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Week In Politics: Jeb Bush, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Cuba

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So who else is, as Tamara put it, energized and excited about the next two years? Of course, it's our Friday political commentators, E J Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

DIONNE: Totally energized.

BLOCK: Energized and excited.

BROOKS: He's energized. I'm excited.

BLOCK: (Laughter) OK. Great. Let's talk a bit about what the president has done since his party took a pounding in the November elections. We've seen him take executive action on immigration, strike a landmark climate deal with China, and then this week, reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than 50 years. E J, we're seeing a president seemingly emboldened despite his party's defeats. Explain.

DIONNE: Well, if he's a lame duck, he's the duck that roared. I mean, this has been an amazing six weeks since the election. In some ways, he is liberated. It's easier politically to do Cuba now than it would have been, say, before the last election. Although, I think shifts in opinion within the Cuban community - Cuban-American community also make that possible. And clearly on the immigration decision, he postponed that for political reasons to try to protect people. So the lack of an election is helpful.

I think what we're going to see coming up this year is the harder part. He can do quite a lot of stuff, he's shown us, with the power he has. But he's really got to win a long-term argument because he is in a weakened political position. And he does not want as part of his legacy a Republican victory in the next election or a seemingly permanent Republican Congress. So I think we're going to have some fights, and the next part won't be easier. But he's got some real power.

BLOCK: And David, what about that? Does this activist approach further rankle Republicans in Congress that he's going to have to deal with?

BROOKS: Well, he's not sure how he's going to behave, I think. First, he's got two passions looking forward. He wants to do more and more stuff on climate change, and then, the White House is now internally debating how to help the middle-class - which policies they can propose that will help the middle-class. So those are the two areas where the passion is.

The overall approach - I think they're sending dual messages. One - the president, after the defeat, went to his staff and said how competitive he was. I'm a competitive guy. And so I think he has that natural competitive instinct to beat down the Republicans. But on the other hand, to get anything done, he has to be sort of cooperative with McConnell and Boehner. And so I don't think they yet know how competitive they're going to be - how cooperative they'll be - open to both, maybe.

DIONNE: And the other thing they're saying is that they are going to have some bottom lines - some issues on which they can't compromise. They're going to send that signal, and then, they're going to count on Democrats in Congress to uphold vetoes if they have to use them.

BLOCK: I'd like to hear both of you weigh in more on the diplomatic thaw with Cuba this week and what it says about President Obama's worldview and his view of engagement in particular. David.

BROOKS: Yeah. I think opinion has shifted on this. Fifty years is a long time. It hasn't worked. There's a good argument not to do this. Rubio - Marco Rubio has some good arguments, mainly that Venezuela could no longer really afford to subsidize this regime. And so we're handing this regime a lifeline, which may prolong its existence.

For me, the dispositive argument is this - sooner or later, that regime's going to fall. We want Cuba to be a decent place. It'll be a more decent place for the better civil society and a better economy if there's more American influence there, both economically and culturally. So I think on balance, Obama's doing the right thing.

BLOCK: E J.

DIONNE: That's what I think. I think that - and that's why I think there's been a real shift in public opinion on this over the years. The 50-year policy of isolation - 53-year policy didn't work. Sending American tourists there, sending American business people there, sending American diplomats there, increasing their access to technology - all of this has to be good for freedom. It doesn't mean the dictatorship's going to fall. It doesn't mean we should forget about pressing them further. But I think this is going to help more than it's going to hurt.

BLOCK: On North Korea, lets talk a bit about lessons of the Sony hack and Sony's response, which was to cancel the release of their movie "The Interview." President Obama, as we heard, calling that decision a mistake. This seemed to start as farce. I mean, this just didn't seem to make any sense and has ended with something that apparently is quite serious and has certainly drawn a serious response. David.

BROOKS: All of North Korea's a farce. I mean, it's apparently a nightmarish, weird netherworld. You know, I obviously think the president owes an apology to Seth Rogen. I think he slighted him in his persuasion. That attestation of love was unpersuasive to me.

You know, I think he's right. If a movie company made a movie about civil rights and some racist organization threatened it, and they backed down in the face of that, we would all know immediately that's disgraceful. And so I think what Sony did or maybe the theater chains - whoever did it - what they're doing is disgraceful and sets a bad moral precedent for everybody else. And I think Obama's right to be pretty aggressive on this front.

BLOCK: E J.

DIONNE: You know, obviously, the people who made the mistake most were those theater chains who didn't want lawsuits if any of them got attacked. But it would've been terrible if the president hadn't stood up for freedom of expression. The interesting thing here is he said we're going to attack them in a proportionate way. I think it's going to be a fascinating, intellectual exercise to figure out what is proportionate. We don't want to start a shooting war. They don't have a big internet that we can attack. They don't have a lot of private enterprise. Do we disable all the internet the government has? I think this is - our tech industry is going to have a real challenge. Maybe, we hack the hackers.

BROOKS: I'm boycotting North Korean films for a while.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Noted. Let's end by talking a bit about the 2016 presidential race, because this week we saw Jeb Bush announce that he will actively explore a presidential run. David, how likely do you think that is? And if he does run, how will he fare?

BROOKS: I think he's the favorite, you know. He - most of the other candidates have one fatal flaw or another. And Bush's fatal flaw or Bush's flaw is the obvious one. It's his last name. But other than that, he was a successful reform governor. He was - he's from a swing state. He's a mature, responsible politician. And so he seems like a very plausible candidate. And usually the person who seems plausible is the one who ends up getting the nomination.

The question will be as how out of practice he is. It's been a long time since he last ran for office and running for the presidency is extremely challenging. Whether he has the discipline after all these years will be the key test. But I have to rate him the favorite right now.

DIONNE: It tells you something...

BLOCK: Let me just mention this - because Jeb Bush had earlier said the nominee, the Republican nominee, should lose the primary to win the general. The problem with that is, you lose too many primaries you never make it to the general election in November. How does he do both?

DIONNE: Well, it really says something about what's happened to the Republican Party that Jeb Bush isn't supposed to be conservative enough. He had a very conservative record as governor of Florida. He goes off the conservative agenda on supporting the Common Core, which is actually a pretty conservative pedagogical idea, and because he is open on immigration. But I think his theory is right. I think the only way he can win the election and win the nomination is to run aggressively against the extreme right of the Republican Party. That has a cost, but I think it will make him much more formidable if he pulls a nomination off.

BROOKS: No. You can't run against the right. You can't explicitly be against them. That was John Huntsman's mistake. But you can just embody a style of conservatism that's a little more flexible, a little more environmental-friendly, a little more immigrant-friendly, and I think he'll do that.

BLOCK: OK. E J, David, thanks to you both. See you both in 2015.

BROOKS: Thank you. See you then.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E J Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.