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How did today’s government become so divided?

February 24, 2016 at 7:21 PM EDT
Separation of powers is a core component of American democracy, but political divisions rose to new heights this year as Congressional Republicans clashed with the Obama administration on everything from budget blueprints to Supreme Court nominations. Gwen Ifill talks to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller for a closer look at today’s caustic political landscape.

GWEN IFILL: Separation of powers is at the heart of American democracy, and it seems the powerful have never been more separate.

Yesterday, Republicans said they will block any nominee the president sends for the Supreme Court. They have also rejected outright his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and refused earlier this year to grant even pro forma consideration to his budget blueprint.

Against this backdrop of resistance, the rise of Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

So, how different, how unprecedented, how permanent is this growing split?

For that, we turn to two authors of books about the political turning point at hand. E.J. Dionne is a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, and the author of “Why the Right Went Wrong.” And conservative Matt Lewis is a senior contributor for The Daily Caller and author of “Too Dumb to Fail.”

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

Matt Lewis, what is happening, if anything, to the Republican party?

MATT K. LEWIS, Author, “Too Dumb to Fail”: Well, I think, with the rise of Donald Trump, clearly, you have a populist moment.

I really do worry that we’re going to — if Donald Trump wins the nomination, he will redefine what it means to be a conservative, what it means to be a Republican. And no longer will it be a party about ideas, about free markets, about defending the unborn.

And it instead will become a white, identity politics, angry, protectionist, populist party. And I think that that is a radically different direction and something that, fingers crossed, will not happen.

GWEN IFILL: But, E.J., given what we have seen unfold here in Washington just in the past few days, it seems like it’s about more than Donald Trump.

E.J. DIONNE, Author, “Why the Right Went Wrong”: Oh, absolutely.

I think this is something that has been happening to conservatism over 50 years. I mean, the first sentence in my book is, the history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal.

And I think Republican politicians have made a series promises to their base that they couldn’t possibly keep, about the rise — about shrinking government, about rolling back cultural change, changing the ethnic makeup of the country.

And the base has gotten angrier and angrier. And I think that has led to Donald Trump. And I think the leadership in Congress has had to take and has chosen to take a harder and harder line against a Democratic president.

I mean, you can say, of course, Democrats have opposed presidential nominees for the Supreme Court in the past, but I think what you have seen over the last few weeks is really unprecedented.


E.J. DIONNE: We won’t even hold a hearing on your nominee.

And there was a story in The Des Moines Register today that Chuck Grassley wouldn’t even meet with the president to talk about a nominee. At least that’s where it was. That really goes beyond.


GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Matt Lewis about that.

Is this about conservatism changing shape? Is it about Republicanism changing shape? Or is E.J. right? The Democrats have always done the same thing, or would if they could.

MATT K. LEWIS: Yes, look, I think there’s really two different things happening here.

I think the Donald Trump phenomenon is unique. And I think that, really, Trump is tapping into a — more of a — not a Republican sort of incremental change, but a populist cyclical movement, from — you know, from Andrew Jackson, to William Jennings Bryan, to George Wallace, to Pat Buchanan, to Ross Perot, and now to Donald Trump.

I think that Trump is actually appealing to a lot of people who aren’t necessarily the Republican base. In some cases, they are liberal or moderate-leaning Republicans, or, in some cases, what — I guess what we used to call Reagan Democrats.

I think that’s different from the phenomenon that we are seeing with this gridlock, which I think is a bipartisan problem, but I think is much more in keeping with the Ted Cruz-ization of the Republican Party.


MATT K. LEWIS: If Ted Cruz were the front-runner today…

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead, E.J.

MATT K. LEWIS: If Ted Cruz were the front-runner today, I think we could make sort of more of a straight line between the obstructionism and the presidential race.


E.J. DIONNE: Yes, I agree with Matt that there is populism here, but I think it is much more a part of the Republican Party and something Republicans have courted.

One of the points I make in the book — and it is not just a liberal like me saying this — it’s people like Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist for The New York Times, or Reihan Salam, a conservative intellectual — it’s that the Republican Party has relied on white working-class votes election after election, and has not delivered anything to those voters.

And I think those voters in — very much in the Republican Party are sick of being ignored. And so you have this odd phenomenon of a billionaire like Donald Trump leading a class war inside the Republican Party.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me try this.

Matt, is it possible that, on resisting the Guantanamo Bay plan, on resisting the president’s insistence on sending a nominee to the court, on resisting his budget, that perhaps that’s what Senate Republicans are doing, delivering what they believe they are owed — or they owe to their constituencies?

MATT K. LEWIS: Well, now, look, I guess I should begin by saying, you know, obviously, you can tell by the book “Too Dumb to Fail” that I’m more than comfortable criticizing Republicans and conservatives and the dumbing down of conservatism. And I certainly think that the shutting down of government was a stupid move that could never — it was never going to defund Obamacare.

And so — but, having said that, I am a conservative. And I think that, although I oppose Republican stupid moves, I completely understand, for example, why they would want to wait and see if there is a new president before changing the court, for example, one of the examples of obstructionism.

So it is in the eye of the beholder. And, really, frankly, I think they are all hypocrites, whether it is Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama and Joe Biden, or today Mitch McConnell and the Republicans. So, look, I think that one man’s obstructionism is another man’s balance of power, separation of power, checks and balances.

So, I think that, if you are a Republican, the smart move is to try to obstruct right now when it comes to changing the face of the court for a generation.

GWEN IFILL: So, OK, E.J., if that’s true, if that is the smart move for Republicans right now, what should the Democrats be doing? Does the president just sit back and take it, or is there a way to push back that actually cuts through, or does he just stay out of the fight?

E.J. DIONNE: Again, I just want to emphasize that, while I agree, obviously, that both parties can play politics and don’t want a court to move far in one direction or the other, I really think that what they are doing now goes beyond what we saw in the past.

And it is a response to conservative judicial activism that gave us Citizens United and weakened the Voting Rights Act. And I think, because they have gone this far, this gives a real opening to Democrats, because there are a lot of Republicans running for reelection to the Senate from Democratic states or purple states, when look at states like Illinois, where Senator Kirk has already said, oh, gee, I don’t want to do this, or you look at Pennsylvania or you look at Wisconsin.

I think the Democrats have ways of really turning this into an issue. And I think the more the president reaches out to Republicans and said, look, I would love to talk to you about whether we can find a nominee who is a middle-of-the-roader, and the Republicans refuse even to engage in those conversations, I think that is going to put the Republicans in a very difficult spot.

GWEN IFILL: Final thought, Matt Lewis, not your job, but what should the Democrats do?

MATT K. LEWIS: Oh, what should the Democrats do?

I would nominate somebody, probably a minority who is incredibly sympathetic, who has a great biography, a great story to tell. I would let the Republicans refuse to hold hearings, refuse to meet with this sympathetic nominee. Then I would demagogue the heck out of it.

I would win elections and I would drive the country farther apart, as I think Barack Obama will probably take my advice in this case.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there is a nice cheerful outcome of driving the country further apart.

Matt Lewis, the author of “Too Dumb to Fail,” E.J. Dionne, the author of “Why the Right Went Wrong,” thank you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you so much.

MATT K. LEWIS: Thank you.