Biden's Big Week, Christian Nationalism At CPAC, And A Mayor Who Is A Horse : The NPR Politics Podcast This week, the president all but secured the passage of his major policy priorities, oversaw a strike that took out a top terrorist, and got a strong economic report as gas prices fell. But tensions with China continue to rise after Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán headlined a conservative political conference in Dallas. The authoritarian-minded leader has become a darling of the American right, echoing many of the same social priorities — while often veering into outright anti-Semitism and racism.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, political reporter Deepa Shivaram, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, political correspondent Ashley Lopez, and media correspondent David Folkenflik.

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Biden's Big Week, Christian Nationalism At CPAC, And A Mayor Who Is A Horse

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey there. This is Asma with the POLITICS team. We wanted to take a quick minute to apologize if you all were looking for yesterday's episode and could not find it at the usual time. We had some technical difficulties that resulted in only the sponsor-free version of the episode being published, which meant if you all don't subscribe to the plus version of the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, you may not have been able to listen. Those issues have been resolved now. The episode is posted, and we want to assure you that our regular daily episodes will always remain free to everyone, regardless of whether you subscribe to get a sponsor-free version of the show. So thank you all for listening. We really appreciate it, and we appreciate your patience.

AMELIA GERARD: Hi. This is Amelia Gerard (ph) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

KHALID: Ha (ph) Cambridge.

GERARD: I'm just leaving the DMV where I successfully changed my gender marker on my ID to nonbinary for the first time. This podcast was recorded at...

KHALID: 12:23 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, August 5.

GERARD: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll probably never be so elated and grateful to spend three hours at the DMV again. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Wow.

KHALID: Ah, the Massachusetts DMV experience - makes me nostalgic. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Frank Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And a very, very warm welcome to a new member of our crew, Deepa Shivaram. She covers politics. Hey there, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hi, guys.

KHALID: And I'm sure we are going to hear a lot more of you in the lead up to the midterms, but I'm so glad you're able to join us. So, y'all, this has been a very newsy (ph) week, and in true roundup fashion, we have a lot of political ground to cover today. So let us dive right in. And Deepa, you were covering some of this news last night - the Democrats' big climate and health care bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced Thursday night that she will move forward on the bill with her fellow Democrats. And, you know, that is a monumental deal because she was known as the last holdout. So, Deepa, you know, what did she say about her decision? And, you know, where do things stand right now?

SHIVARAM: So Thursday night around 9 p.m., Sinema says she's ready to move forward with this bill after they removed some things and added some things. So what's coming out is a part of the bill that narrowed the carried interest tax loophole, which would have changed how private equity income is taxed. And what's getting added is more funding for drought resilience that Sinema asked for, as well as this 1% excise tax on stock buybacks. So after days of deliberating, Democrats appear to have the 50 votes they need to pass this bill. Like you said, that's a pretty big deal. But, like you mentioned, there are still some bumps in the road. The Senate parliamentarian is still reviewing parts of the bill, and that has to get the all clear. And even though Chuck Schumer has said he believes they have everyone in the Democratic caucus on board, there are still some senators who aren't fully thrilled with this legislation. Bernie Sanders is one of them. And he said he plans to raise some of his concerns that this bill doesn't do enough. Earlier this week, he called it the, quote, "so-called Inflation Reduction Act." So there's definitely some criticism of this bill, but overall, it's looking like Democrats might have a pretty good weekend.

KHALID: I do want to better understand what exactly Senator Sinema's opposition is to closing or narrowing the carried interest loophole because, I mean, it is somewhat universally acknowledged to be essentially a way for wealthy folks to lower their tax burden.

SHIVARAM: Right. And wealthy folks just to make more money, and it's interesting 'cause she didn't say why she was so opposed to this, but it's odd. You know, she's not only just saying that she has concerns over this tax loophole, but now she's the one person who has essentially saved this tax loophole and has kept it going. She did say last night that she wants to work on legislation with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia about carried interest reform and other tax reforms. But you have to keep in mind, there's still a 50-50 Senate here, and 60 votes are typically needed to pass a bill. The odds that passing any kind of legislation on closing this tax loophole with Republican support is pretty low. So this kind of a tax loophole is probably going to stick around for a while.

KHALID: Franco, I do think it is hard to overstate just how big of a win this could be for President Biden. You know, it is no doubt a slimmed down version of his initial so-called Build Back Better agenda. But it is going to be substantial changes when we talk about climate and health care and things that, you know, he really did essentially campaign on.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it's a really big deal. I mean, it was only a few weeks ago that Biden was conceding defeat on the proposal and, you know, talking about declaring a climate emergency. I mean, some pundits were calling it arguably the worst blow to his climate agenda not to mention his domestic agenda in all. His poll numbers were in the basement. Democrats, or at least some Democrats, were openly questioning whether he should run again. You know, and now, you know, you talk about things changing on a dime. It's - you know, as you noted earlier, it's not everything, but he's on the cusp of signing the biggest climate investment in history. It'll cut prescription prices. And you can - you could argue that that's actually icing on the cake of a very good week. I mean, he's about to sign a massive deal to manufacture computer chips that are...

KHALID: Yep. Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: ...Important for, well, everything. And the administration just killed one of the most wanted al-Qaeda terrorists. And, you know, gas prices are falling. So it's been a good last few days for President Biden.

KHALID: A good policy week - right? - but I still wonder, Franco, I mean, Democrats - it's one thing for them to pass policy. It's another for them to be able to successfully pitch that to voters. And I don't know. I'm curious if it will actually translate down to improving his poll numbers and improving Democrats' political odds ahead of the midterms.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think that is really the big question. And we'll see how polls come. I mean, is he going to get the bump? I mean, a lot of people still feel like they're hurting and that the economy has yet to improve. I mean, there's some good job numbers coming out today. But will people feel the impact at home? I mean, gas prices have fallen. That's certainly a good sign. But, you know, we'll see in the next couple of weeks, in the next couple of months whether - you know, depending on how people feeling and is - if they get that emotional support for Biden. And that's a really tough question to answer right now, despite, you know, the good week that he's had.

KHALID: Franco, let's shift gears and talk about another major story this week, and that is China. We marked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan earlier this week. We talked about it on the podcast and noted that it upset China. You know, how have we seen China respond subsequently?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, not well - they've been doing military exercises and yesterday fired a bunch of missiles in nearby waters by Taiwan. Biden officials even summoned the Chinese ambassador, Qin Gang, to the White House yesterday. The ambassador was basically given a diplomatic tongue lashing, you could say. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Qin was told the actions were irresponsible and at odds with long-standing goals to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait, so tense stuff.

KHALID: Wow. I mean, it sounds like quite a significant breakdown in relations with the United States. And you're talking about two countries, the United States and China, that, you know, haven't really had particularly warm relations in recent years, you know? You don't - you haven't seen a trip, say, from President Biden yet to China or vice versa.

ORDOÑEZ: Tensions have been high from the beginning of this administration. The two leaders have already spoken five times, and that was because tensions were so high. And they wanted to manage the relationship and kind of keep lines of communication open to prevent any kind of unintended consequence. But, you know, despite all that conversation, all those talks, things have only gotten worse. And now you have the Pentagon ordering a U.S. aircraft carrier to kind of remain in the area to, quote, "monitor the situation" as China continues to launch missiles. And John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, talked with us reporters about this yesterday. You know, and he said that, you know, the more military hardware that is nearby and active, the higher risk you're going to have mistakes being made. And that just can turn into a even more dangerous situation.

KHALID: So one last question for you, Franco. You know, and this is more of a step back on the broader, let's say, geopolitical relationship here. But the policy that the United States has had toward China and Taiwan feels, I think it's fair to say, deliberately confusing. I mean, the United States says there is only one China, but at the same time, the United States supports Taiwan's democracy. It sells Taiwan weapons. And that does feel like doublespeak that, you know, sort of sets the stage for these kinds of tensions to build.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's a tough question to answer. I mean, the White House, the national security adviser, the secretary of state, all the top leaders of the administration are hitting this same drumbeat that nothing has changed with the policy toward Taiwan, that the one-China policy remains and that the United States does not support Taiwan independence. But, of course, it's not that simple. You know, the United States, as you pointed out, does have unofficial relations with Taiwan, does a lot of trade, sells weapons and overall is a big champion of its democratic way of government.

You know, and not only that - I mean, you've had these past statements by the president saying that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if attacked, you know, that they - that they've had to walk back, or the White House has had to walk back. And with this Pelosi trip, I mean, China is accusing the Biden administration of attacking Chinese sovereignty, even though Congress is obviously an independent body. So, I mean, there's - the administration calls it strategic ambiguity, but there's just a lot of confusion over what is really a touchy, touchy subject.

KHALID: All right. Well, Franco, thank you very much for joining us. Always a pleasure.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

KHALID: And, Deepa, you go take a quick break, but please don't go far away because you are coming back for Can't Let It Go. All right. It is time for a quick break. We'll have more in a moment.

And we're back. And we're joined now by Ashley Lopez, who I want to point out is now officially a full-time part of our NPR POLITICS team. Congratulations.

SHIVARAM: Yay.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Thanks, y'all.

KHALID: We are so glad. I am unbelievably excited about this, Ashley. And we are also joined now by David Folkenflik, who covers media for NPR. Always good to talk to you, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Asma, great to connect again.

KHALID: So we have you both here on today's show because Hungary's authoritarian-minded prime minister has been in the United States. He was not here to meet with the president of the United States, President Biden, nor was he in Washington, D.C., doing meetings at the White House. He was in Texas. So, David, fill us in on what exactly Viktor Orban has been doing here.

FOLKENFLIK: So he made a pit stop on the way, as you said, not to Washington to see the current president but former Republican President Donald Trump at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. Then he comes down here to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is really a combination of a political and media event for the farthest-right elements of the Republican Party that are still considered to be part of the Republican Party. So, you know, what you've seen is this leader of this small, central European country becomes something of a hero to the far right.

And what does he offer? He offers his audience a vision of leadership from the right that involves an explicitly Christian sensibility, an explicitly nationalist sensibility, the idea of keeping foreigners out and keeping the idea of this mythologized version of Hungarian culture fixed in a specific moment in time. And it's something that, for a lot of folks on places like Fox News, on Newsmax, you know, in the reaches of Republicanism, on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, there are ways in which this is consistent with the kind of message that they have been putting out during the Trump era and beyond.

KHALID: So, Ashley, you were also at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, there in Texas, speaking with people out in the crowd, getting a sense of how they're responding to this all. I'm curious what you heard.

LOPEZ: I guess this isn't going to surprise anyone. But, you know, there was a lot of culture war stuff, which, you know, Viktor Orban brought up, and grievance politics in the mix as well. I mean, that's been the tone and tenor of the conservative movement for a long time now, you know? And as I was walking around, like, a good example of some of the culture war stuff as it plays out in the U.S. right now is boost focus on the Title IX issue, which of course, is, like, aimed at transgender athletes.

And when we're talking about grievance politics, I was really struck by, you know, how people in the crowd and also in the panels at CPAC talked about abortion. You really would not have thought that Conservatives won a significant, like, monumental victory in the Dobbs case, you know, the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights recently, which we all know they have been fighting for, for decades. So much of what they had to say was focused on sort of negative media coverage on this issue, you know, from their perspective. You know, it's clear Conservatives are picking up on the fact that public opinion is not on their side on issues like abortion. You know, but right now, so many states have enacted all-out bans on the procedure. You'd think they'd be coming from a posture of victory, but hearing them, you would not have known that they were running the table on this issue.

KHALID: There wasn't as much of, like, a celebratory...

LOPEZ: Right. Yeah. I mean, that's what I was expecting going into CPAC this year. But, you know, a lot of their frustration was aimed at the media, which, I mean, is not surprising at all. They say that the media sort of constructed this image that, like, what happened with Roe v. Wade was a negative thing. And of course, that's not their posture. So...

KHALID: Ashley, how did they respond to Viktor Orban himself? Was he a celebrity?

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, he got a lot of applause. I mean, this was a very well-received speech, and it wasn't, like, one of these panels where it was a Q&A. They gave him a platform to sort of talk about issues like immigration and how Hungary has been sort of unaccepting of migrants in their country. And that got a lot of applause. It was just a very...

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah.

LOPEZ: ...I mean, this was a good crowd for this line of thinking.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I mean, that's exactly right, Ashley. I mean, he inspired standing ovations for things that are stark expressions, almost extreme expressions of where the farther-right reaches of the Republican Party are. And there was a rapturous response to those things. You know, he talks about Hungary's zero migration policy where, you know, he basically - he built borders that were not perfectly impenetrable but much closer to it than you could imagine in this country and, you know, boasted of having taken everybody who got in there without legal status and took them to the border and dumped them out - and this rapturous response. But, you know, one of the things he said - he was responding - there was this incredible moment and even question of what kind of welcome he would receive here. A week ago, Orban gave this talk in which he talked about the fact that Hungarians don't want mixture of the races in Hungary. And he even made a line that seemed to be essentially a joking celebration of the use of gas ovens against Jews during the Holocaust in Europe. One of his top advisers resigned, saying this was essentially a clear Nazi speech. He said yesterday in his address that Christian leaders and politicians can never be racist because of their Christian values.

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PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: Don't worry. A Christian politician cannot be racist. So we should never hesitate to heavily challenge our opponents on these issues. Be sure Christian values protect us from going too far.

FOLKENFLIK: It was as though he was dismissing the idea that he could be criticized on such grounds simply because he professed to be, and may well be, a practicing Christian. And I think that you've seen this in parts of the farther elements of the right of the Republican Party that want to embrace this idea of America as a Christian nation, one that even, at times, some more extreme members of Congress have suggested should be a matter of law. And that's what Orban offers in some ways, it seems to me, to those of his fans in the media and those of his fans in the political establishment that hold him out as example, saying, this isn't un-American. It's a thing for Hungarians to do for Hungary. Well, it's a thing for Americans to do for America as well.

LOPEZ: You know, what David is talking about is Christian nationalism - right? - which is making the U.S. government sort of in the image of a Christian worldview. What a big undercurrent that has always been in Christian politics, and just how vocal it is now. I mean, I think one of the people, David, who you're mentioning here is, like, Marjorie Taylor Greene said...

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. Exactly.

LOPEZ: She's a congresswoman from Georgia. She said outright that she thinks this is a Christian nation and that Christian nationalism is a good thing. And I think this - I don't know, you know, in terms of, like, just numbers, how many conservatives would agree with that. I will say it's definitely not all. Even at CPAC, I asked a couple of people about this, you know, including someone who was selling Bible-related art. He said he does not like the idea of mixing politics and religion. He thinks it's not good for religion. And so it's, like, for his Christian faith specifically. And so I think it is just a really interesting tension among conservatives right now. But definitely, you know, Christian nationalism is something that, at least in parts of the Republican Party, are not being shied away from.

KHALID: All right. Let's leave it there for now. David Folkenflik, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

KHALID: And we're going to take a quick break, and when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back, and it is time now to end the show, like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go. That's the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. And, Deepa, why don't you kick it off for us?

SHIVARAM: OK, this is my first Can't Let It Go. It's sort of political, sort of not.

KHALID: OK.

SHIVARAM: But the thing I cannot let go of this week is Patrick the pony. There is this therapy pony in a tiny town in the U.K. called Cockington, and their mayor recently died. And hundreds of people in the town wrote in Patrick the pony in the election for a new mayor.

KHALID: Oh, my gosh.

SHIVARAM: And he won.

KHALID: What?

SHIVARAM: Yes. Yes. The best part about Patrick, I will just say, besides the fact that he's, you know, generally just very politically popular, is that he likes to hang out at this pub in town and is a really big fan of drinking Guinness. So it's not only a pony mayor. It's a beer-drinking pony mayor, and I just really don't know what's better than that. He does have an Instagram, so if there's any, you know, desire for you to look at an adorable pony who's mayor, I would just highly recommend.

KHALID: Wait. So they did, like, do another runoff and have a real mayor, or is Patrick really the mayor?

SHIVARAM: No. So there is some added drama, though, because there is someone in the town who complained about Patrick's, like, pony pen at the bar that he hangs out at because apparently, the bar, like, doesn't have a permit for it or something. And so there's some, you know, lingering drama. It could be someone who just wants to kick Patrick out as mayor and become mayor themselves - unclear. But, yeah, got to keep tabs on that.

LOPEZ: I don't know what is more British - the name of that town or the fact that even animals frequent pubs there.

SHIVARAM: Right. Right (laughter).

KHALID: I love that. What about you, Ashley? What can you not let go of?

LOPEZ: Also animal-related, what I can't let go is that Fancy Feast, the cat food brand, is opening up a pop-up Italian restaurant in New York City in a week. They're celebrating the company's new line of food. This is from CNN, by the way. It's their new Medleys Cat Food line, which, quote, "features options like beef ragu recipe with tomatoes and pasta in a savory sauce."

SHIVARAM: No.

LOPEZ: That is the name of the cat food, by the way.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. Now this is...

KHALID: Wait. So to be clear, though - to be clear so I understand what this - what you are describing, Ashley, this is a restaurant for your cat. So you, like, bring your cat with you, and there is seating for your cat at said restaurant.

LOPEZ: Yeah. But also, you know, it is not totally clear to me that you can bring cats in. It is, like, a restaurant that is...

KHALID: It's human food.

LOPEZ: Yeah, that - like, where the human food is inspired by cat food.

SHIVARAM: What?

LOPEZ: Which - I mean, I'm an outgrouper (ph) from cat culture because I have a dog. But, like, this seems like another level to me that I just, like, can't wrap my head around. But also, like, I don't know how appetizing it is to know that your, like, courses were inspired by cat food, but maybe that's just me.

SHIVARAM: I'm confused.

LOPEZ: OK, well, let's not all think about that too hard because we have lunch next. So, Asma, what can't you let go this week?

KHALID: So I heard this story earlier this week about this woman. Her name is Tessa Rider. She's somewhere out in, I believe, northern Colorado. She was a few days past her due date. As I'm telling you guys this story, I will say this is, like, literally my nightmare of a story because I was that woman who, for both my children, had to be induced. I - like, my babies just didn't come out. So this woman, too, was past her due date, and she was at the local YMCA. And apparently, like, suddenly, the baby just came when she was there at the pool. And so this lifeguard - I believe it was, like, an 18-year-old lifeguard - ran over to help her. They had no time to actually get 911, no time to get her to the hospital, so the lifeguard delivered her baby on the pool deck. And literally, that is, like, my fear nightmare, but I kind of can't let it go because it's also amazing, you know?

LOPEZ: I mean, good for that 18-year-old.

SHIVARAM: Yeah.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

SHIVARAM: That's crazy.

KHALID: But also, this is, like, my fear of, like, when they say babies don't come out and then suddenly, like, you can deliver a baby in - what? - like, I don't even know how fast. This must have been, like, five minutes. So long story short, I think when your baby doesn't come on time, my motto is just, like, bug the doctors till they let you go to the hospital.

LOPEZ: Don't leave the house.

KHALID: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: So you don't have to deliver at the YMCA. All right. That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers are Casey Morrell, Elena Moore and Lexi Schapitl. Thanks to Brandon Carter and Maya Rosenberg. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SHIVARAM: I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: And I'm Ashley Lopez. I also cover politics.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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