ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, politics with our Friday regulars, columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hello to both of you.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: We had spending compromise in Congress and a Republican debate in Colorado, but let's start with the story that Tom Bowman just report on. David, boots on the ground in Syria, albeit fewer than a hundred boots - significant change in U.S. policy?
BROOKS: Well, it's learning. Let's call it a learning exercise. The administration has been in continual withdrawal from the Middle East in general for a couple of years, and things have gotten a lot worse. The country of Syria barely exists. The country of Iraq barely exists. Our attempts to train Syrian forces failed. And so they're learning. And I give them political credit from doing things that are, frankly, politically embarrassing. I wish there was an overall strategy. Are we anti-Assad? Are we anti-ISIS? Are we anti-both? What are the realistic prospects of the other forces? And so I wish there was an overall strategy, but you got to give President Obama credit for doing something that's politically tough, but which he thinks is right.
SIEGEL: Politically tough, E. J.?
DIONNE: Well, I think there'll be some opposition. But sometimes, as David suggests, a president has to change his policy in response to reality. And I think the overriding reality here is the Russian intervention, that we are involved now in negotiations over the future of Syria. The Russians strengthened their hand by intervening in a very serious way. I think the president is obviously trying to protect the forces we're backing there, the anti-Assad, non-ISIS opposition. And - but he also wants to be stronger in the negotiations. And this could actually deter Russian attacks on the forces we are supporting. There's a sense you have that they are not just there to get at ISIS. They're here - there to hit even these forces. So this could have a positive effect. If 50 aren't enough, that becomes a really hard problem for the president.
SIEGEL: Well, let's turn, domestically, into this week's CNBC debate on Westwood One. When Jeb Bush came at his fellow Floridian, Marco Rubio, for missing so many Senate votes, here was Marco Rubio striking back.
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MARCO RUBIO: The only reason why you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.
SIEGEL: Applause for that comeback. Bush's reviews were so lackluster in this debate that, the next day, he assured reporters that his campaign is not on life support and that starring in debates isn't what it's all about.
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JEB BUSH: It's not about the big personalities on the stage. It's not about performance. It's about leadership. And the leader today in this country needs to be a unifier.
SIEGEL: David, is Jeb Bush the unifier the Republicans need?
BROOKS: He's got 92 percent of the party against him, so I guess so.
BROOKS: You know, you feel bad for the guy. He's a genial guy. He's a nice guy. He's got 300 years of WASP history that have taught him to be just kind and not angry. And frankly, his family has no reason to be angry about. But the Republicans are angry, and so he's just out of step with the times. And he happens to be faced off, in that case, with a guy like Marco Rubio, who has very, very, very impressive natural political instincts, and it just helps. There are some people who have it, and some people don't, and they don't have to think too much. I mean, that - Rubio's answer was preplanned, but they just have the feel. And Rubio has that feel. And I regard him as, now, the most likely person to be the Republican nominee.
SIEGEL: Even though he' still, you know, behind three other or four other people in the race?
BROOKS: That's because I get down on my prayer rug and assume that Carson and Trump will be gone.
BROOKS: And so - and I still do make that assumption because, as we saw in the debate, when Carson - when the issue actually turns to governance, those guys just disappear. They're invisible. They're completely unprepared. And when we - we'll end the shopping phase and enter the buying phase. And I do think they'll go through. It'll be Cruz and Rubio at the end, in my opinion.
SIEGEL: E. J., do think that Rubio, if he indeed is a leader - do you think he is and he is a strong one for the Republicans?
DIONNE: I think, partly because everybody in Washington now is saying that Marco Rubio is going to be the nominee, I am extremely skeptical. And Rubio's own campaign didn't want him to emerge this early. David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Obama, used much more colorful language than I'm going to use to make the point that, when Scott Walker got high up on the poll, he got a lot more scrutiny. And I think that Marco Rubio has, so far, gotten through this race shrewdly on his part, without all that much scrutiny. Now is the time. And we're going to see how he stands up. I think - I still refuse to rule Bush out entirely, partly because I still think that he got through some of that critique of Rubio, even if he mishandled the moment entirely. I was with a group of New Hampshire Republicans who were not yet convinced - I watched the debate with them this week - and they were not yet convinced that Rubio is ready to be president. So I still think he has not won a nomination yet for which we haven't even had the Iowa caucuses.
SIEGEL: David, have senior Republicans communicated to Jeb Bush the sentiment that you've expressed, that, OK, maybe it's not your year after all?
BROOKS: No. They're sort of on the verge of doing that, but they're giving him some time. But I do think that you're beginning to see the donors begin to dry up a bit.
SIEGEL: OK. Speaking of senior Republicans - real news on Capitol Hill this week - Paul Ryan took the gavel as speaker of the house.
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PAUL RYAN: But let's be frank - the House is broken. We're not solving problems. We're adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.
SIEGEL: And seeing to it that the slate was clean for Ryan, the outgoing speaker, John Boehner, pushed through a spending bill that defers questions of a debt ceiling and a government shutdown until after the next elections. E.J., a new era in Washington?
DIONNE: Well, I have to say, I always wonder what a politician is really thinking when he begins a sentence, let's be frank. But I think that John Boehner gave Paul Ryan a big gift this week, even though Ryan sort of walked a careful line - said he didn't like the process, but then he supported it - because he got some very tough issues off the table. This will allow Ryan to be more thematic. But there are still some tough issues left on the budget. Ryan is a complicated man. He is a nice person. I know a lot of Democrats who privately like him. He's also an ideologue. And I think these two parts of him could kind of co-exist more easily outside the spotlight than in it. And we're going to see who he is.
SIEGEL: How would you describe what Paul Ryan faces?
BROOKS: We call him a conviction politician, not an ideologue.
DIONNE: That's what you say when you like their ideology.
BROOKS: That's right, exactly. I would say the big story - I'm not sure a lot's going to get done. But the fact that, right now, the two big faces in the Republican Party could be Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, if Rubio emerges, that's pretty good, considering this party was on the verge of really self-exiling itself. And those are two very smart, very wonky, pretty attractive human beings.
SIEGEL: And people who are younger, of a different generation than Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.
BROOKS: Yes. And both of them understand that we have a big labor - a wage stagnation problem. And they have Republican alternatives to the Democratic alternatives.
SIEGEL: David Brooks of The New York Times, E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thanks to both of you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Good to be here. Thanks.
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