Republican Candidate Advisor Robert C. O’Brien & Political Reporter Kurtis Lee

Lawyer and Republican Political Analyst, Robert C. O’Brien and Political Reporter, Kurtis Lee join us in a post-mortem discussion about the Iowa Caucuses.

Robert C. O’Brien has been handling high-profile cases in California and nationally throughout his career. He recently headed the internal investigation into Warren Capital Corporation, representing the receiver responsible for finding and returning millions of dollars to the company’s investors. Last year, he was co-lead counsel for Timor-Leste in a multi-week Singapore-based arbitration against ConocoPhillips arising out of oil-and-gas lease tax disputes. O’Brien was the federal court-appointed discovery master in MGA v. Mattel, the “Barbie v. Bratz” case, and in United States v. S & P, a case that focused on the role of the rating agency during the mortgage crisis. He has served in senior foreign policy positions, including as a U.S. Representative at the United Nations. Kurtis Lee is a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Prior to joining the newspaper in August 2014, Lee worked for the Denver Post and covered state and national politics. He’s also reported from the scenes of destructive wildfires and mass shootings and was a member of the Post staff that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the Aurora theater shooting.

TRANSCRIPT

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Joined tonight by contrarative commentator and Republican campaign adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and L.A. Times political reporter, Kurtis Lee, to talk about what happened last night in Iowa. Kurtis and Robert, good to have you both on the program.

Robert C. O’Brien: Good to be here.

Kurtis Lee: Thanks so much.

Tavis: So let’s go right into it. Last night, what most surprised you, if anything, Robert?

O’Brien: Marco Rubio’s very strong third place finish. I was expecting the third place finish, but to get up to, you know, within a point and a half of Donald Trump, that was a big win for Marco last night.

Tavis: And what do you make of that? Why did that happen?

O’Brien: Well, he was campaigning hard at the end. He went full Baptist preacher at the end and connected with the Evangelical voters. I think he cast some doubt on Trump’s electability and on his conservatism, and he really ran a strong campaign.

Now Ted Cruz won it and Ted Cruz worked his tail off in Iowa. He worked very hard and got his folks out. So I think Cruz and Rubio are the story coming out of Iowa on the Republican side.

Tavis: The spin has been, as you well know, Robert, and continues to be that the Republican establishment, whatever that means these days, is looking for an alternative. They don’t want Cruz. He scares even them. Trump has never been their favorite, so that Rubio is starting to build momentum to be that alternative choice.

O’Brien: You know, I think there’s some truth to that. What’s interesting is Marco Rubio is a very conservative senator. I mean, he’s got a 98% American Conservative Union rating. I mean, he’s by no means a liberal. So it’s interesting that someone has conservative as Marco Rubio is now being cast as the establishment candidate.

I think some of the establishment is getting their arms around Ted Cruz. I predicted–I wrote a piece a couple of months ago that I thought it would be a Rubio-Cruz race, and I think that’s where we’re ultimately going to end up. I just don’t know how much staying power Donald has or how long he’ll want to stay in the race if he’s not winning.

Tavis: Yeah. Kurtis, anything surprise you last night?

Lee: Well, it was interesting to see Bernie Sanders last night essentially tie Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. I mean, for months we’ve seen Hillary Clinton as the frontrunner in Iowa and late in the cycle, I mean, we saw Bernie Sanders really come up and have a strong showing in Iowa.

And now we head to New Hampshire and there, essentially, he’s polling really well. He’s leading Clinton by double digits there. So certainly on the Democratic side, we saw a strong showing by Bernie Sanders last night. And it seems that, you know, his populist message of income inequality is resonating with the liberal base of the party and he really turned out voters.

Tavis: I think sometimes in life, a loss is a win and sometimes a win is actually a loss. Was the winalthough marginalwas the win in Iowa last night for Secretary Clinton really a loss?

Lee: It was interesting to see that. I mean, it was a setback in some way for Hillary Clinton. I mean, obviously, we saw eight years ago she lost to then Senator Barack Obama, and then she went on to New Hampshire.

But, you know, it was certainly tough for her last night. I know that her team certainly wanted to see a stronger showing there in Iowa, so we’ll see going into New Hampshire. She’s the clear underdog right now there in New Hampshire.

O’Brien: Well, there won’t be a coin flip in New Hampshire. I mean, she won six coin flips? She should have gone to Vegas last night [laugh].

Tavis: What’s your sense of what she needs to do, Kurtis, in New Hampshire to take away whatever doubt is starting to exist in the minds of her supporters about Bernie Sanders’s viability?

Lee: Well, this is certainly Bernie Sanders’s back yard. I mean, the Vermont senator, where they’re in New England, I mean, his message is appealing. He’s turning out white liberal voters. I mean, these voters are really turning out for him in strong numbers. We see his crowds really swelling, young people.

Clinton really has to tap into the younger electorate and really turn out that younger voting base. I mean, as with the race then in Nevada and South Carolina, she has her so-called firewall there with minority voters. But, I mean, in New Hampshire, it really has to get out younger voters there and have them start to appeal to her candidacy.

Tavis: I think the word “optics” is a word that’s often overused in our politics these days, but do optics do matter, having said that. Last night, Robert, to my mind, Cruz went so long on that speech. I don’t know what–I don’t know if he got caught up in it.

Maybe it was the enthusiasm and excitement, but I go back to Howard Dean and the “Woo!” years ago that the optics on that was just wrong. I wonder whether or not Cruz just went too far, you know, in that almost half hour delivery as if he were the nominee already.

O’Brien: You know, he gave his acceptance speech last night. I’ve got the same problem. Take Cruz, the lawyer, and you put a microphone in front of a lawyer and we’ll…

Tavis: Or a talk show host [laugh].

O’Brien: We’ll talk until the microphone gets taken away. Look, Ted was a very successful lawyer, great speaker. It was a surprisingly long speech for winning a caucus. You know, people are talking about that today. I don’t think he said anything. It wasn’t like the Dean speech where he gave out the scream or that sort of thing.

It was a little bit of a long speech, but I think he’d worked pretty hard in Iowa and was pretty excited and got caught up in the moment. But I don’t think there’s anything that permanently damages him. I think political pros are kind of looking at it like he did and commenting on it, but I don’t think it hurt him.

Tavis: I love Iowa. Got good friends in Iowa and yet, if you look at the data, Kurtis, Iowapardon my Englishain’t picked a winner but one time…

Lee: Exactly.

Tavis: In recent memory. That was George Bush, the son, won Iowa. But anybody that wins Iowa–one time, Rick Santorum won, he went nowhere.

Lee: Huckabee. We saw Huckabee get out of the race.

Tavis: Mike Huckabee won, he got out of the race last night [laugh]. So that Iowa is not…

O’Brien: Pat Robertson.

Tavis: Yeah, Pat Robertson. So Iowa is not the best bellwether. So I wonder if whether all this talk tonight, quite frankly, is much ado about nothing.

Lee: Well, it certainly gives Ted Cruz momentum heading into New Hampshire and then South Carolina. I mean, it was a win nonetheless. I mean, he really had Evangelical Christians coalesce around his candidacy and we’ll see if that translates to votes there in New Hampshire.

But like you said, I mean, New Hampshire and South Carolina voters might look at Iowa and say, well, hey, maybe Ted Cruz is a viable candidate and we’ll give his candidacy a second look. You know, certainly last night’s win nonetheless was key for him as he moves forward.

Tavis: Did last night do anything to aid and abet the case that Bernie Sanders had been making, Robert, that he is electable? Because, you know, in the week leading up to the race, the spin was that Bernie’s ideas are out of step with most Americans, they’re out of touch, he’s too liberal, he’s too progressive. Americans aren’t going to go for that. How you going to pay for all this hurts him.

I think the best line I’ve heard so far, I heard–we call him man on the street, but it was actually a woman on the street who was interviewed by a reporter and she said that Bernie Sanders sounds like Oprah. You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!

She said, “I don’t know how you’re going to pay for all this.” But I wonder if last night did anything to aid and abet his case that he is electable and that these issues aren’t that off target?

O’Brien: You know, Margaret Thatcher used to say, “Socialism is a wonderful thing until you run out of other peoples’ money to spend.” [laugh] And I think that the point you were making there is going–look, Bernie Sanders has tapped into something that Donald Trump, to some extent, has tapped into, that Ted Cruz has tapped into. Senator Sanders has done it on the Democrat side.

There is a lot of anxiety. There are a lot of people doing well in this economy, but there are a lot of people who aren’t doing very well in this economy. I think Bernie Sanders has gone out and talked about issues like income inequality and he’s gotten folks fired up. You know, you just wonder, you know, Iowa is not Hillary Clinton’s place.

I remember in 2008, I was with the Romney campaign and we’d lost in Iowa and Hillary had lost in Iowa to Senator Obama. And we got to New Hampshire and Hillary–their headquarters was right down the street from ours, so we’d all go to the same Irish pub and commiserate, the Romney and the Clinton folks.

We were not able to catch up and beat John McCain in New Hampshire. He won that one, but Hillary Clinton came back and she won New Hampshire. I think Secretary Clinton does her best sometimes when she’s fighting and she’s certainly going to be fighting for her political life in New Hampshire.

Clearly, you’re right, Kurtis. I mean, Bernie’s got a big lead in New Hampshire and I don’t know if she can overcome it, but I think she’s a fighter. I think you’re going to see her fight, and I think electability is something that she’s going to throw out about Sanders a lot in the coming states.

Lee: And I think the Clinton campaign is really ready for this race to head south and head west where, in Nevada, there’s more Latino voters as well as, in South Carolina, more African American voters. I mean, polls show that Bernie Sanders, you know, is not known among minorities. I mean, poll after poll, it shows that Hillary Clinton has the edge in that way. So that’s really a firewall of sorts for her campaign.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised that about Bernie because you’re right about the data that, right now, he is not so well known. He’s making progress and there’s some African Americans of high profile stature who have come on to support him now.

And yet I go back to Iowa in 2008. Barack Obama was losing to Hillary Clinton. Here’s a Black man who was losing to Hillary two to one, three to one, depending which poll you were looking at, until the white folk voted for him in Iowa.

And then, let’s be frank about it. All the Black folk then took another look at this Negro. So, oh, well, maybe if the white folk like the brother, maybe we should take another look at Barack Obama. So then, his fortune started to turn and the rest, as we know, is history.

I wonder if Iowa represents that for Bernie Sanders. If he does well in New Hampshire, will it be the same as Obama winning Iowa where Black voters in particular are starting to look at him a little bit differently because the brother’s showing that he can pick up some wins here?

Lee: You know, that’s what the Sanders campaign says. I mean, you point to the polling numbers and Sanders’s campaign says, well, hey, look at us when we started last spring. We were polling, you know, in the single digits to Hillary Clinton and we really made ground in a lot of states.

And they’re saying, well, hey, when we get our message out on income inequality, criminal justice reform, Black voters, Latino voters, it’ll start to resonate with Black folks.

Tavis: But Bernie ain’t Black, though.

Lee: Exactly, but his messageit’s really about selling the message to the voters and getting out his message to the voters and that will essentially appeal. They say, you know, their poll numbers will essentially start to rise with that.

Tavis: What do you make of the Trump meltdown? Is it fair to even call it a Trump meltdown in Iowa?

O’Brien: It’s interesting. If you would have asked people six months ago if Donald Trump would have come in a close second in Iowa to Ted Cruz, you know, in an Evangelical state–and let’s face it. Donald Trump, although he’s had his mom’s bible out with him a lot lately, he is not really a religious–you know, it doesn’t appeal to Evangelicals, people would have said that would be a huge win for Donald Trump.

After the polls showing him up 6, 7, 8% over the past couple of days, coming in second by three or four points to Ted Cruz, I think it’s a loss for him and I think it’s going to be tough for him to recover.

Tavis: And the numbers that I keep looking at, Robert, suggest that he didn’t do so well with those religious conservatives ultimately as well as he wanted because they don’t believe that he represents their values.

O’Brien: Well, I think there may be some truth to that. I think a lot of people came out to look at Donald Trump because he’s a celebrity. You come to these small towns in Iowa and you can’t take that away from Donald Trump. He’s a big time celebrity and I think a lot of people came out and watched him.

Either they didn’t like what they heard or they came out to watch him, but they weren’t willing to come out and caucus for him. So I think some of those numbers, both in the number of people that showed up at his rallies and in the polls, maybe were a little overstated for Trump.

Tavis: Can Ted Cruz ultimately overcome the establishment disdain for him?

O’Brien: That’s the $64,000 question. I mean, if he keeps winning elections and keeps winning primaries, the establishment will follow because they will now want to work for the next President of the United States if they think he’s going to be the nominee. So I think winning cures a lot of that. It’ll be interesting to see in a three-man race how that plays out over the next couple of primaries and caucuses.

Tavis: Do you expect that these results last night, Kurtis, will have any impact on the two debates that are coming up this week?

Lee: It’ll be interesting to see what the candidates–if they go after each other more. On the Democratic side, you know, Hillary Clinton for weeks has been, you know, assailing Bernie Sanders on his healthcare plan. Well, how are we going to pay for these sorts of things? It’ll be interesting to see if Bernie Sanders fights back a little more.

And it’ll be interesting, you know, to really see as the weeks go on like how does Donald Trump react to losing. I mean, he’s been the frontrunner since the summertime when he entered the race. How does he react to this Iowa loss as we move forward?

Tavis: Look forward to seeing you both here next week as we preview the New Hampshire race, maybe a day before next Monday night, I hope. Thanks for coming on tonight. Kurtis and Robert, good to see you both.

O’Brien: Great. Thank you.

Lee: Thank you so much.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: February 3, 2016 at 10:03 pm