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Dionne, Brooks Discuss Presidential Politics

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris, and we're back now with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. David, I promised I'd let you weigh in on this, charges and counter-charges about who's actually playing the race card.

It seems that the Obama campaign has a delicate balance here because they don't necessarily trumpet the historic nature of his candidacy, but as we get closer to a general election it seems like that's something that they would need to amplify a bit to help boost the black vote. In so many of those key states, high black voter turnout is going to be so important: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, my sense is this is already turning, especially in the last week, into a pretty nasty political campaign, and in my view most Americans do not want to talk about race in this context, and that both campaigns want to avoid this issue. They both - whoever raises the subject is hurt most.

The underlying issue is whether Barack Obama is hurt more or helped more by being African-American. My view is that he's helped more. More people are excited than are turned off, but that, I confess, is a total article of faith. There's no good evidence either way on this subject until Election Day.

NORRIS: Now, both Senators Obama and John McCain were in Florida today. Senator McCain addressed the National Urban League. He started out with a real jab at his opponent, more of that combative tone that we've been seeing from John McCain and hearing from John McCain all this week. Before we go on, let's take a quick listen.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): You'll hear from my opponent, Senator Obama, tomorrow, and if there's one thing he always delivers, it's a great speech, but I hope you'll listen carefully because his ideas are not always as impressive as his rhetoric.

NORRIS: That's interesting. If you listen to him, it's the kind of thing that we heard from Hillary Clinton in the primary and caucus battles. It seems like he's playing from a similar playbook. E.J.?

E.J. DIONNE: You know, I read over my vacation a book on the 1932 campaign, and what was very interesting is that Herbert Hoover felt that, you know, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke well, moved a lot of people, but was a lightweight, and he had the effect of underestimating - he underestimated Roosevelt. And when you attack somebody for giving a good speech, I'm not sure that helps you very much. But it's very clear that the McCain campaign, in the last week or week and a half, has really decided they have to take Obama down. They have to sort of get Americans not to listen to him, have doubts about him, and they've turned very nasty. And to me, it's not the McCain that people had liked in the past. And so…

NORRIS: I'm curious about the strategy behind this, though. Is this the normal takedown that you see going into the convention, where a candidate tries to slow his rival's roll so they don't go into the convention with that much steam? Or do they see some sort of perceived vulnerability that they want to exploit?

DIONNE: Well, I think they're going past what Bush did in 2004 to John Kerry. He waited 'til after the convention. I think they've decided this is a change election. Unless they can discredit Obama, change and Obama win.

NORRIS: David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I agree. This is a battle of Obama. The country wants to change. If they can get comfortable with this guy, he'll be elected by a lot. What strikes me over the past week is how quickly the campaign has come to its core issues.

The core McCain argument is that this guy, my opponent, has no achievements in his record and no really experience in how to make change. The core Obama argument is that McCain is a heroic guy, but he has no new ideas for the future. And everything we've seen in the last week, and maybe probably for the next few months, are really derivations of those core arguments.

NORRIS: Good to talk to both of you again. Thanks so much for coming in.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: That's David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.