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Week In Politics: Gun Control Debate, Republican Presidential Race


It was an interesting week in politics with lots of examples of how the presidential campaign is heating up, so let's get right to it. Our Friday regulars are here - David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.

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

MCEVERS: I want to talk first about New Hampshire - the Republican primaries next month - again, a lot of campaigning going on. E. J., you just got back from New Hampshire. You spent some time with Marco Rubio. What struck you about him?

DIONNE: Well, what's really striking about Rubio now, since the first of the year, really, is that a guy who was known for optimism and youthfulness and thinking America can really lick his problems has been very gloomy. I - we saw him at a lovely event in a classic living room event in Bedford, N.H., where he just sounded like he was channeling Trump a little bit and Cruz a little bit in terms of all that has gone wrong with Obama. He quoted voters saying, this doesn't look like my country anymore, I don't recognize America and so on. Now, I think one of the things this represents is the fact that this idea of candidates running in political lanes, you know - the Trump lane and the right-wing lane and the center-right lane - that exists in the minds of journalists and regretted pundits. It doesn't exist in the mind of voters. And in that room, I noticed - I talked to voters who were choosing between Rubio, who's usually put in the establishment lane, but they were picking between Rubio and Trump or Rubio and Cruz. And I also think this reflects the fact that Rubio is very worried about Cruz, that Cruz has taken some real leaps forward. He's even ahead in a poll out in California, where there's been no campaign to speak of. But it also, I think, should tell the pundits to be careful about not applying our categories to actual human beings.

MCEVERS: Well, David, I mean, it is helpful, though, sometimes to think about lanes, right, because we got the Trump lane, right, which is sort of a lane in and of itself, and then there's the more establishment lane. And the reason it's helpful to think about it, right, is if Trump does win New Hampshire, the person who comes in second place - that's important because that's the person who the establishment could coalesce around and then say this is the, you know, the...

BROOKS: Not if it's Ted Cruz.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right, OK.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think E. J.'s right. The voters do have not quite the same lanes, and so I'm not sure I totally believe in lanes. I do believe in souls though, and people have different identities. And I've rarely seen an inauthentic candidate win. And so Ted Cruz is being authentic. He is authentically nasty, egomaniacal, combative. If you watch his speeches, he wants to stomp on those people, bomb those people, shoot those people. That's authentic to him. It's not authentic to Marco Rubio. And so he was the candidate of a tendency which has been eclipsed called reform conservatism, which was actually about programs and policies and improving your life. And I would go back to that if I were him. I think he's making a big mistake in being un-himself. And, as I say, I rarely see an inauthentic candidate win.

MCEVERS: I mean, there's been some criticism of Rubio lately, right? That he doesn't seem like a candidate right now who really wants this, that he's not getting out there and making personal contacts, especially with folks in New Hampshire in, say, the way Chris Christie is doing. E. J., did you see that? I mean, did you see that he's committed to this?

DIONNE: Well, he certainly looked very committed at this event. He was talking to voters. I broadly agree with what David said, by the way. I think that inauthenticity - you get caught out because the process is very, very long. But tactically, he may be doing what he has to do. What he hasn't done is the amount of - the number of town meetings that both Chris Christie and John Kasich have done. And Jeb Bush has actually done quite a lot of those. And so in that sense, he is playing catch-up. I think one of the biggest surprises so far is the resurrection of Chris Christie. He's really put himself back in the race by running in New Hampshire as if he were running for governor of New Hampshire, which is how you have to do it. And I think the sure sign that Christie is getting somewhere is he's come under a lot of attack from a lot of the candidates, but so also has Rubio. I think a lot of the candidates are worried about him, too.

MCEVERS: Right. David, sense that Christie could come ahead of Trump?



BROOKS: I don't have that sense. I've been wrong before. But, you know, Christie works because he's a genius for political formulation. I remember watching John McCain do this in 2008, where he was in - his campaign was dead. And he did what Christie was doing, and it totally worked for him. But McCain also had just a genius for being spontaneous with playing political jazz. I don't think Rubio has that. I, by the way, think the big events of the - on the campaign is just the rise of Cruz. I do think we're beginning to see Trump either sealing out or fade. Rubio not taking off the way some of us thought he would...


BROOKS: ...and it really - lanes - let's use that word - opening up for Cruz to go straight to the nomination. I think that's a prospect we got to see a little more than at least I thought a few weeks ago.

MCEVERS: Well, let's look ahead a bit. Obama is president. Obama's eighth and final State of the Union is on Tuesday. It sounds like, rather than focusing on a legislative agenda, it's going to be a more sort of thematic and future-oriented speech in. One message we know that they've - the Obama administration's been testing this week is guns. He gave a very emotional speech. E. J., is this a different moment on guns?

DIONNE: I think it's the beginning of a different moment on guns. I mean, if you look at this just narrowly legislatively, obviously this Republican Congress is not going to do very much. And there's a structural problem that advocates of background checks and other forms of reform have, which is that the Senate is gerrymandered by the Constitution to favor rural states - equal representation of New York and South Dakota, say. That's problematic. But I think you're - you've seen a level of frustration on the reform side, on the gun-control side that you've never seen before, and people aren't as afraid of the NRA. They're not trimming the way they used to. And I think it was - what was, in a way, most important about that speech by President Obama is he talked about voting on guns. He talked about organizing. And it's sort of saying that supporters of gun reform have to be as smart politically as the NRA has been, and I think you're finally seeing something break on this.


BROOKS: If they want it to break, they have to make it not a cultural issue. The problem is it's not really about guns for a lot of people. It's - I'm rural; are you city people insulting my lifestyle?


BROOKS: And so if they change that language, which would take a long time, then possibly you could get something done.

DIONNE: But, of course, that's always been the language imposed by the gun lobby. And I think that supporters of reform have never been effective at fighting that language, but I don't think that's - was an invention of people who want gun control.

BROOKS: Yeah. I support every piece of gun control legislation you can imagine. I just don't think it will do much good. I mean, the research has shown that it had - controlling guns, even in a radical way, can reduce suicides, and that's a great thing. It doesn't seem to have a huge effect on homicide rates because there are 300 million guns in this country.

MCEVERS: Looking forward to the State of the Union speech, quickly, what do you think Obama needs to accomplish here, if anything? It's his last one.

DIONNE: I think he's - this is about the future, about how people are going to look at him. I think he's got another shot at explaining his policy on ISIS, which I think is important. And I think he wants to lay down some markers on inequality.

BROOKS: Yeah. And I would just say be a little optimistic, which is what he says he's going to be. People are so down on this country, whether you're Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. That's just crazy. We have a better economy than just about anybody in the world. The society's in - you know, we have our troubles like we always do, but look at what's happening in China. Look at the Middle East. Look at Europe. We're in better shape than just about any place I can see on the planet, and so a little optimism would actually be realistic in this context.

DIONNE: And David is too optimistic to run in a Republican primary this year.


MCEVERS: That's E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks for The New York Times. Thank you both so much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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

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