MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to follow the money now with our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
BLOCK: And I want to start with a hypothetical question. What would this primary contest, do you think, have looked like without superPACs and without the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision? David Brooks, a very different race?
BROOKS: A little different. Certainly for Mitt Romney, he'd be a lot happier guy. First, it's important to say Citizens United only leads indirectly to superPACs because Citizens United was about regulation, corporate and union money. And most of the superPACs are funded by individuals. Nonetheless, there's clearly a case that the rules are breaking down and it's becoming more wide open outside the campaigns.
The second point to be made is, as we just heard, money does not translate into votes. All the people in politics make their money off donations, so they fervently believe in the power of donations. Nonetheless, if Mitt Romney's outspending Rick Santorum 15-to-1 and not winning, well, that's a sign that the money doesn't matter. What matters is demographics. Nonetheless, the importance of the superPACs is this - losers can stay in the race.
Newt Gingrich can lose - and in the old days, he'd be dead because he'd be completely unviable. Here, he's got a rich friend and so losers can stay in the race. Primary campaigns go on forever and ever and the party that's not having a primary campaign with the incumbent president benefits.
BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, what does a superPAC-less campaign look like from where you sit?
DIONNE: Well, I don't think you can say that money doesn't buy votes. I think money does buy votes. Who knows how much worse Mitt Romney would be doing without all of that money. I think that without the superPACs there would be a lot fewer attack ads because candidates would have to take responsibility for them. There'd be a lot fewer attack ads particularly from Romney.
There would be many fewer opportunities for Wall Street guys to be able to give a lot of money to Romney. I think it's fair to say that rich guys are helping another rich guy win a nomination. I agree with David that Gingrich might have dropped out earlier without his casino-owning friend and I think the interesting thing is, Santorum might be the least affected because even with his superPAC, he's spending so much less than the other guys.
He's the guy with a very deep base on the right end and the religious end of the Republican Party. But I think that we would have a much less ugly campaign if you didn't have people who are theoretically - a situation where campaigns aren't responsible for all the negativity.
BLOCK: Well, this is the week that the Obama campaign really kicked into high gear. The president is holding five fundraising events today alone. And the campaign has released a 17-minute highly-produced video titled, "The Road We've Traveled." It's narrated by Tom Hanks.
TOM HANKS: Time and time again, he would see rewards from tough decisions he had made. Not for quick political gain, but for long term and enduring change.
BLOCK: David Brooks, what's the target audience here?
BROOKS: The audience of "Saving Private Obama." You know, the audience is, I guess, independents who just think the guy's too liberal, I guess. What strikes me, though, is you're opening your campaign - and they've been doing this on the stump as well - with looking backwards. And the cliche of re-election campaigns is they don't vote for you because of what you already did, they vote for you, what you're about to do.
And I would say that's because the Obama campaign has a relatively meager set of offerings for the next four years, but they've got what they think of as a good story to tell about the past. But it's a pretty backward-looking way to open a campaign, I'd say.
BLOCK: And E.J., the ending of that video is remember how far we've come, let's look forward to the work still to be done. What do you make of it?
DIONNE: Well, I think, first of all, when you have Tom Hanks, you're probably trying to appeal a little bit to everybody. But I think this is rather cleverly aimed at both the center and the left. The left to say, hey, you may not be completely happy with Obama, but look at the tough stuff he did to make change. And to the center, as David suggests, the video says, by the way, Obama got bin Laden and that was pretty tough. And the economy might have collapsed without him.
I think they do need to look back some. They may not be looking back in September, but they have to be looking back now because he has come under a very, very sharp and consistent attack from every Republican on the stump and from Republicans in Congress. And I think an incumbent - I agree that ultimately they have to look forward, but they also have to persuade voters that they've done a pretty good job and that they're worth keeping around.
And I think the production values of this are good enough that maybe some people outside the base will actually want to look at it and it might persuade a few people.
BLOCK: Well, speaking of video, there was also a video released this week from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. We see him walking through the halls of Congress. There's a sort of scary soundtrack in the background. And he is warning about the debt crisis. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: What if you knew when it was going to happen, why it was going to happen. And more importantly, what if they new what they needed to do to stop it from happening and they had the time to stop it but they chose to do nothing about because it wasn't good politics. What would you think of that person? It'd be immoral.
BLOCK: And at the end, David, it fades to black. The title comes up: The path to prosperity coming soon. I almost expected it to say, you know, to a theater near you. He's going to be unveiling a budget next week. He says it's going to fix this problem and save our country.
Have you seen something like this before?
BROOKS: I love debt crisis with background music.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROOKS: It's much better. No, of course, I agree with him. I think we are headed toward a fiscal crisis and he is producing budgets which are pretty bold, and which have been a lightning rod of criticism.
Two things strike me. First, the Republican Party, which was casting Paul Ryan to the edge because what he says is so controversial, has now embraced him. He's now at the center of the Republican Party and the Republican campaign; kind of a bold move, I think a necessary one.
The second thing to be said is a lot of the politicians now are talking about this December when we're going to have automatic spending cuts. We're going to have a debt ceiling fight. The Bush tax cuts expire. Whoever is elected is going to be faced with a gigantic fiscal crisis right away. And so, this really should be central to the campaign.
BLOCK: Very briefly, E.J. Dionne, the last word on what you think of the Paul Ryan budget and does it have a chance of passing?
DIONNE: Well, I must say I wanted to say to the Paul Ryan in that video that if the deficit is so, so big and bad, why in the world do you want to cut taxes on the wealthy in this period of crisis? I don't think good production values answer that question. And the Ryan budget is not going to pass the Senate this time anymore than it did the last time.
BLOCK: OK, EJ Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to you both. Have a good weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.