MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A story about Mitt Romney's behavior in high school has his campaign on the defensive. The Washington Post has published a long story that details incidents of bullying by Romney when he was a senior at the tony Cranbrook boys' prep school, in Michigan. Five former classmates spoke about an incident when Romney led a posse that targeted a student with long, bleached-blond hair; tackled him; pinned him to the ground; and hacked off his hair as he cried, and screamed for help.
It's the first topic for our weekly political chat with columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, who joins us today from Pittsburgh; and David Brooks of the New York Times, here in the studio.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
BLOCK: And let's hear first from Mitt Romney. He was asked about this story yesterday, on Fox News.
MITT ROMNEY: I don't recall the incident myself, but I've seen the reports and I'm not going to argue with that. There's no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school. And obviously, if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it, and apologize for it.
BLOCK: Now, David, the boy who was targeted later came out as gay. His family has said in a statement they are aggrieved that he would be used to further a political agenda. But some of his former classmates say they still feel haunted by what they did. Do you think this story is fair game? Does this incident from 1965 tell us anything about candidate Romney in 2012?
BROOKS: No. You know, it was a cruel episode, but it happened when he was a teenager. There's no record of him doing anything like that. If you report around Mitt Romney these days, you're bombarded with stories of him showing compassion and concern. And so those are the stories that characterize his adult life, not sort of a gotcha story about something that happened in a high school.
So I don't think it's terribly meaningful. I think it's sort of gotcha journalism. It plays into the partisanship. It also plays into part of the stupidity of our politics, which is one stain on a person becomes infuriating for everybody. We are incredibly complicated, modeled creatures. We're all flawed, and we're all bound to have something like this in our past. To go digging through high school seems to me - is illegitimate.
BLOCK: And E.J., David Brooks calling this gotcha journalism. How do you see it?
DIONNE: I disagree with David. I agree we are all flawed but beyond that, I think that you're not talking here about something that somebody did as a teenager that was stupid or silly or crazy or fun-loving. This was downright mean. And I do think it raises questions that people are going to have in their heads about Romney. Why did he behave like this?
The New York Times writing about The Washington Post story - I thought had it right when they said the Romney campaign has to start worrying that a story like this, especially if there are other stories like this, will create the image of him as a rich kid with a mean streak - which is not exactly a category people like to vote for. And I've got to say, that kind of "if I did anything that caused offense, blah, blah, blah" kind of apology is just not very good form.
So I think the danger is that people are going to ask: Does this, or does this not say, something about who Romney is? And we'll find out more, including what he's like as an adult. Maybe he put this all behind him, but I think it was a very disturbing story.
BLOCK: This report, of course, follows closely on the heels of President Obama's interview in which he said he does support same-sex marriage. There's been a lot of talk about how that may hurt or help him with different voting groups. But I want to talk, instead, about how significant this is for the president to make this affirmation; how important you think it may be for history and what, if anything, changes by this. David Brooks, you first.
BROOKS: Yeah, I think it's important for history. The issue has, obviously, been evolving incredibly rapidly. It's almost unprecedented to see an issue evolve this rapidly. Nonetheless, I don't think this will have a big political or governmental effect because he's more or less leaving it up to the states. But it will have an important symbolic impact on the country. I think it will move it in, from my perspective, forward on gay marriage.
I do have to say, I think it'll hurt him politically. I think - if you look at states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Missouri, a lot of these states have passed anti-gay marriage; there are still 50, 40, 60 percent of the people who are opposed to gay marriage. To the extent that the issue matters in the fall, I think it'll hurt him politically - and therefore, making it probably a little more brave on a matter of principle.
BLOCK: And E.J., Joe Biden and beat the president to the punch on this one. But were you surprised that the president said what he did?
DIONNE: In the end, no. And if you'll forgive me for doing this, Melissa, I want to honor my friend David Brooks, who was a very early conservative proponent of gay marriage, and really made a powerful conservative case for this on the grounds that if you care about fidelity and commitment - which is actually a conservative thing to care about - you ought to be for gay marriage. And that's why opinion has moved so much in just eight years, on this.
You can see from the caution of the Republicans in dealing with is that they know this is not 2004, when President Bush's campaign could use gay marriage to turn out a lot of votes. And in the end, I think Joe Biden may have done Barack Obama a favor here because Obama's position before Biden spoke was that his position was evolving. You can't go out on the campaign trail and defend an evolving position. You have to have a position.
And I think he's much better off to be clear than not clear. And I think the politics are mixed. There are some votes he may lose. I think he may pick up a little bit among upscale, social liberals. But he may get a lot more energy among young people. And he really needs it because that energy among young people has not been out there, like it was in 2008.
BLOCK: And finally, why don't we take a turn to Europe and the economic populist anger that helped bring down French President Nicolas Sarkozy over elections last weekend, and is creating still more turmoil in Greece. Anti-austerity forces on the march in Europe. David, what are the implications here at home?
BROOKS: First, I want to be clear on what austerity is. The French, the British, the Italians - none of these people have actually cut spending. Spending is still going up in all those countries. They have, in many cases, raised taxes. And so to the extent we're talking about the pain of austerity, it's not spending cuts. It's tax increases
Nonetheless, I do think Europe is in much bigger turmoil than we thought three or four months ago. I think that, combined with the slowdown in China, really imperils the U.S. economy to an extent we didn't think six months ago. And to that extent, if we look around the world - Gordon Brown in Britain, Sarkozy in France - voters are throwing people out. And in a tough economy, it just got a little tougher because of the turmoil about to - still mounting in Europe.
DIONNE: Well, I think this was a very useful lesson because the austerity, especially in Britain, certainly included a lot of spending cuts. It was about 3-to-1 spending cuts. And I think Hollande's victory; and what happened in Greece, where the voters rejected both major parties; says that we're not going to get out of this mess just by cutting; just by saying well, we need to get our budget in balance and everything will be OK in the long run 'cause, you know, business and investors will have confidence.
No, we need to do something to boost living standards and create jobs. And so, Hollande is a moderate. He's a moderate social Democrat. I think he's going to push Angela Merkel, and others in Europe, to get that economy moving a little bit before you impose some, you know, cuts in government - which over the long run, they need. But you've got to get the short run right, if you're going to have any hope for the long run.
BLOCK: Well, thanks to you both. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution,;David Brooks of the New York Times, have a great weekend.
BROOKS: You, too.
DIONNE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.