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Week In Politics: Sen. Harry Reid's Retirement, Cruz's Appeal To Far-Right


That's not the only news this week linked to the next election cycle. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas fast-tracked his own presidential campaign by skipping the exploratory committee step. And Hillary Clinton gave what's expected to be her last speech as a non-candidate. Lots of grist for our Friday, guys. Columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: Senate Minority Leader, former Majority Leader Reid - what kind of political epitaph has he earned as the Democrat's leader? David, let's start with you.

BROOKS: Paradoxical, soft voice, almost an inverse voice that got softer as he got madder, but waspish tongue - could say incredibly crude things, unpredictable politically but effective as a leader, you'd have to say. I sort of didn't like some of the ways he bent what I would say, bent the rules of the Senate, change the rules of the Senate to make the leadership more powerful. On the other hand, he held Democrats together extremely well, especially in those first two years of the Obama administration. The White House wasn't doing much to help cohesion, but Harry Reid, with the slimmest of majorities, got the 60 votes he needed to pass a whole bunch of legislation. And so he was quite effective at herding the cats.

SIEGEL: E J, you agree?

DIONNE: Right and I think given the diversity of the Senate Caucus, to talk about herding cats does a disservice to how relatively organized cats are compared to this Democratic Caucus he had the lead. I think he was somebody who took over smack at the beginning of an incredible period of party polarization. Democrats liked him because he understood each individual member, but they also liked him because he was a former boxer with a pugilistic personality. And they knew that's what they needed at this time, and it's how he got things done. I think in legacy terms there are two things - one will be getting the health care bill through, Wall Street reform through at the beginning of the Obama administration. And I think he was somebody who faced up to the fact that for all of this talk about Senate traditions, a lot of them were dead. The filibuster's been abused and, therefore, has to be changed, and he began to change them.

SIEGEL: Let's turn to Sen. Ted Cruz, who announced his candidacy at Liberty University, cradle of the Christian conservative right, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: Roughly half of born-again Christians aren't voting. They're staying home. Imagine instead, millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, is there a sleeping giant of a conservative Christian turnout waiting for Ted Cruz to awaken it?

BROOKS: All of whom went to Princeton or Harvard Law. Yeah, no, I think he's chosen the right strategy. I mean, we forget how well Rick Santorum did with Christian voters and, as a result, with caucuses and primaries last time. So that's the avenue. The economic conservatives have got their candidates. The mainstream conservatives have got their candidates. They're sure to fight for the Christian angle and Cruz both embodies it and transcends it. My problem with Cruz is that he's very, very smart - he's going to Wall Street these days and impressing people with his intelligence - but he's in the new era of performance politics. He actually hasn't done much governing in his life but he's done a lot of performing. And he's done a lot of things which are anti-governing, such as shutting down the government. And so we'll see if Republican voters want a guy who's really good at being on TV and really good at making statements but has no governing experience.

SIEGEL: E J, you wrote about Cruz this week and talked about the path he sees to - I guess - to the right of Jeb Bush?

DIONNE: Right. I think there are multiple battles going on at the same time in the Republican Party. Up to now, Scott Walker has succeeded in being the main - more conservative alternative to the quite conservative Jeb Bush. Walker is getting the votes of the very conservative wing of the Republican Party and McClatchy-Marist Poll had Bush at 19, Walker at 18. But what Ted Cruz understands is two other candidates got 19 percent between them - Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson. The religious right is very much up for grabs and so he went to liberty, he made this open appeal for evangelical votes, and he sounded like a reincarnation of John Lennon, he used that word imagine so much. Because he knows that's the constituency available to him. So what he's trying to do is rally the Christian conservatives and then he can challenge Walker to be the challenger to Bush. It's not - it's kind of a long shot, but I think it's plausible.

SIEGEL: Do you think he can win the nomination, David?

BROOKS: I would put it at about 5 percent chance. Essentially, the Republican Party eventually goes with the guy they think is plausible.


BROOKS: But, you know, we're in an era of performance politics and we're an era of angrier politics. And he is a fantastic debater and he's angry. And you know, he might tap a nerve if the Republicans decide just to upset everything.

DIONNE: I think it depends on how many right-wing candidates there are. Mitt Romney and John McCain both won the Republican nomination because a lot of people split the vote to their right. Jeb Bush needs people to split their vote to - the vote to his right. If somebody can consolidate that part of the party, that person could win. That includes Cruz, it includes Walker and it might include former Texas Governor Rick Perry.

SIEGEL: On the Democratic side, still no announcement from Hillary Clinton, but a speech this week. Which raises a question, are you thinking still, E J, of Hillary Clinton as the inevitable nominee with good poll numbers against any Republican who's mentioned, or Hillary Clinton who's potentially very politically accident prone?

DIONNE: Well, she gave actually quite a good speech this week. I was there when she spoke at a memorial for Robin Toner, former New York Times correspondent who passed away. And it was very interesting because she was both self-deprecating - Hillary Clinton was - but also used Robin Toner to say, Robin covered substance of things, she covered health care and it was like a challenge, you know, don't cover that server in my basement. She took some real hits with the server. It's hurting her in the polls. I still don't see anybody who can beat her for the nomination.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: She's a monopoly and like a lot of monopolies, she's big, she's kind of intimidating, she's not that effective. But so far, she's a monopoly. So until there's a challenger, she'll be big and crude and maybe not as efficient, but not stoppable.

SIEGEL: So she's not even an official monopoly yet.

BROOKS: Well, she'll become an official in the - she's an unofficial monopoly.

DIONNE: If you're a monopoly, you don't have to be official.

SIEGEL: E J Dionne and David Brooks, have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You too.

DIONNE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.