ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra.
MS. IFILL: Hi, everybody, and welcome to the Washington Week Webcast Extra. I’m Gwen Ifill. We pick up where we left off on the weekly broadcast.
I’m joined around the table by Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Joan Biskupic of Reuters, and Michael Crowley of POLITICO.
We have reached that point in the 2016 campaign where candidates are trying to distinguish themselves from one another by actually talking about issues. Ted Cruz is challenging Donald Trump on eminent domain, Trump is challenging Cruz on immigration, Hillary Clinton is questioning Bernie Sanders’ knowledge of foreign policy, and Sanders is taking aim at Clinton over the environment. Who says we don’t talk about issues? Many people say that. (Laughter.) But why these issues and why these candidates?
Let’s start by talking about foreign policy issues, Michael, because it is interesting to me that in a campaign like this there has been so much basic disagreement – I know more, Donald Trump doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is, Bernie Sanders doesn’t go very deep. These are the kind of shots people are taking.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, and you know, it’s remarkable that the Republican Party wants to talk so much about foreign policy because, you know, it wasn’t so long ago it was the last thing they wanted to talk about. The Iraq war had been a disaster. Nobody was quite sure what to say about it. And it was all about the economy and the jobs. But it’s largely a reflection of the turmoil that’s erupted on President Obama’s watch, and in particular voter anxiety has just skyrocketed over terrorism specifically with the ISIS beheadings, the videotaped beheadings first, and now the San Bernardino and Paris attacks.
But then what you have is a bunch of candidates who really have pretty weak credentials on these issues. I mean, they’re straining to come up with reasons to say why they are qualified. You know, Chris Christie, the best he can do is point to a handful of prosecutions that he had a hand in, terror cases, when he was a U.S. attorney after 9/11. I’ve written about some of this. They were really not particularly major cases and his role was minor. Marco Rubio is really the most fluent of all of them from his time sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but that really amounts to a bunch of hearings. So it’s a funny dilemma that they’re in, and right now the guy who really has the least experience of all arguably, Donald Trump, seems to be winning with the loudest voice and the best soundbites.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that a little bit more, Molly, because one of the interesting things we saw this week was National Review, the conservative magazine, came out with a special issue which basically said that we’re – there it is – “Against Trump,” in which a dozen or more noted conservatives explained why they think it would be a bad idea for the Republican Party to nominate him. And among them, high in this argument, is foreign policy.
MS. BALL: That is a big argument, and it’s very interesting when you look at who they got to write these editorials because it’s very conspicuously not the so-called Republican establishment. These are movement conservative figures like Erick Erickson and Glenn Beck and some more sort of policy intellectuals like Yuval Levin. But these are people who are really a part of the conservative movement, and they are trying to excommunicate Trump from the movement, much in the way that William F. Buckley did with the John Birch Society. So –
MS. IFILL: But the establishment Republicans aren’t quite there yet.
MS. BALL: And there’s this very interesting dichotomy this week that we saw play out, where the actual Republican establishment – sitting members of the Senate and some former Senate majority leaders – Bob Dole, Trent Lott – they all were asked this sort of parlor game question, if you had to choose one, would it be Trump or Cruz? And they all said Trump. And the reason that they give is that Cruz is a troublemaker in the Senate. There’s a lot of personal animus there, too. Ted Cruz is not well-liked by his colleagues at all.
MS. IFILL: I think Trent Lott said to you he is not a gentleman.
MS. BALL: He’s not a gentleman. This is something that we – gentlemen respect each other, and he’s not, and he hasn’t done that.
And so, you know, for them it’s this issue of decorum, it’s a personality issue, and it’s also this feeling that, interestingly enough, they feel like they could handle Trump. He wouldn’t know what he was doing, so he’d get in there and Congress would be able to run circles around him.
MS. IFILL: Why isn’t the answer to this parlor game question I don’t like either of them, how about this other guy? I mean, there are so many people in the race.
MS. BALL: Well, they all do say that, and that’s a – that’s a point that’s important to make because Cruz has taken this as a badge of honor. He’s said, look how much the establishment loathes me and they’re endorsing Donald Trump; that makes Trump the candidate of the Washington establishment. This is, of course, not true. They are all saying Trump horrifies us, but Cruz horrifies us slightly – or Cruz horrifies us –
MS. IFILL: Slightly more.
MS. BALL: – but Trump horrifies us slightly less, right.
MR. CROWLEY: It reminds me of the old saying about the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, you hope they can both lose. That seems to be the attitude in the establishment right now.
MS. IFILL: Was there an old saying like that, Michael? (Laughs.)
MR. CROWLEY: Well, among foreign policy geeks I think there was, yeah. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it.
But there is this – the panic is, what if they can’t both lose? What if we only have the power to take down one of them? And so, for the Beltway people, the senators and lobbyists, the one they would take out if they could only pick one would be Ted Cruz. For the conservative movement, it would be Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: Amazing. Well, let’s stay on politics with, Joan, the legal side of this, because the Supreme Court this year, if you look at the sum total of the cases they’ve argued and the cases they’ve decided to take, they are well and determined to be right in the middle of every single hot button that exists.
MS. BISKUPIC: I don’t think they’re going to like where they end up, frankly, because they don’t like to be in the center that much. But all the cases they’ve taken, we have the most politically charged term in years. We talked about immigration earlier, a big test of President Obama’s immigration orders. But just a few weeks ago the justices also agreed to hear the first abortion-rights case in nearly a decade, also from Texas, testing whether two restrictions – very restrictive policies that would hinder access to abortion and, in fact, has shuttered many abortion clinics, whether that violates a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. That one will be argued on March 2nd, with a ruling likely in June also. The justices have also agreed to take up another challenge to the Obama health care law contraceptive mandate for employers and birth control, we’ve got that. And then we just had a great case argued that would test union power, where it looked like the justices were ready to say that – ready to curtail the power of unions to have, you know – to force agency fees, a big public-sector union question.
MS. IFILL: And there’s an affirmative-action case, and there’s civil rights cases.
MS. BISKUPIC: Oh yeah, I didn’t get to those, you know? Like they’ve already – in December there were two really strong racially charged cases argued, one involving a University of Texas affirmative action policy, and then also a voting rights, the one person, one vote theory, just how far that expands. So truly watch in the spring. Just we’re going to have week after week where the justices’ decisions play right into the political dialogue.
MS. IFILL: Incredibly impactful. Thanks a lot, Joan. I’m glad you’re watching it for us.
And thank you, everyone. Stay online and see what else our panelists are seeing in our daily Washington Week News You Need to Know. Good reading for a snowy weekend here on the East Coast. We’re going to get our shovels here right now. And you can find it at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
And we’ll see you next time, God willing and the creek don’t rise, on the Washington Week Webcast Extra.