William McKinley, except Hanna and McKinley were more progressive than the Koch brothers. And it really is very disturbing that two people with a lot of money can have this much influence, potentially, on the political process. They've already had quite a bit and we'll see how it works.

BLOCK: David, disturbing to you.

BROOKS: In different ways. You know, it's a huge waste of money. These guys are so stupid in how they spend their money. They spent hundreds of millions dollars 4 years ago and almost every single candidate lost. And that's just 'cause you can't buy votes in national elections. There's just too much money floating around. And so we're going to have a bunch - two guys from the energy business transferring a lot of money to a lot of people who own TV stations and it will have no effect on the - almost no effect on the electoral outcome. It will, however, completely distort the Republican field as Republican candidates cozy up to them and try to adopt worn, uncompromising stances. And just the final point to be made is that we need to have stronger political parties, and it's sort of dumb campaign finance rules that weaken the parties and strengthen the Kochs.

DIONNE: Oh well, you can't let that stand. It's Citizens United and tearing down the campaign finance rules that's opening this up. I agree with your point about distorting the Republican Party, but the Kochs clearly made a decision - it didn't work because we didn't spend enough money, so we're going to spend more. I wish they'd just gone to a nice round trillion and then...

BROOKS: It's sort of offensive, I mean, to me because you can spend whatever they're going to spend - 900 million - on actual helping human beings.

DIONNE: Well, that I agree with.

BROOKS: But the evidence that they're not going to do anything to swing the electorate toward the Republicans is massive. Political scientists have studied up the - whatever you can study up.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Nicely put, David Brooks.

BROOKS: (Laughter). I almost got myself into something bad there. And the evidence is, if you cut campaign spending, one study showed, by half, you would affect the vote total by less than half a percentage point. Money does not lead to actual votes.

BLOCK: Let's look ahead to next week and see what metaphor David can come up with for this one.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: President Obama will deliver his budget proposal on Monday. He wants to burst through the mandated spending caps that were put in place by the sequester four years ago. He wants to spend $74 billion above that cap. Also proposing new tax hikes on banks and capital gains. David, the Republican National Committee calls this a lurch to the left. What's the message that you see in the president's budget?

BROOKS: It is a lurch to the left from the sort of budget deals we were having in the last few years, where they're trying to reduce the deficit. That's sort of blown out the window and now there's just a lot of increased spending. The part of it that's good is getting rid of the sequester. And this is going to be a hot-button issue. But domestic discretionary spending, which is all that stuff that's spent on education and welfare payments and things like that, that is at historic lows. And I don't care if you're a Democrat or Republican, that probably has to tick up a little. And you get some good (unintelligible) family leave policies. There are some good policies for the middle-class tucked in there, as well as some defense spending increases to balance it out. So that part, I think, of the Obama budget, is quite a good part.

BLOCK: E J?

DIONNE: If you think $74 billion in, what, a $16 trillion economy is a big lurch to the left, you lack imagination. And half of that is for defense. I think it's absolutely right to kill the sequester. The sequester was a dumb way to do budgeting. It was a deal made that wasn't supposed to pass. It was supposed to be such a bad idea that Congress would never do it.

BLOCK: And lo and behold...

DIONNE: ...Lo and behold, it came to pass. The politics are interesting. Republicans are kind of split three ways. A lot of defense hawks really hate the sequester because of what it's doing to the military budget. The Libertarians like Rand Paul love the sequester because they cut both sides. Some Republicans are going to try to say, let's cut domestic spending more to spend it on the military. And that's not going to fly because we've cut domestic spending outside of the retirement program so much. So I think Obama is going to get his wish somehow. It'll be a messy process. It'll be a messy process to get there.

BLOCK: And I wouldn't be fair if I didn't let E= J. get in one brief word about the Super Bowl before we say goodbye.

DIONNE: I just am very excited for the New England Patriots.

BLOCK: Shocked - we're shocked to hear that, E J.

DIONNE: I notice that the news is shifting. This is not, as a friend of my son said, you know, cheat-gate or whatever - inflate-gate - this is hate-gate. And people just can't stand the New England Patriots because they keep winning and I hope they show them again.

BLOCK: (Laughter). David?

BROOKS: Super Bowls are good when there's a good, industrial city against some chichi city. But we've got two chichi cities - we've got Seattle and Boston.

DIONNE: New England is not chichi. I come from an industrial city in New England.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: We're going to leave it there. David Brooks of The New York Times, E J Dionne of The Washington Post, thank so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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