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Week In Politics: Obama Supreme Court Nominee, Presidential Race


What a week - presidential primaries with consequential results and a Supreme Court nomination whose results are very hard to foretell. On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton won big.


HILLARY CLINTON: This is another super Tuesday for our campaign.


CLINTON: Thank you, Florida. Thank you, North Carolina. Thank you, Ohio.


SIEGEL: And later she won Missouri. Donald Trump lost Ohio, but his Florida win knocked Marco Rubio out of the race. And as conservatives plotted how to block his nomination, Trump told CNN that if he were deprived of a win at the convention, his supporters might turn violent.


DONALD TRUMP: If we're 20 votes short or if we're, you know, 100 short and we're at 1,100 and somebody else is at 500 or 400 - 'cause we're way ahead of everybody - I don't think you can say that we don't get it automatically. I think it would be - I think you'd have riots. I think you'd have riots.

SIEGEL: If all this weren't enough, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, widely-respected centrist appellate judge, to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. As he told our own Nina Totenberg...


BARACK OBAMA: My goal was to actually confirm a justice who I thought could do an outstanding job, and Merrick Garland fits that bill.

SIEGEL: But only a handle of Senate Republicans have agreed to even meet with Judge Garland, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that he had spoken by phone with the nominee but hadn't committed to a meeting.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: What I said to him was you call back and we'll talk about it at that point. I expect him to call back. I'll take that conversation, and I'll decide what to do at that particular point.

SIEGEL: What a perfect week to wrap up with our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi, you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

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

SIEGEL: Let's start with the Garland nomination. David, do you think there's a prospect of his nomination?

BROOKS: Yeah, I actually do. I think they might do it by text if they're not going to make phone calls to each other. Apparently that's too much. But here's the only scenario where I see it happening - I don't think there's going to be enough political pressure to force the Republicans into it. But if they're down by 15 points and Donald Trump is the nominee, Garland is the best thing they're going to get if there's a Hillary Clinton presidency. Garland is a model of judicial restraint. He's pretty moderate. He's the best any Democratic president...

SIEGEL: You mean from a Republicans, he's the best...

BROOKS: From a Republican point of view, he's, like, the best. And so if they figure they're going to lose, I would go ahead and confirm him. Why not?

SIEGEL: E.J., you agree with that scenario?

DIONNE: I agree that's a possible scenario. I should say to listeners, as I've said to people who read my column, Merrick Garland's an old friend going back 40 years. And he is a delightful human being. And I think that part of him - and you can see people saying that right, left, center -Sen. Angus King, the independent of Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, said a wonderful thing. He said, what are Republicans afraid of about meeting him, that they might like him too much? And I think the president made a choice which is to put somebody there who is a relative moderate, who believes in judicial restraint and basically said to the Republicans how can you reject this guy? I'm not baiting you with him.

SIEGEL: But do you think he's saying that because he honestly expects them to confirm him - the way David described they might - or to put them in a box politically?

DIONNE: No, I think that he's - Merrick Garland's been on Obama's list three times in this. And so Obama generally respects him. Pretty much everybody respects him. And I think, you know, there's an underlying issue here, which is conservatives have been criticizing liberals for years for being judicial activists. And now I think it's conservatives who have become the judicial activists on everything ranging from the Voting Rights Act to Citizens United. And Merrick Garland really puts them on the spot because exactly as David said, he is a believer in judicial restraint. So I think you'd have a very interesting and surprising debate if they actually went through with hearings.

SIEGEL: Let's turn to the presidential races, and I want start with David and the Republicans. David Brooks, you wrote an anti-Trump column today - not your first, I should note. And on the subject of not having seen Trump's appeal early on, you wrote this - (reading) for me, it's a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I'm going to report accurately on this country. Elaborate.

BROOKS: Well, you know, I didn't - I wrote many columns saying he would not get the nomination.

SIEGEL: And you did mention that here as well.

BROOKS: Yeah. And I have probably said on this microphone many, many times. And so it looks like I was wrong. And I think it's because I wasn't socially intermingling with the sort of people who are Trump supporters. So I knew they were hurting. I didn't know they were hurting - they were going to express their hurt by supporting Donald Trump. And so in the years ahead, I've got to spend a lot more time with different sorts of people. And I've decided I guess to - I'll spend a lot more time going to Aspen, Vail and The Hamptons.


DIONNE: And that's...

BROOKS: No, I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

DIONNE: That's exactly - I mean, David's exactly right. There is - you know, the - I've always said that the biggest sort of bias in the media is more a class bias than it is an ideological bias. And I think that the Trump phenomenon came as a surprise, although again, I think we should look back. And when you saw that the Republican Party has depended for so long on white working-class voters and has delivered remarkably little, an explosion like this should have been foreseeable. But no one expected that Donald Trump would be lighting the stick of dynamite.

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear what both of you think, briefly, of the various stop Trump schemes - either the convention that blocks his nomination, goes to a second ballot or the third-party run that somehow - as in 1912 - hands the - you'd rather keep the integrity of the Republican Party than win the White House.

BROOKS: Yeah, I - first, I'm struck by how few Republicans are actually signing on to the Trump juggernaut - Christie, Rick Scott in Florida but very few. And so they're holding off. But on the other hand, they're not mobilizing really anything effective. There was talk of a third party, but nobody's got the gumption. Trump, for all his faults, has a monopoly on our destiny this year. And nobody else is really offering anything. And so they can talk and they can moan, and to me it's maybe the sign of a psychologically defeated party.

DIONNE: I don't really disagree with that, except that I think there's one candidate who would insist that he has a lot of audacity, and that's Ted Cruz. And I think that's what makes the Trump - stop-Trump effort so complicated because if you ask Republicans who besides Trump don't you want to win the nomination? A lot of the same Republicans who are anti-Trump - not all of them but a lot of the same ones are anti-Cruz. You're starting to see some break toward Cruz, even among people like Lindsey Graham, who once said choice between Trump and Cruz is a choice between poison and a firing squad...


DIONNE: ...Where he's now decided to pick his poison and is raising money for Cruz. And it really probably will require a rallying to Cruz, even though John Kasich had a good night in Ohio.

SIEGEL: Hillary Clinton is looking increasingly like the Democratic nominee. David, you earlier just mentioned a scenario whereby the Republicans, if they nominate Trump, are down 15 points in the polls. Do you think that he would be a very weak candidate against Hillary Clinton or be as surprising in the general election as he's been in the primary season?

BROOKS: I think he'd be exceptionally weak. He's - in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, he's down 13 to her. That's a huge gap. If you look at his favorable-unfavorable ratings, one of the things that's striking is they've been utterly consistent for eight months since he announced his campaign. He's, like, 60 percent unfavorable. And now she's also underwater. She's got higher unfavorable ratings than favorable. So it's the first time we'll have candidacies where both major candidates are unfavorable. But he's tremendously unfavorable. Among women in particular, he just gets crushed. And so I think he'd be a pretty week candidate.

SIEGEL: And E.J., what's the current Democratic thinking about him? He's the weakest candidate the Republicans can offer or he's unpredictable and could be strong?

DIONNE: My friend Michael Tomasky observed something that I started noticing that Democrats tend to emphasize how Trump could beat Clinton with his strength in Midwest industrial states. Republicans are petrified that Clinton will destroy Trump because of her strength in the suburbs and the middle-class. This shows A, that both parties are paranoid, and B, it shows which constituencies they're actually worried about. And I think that's - we're going to be debating that for a while.

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

DIONNE: Thank you.

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

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