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Week In Politics: Justice Antonin Scalia's Death, Presidential Race


The vacancy left by Justice Scalia's death instantly became a political issue, Republicans saying the voters should have a say - meaning, wait to fill it until after the election - Democrats, calling that obstructionist. Our political commentators are here, and before we get to the presidential primary and caucus coming up we'll talk a little bit about Antonin Scalia with columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: David, what impact do you think Scalia's death will have on the political battles of this year or political thinking more generally?

BROOKS: Well, the Republicans are obviously going to take a delaying action. I personally think it's illegitimate. The Constitution is a set of rules to control our - to regulate our struggles for power, and if we're going to ignore the rules that the president gets to pick a successor then why have a Constitution? John Marshall was picked, like, weeks before John Adams left office. But I think it'll be effective. I think they probably won't confirm whoever Obama sends up and they'll be called obstructionists and we'll have that fight throughout probably the election year, but I doubt they'll pay much of a price for it.

SIEGEL: Do you think one side or the other, E.J., has more at stake in the issues of what happens if the composition of the Supreme Court changes?

DIONNE: Actually, I think both sides have an enormous stake, but clearly the conservatives have the most to lose. And I think what's going to be fascinating this time is that in the past, court-appointments had been an issue for some conservative activists, for elites. But now you have a series of very live issues from, you know, what I would see as conservative judicial activism - the Citizens United decision sweeping away campaign finance restrictions, the Voting Rights Act decision, which kind of gutted the capacity to enforce it. And it goes on and on like that. And I think that this time for a lot of liberals, this will matter, and that Mitch McConnell in saying not only we are likely to reject the president's appointment but to say essentially we're not even going to take it up I think lights a real fire on the - under Democrats and liberals on this issue. They'll probably prevail, but they could pay a price in some of the purple state Senate races.

SIEGEL: David, do you think this will animate conservatives more than liberals, though?

BROOKS: Well, it's hard to tell more. I think both. And so, you know, the people who are abortion voters are pretty much polarized on either side. I mean, I think it will have a generally polarizing effect on the electorate on the issue base, but it's hard to know who gets mobilized more, but we know the extremes will be mobilized.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the two contests coming up in the presidential nominating races. For the Democrats, tomorrow it's Nevada - the caucuses. The polls point to a close race. It's the first contest in which Latinos represent a big share. And on an MSNBC Telemundo town hall last night, Chuck Todd asked Bernie Sanders about actually implementing his campaign platform.


CHUCK TODD: How quickly are you going to get immigration reform done?

BERNIE SANDERS: It is a top priority.

TODD: What does that mean? First hundred days?

SANDERS: You know, I'm not a dictator here. It has to do with a little bit of cooperation from the Congress.

SIEGEL: And in the same town hall, Hillary Clinton was asked about Sanders's criticism of Bill Clinton's presidency - deregulation of Wall Street, welfare reform. She cited job growth and higher incomes for minorities, and she questioned Sanders's criticism of Presidents Clinton and Obama.


HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I just don't know where all this comes from because maybe it's that Senator Sanders wasn't really a Democrat until he decided to run for president. He doesn't even know what the...


CLINTON: ...You know, last two Democratic presidents did. And I'm...


CLINTON: Well, it's true. It's true. You know it's true. I mean, it happens to be true.

SIEGEL: E.J., are Democratic primary voters or caucus-goers happy with the status quo in their party to vote for continuity and defending their past presidents instead of change?

DIONNE: If you sort of watch and listen to the political body language of both the Clinton and the Sanders campaigns, you have a sense that the Clinton people are worried that they could lose Nevada, and the Sanders people think they could win. And I think Nevada's going to be an interesting test of whether Bernie Sanders's generational wedge can actually cut into what are supposed to be Hillary Clinton's core constituencies. The Sanders people - Latino voters...

SIEGEL: You're speaking of the generation of his supporters...


SIEGEL: ...Not of Bernie Sanders.

DIONNE: Well, no, but that's one of the fascinating things about this campaign, a 74-year-old man as a hero to the young. And the Sanders people believe that they can pull away a lot of younger Latino voters from Hillary Clinton. And Latinos, of course, along with African-Americans, are the people who are supposed to save her. And so if Clinton should lose Nevada, I think there'll be - she will probably still win in South Carolina, which is the next contest. But I think there's going to be a lot of reconsideration in her campaign and to say what can she do not only to push back Sanders - and I think that'll get more aggressive - but also to make Clinton a more persuasive candidate, particularly to the young because the margins he's winning among the young are staggering.

SIEGEL: David, thoughts on the Democrats?

BROOKS: Well, first of all, you were saying an interesting distinction between Latino voters and African-American voters. At least looking at the polls, Latino voters are much more welcoming to the Bernie Sanders message than are - so far - African-American voters in South Carolina. And so the question is, if Sanders does win Nevada - and the fact that he's even close is sort of shocking compared to three weeks ago - then do African-American voters give him a look in places like South Carolina? His - people still don't know him. And I have a feeling they would. I just think the class argument, the class distinction argument, is a very powerful argument this year and Hillary Clinton's attempt to go after it or rebut it by waging an identity issue argument, it's just not as strong this year.

SIEGEL: Last minute we'll devote to the Republicans in South Carolina, where, David, astonishingly, Donald Trump is - he's taking on the Vatican. He's taking on Pope Francis.

BROOKS: What's next? Who else is more sacred? The NFL? NPR?


DIONNE: Never that.

BROOKS: You know, and the question is, is there exhaustion setting in with him? And if you take the average of the polls, there isn't. He can take on George W. Bush, he can take on the Vatican and his support is stable. There's one...

SIEGEL: Muslims, Mexicans.

BROOKS: Everybody. And they just like the fact that he's taking people on. There's one poll - which is a very good poll - the NBC Wall Street Journal poll, which does show him beginning to take a hit, that the exhaustion factor is kicking. We'll see.

DIONNE: I am so struck by how many comments this fight between the Pope and Donald Trump set off. Some of the more serious is clearly Pope Francis showing where the center of gravity is on Catholic teaching these days. He's talking about immigration. But also, on the comic side, my Washington Post colleague, Carlos Lozada, wondered where Trump would go next and he figured, why not Jesus? See, Carlos tweeted, why did it take him three days to rise? I would've risen in three hours. Jesus - very low energy. We'll see if Trump can go that far.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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