Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Join as a sustainer and support independent local news for your community.

Week In Politics: State Of The Union, GOP Debate


This has been a dramatic week in politics. Here in Washington, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. In South Carolina, Republicans met for their latest presidential debate, the most fiery one yet. And in Iowa, caucuses are just a couple of weeks away. To discuss all of this, we're joined by Mary Kate Cary, who's a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, and Joy-Ann Reid, who is a national correspondent for MSNBC.

Welcome to both of you.

JOY-ANN REID: Thank you.

MARY KATE CARY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with last night's debate, where the biggest fireworks were between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Here they are debating whether Cruz is eligible to run for president having been born in Canada. Let's listen.


TED CRUZ: Listen, I've spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court, and, I'll tell you, I'm not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: You don't have to.


TRUMP: Take it from Laurence Tribe.


CRUZ: What I'll tell you also...

TRUMP: Take it from your professor.


SHAPIRO: Mary Kate, you were a speechwriter for the first President Bush. Is it fair to say - you've got your roots in the establishment Republican camp. It sounds like if you were looking for somebody to eclipse Trump last night, it didn't happen.

CARY: I would say that's right.

SHAPIRO: And so is there any hope left for the establishment Republicans to get their guy get in there or do they just have to come to grips with the fact that this is going to be a race in which Trump and Cruz and the other people on what's considered the fringe of the party are going to seize the day?

CARY: Well, for most of the establishment Republicans I've been talking to, I think step one right now is bargain with God. Start begging.


CARY: Step number two, though - you know, the RNC officially can't do anything. They're supposed to just be the referees here. So the party officially is not going to step in. So of the crowd that I am familiar with, their response is to get to Iowa and New Hampshire. For example, there is a huge crowd of longtime Bush family supporters, and they're all going up to New Hampshire the weekend before the New Hampshire primary and they're going to go door-to-door and work the phone banks and anything else they can do - sit in diners, talk to people. And that's the answer. I assume Rubio people are doing the same thing, I assume Christie people are doing the same thing. And that's what's going to turn it around in their minds. That's how to fix it.

SHAPIRO: Joy, there were a couple of lines in the debate last night about president Obama that rankled a lot of people. Chris Christie called the president a petulant child, and Ted Cruz said, we're going to kick your rear end out of the White House. And some observers said, you'd never make that remark about a white president. What do you think?

REID: Well, I think that gets to the kernel of one of the many ironies of the situation that the establishment of the Republican Party finds itself in because right - so Chris Christie is a part of that establishment wing, but he speaks about the president in such a degrading way as if the president is a child and not the commander in chief of the United States - such a disrespectful way. That's suborned the kind of rage and the kind of paranoia, frankly, that you see among the base of the Republican Party. The problem for the establishment is that they've lost control of it. They suborned things quietly like birtherism. They winked and nodded at ideas like death panels. They have sort of allowed this kind of fury and paranoia to help them win midterm elections, but it's now out of control. So they've both locked themselves out of even the possibility of reaching out, particularly to African-American voters, who read the entire Republican Party - not just Donald Trump, but all of it, every single part of it - as being essentially sowing hatred of the president based at least in part on race. And that bleeds over to Hispanics, it bleeds over to Asian-Americans. It creates a vie that the Republican Party can't fix, and Donald Trump is just better at them at exploiting it.

SHAPIRO: Mary Kate, you're shaking your head. You're looking quizzical.

CARY: Wait, wait. (Laughter). I think, Joy, there are certainly elements of what you're saying that are true, but it seems to me that you're painting with a very broad brush. And there are plenty of good Republicans in the world who are not dealing in hatred and vitriol and racism. And I do think over the last few years when we have these candidates who say these crazy things - the birtherism, you know, things like that that you pointed out - there are people who stand up and say, I disavow that, I don't agree with that.

SHAPIRO: But unfortunately, those people don't seem able to speak for the party in the primary right now - unfortunately for them, unfortunately for the establishment Republicans.

CARY: Right. Yeah. It's a lot more fun to watch Donald Trump, you know, on TV with all this craziness coming out of his mouth than watch somebody disavow it. So that's why.

SHAPIRO: Let's move on to the other big political story this week, President Obama's final State of the Union address, where he talked about one shortcoming of his presidency. Let's listen.


BARACK OBAMA: It's one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.

SHAPIRO: Joy, why do you think President Obama has been so unable to bring Republicans into the fold?

REID: I think it was partly on the part of the president of the United States. Barack Obama is - he's accustomed to the way he was able to deal with the other party in Springfield, Ill., where he could go down state and play cards with Republican members and essentially build alliances on the ground that he could then take back with him to the floor of that body. But you have to remember that he also had the support of the president of the Senate. His mentor, Emil Jones, ran the party at that time. He ran the Senate at that time, the state Senate. And so he had a lot of back up and he was able to make those deals because it was Republicans who were in the minority and had to make deals to get things done. I think that the president, because he's grown up in this milieu where he's been able to talk across racial and party lines, presumed he'd be able to do that in Washington. But the fact is that the opposition party made a decision when he first got into office - literally the day of the inauguration, there was a meeting among members of the Republican caucus to include Paul Ryan, to include Kevin McCarthy, who decided that total obstruction was the way they were going to go. I mean, you know, Vice President Joe Biden talks about this, that he would go to his - even his friends in the United States Senate, and they'd say, we can't vote with you, we can't agree with anything that you want to do. Even when they put forward essentially Bob Dole's 1996 health care reform idea, Republicans couldn't vote for it. They couldn't vote for anything. It was total obstruction.

SHAPIRO: Well...

REID: And so I think he was speaking into a void and the president neither deployed fully his rhetorical gifts to try to fix it, nor I think, would it have been very effective, given the strategy on the other side.

SHAPIRO: Well, Joy, if you put a lot of the blame on Republicans, my sense, Mary Kate, is that you think Barack Obama himself stands to blame for alienating Republicans early on.

CARY: I think what started it - here in Washington, at least. I can't speak to the Chicago part like you were, Joy - but in Washington, those first two years when he had both houses of Congress with him, he had absolutely no incentive to reach out to Republicans. And so that sort of started the muscle memory and I think he - he canceled the Congressional barbecues, there weren't movie nights. All the things that used to sort of keep people at the table giving each other the benefit of the doubt have all disappeared under him. And I think that you sort of reap what you sow. And what bothers me is, for example, when he said in the State of the Union peddling fiction and political hot air and things like that, that is very divisive language, and it makes the other side not want to come to the table.

SHAPIRO: That's Mary Kate Cary, former White House speechwriter and columnist for U.S. News & World Report and Joy-Ann Reid, MSNBC national correspondent and author of the new book, "Fracture: Barack Obama, The Clintons, And The Racial Divide."

Thanks to both of you.

REID: Thank you.

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

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.