GUY RAZ, HOST:
And for more on Newt Gingrich, the Republican field and the rest of the week in news and politics, we're joined by our regular Friday observers, David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome to you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
RAZ: E.J., let me start with you. As we've just heard, Republican voters are increasingly warming to Newt Gingrich. Is he just the latest flavor of the month or is he somebody who could continue to gain in the polls?
DIONNE: I have three points I want to make about - no, I'm not going to go there. Look, on good days, Newt Gingrich is the smartest man in the room, as that person suggested. On bad days, he looks like the guy who thinks he's the smartest man in the room. You've been waiting for an opening on the right ever since this Cain scandal or these Cain allegations broke because Perry was it, then he collapsed. Cain filled the space.
I don't know much staying power Gingrich has, but in that CBS poll that shows Gingrich coming up, what's really interesting is running number two is undecided and running right behind Romney and Gingrich is someone else. That's 34 percent of Republicans pinning for something other than they have. I'm starting to think there is room for a write-in draft campaign. I raised this name once before with David. Henry Cabot Lodge won a write-in in New Hampshire in 1964. I would have thought it's preposterous that that can ever happen again.
But looking at these numbers and looking at the Republican resistance to Romney, you wonder if it couldn't happen this time.
BROOKS: I don't think Henry Cabot Lodge could win this time.
DIONNE: No, I agree with that, David. You know, I think that...
BROOKS: I think that's a long shot. I think living is an important part of this race. Though you wouldn't know it...
DIONNE: Although at this point...
BROOKS: Though, I do think Jeb Bush. If Jeb Bush were in this race, he would be the frontrunner right now, even with the Bush last name. And I bet he's kicking himself because he would be the guy who could unify some of the Tea Party and some of the Romney folks. We're sort of in the talk show phase of this race. People are just looking for the most entertaining, most interesting person. And Gingrich was bound to get his moment. I think it's going to be a pretty long moment because they've run out of all the alternatives.
But at the end of the day, we're going to switch to the "who's actually going to run the country" phase and then I think Romney will...
RAZ: And that's your assumption is that the party will rally around Mitt Romney? There is not going to be some kind of irreconcilable divide?
BROOKS: Well, no, I really don't think so. I don't think there will be irreconcilable divide. The interesting question for me is what happens if Romney has a bad week or two bad weeks or makes...
RAZ: Which he hasn't had so far.
BROOKS: He hasn't had - hasn't made a mistake. But then what happens if he begins to look doubtful, then you see the entire Washington establishment going into conniption fits.
DIONNE: The other person, by the way, who must have regrets is Tim Pawlenty because I think if he could've figured out a way to hang around this long, he might be occupying the space that for today we are assigning to Newt Gingrich. And on Romney, yes, on paper, he ought to be the guy who eventually puts it all together and maybe he will, but I'm still waiting to see evidence of that. The one consistency in the polls has been that Romney stays flat.
He can't seem to build up - no matter how many good reviews he gets...
BROOKS: The reason he can't - the reason he's weak in the primary is the reason he's going to be strong in the general and that's because he does seem a little more moderate. And I think, right now, Democrats are underestimating Romney. He's run a much better campaign. Do not judge Romney this time by Romney four years ago.
RAZ: Let's move on to talk about the results from this past week's elections. E.J., you wrote in your column that they were brought to you by the word overreach, specifically conservative overreach. What do you mean by that?
DIONNE: Well, I think the right wing really took it on the chin this week. They lost the referendum on Governor Kasich's law to restrict bargaining rights for public employees and they won that overwhelmingly. I think there were only six counties that voted with Governor Kasich on that in the state, a very small number of counties. In Mississippi, this effort to declare a fertilized egg a person was overwhelmingly defeated. In Maine, you had a referendum that sort of beat back a law passed by the Republican legislature ending same-day voter registration.
Republicans thought 2010 was a mandate for right-wing policies. It wasn't. And I think the political significance of this for 2012 is that if the last cycle's story was the right and the Tea Party are really organized, I think you're starting to see the left get organized and particularly organized labor.
RAZ: All right, David, a bad week for conservatives?
BROOKS: No, I sort of - I think E.J. is more right than he knows. It was a bad week for overreach. And it was overreach on the right, also overreach on the left. Those same Ohio voters shot down, symbolically, a measure that really endorsed Obamacare. They rejected that pretty firmly. In Seattle, they shot down some tax increases to help some transportation funding.
The one group - a couple groups had really good weeks; Democrats in Kentucky; Republicans, phenomenally good election in Virginia. And so I'd say the main story is that there is a middle in this country. And if we think we're judging the country by looking at the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, that is just a huge mistake. And you saw voters rejecting right-wing and some - less, but some - Democratic overreach.
RAZ: In the just short time we have left, E.J., I want to ask you about Penn State - both of you. Obviously, the university president and the head coach, Joe Paterno, were fired by the board of trustees.
Do you think they should've considered shutting down the program for a year?
DIONNE: Yeah. Well, you look at that indictment, I mean, what happened was hideous. What was done to kids, 10-year-old boy and others that young, was just awful. And you had an institution that seemed more interested in self-protection than anything else. And we've seen that before.
And I understand Joe Paterno is a much-loved figure in sports terms. He was one of the better college coaches. His kids graduated. But this entire episode is so ugly and it, again, you hate institutional protection over the interests of little kids.
BROOKS: Yeah, I guess think - it's I have a bigger view, which is that when we have a society where we don't know how to handle the concept of evil when we see it, we don't know how to deal with it, we're not really aware of it and people hid away. I do not think they should shut down the program, however. I think a lot of very honest football players have committed themselves to that program. I don't think they should be punished.
RAZ: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Gentlemen, thank you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.