Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Purchase your tickets for a chance to win $25k toward a new car or $20k in cash during NHPR's Summer Raffle!

Week In Politics: GOP Debate, Democratic Town Hall


Well, now to our Friday political commentators, columnists David Brooks of The New York Times, who's with me in the studio, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, who's at Iowa Public Radio in Ames, Iowa. Hello to both of you.


E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: We have two competitive races for the presidential nominations on the Republican side. We have Donald Trump, of course, plus two Cuban-American freshman senators in their mid-40s - Ted Cruz of Texas...


TED CRUZ: My friend, Sen. Rubio, chose to stand with Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and support amnesty, and I stood alongside Jeff Sessions and Steve King, and we led the fight against amnesty.

SIEGEL: ...And Marco Rubio of Florida.


MARCO RUBIO: This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built on, and Rand touched upon it - that he's the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a - you know, everyone else is a RINO.

SIEGEL: RINO means Republican in name only. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz showed up at last night's Fox News channel debate. Donald Trump didn't. And, David, let's start with you. How much is riding on Monday night's Iowa caucuses, especially for those three candidates?

BROOKS: Not much (laughter). You know, it'll winnow the field, but Iowa's become more polarized and more unrepresentative. So I'm - I'm a believer this thing is going to go on till April, May. And so, you know, this'll be a chapter. And it will be a chapter where I suspect - and this is my bold prediction - I can continue my consistency in being wrong - that we will report on Tuesday that Trump and Sanders underperformed. I think that it's just risky having a big part of your support being nonvoters. Nonvoters tend to not vote, and I think that's going to happen.

SIEGEL: Do you still believe in the wisdom that they always cite in Iowa that there are three tickets out of Iowa? If you come in first, second or third, you're still alive.

BROOKS: I think it'll be five. Just out of 11, you can't cull that much. If you look at the polls, I'm wildly over-interpreting the last three days - three or four days of polls. But Trump and Cruz have been sinking, and Cruz really got hit, I thought, in the debate. And Rubio and some of the others have been rising. Even Ben Carson has been rising. And so I think if that momentum continues, it may not look as clean as a Cruz-Trump race as it does right now.

SIEGEL: And, E.J. Dionne in Iowa, according to Nielsen, more than 12 million people got to watch a GOP debate minus Trump. Do you think that debate is likely to affect the outcome?

DIONNE: Well, I think the big question about the debate, as David suggested, is whether Cruz, who got hit very hard during that debate, was hurt by it because I think that Iowa really, really does matter to Ted Cruz. I think he needs to win here to go on. And he still has a decent shot because he has some of the most important evangelical organizations. And I was down near the Missouri border in a town Keosauqua City - a little city where you saw some supporters of the socially conservative candidates who were really lagging - Santorum and Huckabee and Ben Carson - coming behind Cruz, at least in that area, because they see him as the person closest to them who can beat Trump. If for some reason Trump actually wins this, I think it becomes much harder for Ted Cruz to return - to go on. I think, similarly, it is very important to Bernie Sanders to win here because his chances over the long-haul, I think, depend on having a one-two punch against Hillary Clinton - winning here and winning in New Hampshire. And the one advantage Hillary Clinton has at this point is, a couple of months ago, she was expected to sweep here. Now, it's much closer. You can argue that the Clinton people shouldn't have let it get away from them. But in letting it get away from them, they lowered the bar on what counts as victory. I think a couple of votes will be enough.

SIEGEL: I think, months ago, we all expected that, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, we'd be talking about Hillary Clinton. I don't think we expected we'd be talking about Bernie Sanders. So the question is, what do we make of this phenomenon? David, what do you make of Sanders?

BROOKS: You know, Robert Putnam wrote a book called "Our Kids." Charles Murray wrote a book called "Coming Apart." It's about how the country is bifurcating along class and other lines. And we - a lot of us read those books and thought they were really important. But, at least in my case, I didn't make the connection to the presidential race as much as I should have. And the coming apart of the country and the segmentation of the country has affected both parties, and that's one of the reasons Bernie Sanders is doing so well - because he represents the disaffected people, or at least speaks about the disaffected people in the working class, as does Donald Trump. And Hillary Clinton, if you watch her and Bernie Sanders back-to-back, Sanders just talks with so much authenticity and force, and Clinton has not been able to match that. It's too much calculation and hesitation.

SIEGEL: E.J., Bernie Sanders likes to cite somebody else who went into Iowa and who surprised everyone, surprised Hillary Clinton - Barack Obama. Is he another Barack Obama?

DIONNE: I think the big - the big talk here is, is Bernie Sanders closer to Howard Dean in '04, where Dean generated a lot of energy in the antiwar left of the party? A lot of volunteers came in for Dean, and it turned out he didn't have the depth on the ground. Or is he Barack Obama? I think it's already very clear that Bernie Sanders is stronger than Howard Dean in 2004. And the question is, how close does he get to where Barack Obama is? I think Dean - Sanders, rather - speaks for a very odd feeling a lot of Democrats have toward the president, which is they approve of him; they're happy he's there, but they still wish, at times, that he had been more progressive and had taken on the Republicans harder. And I think Sanders speaks for that and speaks for an idealism among the young that's really captured in that ad where - called "America," which uses the Simon and Garfunkel song and really doesn't have any words at all. It doesn't have any words about policy in it at all. It's about a feeling of change.

BROOKS: Yeah, and I would say that on both sides there's a debate about systemic thinking. Barack Obama came in promising to change the system and clearly did not, as he himself admits. How do you change the system? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump promise some sort of abstract systemic change. I happen to think there's a lot of magical thinking there. Clinton is more - I'll be a fighter within the system. So it's, how do you change the basic structures of power?

SIEGEL: But when you contrast, on the one hand, the Republican rage at Washington and, on the other hand, Bernie Sanders calling for Washington to take over all healthcare and, presumably, to start regulating public colleges and universities to compensate them for lost tuition costs. That's a lot of political energy for a couple of completely irreconcilable views of the federal government. Is it - is it just the polarizing effect of the nominating process, David, or are we that divided as a people?

BROOKS: We're that divided. There's a lot of Mars and Venus going on. On the other hand, the parties - Sanders and Trump say it's more about the organization of hatreds than the actual delivery of policy. And who are you against? You're against Wall Street. You're against the establishment. Both parties share that. And I would say, finally, I do think there's a lot more flexibility about government. People are feeling hurt, and they're willing to let government - even some Republicans, if it'll give them a hand up.

SIEGEL: That's all the time we have. David Brooks - I'm sorry, E.J. - David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and author - also author of "Why The Right Went Wrong." Thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Good to be with 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.