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Week In Politics: The Future Of The GOP And The 2nd Round Of Democratic Debates

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to continue the discussion in our Week in Politics segment. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School is here.

Hey there, E.J.

EJ DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times is here with us in studio. Hi there, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello.

CORNISH: All right, so we just heard someone trying to grapple with the reality of the departures in the Republican Party. David, I want to start with you. What does it mean for the constituency of someone like a Will Hurd, right? Not only was he a minority lawmaker, he was a former intelligence officer. Did he ever have one at all? Or - right? - or is this a party in which the people who might support someone like this, they're just - there's nowhere for them to go?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, in the Congress, there a lot of people like him that are keeping their head down. Some of them - and I've had conversations with many, many of them - and many people...

CORNISH: But where are their voters, right? I mean, if everyone's...

BROOKS: Right.

CORNISH: ...Retiring, it's because they think they can't survive a primary.

BROOKS: That's right. In the - in this partisan moment, they think they can't survive. And Trump is pushing racial buttons now on an almost hourly basis. And for somebody like Will Hurd, that's - it's hard to be a person of conscience and be part of that party.

And so right now, the voters are still with Trump, mostly because he's part of the team. But I have to think there are a lot of those voters who once it's not a team element and wants the Trump era ends, they'll be eager to say good bye to all this.

CORNISH: E.J., there's so much conversation about how Democrats appeal to this person who might be dissatisfied with the president. Where's your head on this?

DIONNE: Well, I think it's very important just to face up to the fact that the Republicans have become very nearly an all-white party. And Will Hurd's a real loss because he was a very well respected and liked Republican who really did cross these lines. But he looked at what's happened to the party even before Trump and said, you know, this doesn't work anymore. I mean, Republicans have been using...

CORNISH: But all that's been known, right? I mean, what does it mean going forward? Do Democrats look at that and say, hey, there's a constituency out there we can get? Or do they say look; we've got to be more progressive, more left, those guys got to figure out their stuff on their own?

DIONNE: Well, no. I think the Democrats have been picking up people of color of all kinds in their party as they've left the Republican Party. And people of color are going to be very, very important in the coming Democratic primaries.

Or - this isn't happening in the Republican Party. I think the break point was when President George W. Bush tried, to his credit, and failed to get immigration reform in the middle of his second term. He thought the Republicans needed people of color, particularly Latinos. He did pretty - he did quite well among them.

When Republicans walked away from immigration reform, that was the beginning of what Donald Trump kind of completed by winning the Republican nomination in 2016.

CORNISH: I want to jump to another highlight of this week, and that came in the Democratic primary debates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORY BOOKER: Mr. Vice President, there's a saying in my community. You're dipping into the Kool-Aid, and you don't even know the flavor. You need to...

CORNISH: All right, we're going to get into the flavor now. That was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker basically throwing some massive shade at the Vice President Joe Biden, who was fending off slings and arrows from all directions.

E.J., I want to hear shortly from you kind of what your impressions were in terms of a standout moment in those two days.

DIONNE: Well, I think if you look at the debates together, the people who really advanced the most were Cory Booker, who had a very good debate because he not only went after Biden effectively, but he also sounded notes of unity. And Kamala Harris got really beaten up in this debate. And so I think he's going to - he has a real shot at occupying the top tier. Elizabeth Warren had a good first debate. And while there's division on this, I think it was very important for Joe Biden that he got through this in much better shape than he did in the first debate.

On the whole, I don't think these debates were very helpful to Democrats. Yes, Democrats have to work out where they stand for. But I think some broader arguments they need - that need to be made about the dangers posed by Trump, the need to protect health care advances and all sorts of other things kind of got lost because these were such - it was so important for these candidates to take each other on. And the questions kind of goaded that on. So...

CORNISH: I want to let David have...

DIONNE: ...It wasn't ideal for the Democrats.

CORNISH: ...A chance here. David, here is your favorite candidate of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIANNE WILLIAMSON: If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I'm afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.

CORNISH: Spiritual leader and author Marianne Williamson, you - she was the most Googled candidate the morning after. It sounds like you were one of them.

BROOKS: I was. And I don't - she does not have my vote, but she has my admiration for that comment. The Democrats have to figure out what this election about. To me, this election is about who we are as a country, what kind of values we want to raise our children in. Donald Trump is not a policy revolutionary. He's a cultural revolutionary. And he's changing the culture of our values - how we define masculinity, whether we care about honesty, whether we care about racism.

And so Democrats have to fight this on a cultural level, too, upholding certain values and saying we stand for these values, Donald Trump is the opposite. And for all the debates about whether we should have private health care insurance or not, you can't have a wonkish response to what is essentially a cultural onslaught. The Democrats need a way to talk about values.

CORNISH: E.J., can you respond to this? Because even Williamson said the next day that, you know, said she wasn't sure how she didn't until she saw the memes. I mean, she knows she's not necessarily been taking fully seriously.

DIONNE: Well, I half agree with David in the following sense, that I think they needed to be much clearer about why it was urgent to defeat Trump. And some of the reasons David listed are among those reasons. On the other hand, it is very important to move forward on the very issues Democrats talked about. On health care, the problem is, I think, that the debate was incomprehensible to a lot of people on all these very particular details on Medicare for All versus, say, the public option.

And I think the most devastating comment came from David Axelrod, former - President Obama's senior adviser. The words preexisting conditions, which helped Democrats win the House when Democrats said Republicans want to take these protections away that were contained in Obamacare, those words were never spoken. So they need a much more broader and more comprehensible debate on the policy.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School.

Thank you.

DIONNE: Very good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times, author of "The Second Mountain."

David, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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