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Week In Politics: Papal Visit, 2nd GOP Debate


Now our Friday political commentators, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and, joining us from Atlanta this week, David Brooks of The New York Times.

Welcome to both of you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Let's start with Donald Trump and what we just heard about. David, was that question about Muslims that Trump treated as unobjectionable - do you think that might have been the big Trump accident that's been waiting to happen or just another case of Trump being Trump without likely political consequences?

BROOKS: He can afford to look offensive. He can't afford to look hapless. His whole campaign is based on his own mastery of every situation, and if he begins to look, you know - over his head or hapless then the whole - I think the bubble comes out of the balloon. What's also struck me is about the way he conducts his business - is that he'll give money to anybody who is opportunistically helping his business. And he's run his campaign that way. He talks incessantly about how high his poll numbers are. And so it's not at what am I standing for, it's how well am I doing? And if you're running an unprincipled campaign then you're probably not going to take the principled stand of correcting one of your own supporters, and you're going to run into troubles like this one.

SIEGEL: E.J. what do you think?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, cutting the words I and me out of a Trump speech would be like turning war and peace into a tweet. I mean, there is just - that's who Trump is. And this episode was a reminder that Trump really burst on the right-wing scene and began to develop this following he has precisely by being a birther, precisely by buying into statements like that. And he was clearly reluctant to turn his back on a very significant part of his constituency. I'm not sure this actually hurts Trump in terms of the support he has, but I think the debate this week suggested that as the Trump phenomenon is normalized and routinized, as he gets treated more like a politician, gets challenged more, he will become less interesting. And I think the real fatal thing for Trump will be the day he becomes uninteresting to a lot of people.

SIEGEL: In Wednesday night's CNN debate, many people, as we heard from Don Gonyea, thought that the winner was Carly Fiorina.


PRES CAND CARLY FIORINA: I'd like to link these two issues, both of which are incredibly important - Iran and Planned Parenthood. One has something to do with the defense of the security of this nation. The other has something to do with the defense of the character of this nation.

SIEGEL: She dared Hillary Clinton and President Obama to watch the latest video taken of Planned Parenthood personnel and she promised, if elected, to call up Israel's prime minister on day one to assure him of her support and call Iran's supreme leader with a warning of new sanctions.

My question for the two of you - we'll begin with David - is, in substance, apart from her not being a takedown artist, is she - is her - are her politics radically different from those of Donald Trump?

BROOKS: Yeah. She's a much more, I think, establishmentarian Republican and ran in, say, in California much more as an establishment figure. Donald Trump has no politics. He has no ideology. She's a real Republican. She wasn't that great a debater in California when she ran for senate, but she's really been superb now. She has a genius for the signature moment, a sort of a passion for making some drama in a good way. And I now think we have to consider her as what the electorate partially wants, which is someone who is more or less normal but also someone with an edge and will reflect the popular anger. I think the sealing on her campaign is her Hewlett-Packard business career. But I think she suddenly becomes an extremely plausible vice presidential candidate.


DIONNE: I think the biggest difference between Fiorina and Trump is that Fiorina actually has policy positions. But when you listen to that statement, she's got to be the first person in history to link Planned Parenthood and Iran. I suspect the mullahs would be very surprised by that. So she is a very, very staunch, right-wing candidate. And I agree with something David just said - I think she did have a good debate. She stood out. A lot of people of all political views identified with her pushback - very successful pushback against Trump about his boorish comments about her looks. But I think this - looking into Hewlett-Packard - will not be helpful to her. It was not successful, that company under her. And she lost by a million votes to Barbara Boxer in California in 2010. Now yes, it's a Democratic state, but that was a very good year.

SIEGEL: You both agree. David, you're saying that having cut a lot of people off the payroll at Hewlett-Packard and not having let the company to great things, it's hard to run on that.

BROOKS: Yeah, and I don't rule her out. Now, she is a genius for the dramatic moment. And the electorate is angry, and so I think she emerges as one of the candidates who has both the establishment responsibility and the edge. But I do think the HP thing is a big problem. Rubio has that a bit as well - a little of the outsider because of his age, but also the genius for the dramatic moment. What's been striking to me is that - I think as we look forward to the trajectory of this campaign, is Bush doesn't have the genius for the dramatic moment. Three-hundred-fifty years of WASP history have given him a reticence and a gentility, which is admirable - not right for this electorate right now.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to something different. Next week - big visit to the United States - Pope Francis is coming to town, to Washington, as well as to New York and Philadelphia. Does his visit have political content, or is it really essentially a spiritual occasion for American Catholics, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, it is clearly a spiritual occasion for American Catholics. But if you want to think about the politics of this visit, imagine someone speaking in Spanish, which is going to be the language of many of his speeches, talking about economic injustice, poverty, a warming planet, welcoming immigrants. That person would not have gotten a very warm reception at this week's Republican debate. So I think that is just a brute fact about this visit. Now, conservatives and liberals in the church and outside are going to be looking, well, what did he say about abortion? Conservatives will emphasize that. How much should he talk about social justice? I think he's a challenge to everybody, and he will be challenging everyone. And we should look not just at what he says, but where is he going? Who is he visiting? Jim Dwyer had a wonderful column in The New York Times today about one of his visits in New York where he'll be meeting people who wash cars - Hudson Valley farm workers, day laborers, immigrant mothers, teenagers and kids who crossed the border without parents. And in Philadelphia, he's visiting a prison. Here in Washington, he's going to Catholic Charities to meet some more impoverished Americans. That is going to be the core message of the visit, and it's a challenge to all of our complacency.

SIEGEL: And, David, do you think that message will have resonance for non-Catholics as well as Catholic Americans?

BROOKS: Completely. I think we're in danger of over-politicizing this visit. I mean, we're going to see mass displays of faith, of devotion, for millions and millions of people - probably thousands maybe even millions will have their lives changed or reconfirmation of faith in a way that politics can't touch.

And then finally, you know, we all give sermons and he'll give sermons, but the message is the person - the kind of person he is in the way he conducts himself, as E.J. says, the people he's visiting. He is displaying a devotion to God, a devotion to the least among us, a sort of soul on fire that will inspire millions of people - Muslim, atheists, Jews - it's going to be a huge cultural event, I think.

DIONNE: Amen, David.


SIEGEL: Coming next week, the papal visit to the U.S.

David Brooks in Atlanta, E.J. Dionne, here in Washington, thanks for talking with us once again.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.