Week In Politics: Latest Republican Presidential Debate NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review, about the latest presidential primary debates.
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Week In Politics: Latest Republican Presidential Debate

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Week In Politics: Latest Republican Presidential Debate

Week In Politics: Latest Republican Presidential Debate

Week In Politics: Latest Republican Presidential Debate

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NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review, about the latest presidential primary debates.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've heard from some voters. Now, we're going to hear from our Friday political commentators. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post - hey there, E.J.

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

CORNISH: And this week, Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review. Welcome to the studio.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: So we heard people there talking about Marco Rubio in terms of Jeb Bush, right - Florida Republicans. But it seemed like, after the debate this week, there was a lot more sizing-up of, like, Rubio v. his Senate colleague, Ted Cruz. And I was wondering if you guys could - maybe I'll start with you, Eliana - talk about what differences might have been revealed in that debate the you think are worth noting.

JOHNSON: You know, it was really after the debate that, I think, the differences were born out. And Rubio has pulled off a bit of political jujitsu in opening crews up to an attack from his right, which is particularly threatening for a candidate like Cruz, who is staking his campaign on uniting the conservative grassroots against the Republican establishment. Rubio has reminded people that, during the Gang of Eight debate, Cruz supported increasing levels of legal immigration and proposed an amendment that would've allowed the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country to remain here, that wouldn't have granted them citizenship. That's essentially Jeb Bush's position. And Rubio's having reminded people of that has opened up Cruz to a line of attack and is having him change a lot of his positions. So we'll see how that plays out over the next couple of days and weeks.

CORNISH: E.J., maybe - I don't know if it's just immigration. Maybe there are other issues you saw Cruz and Rubio really revealing something about the party.

DIONNE: Well, I think that Cruz and Rubio have opposite strengths and weaknesses. Cruz is very clear, despite this kerfuffle about that amendment that Eliana rightly referred to. Cruz clearly has identified the right end of the party - some libertarians, some evangelicals, some Tea Party folks - as his base. And that's where he's going to win. Rubio's strength and weakness is the same thing, which is he's trying to occupy all parts of the party. And I think what this exchange has brought out in him is a willingness to change his position on immigration and then change it again. He was a co-sponsor of that bill. He helped negotiate the bill - the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate, then he pulled away from it. Now, he's pulling even further back on the DREAM Act. So I think each of them are going - have these fundamental problems. But one of them could win the nomination.

CORNISH: On the issue of immigration, this was another area where policy differences really exposed things. Let's look at Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who had very different ideas about how to deal with that issue. But I guess I want to get this idea of, did this debate, in the last couple of days, allow either of those candidates to prove they do have more kind of policy details behind what are strong, kind of personality campaigns? Eliana?

JOHNSON: I'll be really short on this one - no. I think we saw...

CORNISH: I tried.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Instead..

DIONNE: That was the right answer, too.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Instead, we got Donald Trump, because he's no longer the undisputable leader in the polls, challenging Ben Carson's claim to - that Christianity rescued him from the thralls of the rage and anger he suffered as a teenager and calling voters stupid for believing any of the stories Carson has told on the campaign trail. So now you know what - how Donald Trump responds when he's not leading in the polls.

CORNISH: And just so people get a sense of the tone of that, I want to play a clip. This is from that 95-minute - some are calling it a rant - speech in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap? So here's the good news - he's now saying all of that stuff happened because, otherwise, he's a liar.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: Trump is the first candidate in our history to use the slogan - vote for me because I think you're stupid. I mean, it's a really - this was a remarkable display. And I had two propositions here. One, that we complain about long campaigns, but over time, long campaigns allows us to see who people really are. Second proposition - I don't think any of the other candidates could bring down Trump or Carson, but they could bring down each other, and they can bring down themselves. And when Trump said, you know, if you're pathological, there's no cure for that, folks, a lot of people were wondering, well, who exactly is he talking about?

JOHNSON: There's a little bit of protection going on here.

DIONNE: And, you know, he said, what the hell is - what the hell have we come to? And I think a lot of Republicans are asking exactly that question at this point in the race.

CORNISH: Yeah, I saw the Wall Street Journal taking on Trump and his sort of policy explanation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying that China would be involved there. They called it a word salad. Eliana, help us out here. Help us understand where this is going.

JOHNSON: You know, we now have a candidate in Trump who thinks it wise to tell a bunch of evangelical Christian primary voters that Ben Carson's story about how Christianity and Jesus Christ saved him from the thralls of anger is a load of crap, so perhaps not the most ideal nominee or standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

CORNISH: And E.J., last word to you - a few seconds there.

DIONNE: Well, I - everybody said that Trump and Carson couldn't last. Anyone who predicts that now is reluctant because almost nothing they do seems to bring them down. But if we ever saw a week that might do it, this is it.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review. Thank you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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