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Week In Politics: Chicago Teacher Strike, Libya Attack


We're going to talk more now about that heated rhetoric of the presidential campaign with our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hi there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Hi there.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So a week ago, this campaign was all about the economy, jobs, pocketbooks, the kitchen table and for the last few days, it's been anything but. So let's get into this. How did the candidates fare dealing with the week's events, David?

BROOKS: I guess I'm with Tom Pickering. I wasn't a big fan of how Romney handled the week. First, our leaders should be patient, figure out what's going. The first bits of information are usually wrong about any foreign event. Second, they should generally show sobriety. When the helicopters went down under Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan didn't react. He said, this is not the time for politics. I think that's generally the right reaction when there's been a loss overseas.

But second and thirdly, I think it was deeply reflective of Romney. He's the least ideological person on the face of the planet. He's just not an ideological person. And when non-ideological people try to pretend they're ideological, they fixate on things which are not naturally philosophical. Whether to apologize, how to frame your rhetoric, that's a matter of tactics not a matter of philosophy.

CORNISH: At the same time, I mean, this campaign has been very much criticized about not speaking up about foreign policy issues. They saw an opportunity here. E.J., I mean, do you feel as though this was - regardless of the timing, what they had to say, did they make the most of it?

DIONNE: No. I mean, I think this was reckless, irresponsible and politically foolish on Romney's part. If - he could very well give a detailed foreign policy speech telling us exactly where he wants to go. I think he would have been much, much better off for doing that.

I mean, this whole notion of apologies, number one on factual grounds as Tom Gjelten suggested, Barack Obama hasn't been apologizing for the United States. And that's not been the issue in any of these controversies. Secondly, President Bush actually apologized for the United States. He - he went to Africa and apologized for our history of slavery. He apologized for what happened in Abu Ghraib Prison. And you know what? There was nothing wrong with President Bush doing that.

And I think this situation is particularly complicated for our country because we believe both in free speech, even for vile speech, but we also believe in religious toleration and respect for the faiths and non-faith of others. And I think we have a problem because a lot of people in Muslim countries aren't used to a government that doesn't have to approve all speech. So this is tricky, and Romney should have dealt with it that way.

CORNISH: At the same time, we've been hearing conservative commentators out there saying that so far, the offense seems to be of the pundit class, that, you know, Mitt Romney has been out there trying to make his case and that he's not getting a chance to do it.

BROOKS: I do think it's been vastly overblown, and I do think there is a bias in favor of Mitt Romney - in favor of Barack Obama and against Mitt Romney. Nonetheless, that doesn't sort of excuse what we've been through. The crucial issue, which Romney could have done, and Obama could have done, and neither have really addressed it, is what do we think of the Arab spring?

We apparently have at least minorities of people in a lot of these countries who take blasphemy in a different way than we do, respond violently and don't seem to recognize the distinction between private speech and collective speech, think some wacko in California represents the whole country.

So how do - do we think the Arab spring is a realistic prospect now given those realities? That's sort of - how we frame our policy toward the Middle East is the crucial question here and sort of a, you know, a real speech about that would be useful.

DIONNE: What we know about the - what's happening in these countries is there's a real struggle going on. There are Muslims representing a view closer to ours in terms of tolerance and democracy, and there are their enemies, who I think want to use this episode against the more pragmatic or moderate, none of the words are good, but the Muslims more open to democracy. They're trying to fight them.

And we shouldn't do anything to strengthen the wrong side of that fight, even as we have to stand up against these killings and in favor of free speech.

CORNISH: OK, we're going to wrap up just this part of our chat about foreign policy. E.J. and David, stay where you are. We're going to come back and talk a little bit more about domestic policy. Stay with us.


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.


CORNISH: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We continue now with our regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. And gentlemen, we got some word today out of Chicago that the city and its teachers union may have worked out a framework for an agreement to end the week-long strike there.

Now, this is an issue that some people perceive as uncomfortable for President Obama. He doesn't want to pick sides between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his former chief of staff, and unions, teachers unions. So was silence the right move, I guess, from the White House?

BROOKS: Politically but I don't think substantively. Listen, for the Democratic Party to prosper and to win majority approval, they have to show they're willing to take on their special interests. We've got some big systems that are either incredibly expensive and unsustainable, like the health care system. We've got schools around the country which are frankly mediocre.

They've got to show they're willing to do the things you need to do to reform those systems. And Rahm Emanuel stood up and was trying to increase parental choice, increase teacher evaluation, lengthen the school day, do some pretty serious things to make Chicago schools actually work.

And if Democrats aren't willing to take on their special interests to do that, then that party, you know, is not really governing well.

CORNISH: At the same time, would the White House want to basically turn a union dispute in a city into a referendum on its entire education reform platform? I got to question that.

DIONNE: Well, you know, I think if the administration was publicly silent, they were privately talking to everybody because this was a very dangerous fight for the administration because as my friend Harold Myerson(ph) called it, it's a Democratic civil war.

You have Democratic mayors, including Rahm Emanuel but not him alone, versus Democratic unions. You have Democratic teacher advocates versus school reformers. And the administration has tried all along, the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have tried all along to argue that you can bring these two sides together.

Some people in the teachers union are also in favor of education reform. And so I think if - the quicker this fight is settled the better. And if the unions can embrace some forms of education reform, I think that's in their interests in the long run.

CORNISH: Looking ahead, do we see foreign policy just kind of taking over the race for the next few weeks?

DIONNE: I don't think so. My general rule is you can never escape the Middle East. It always seems to pop up. But I do think this is still essentially an economy election.


DIONNE: It is an economy election, but if the news stays like this for a while, again as David said, we cannot escape the Middle East, and a country like ours can never escape foreign policy.

CORNISH: And we do have some debates coming up, right. So we're hopefully going to be hearing more from both candidates about this. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brooking Institution, thank you, E.J.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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