Week In Politics: CPAC, Budget Negotiations, Pope Francis

Audie Cornish talks to regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the Conservative Political Action Conference, budget negotiations and the new pope.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now, our Friday political observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back, guys.

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

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be back.

CORNISH: So hearing Mitt Romney just then, saying as someone who just lost the last election, I'm probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one. So first of all, who is and second of all, is CPAC really the place to find them?

BROOKS: Well, I am. They should ask me but they never do. CPAC is not the place to find them. If you followed political history through CPAC, we would have had President Michele Bachmann, following President Alan Keyes. So it's sort of the hardcore. Nonetheless, they do get the big speakers. And so I think we've seen the emergence of sort of three channels in the Republican Party.

There's the Rand Paul channel, which is a real channel. It's got institutional depth. It's got a point of view. It's more nonintervention on foreign policy, much more anti-government. You've got the Marco Rubio channel, which is sort of the middle channel, which is more moderate on things like immigration, but still pretty mainstream conservative. And then, Jeb Bush is giving a speech at dinner which is probably more on the reformist side, that their party has to shift and talk a lot more about upward mobility, more about the middle class, more about the working class, more about the poor.

And so I would say those are the three big channels.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, you know, first, I was struck that being a defeated candidate becomes Mitt Romney. And I don't mean that sarcastically. This was a better speech than a lot of speeches he gave in the campaign.

CORNISH: Calling himself a co-worker... surprising.

DIONNE: Right. And I think Ari Shapiro was exactly right when he said it was the actual concession speech. You know, he did show humility. I was also struck that he said we should turn to Republican governors, because during the campaign he resolutely ran away from his record as governor, partly because he didn't want to talk about Romneycare because it so closely resembled Obamacare.

And I think he did something else that's interesting that goes to your question, which is he mentioned in his list of governors Chris Christie, who wasn't invited to this meeting, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who wasn't invited to this meeting, presumably because they are ideologically impure. And I think that's the fourth kind of level - and I don't disagree of David's way of breaking up the other three, Paul, Rubio and Jeb Bush.

But I do think that the winner may be somebody who is not at all at this meeting and, lastly, I think Steve Schmidt, the John McCain strategist who said, you know, the notion that CPAC is the keeper of conservatism is just dead wrong. He said that to my Post colleague Karen Tumulty. It is more like some kind of reality show. Well, there was some serious stuff that went on there, but I think that CPAC may not be the future of the Republican Party, but maybe that's wishful thinking for someone like me.

CORNISH: Well, sticking with the ticket for a second, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also spoke. He's a chief budget writer. He managed to wrap many of the week's news stories in this one clip we're going to play here.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The Senate, they call their budget a foundation for growth, restoring the promise of American opportunity. Wow, I feel like saluting already. But when you read it, you find that the Vatican's not the only place blowing smoke this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: An allusion to the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel. I hope you like that, wrapping up all our stories in one. But it seems like the president's wine-and-dine charm offensive isn't quite winning converts if this is kind of the state of things between these dueling budgets.

BROOKS: Au contraire. You know, I'm more upbeat about government than I have been really since 2003. And I say that because listen, we have these dueling budgets and they're pretty maximalist and they're not - they don't matter. But what has been decided - and I've spoken to a lot of people this week, let's just try to hit some singles. We're gonna get immigration. I think there's been tremendously good progress on immigration reform.

We might get some budget mediocrity. We're not going to solve everything. No grand bargain. No tax cut. But let's just make the government a little less dysfunctional to give the economy some breathing room. And there's a lot of sense that the economy is on the verge of a really robust growth period if we can just get government out of the way. So I think they've decided on both sides, we're gonna have some fights. Let's not make them nuclear. Let's just get government out of the way. It'll give the economy a chance to really do some pretty nice things over the next few years.

CORNISH: So setting the bar low is okay.

DIONNE: Blessed are they who expect nothing.

BROOKS: Let's pursue mediocrity. It's been my life mission.

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: The - I won't comment. There's so many things I could say.

CORNISH: No, let's not. Let's not.

DIONNE: You know, first of all, on the charm offensive, it can't work easily with the House Republicans because the gap between President Obama and the House Republicans is so enormous. Paul Ryan's budget was just astonishing. You have - depriving 40 to 50 million people of health care, trying to get the top tax rate down to 25 percent. But I do think that the charm offensive is working some with Senate Republicans.

And I think there is a shot at getting something done with them. And while I agree with David, I think we could be on the verge of great economic growth, I think there is still a possibility that if we let lots of cuts go through, we could kind of slow this recovery down. Here's the other thing that struck me about budgets this week. It was the first time I saw the House progressive caucus budget really get a lot of attention, and it deserved it because it really is what Democrats would want if they could govern. And I think we're going to see a little broader debate, even if that budget stands no chance of passing.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

All right now you've forced me into a lightning round for a big topic, which is the pope. And I'd love to get, you guys, your reaction to Pope Francis I.

BROOKS: He rides the bus. That's enough for me. You know, after a sort of a self-enclosed couple papacies, very intellectually serious, we have a guy who's out on the bus with the people. And I think that's - when your movement is in trouble, you want to be an evangelist. You want to be out there, outside your normal institutions talking to new people. And he sort of symbolizes that. So he's very promising from an outsider's point of view.

DIONNE: And I think the choice reflects the fact that a lot of the cardinals perceive the church in trouble. My friend Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter noted that when Benedict was elected after John Paul's death, there was so much passion and emotion around John Paul that they couldn't talk about the church's problems.

This time, they talked about the church's problems. And Pope Francis, there's still a lot that is not known. But his image as a humble man who has lived with the poor has said some pretty radical things about the unfairness of the economy. He could be - end up being a quiet change agent.

And the coalition that elected him seemed to be based more on moderates. There are no blue-state cardinals, but...

BLOCK: Or just the idea that it sort of skews away from the Eurocentrism that I think people very much identify with the Catholic Church.

DIONNE: Right, I mean, liberal Catholics who want change on attitudes toward women, ordination - women aren't going to get it, but I think that we'll see if the focus on poverty becomes the center of his papacy.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Guys, thanks so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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