Week In Politics: Karl Rove, Eric Shinseki And A Slew Of Primaries

Regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, discuss the kerfuffle over Karl Rove's remarks on Hillary Clinton's health, the upcoming primaries in six states, the death of Watergate conspirator Jeb Magruder and the continuing tensions surrounding Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish, and here are some of the voices we heard in politics this week.

SECRETARY ERIC SHINSEKI, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: Any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell.

BEN SASSE: We have an obligation to offer alternatives to liberalism's path of decline.

KARL ROVE: I didn't say she had brain damage. She had a serious health episode.

CORNISH: That's Republican political consultant Karl Rove, Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. And we're here to talk more about them with our Friday regulars. David Brooks of the New York Times, here there David.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello.

CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, hi E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: How are you?

CORNISH: So I want to start with one voice we heard there, the chief of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki. He testified on Capitol Hill before some pretty upset lawmakers, and the issue, of course, the allegations that VA officials at medical facilities were covering up delays in patient care, delays that some 40 people may have died waiting for care.

Now there's news today that the secretary has accepted the resignation of the department's top health official, and we'll have more on that throughout the program. But David, you know, my colleague Robert Siegel interviewed Shinseki a week or two ago, and when it came to the topic of his resignation, here's what he had to say.

AFFAIRS: As long as the president feels that I'm serving him well and serving veterans well, there's work to be done.

BROOKS: Yeah, he's in hot water. He's been there since the beginning. So I don't know if I'd necessarily want to bet on him. But, you know, I do have some sympathy for the VA. It's obviously not a good thing to doctor and cook the books, but you - there is a certain fundamental reality here, which is the number of primary care visits over the last three years at this place rose 50 percent. The number of primary care physicians rose nine percent.

And so there's just a backlog, and if you put a sort of standard in place that you have to see everybody in 14 days but you don't provide enough physicians to actually do that, well, people are going to start cheating. And so there is a more fundamental problem here than just the cheating.

CORNISH: And E.J.?

DIONNE: Yes, I think we have failed as a country to respond to the fact that after two - a very long period of war, we have a lot of vets who need care. I think one of the few good things about this awful mess is that it's the first scandal in Washington that - where the response is thoroughly bipartisan. Both parties are angry, not - there isn't even agreement on whether Shinseki should resign.

John Boehner, the House speaker, said early on, well, no, I don't think Shinseki's resignation is the proper response here. So I think that we are - I hope that we look at what we're spending and whether we're doing enough for vets out of all this. I hope Shinseki manages to fix some of the things that are wrong.

I think his problem is he's a decent man who, when he says I'm mad as hell, sounds so calm and quiet that he doesn't sound like he's mad as hell.

CORNISH: Not conveying the sense of urgency you are looking for.

DIONNE: And maybe that's a virtue, but it comes off in a crisis like this as something that doesn't play on the media.

CORNISH: I want to move on briefly to the congressional midterm primary season because we've got two campaigns, one from this past week, one coming up, that people have been looking at as a way of kind of reading what's going on between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. One is Nebraska GOP primary winner Ben Sasse and then next week's showdown in Kentucky for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

I don't know which one do you want to take, David, the one we just saw or the one to come.

BROOKS: I'll take Ben Sasse. He's a very promising candidate, actually. He rose from very little name ID, he was from the Bush administration, ran a small college there, and ran more or less a perfect campaign. I ascribe it to the fact that he has a Ph.D. from Yale. And that's - that tends to be the profile for Tea Party. If you're an angry outsider, including Tom Cotton, who's running also as a conservative candidate and a populist outsider who went to Harvard Law School, it seems to be very necessary to have an Ivy League pedigree to be a true Tea Party outsider these days.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: E.J.? I don't want to ask what school you went to, but obviously it would help in this conversation.

DIONNE: The - well that's certainly Ted Cruz's view. It's said he wouldn't study in law school except with people from Harvard, Yale and Princeton. His friends say that's not true. Two things here. One, Sasse really managed to cross the lines here in a very successful way, and I'm just sort of - I'm very skeptical of this Tea Party, grassroots sort of distinction.

I think what you have are two big GOP establishments, a more conservative establishment, you know, that includes groups like Club for Growth and the old-fashioned establishment. They're both spending a ton of money around the country in these primaries. It's not clear that the so-called more conservative Republicans are actually any more conservative than the regular Republicans.

We talked about Thom Tillis in North Carolina. I think what you're probably - it seems quite clear that in Kentucky next week, Mitch McConnell is going to beat Matt Bevin. And I think one of the interesting questions there is how much anti-McConnell feeling is there among Tea Party types that would translate into votes for the Democrat, Alison Grimes.

She's right now getting quite a bit of support from people who say they're voting for Bevin. One of the tests there is whether that's going to actually last through November.

CORNISH: And David, I want to give you some time to talk about someone you knew and remembered, Jeb Magruder. He died early this week at the age of 79, and he was a former Nixon administration official who went to jail for his role in the Watergate scandal. Talk a little bit about how you knew him in recent years.

BROOKS: Well, he was formative in my life, actually. He wrote a book in 1974 called "An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate." And I read it as a 13-year-old, and it got me charged up about politics. I decided I wanted to go into government and commit felonies, apparently.

No, it - I think Watergate was this riveting event for a lot of people. It drew people, you know, in good ways and bad, there were heroes and villains. John Sirica actually sentenced Magruder to prison. And he was a villain at that time, but he did what one is supposed to do when you're in a scandal, and that's not to try to go back into the line of work you were just in but to do something that is totally good and totally selfless.

He became a minister, a Presbyterian minister, served out the rest of his life as a minister in various locations and really learned something from the scandal and from his participation in the meetings that led to the break-ins.

CORNISH: And E.J.?

DIONNE: You know, I had - I met him also, and I've got to say I was really impressed by Jeb Magruder as someone who - you know, we are, I think in Washington, are very skeptical when people say they have a change of heart or a conversion. He was somebody I think who really dug deep. He said when he was sentenced in '74 I lost my ethical compass, my ambition obscured my judgment. And he really changed himself.

At his congregations, people said of him that he didn't live in an ivory tower. He'd been, as somebody said, from the top to the bottom and back up again, and that made him a very effective minister.

CORNISH: And again that's just taking a moment to remember Jeb Magruder. Magruder died earlier this week at the age of 79, a former Nixon administration official involved in the Watergate scandal. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you E.J.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Have a good weekend, David.

BROOKS: You, too.

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