Does Conservative Mean Whatever Donald Trump Says It Means? : The NPR Politics Podcast After extracting a slew of concessions from Kevin McCarthy during the Speaker vote saga, conservative House Republicans are now flexing their muscles in a fight over the U.S. debt. But what does the "conservative" label mean right now? New research suggests that many politically-active voters use it to mean most similar to Donald Trump.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt, congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, and political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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Does Conservative Mean Whatever Donald Trump Says It Means?

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CHRISTINA: Hi, this is Christina (ph). And I'm currently road tripping home with our newest family member, 8-week-old golden retriever Maple. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Congratulations. It is 12:37 Eastern on Friday, January 27.

CHRISTINA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll still be wondering how I went from barely liking animals to a full-blown dog person in a matter of moments. Enjoy the show.

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

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Oh, wow.

DETROW: It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover Congress.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: I'm Claudia Grisales. I also cover Congress.

DETROW: I want to start before the news that it just occurred to me that for a wide variety of reasons, this is the first POLITICS PODCAST I have been a part of where everyone in the podcast is in the same room since we all did a podcast together in Las Vegas just before the Nevada caucuses...

SPRUNT: Wow.

GRISALES: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Which is wild.

SPRUNT: That is wild.

GRISALES: It is so wild.

DETROW: As I process that, we're going to talk about a big news story, a story that is going to dominate all of our lives for the next few months, and that is the debt ceiling. And you, yes you, listening to your phone, who's thinking, oh, no, a debt ceiling conversation, it's important.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Here's why. We are going to talk about it a lot over the next few months. It is one of those stories that sometimes can feel incremental or can feel like there's a lot of empty threats. But this is true. This is real. It could also very quickly have profound effects on the economy and all of our day-to-day lives. Let's start with that. Barbara, the U.S. is probably a few months from that inflection point moment, but it's a major theme in Congress right now. Remind us what the stakes are.

SPRUNT: That's right. So maybe to zoom out, the debt ceiling itself is a limit on how much money the federal government can borrow, a limit to how much it's allowed to add to the cumulative debt. Fun fact - first put in place in 1917 at the beginning of World War I, it's been lifted dozens of times since then under both Democratic and Republican White Houses. And to your point, Scott, it is a issue that feels like "Groundhog Day." And it's something that we always come back to.

DETROW: Which is, by the way...

SPRUNT: A great movie.

DETROW: ...In just a matter of days - great movie and also just a few days away. Don't forget to celebrate Groundhog Day, February 2.

SPRUNT: Oh, that's right, shadow or no shadow.

GRISALES: Yeah.

DETROW: Yeah.

SPRUNT: Every time the debt limit is approached, Congress has a choice, which is to suspend the debt limit, which has not happened for a variety of reasons, or lift it. Every time there's conversations from deficit hawks who are worried about, you know, the ballooning budget and the bloated national debt. And they try to use it as a way to negotiate other budgetary spending cuts.

DETROW: Yeah.

SPRUNT: The reason it's an issue now is the U.S. did hit its limit last week, which right now is 31.4 trillion. The Treasury Department has put a Band-Aid on that situation, which they're calling extraordinary measures for now, that will cover the debt for several months. But that Band-Aid will kind of come off in June. So that's why it's a big issue.

DETROW: And the other important thing to add is that this is not a vote on whether or not to spend more money.

GRISALES: Exactly.

DETROW: This is a vote on whether or not to pay for the things that have already been committed to spending. But real talk, Claudia, Barbara says we're talking about this now because the debt ceiling has been reached. But we're also honestly talking about this now because Republicans control the House and a Democrat is in the White House. And those are the moments when the debt ceiling becomes a big negotiating point.

GRISALES: Yeah, it already was. With Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House, we saw a very close confrontation between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans struggling even to meet some sort of deal then. During this last confrontation, they did reach a deal. However, it did come close again. So the worry's now is when you have a - even a narrow majority of Republicans in the House, this is a new firewall that Democrats are facing when it comes to addressing this debt limit. And it's like you were mentioning at the top, in terms of the big issues that Congress is facing right now - I had this conversation with someone recently - what is it? It is the debt ceiling because it affects all of us. When we're looking at our savings accounts, whatever could be impacted by a financial default, it is the significant issue that members are considering because we don't know if House Republicans will be able to reach some sort of deal with Democrats. This is now pointing at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden. Can they get on the same page? We don't know.

DETROW: So the White House is saying, we're not going to negotiate at all. You just need to raise the debt ceiling by itself. What is the best summary of the message that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is saying? What are the circumstances under which he says Republicans would support lifting the debt ceiling?

SPRUNT: Well, he has emphasized that he wants to sit down with President Biden. There is no unified House Republican position at this point on how to craft a solution to prevent this impending debt limit crisis. Speaker McCarthy has said that he will not cut Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs, which makes sense for many reasons - one of which is that those are very popular programs in the country. Next year is a big election year...

DETROW: Yes.

SPRUNT: ...And it is a hard thing to sell the American people on, you know, when so many people rely on those programs.

DETROW: So he won't cut that.

SPRUNT: Yeah.

DETROW: But that's a big chunk of the federal spending.

SPRUNT: It is, as is the Pentagon budget, which is another thing that many House Republicans and Senate Republicans are very reticent to even have conversations about cutting. When you take those things away - entitlement programs, the defense budget - that's a significant amount of the budget.

DETROW: Yes.

SPRUNT: And so if you're trying to tackle discretionary spending without touching those areas, you don't have a lot of things to play around with.

DETROW: And there's one more important dynamic to talk about. And that is, in the past, you have seen a combination of Democrats and some more moderate Republicans voting to get a debt ceiling increase passed in the House. But we just saw a speaker election that went 15 rounds and where the Tea Party, MAGA, extreme conservative, whatever you want to frame them as, hard right of the House Republican Conference exerted a ton of pressure and got Kevin McCarthy to make a ton of concessions. So a world where a dozen or so Republicans vote with Democrats and Speaker McCarthy lets it come up for a vote feels hard to imagine right now.

GRISALES: Yeah, that is another tricky scenario - is how do they get on the same page? It's interesting hearing McCarthy's comments when he's talked to reporters in recent days, weeks about this. It seems like he's trying to calm concerns - calm the markets, if you will - and say it's not going to get that dire. We're going to figure something out. But what is figuring that something out when you had such a tough time even getting the speaker's gavel, going through those 15 rounds. So can they get there? Can he get there without some of these never-Kevin folks that didn't want to see him become speaker, others who were trying to thwart those efforts - can they get on the same page? And that's what remains to be seen.

DETROW: Barbara Sprunt, thank you for coming by the podcast.

SPRUNT: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: Claudia, stick around. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to talk a little bit more about some of these philosophical differences, to put it one way, among Republicans.

We are back, and NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is here. Danielle, it is wonderful to see you.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes, you too. It's been a while.

DETROW: It has. I heard you - saw you with my mind - on my radio this morning...

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

DETROW: ...When you had a story on Morning Edition that we're going to talk about now. And it's all about - to put it mildly, there have been a number of high-profile fights among the Republican Party lately, up to and including a 15-round battle to elect a House speaker.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

DETROW: And you took a look at a broader trend here of, really, the Republican Party having a lot of questions and a lot of disagreement about what it stands for right now - about what its core issues are.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. I mean, there are a number of reasons why I thought of this during the speaker fight. I mean, first of all, when I was helping cover this, I kept thinking to myself - how do we characterize the Matt Gaetzes and the Chip Roys - the people who are voting against McCarthy?

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Is it that they're more conservative? Is it that they're - I mean, sometimes we just call them hardliners. I mean - I...

DETROW: We were just talking about this in the last segment.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

DETROW: Like, there's a half-dozen different ways to frame them, and none of them really get to the core of it.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And spoiler - I don't think I could get to the core of that either. I don't know.

DETROW: Well, then what are we doing here?

KURTZLEBEN: I know...

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: ...At the podcast. No, but that's the thing. So - but it did become somewhat common in some news stories to say, oh, they're ultra conservative. Well, maybe. But then again, Kevin McCarthy billed himself as a conservative when he came into office. So there was that. And then this did lead to a fair amount of conversing among Republican pundits about, OK, the party that has aligned itself as fully conservative to one extent or another - is it really following conservative principles, or is it not? And this conversation just seemed to grow, especially as the debt ceiling crept up. And the thing is, it is not entirely clear, as I got to in my reporting.

DETROW: Yeah. Because I think one major trend of the past, like, increasingly, almost a decade of the Republican Party is it's centered itself and modeled itself around Donald Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: Correct.

DETROW: Certainly, Trump pushed - and adopted, in some cases - traditional conservative views on a lot of fronts. You know, his Supreme Court picks, I think, would have probably come from almost any Republican president. But there were a lot of high-profile areas where Trump took positions that opposed the traditional national Republican Party view. Republicans in Congress went along with it. So now we are at this moment where it is not clear whether or not he is receding from the stage. And it feels like that's kind of bringing a lot of these questions to the forefront, especially with Republicans in control of the House and setting part of an agenda there.

KURTZLEBEN: Correct. Yeah. And one way to look at this is - a couple of researchers actually tried to study the degree to which conservatism became Trump and Trump became conservatism. What they did was they went and they talked to a bunch of party activists - loosely defined people who are particularly active. You know, they donate. They might be committee people in their local party - that sort of thing - people who should be knowledgeable about politics and are. And these researchers went to them and said, OK, here are two senators. Here is Jeff Flake and Mike Lee. Which of those is more conservative? And the people would answer.

Now, what they found is that, to some degree, this had nothing to do with voting record because, of course, the Republican caucus in the Senate is pretty ideologically similar up and down.

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: You have a few people who are considered more moderate, but they're all pretty similar. But the people who responded tended to say that Trump critics were more moderate no matter how they voted. So Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake - two former Republican senators from Nebraska and Arizona, respectively - came out as moderate, even though their voting records objectively are not.

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: And this really showed that, at least in the common brain of people who care about politics, what it means to be conservative really became to mean Trump. And the thing that I would add here - and the reason why this feels important to talk about right now - is that, as we are approaching 2024, I mean, Trump has already announced that he is running for the Republican nomination again, but it appears that he is going to have some real competition for that - or at the very least, he could. And I can tell you, plenty of voters I talked to out in various parts of the country - you know, they said, I like him well enough, but I could be ready for someone else.

So here's the thing. If Trump is the Republican Party's ideology, and the Republican Party's ideology is Trump, if Trump fades from view, then what does the party become? And that is the huge unanswered question that the next two years are going to answer.

GRISALES: Yeah, there was one pattern that I saw during the midterms when I was on the campaign trail for a little bit. Ronna McDaniel, who's in her own fight, trying to head up the RNC right now - I saw her and others campaigning for Republicans to get elected by making sure that umbrella includes Trumpism. We're not dropping Trump. He may not be here. We may not say his name, but we need to embrace Trumpism - his policies that really resonated with the Republican Party. Those pieces are what is going to keep us in the game. And so I think it's a little bit of that in terms of keeping that Trumpism going, in terms of those policies that did resonate with the party and making sure they don't lose those voters who do embrace him or those policies.

KURTZLEBEN: Policies and style, for that matter.

GRISALES: Exactly.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. And just to get at one other thing here - to sort of define our terms here - when I talked to people - for example, people who are very much not Trump Republicans - so Charlie Sykes, former talk radio host, now editor-in-chief of the right-wing site, The Bulwark; Michael Steele, former chair of the RNC. When I talked to them, and I was like, OK, tell me, do you think the party is conservative right now, they - honestly, there was some laughter. But, in addition to that, I was like, OK, why not? And they would bring up things like reducing spending, reducing the budget, reducing the deficit. Certainly, the debt ceiling - like, as Charlie Sykes told me, like, in what world is playing this game with the debt ceiling conservative? Also, you know, free trade that Trump ran very heavily on ending or heavily changing trade agreements - these used to be things that were pretty down-the-middle Republican ideas.

DETROW: Is it fair to say that one defining characteristic of the party right now is simply attitude - is simply the way that it frames things, the way that it pokes at liberals?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And that is, of course, another part of Trumpism. I mean, to be clear here, it's not that Trump totally came in and blew everything up and was an entirely new kind of conservative. What a lot of people have told me is that, well, there were some elements of his, you know, nativist approach, for example - his anti-immigration approach - that existed in conservatism. And he really, really, really amped up the volume on them and turned the volume down on other things. One - I want to play a clip for you here. This is from Michael Steele - again, former RNC chair. And he argued that there just is no ideology at the center of the party anymore. One thing he referenced is that, in 2020 - you guys might remember this - when the Republican Party held its nominating convention, it didn't come up with a platform. It just copy-pasted the 2016 platform...

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...And said, sounds good. Ship it.

MICHAEL STEELE: How do we define ourselves if we can't even tell you what we believe? You know, everybody talks about Liz Cheney is a conservative. Yeah, Liz is a conservative on a lot of things, but Liz got herself kicked out of the party.

KURTZLEBEN: And Liz Cheney is another good example, along with - we were talking about people like Ben Sasse. Like, Liz Cheney is genetically conservative. She is Dick Cheney's daughter, but furthermore, I mean, just had been considered a rock-ribbed conservative for quite a while. And then she went against Trump. You still have a few folks in Congress, like, for example, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, who are considered somewhat more moderate than the people in their party. But even then, as we all know, those numbers have thinned quite dramatically.

DETROW: Yeah, and they certainly have many conservative views. But I think, Claudia, one defining difference that we could talk about is people like that are people who are frequently engaging in good-faith negotiations with Democrats.

GRISALES: Exactly. This is where - when we talk about the debt ceiling, for example, this is where folks are hoping there's going to be some runway where there can be some meeting of the minds and reaching a deal on the debt ceiling - that they don't want to leverage that and endanger the country in terms of that financial threat. So yes, that's - those are the players we're looking at now that could make movement on some of these crucial issues in Congress.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take one more break and then come back with Can't Let It Go.

We are back. And it is time to end the show, like we do every Friday, with Can't Let It Go - the part of the podcast where we talk about the things from the week we cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Claudia, you're up first.

GRISALES: I cannot let go of awards season for films, television. This is the highlight of my year, basically. So before I came to NPR, I would fancy myself as if I was a judge...

DETROW: Yeah.

GRISALES: ...You know, for the awards. And I would watch every nominated film and program. And apologies to my previous employers - I might have gone out a few times during the day to see some of these films. But that's how obsessed I was.

DETROW: Yeah.

GRISALES: And so come to NPR - I joined the union here, SAG-AFTRA. And lo and behold, we get to vote in the SAG Awards - the Screen Actors Guild Awards - that are coming up next month.

DETROW: Your vote - your vote counts as much as George Clooney's vote. That's what I like to say.

GRISALES: Exactly.

DETROW: Yeah.

GRISALES: It does - me and Clooney.

DETROW: Yeah.

GRISALES: We are, like, the same here. So I am just going through the run of films, and there was just a really cool moment. For example, I - just a full-circle moment for me because it really does mean something I can vote on these films. But I was watching "Tar" last night, and it was just this full-circle moment because Jessica Hansen, who is one of our announcers - she's also our voice coach - is in "Tar." Her voice is in "Tar." And Cate Blanchett's character repeats her - you know, she does her ads. I do it, too, when I hear it on the radio. I also repeat it 'cause they're just such fabulous ads. And so Cate Blanchett is doing this in "Tar."

KURTZLEBEN: You mean the (imitating Jessica Hansen) support for NPR is brought to you by...

GRISALES: (Imitating Jessica Hansen) Support for NPR...

Yes, that.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: I did not know this.

GRISALES: Yes. It's such a cool moment. I was just dying watching that. And so it's just seeing that and just collecting that with all of the films. In the race to the awards show next month, I have to see everything. So it's just so many films to get through, and it's just so fun - and to actually have it count like Clooney's vote counts...

DETROW: Just the same.

GRISALES: It's all the same. I'm in there with that.

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Scott, what can't you let go of?

DETROW: Other than the fact that I need to get to all of these movies...

GRISALES: You do.

DETROW: ...And it's, like, overwhelming.

GRISALES: Hurry. Hurry.

DETROW: I know. You have - like, the timer is going. So as discussed a few times in the podcast, this is my first week back at work after a long absence. I'm very happy to be back. I'm very happy in many ways that things finally feel back in a pre-pandemic way and that they just didn't for a very long time. Among those is Tiny Desk Concerts are back at NPR. They have been for a little bit, but I wasn't here.

So I went to my first Tiny Desk concert in person in a very long time. It was Charley Crockett, who is delightful, who's, like, kind of, like - in a lot of his songs and the ones that he played at the concert, very, like, old-school country-western, Johnny-Cash style, like, banging piano, horns. And that is what I talk - want to talk about, because he was great, but he is not who I can't let go of. I cannot let go of a guy in his band, Kullen Fuchs, who was playing the piano during the first - so - and this concert hasn't posted yet. It's posting soon. But the first song is "The Man From Waco." There's piano in it.

GRISALES: Cool.

DETROW: There's horn in it. So he's playing the piano. And all of the sudden, he just whips out a trumpet and starts playing the trumpet as he plays the piano.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

GRISALES: Wow.

DETROW: And we were all mesmerized. Like, I just - I don't have a - Danielle, I know you play piano. I don't know if you play - do you play any musical instruments, Claudia?

GRISALES: Just a tiny bit of piano, but not very well at all.

DETROW: Just, like, my brain can't do that.

GRISALES: Yeah, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DETROW: And so, like, anyone who could play an instrument, I'm impressed with. But to see somebody play the piano and play the trumpet at the exact same time was just mind-blowing and inspiring to multitaskers anywhere and everywhere. And when that song finished, he put that down, and he played the guitar. So he was just doing everything. He was on it.

GRISALES: Oh, my gosh.

KURTZLEBEN: I can't wait to see this.

GRISALES: Me, too. Our Tiny Desk put out some pretty good viral moment - can't forget Usher's...

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, of course.

DETROW: Yes.

GRISALES: ...You know, his moment, in terms of viral videos from Tiny Desk. So that sounds like a viral moment to me. That's amazing.

DETROW: Danielle, what about you?

KURTZLEBEN: All right. What I can't let go of this week is M&M's. No, don't groan. Don't be upset. I swear I'm...

DETROW: How'd you know?

KURTZLEBEN: ...Going...

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: I'm very smart. I'm going somewhere good with this, I promise. Now, you may remember that last year, the M&M's became a focus of Tucker Carlson's anger in particular, but just the culture wars in general. The Green M&M had been, I believe, for a while, the only - the resident token lady M&M and had these, like...

GRISALES: Token lady.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Knee-high, high-heeled boots at one point. Well, last year they took away the boots. God, this feels so stupid as I'm talking about it.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: And they gave her sneakers. And that upset Mr. Tucker Carlson.

GRISALES: Oh, my gosh.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm going to read you a quote because it delights me so much, and then I'll get to the actually good part. He said, M&M's will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous until the moment you wouldn't want to have a drink with any one of them. Now, look, I don't kink shame. If you think M&M's are super cute, good for you. But what - what's delightful is that this week, M&M's put out this statement that was like, hey, we're going to temporarily retire the spokes candies because everybody just seems a little hot under the collar about it. Really, it kind of appears that this is just a Super Bowl stunt.

But the delightful people at A&W responded with their own spokes mascot, Rooty the Great Root Bear, who has been their spokes bear. Let me read this to you. This was their statement. America, let's talk. Since 1963, Rooty the Great Root Bear has been our beloved spokes bear. We knew people would notice because he's literally a 6-foot-tall bear wearing an orange sweater.

GRISALES: Oh, my gosh.

KURTZLEBEN: But now we get it. Even a mascot's lack of pants can be polarizing. Therefore, we have decided that Rooty will wear jeans, going forward. Not to worry, though. He will remain our official spokes bear. After all, he is unbearably cute - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

GRISALES: Unbearably cute - oh, my, gosh.

KURTZLEBEN: We are confident Rooty will continue to champion good food and good times for many years to come, now in denim. So...

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: ...Pants-free bears (laughter).

GRISALES: Wearing pants.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) I'm sorry. I can't even do this. It's just so stupid and so wonderful. So that's my can't let it go. Everything is dumb (laughter).

DETROW: Danielle?

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Yes?

DETROW: Thank you for sharing this with us.

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, Lord. Next up is Pooh. He doesn't have pants on. That's...

GRISALES: (Laughter) Pooh with pants.

KURTZLEBEN: ...A - I know. He needs them.

DETROW: He really doesn't.

GRISALES: Oh, my, God.

DETROW: He doesn't.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. I feel like I - I feel like I've wasted so much time.

GRISALES: No, this was good.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank...

GRISALES: This was good reporting.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

GRISALES: Really solid.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Well, I don't know what to say other than we're all wearing pants.

(LAUGHTER)

GRISALES: We are wearing pants. We are not...

KURTZLEBEN: Lest you ever...

GRISALES: ...Into this pant-less (ph) trend that some people are buying into.

KURTZLEBEN: Lest you ever doubt it, dear listeners.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) We have hundred-percent pants guarantee of this podcast.

DETROW: That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Research and fact-checking by our intern, Devin Speak. Thank you to Krishnadev Calamur, Brandon Carter and Lexie Schapitl. I am Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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

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