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Week In Politics: Confederate Flag, Democratic Presidential Field


Let's go now to our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

It's nice to see you both. Welcome.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

E J DIONNE: Good to see you.

MCEVERS: As I said at the top of this show, the flag's removal came on the same day that the FBI has announced the man who's charged in the Charleston shootings shouldn't have been allowed to buy the gun that was used in the attack. FBI director James Comey told reporters the background check failed, that the paperwork was inaccurate and also incomplete. And last month, Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham actually said the background check system was broken and that he was open to modifying it. But this isn't really an idea that's caught on politically, not in Congress and not in South Carolina.

And David, you know, why do you think the political energy was focused on the flag rather than on guns or background checks?

BROOKS: Well, first, I think it was focused on the flag because you take what the field will allow. You know, they've tried to do gun reform for a long time, and it hasn't gotten anywhere. And the flag was something that so many people were agreed upon, so progress was made on that front. As for the gun issue, you know, government bureaucracies are not known for their efficiency and effectiveness. But I sort of think the rule is dumb - the three-day rule is kind of a dumb rule. If they can't - if you're going to have a government check, a background check, on a gun purchase, have a check and reach a conclusion, don't suspend it in the middle. And that seems to be where we are now, and I think changing that rule seems sensible to me.

MCEVERS: You mean the three days it takes to run someone's record before they can get cleared...

BROOKS: Exactly.

MCEVERS: ...Right? Yeah.

DIONNE: Right. I think what it showed is that even when you pass a sensible law - in this case, background checks - to keep people with records from getting guns, the gun lobby manages to put unworkable loopholes in here. As The New York Times reported, the FBI had three days to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to deny the purchase of this gun. And if the Bureau can't come up with an answer, the purchaser can come back and buy the gun. The bias in the law should be the other way. It should be resolved on the side of denying someone a gun until we know that they don't have a record. And I would love to see Senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin, who have been pushing for background checks, to introduce a very simple bill just to close this one loophole. Let's see if the NRA opposes that. Will Congress have the guts to pass that? Maybe that could be at least one very small thing on top of the lowering of the Confederate flag that could come out of this awful tragedy.

MCEVERS: Still talking about South Carolina, I mean, we heard from civil rights advocate yesterday Mary Frances Berry, and she said, you know, great, the removal of the flag is a nice symbol, but it's also a diversion, you know, to not get at the root issues of race and inequality in this country.

And what would you say to that? David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I don't think it's a symbol - I mean, I think it is a symbol but not a diversion. Symbols are important. Our conversations are formed by symbols, by rituals and by things we do. First I thought removing the flag was simply a matter of politeness. If a large percentage of your fellow citizens find something offensive then simply as a matter of civic politeness, it should be taken down. And so this gets a conversation going, and I think importantly, it does enhance the possibility of conversations, and that it enhances the atmosphere in which young people are raised. And so I think it's not a diversion. I think it's quite important. This is how we communicate our values to each other. It doesn't mean it's going to solve the controversial issues of race and family structure and poverty and things like that, but not a diversion, not at all.

DIONNE: Yeah, I think it's a symbolic act that could open the way to the substantive acts that Mary Frances Berry was talking about. At the heart of this argument is what did that flag stand for? And for years, people - a certain wing of conservatism in the South tried to deny that the Civil War itself was about slavery when Alexander Stephens, the head of - vice president of the Confederacy, said that slavery was the cornerstone of the cause of the Civil War.

And the other side of it is that this flag went up in the '50s and '60s largely in defense of white supremacy and in opposition to civil rights. So for South Carolina finally to recognize this is, really in the end, a hateful symbol more than it is a symbol of heritage, maybe opens the way - as that teacher said on the good piece from down there - to start talking about other, more substantive steps we can take.

MCEVERS: Let's shift gears a little bit. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is having a pretty good week. He's been having some - he's actually been having some good weeks, right? He's - big crowds at campaign events, a surge in support.

E.J., what's happening here? I mean, do you think he has a real shot at the nomination?

DIONNE: I think he has a shot to win primaries. I still don't think he has a shot to win the nomination. He hasn't proven that yet. But Bernie Sanders, I like to say is "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," except it's a Vermont Socialist with a Brooklyn accent. I mean, there is something deeply authentic about this. What he has to say speaks to not only a large part of the Democratic Party, but a lot of other Americans who are frustrated with the establishment. He attacks both the political and economic establishment. Now, I think as the campaign goes on, people are going to ask, OK, do I want to send a message with Bernie or do I want to send them a president? It was a slogan that Jimmy Carter used many years ago. And Hillary Clinton is giving an economic speech on Monday. It's a fairly sweeping speech, from the way her campaign is describing it, and I think it's going to cover quite a lot of the ground that Bernie has been covering on the campaign trail.

MCEVERS: David, what do you think this Bernie-mentum, as one of our reporters put it, means for Hillary Clinton?

BROOKS: People love University of Chicago students who want to become president.


DIONNE: Is this your announcement at candidacy? The Republicans could use another candidate.

MCEVERS: Yeah, that's true - not enough.

BROOKS: No, this is not going anywhere. Listen, he's going to do well among university towns, but they're simply aren't enough sociology professors to push him over the top. And he's shown no record, or even in the polling, much of evidence that he can do particularly well among less affluent, less progressive, working-class Democrats. He has shown very little sign that he could do pretty well among African-Americans or Latino. And without those big groups, he'll max-out at the university towns.

DIONNE: Could I caveat that just a little bit - if I can sound like Al Haig? The - Iowa and New Hampshire are two states where he could do very well. In Iowa, Hillary Clinton got less than a third of the caucus-goers. She came in third. That population who goes to the caucus is very progressive. And New Hampshire's next-door, and he's already closed the gap. Having said that, I still can't see Bernie going all the way and defeating Hillary Clinton.

MCEVERS: And quickly - you know, on Wednesday, Republican candidate Jeb Bush said that in order to grow the economy, to get to the 4 percent growth, people need to work longer hours. Then his campaign later, you know, clarified and said he was actually referring to part-time workers and the underemployed.

David, how did you understand these comments - quickly?

BROOKS: It was not - what he said was perfectly normal. It seems to me, from the context, he was completely talking about part-time workers, and it was blown way out of proportion.

DIONNE: But it's a dangerous thing that Hillary, I think, is going to use in her speech on Monday because he didn't talk about we need to raise wages for people so they don't work fewer hours - even though I agree with David, as he explained, he meant to talk about part-time workers who were there involuntarily.

MCEVERS: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you very much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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

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