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GOP Civil War: What's It All About?


And now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we gather interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. In the chairs for a shapeup today are Robert Costa. He is national political reporter for The Washington Post. He's also moderator of PBS's "Washington Week." He was nice enough to come in to our D.C. studios. Welcome back, Robert. Thanks for coming.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Also with us, political analyst Mary Kate Cary. She's a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs. She's with us from Charlottesville, Va. Mary Kate, welcome back to you as well.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And welcome to Steve Goldstein. He is a host and reporter at member station KJZZ in Phoenix. Good to have you with us, Steve.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Michel, thanks for having me with such a distinguished panel. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: This is a good panel. I feel good about it already. So let me start this conversation on Capitol Hill, where the GOP narrowly passed their budget proposal in the House this week, but it seemed like there really wasn't time to celebrate because of all the divisions in the party. I mean, notably, Senator Jeff Flake's dramatic floor speech on Tuesday, where he criticized Trump - President Trump as well as the Republican Party for not standing up to the president.


JEFF FLAKE: Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

MARTIN: Now, Senator Flake said he's not running for re-election, and he said he hopes the fever, as he puts it, will break soon. But others say he is right that Republicans like Senator Flake soon won't be welcome in the party, which is ironic given that Senator Flake has supported most of President Trump's agenda policy positions, you know, during the time that he has been in office. And former White House strategist Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of the far-right website Breitbart, is actually backing a number of candidates for the midterm elections explicitly.

So, Robert Costa, I'm going to start with you. Some people are calling this a civil war. And I know that that sounds kind of very flamboyant, but how would you describe what's going on?

COSTA: It's a civil war, but it's a different kind of civil war. As you said, Senator Flake and President Trump on the issues are very similar. So then what's the civil war about? It's about grievance in the Republican base. There's so much anger out there, a lot of it almost incoherent, towards the party establishment, stoked by President Trump. And that's what Senator Flake and Senator Corker are trying to grapple with. Where is this party going? Can they even still belong to it?

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, what's your take on this too? I mean, I'm particularly interested in this whole question of whether Steve Bannon's anti-establishment forces - if that's what he's calling them - really have that much support. What's your take on this?

CARY: Well, in general, there are no populist nationalists in Congress. And so the guys on Capitol Hill tend to sort of ignore Bannon and not want to make it into more of a story than it is. But to me, what he represents is sort of an anti-establishment, anti-elite strain that's been in the Republican Party for years. And Trump and Bannon have just sort of amped it up lately.

But this is why the Republicans keep winning special elections. It's why the Democrats have lost probably a thousand legislative seats over the last eight years. And it explains some of the policies that Trump and Bannon have been pushing, whether it's the NFL players or immigration or the trade deals or fights with the media. It's all part of the same thing, and it's not that new in the Republican Party.

MARTIN: I want to hear about the Democrats in a minute, but I do want to hear from Steve on this as well. You know, you're in Arizona. Senator Flake said, look, he doesn't think he could have won a Republican primary in this climate. And, you know, of course, there's also Bob Corker in Tennessee. But, you know, is there something about, you know, Arizona, both those particular, you know, situations, or do you think that there's a broader issue here too?

GOLDSTEIN: You know, Michel, Jeff Flake made this personal starting last summer because he didn't like then-candidate Trump's style. And even in his book that just came out earlier this year, "Conscience Of A Conservative," Flake really criticized President Trump personally. I mean, there are a couple of issues like free trade and immigration they really disagree on, but everything else, as you said earlier, the voting record is there. Jeff Flake is with Donald Trump on most issues. But I think the calculation Jeff Flake did was that maybe he could have defeated former state Senator Kelly Ward, who is a Steve Bannon fan vice versa, in a primary, but it would've been sacrificing his principles.

And I don't know. I mean, obviously Robert is in D.C. right now. I don't know if he hears this more from politicians than I would. But Jeff Flake is saying that, yes, maybe he could have won, but it would not have been something where he could have looked at his kids and his grandkids the next day. And based on what I'm hearing about Bob Corker, it's somewhat similar, though with Jeff Flake it really became personal.

MARTIN: But, you know, Steve, you used the word style, Donald Trump's style. I mean, Jeff Flake said something rather more serious than that - this is a question of values, and in his view, kind of morality. And I just wondered, is it seen where you are as a stylistic difference or something deeper?

GOLDSTEIN: It is stylistic in the sense that when we think about the issues of populism, Jeff Flake is someone who grew up on a farm in Arizona and worked with a number of immigrants and grew to respect them for a work ethic. And so that gave him the more personal touch there. I think you're right, it is more than style, but it is a feeling that what Donald Trump does and what Steve Bannon does actually makes Jeff Flake sick to his stomach. While his colleague John McCain is someone who relishes a re-election battle, he often uses that kind of language, for Jeff Flake, it is not relishing any kind of battle like this that would cause him to sacrifice principles as he sees it.

MARTIN: OK. So we've talked about the Republicans, can we talk about the Democrats just briefly? Robert Costa, do they have - you know, Mary Kate mentioned that they aren't doing that well at these special elections, you know, despite the fact that there's so much opposition to Donald Trump on stylistic grounds or whatever we want to call them. So do the Democrats have a message other than that we don't like Donald Trump?

COSTA: The Democrats are going through their own civil war though. We often seem to pay attention to the Republican side a lot more. But they're trying to figure out, are they going to be more of a party in the style and substance of Senator Warren and Senator Sanders who are progressive populist-style Democrats, or are they going to go in a more traditional Democratic direction? They're also trying to co-opt some of President Trump's signature issues.

I was just with Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, went to a union hall in Pennsylvania. He was talking about trade like President Trump talks about trade - anti-free trade deals, trying to restrict different kinds of agreements - because he knows the Democrats have to figure out who they are and also win over the working class.

MARTIN: That used to be a core Democratic issue. Democrats used to be much more skeptical about free trade, so it's interesting that that actually, you know, it seems like they're returning to form with that. But let me pivot around. Mary Kate, let me ask you about these revelations surrounding this Trump dossier business, a collection of research memos that looked into potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And now there are new findings reporting - from the Post - that the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign helped fund this.

But on Friday, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, said that it hired the firm behind the dossier during the 2016 campaign to investigate Donald Trump's background. What do you make of all this, Mary Kay? I mean, it's kind of taking me a minute just to even describe all this, but what do you make of it?

CARY: You know, it would seem for a while there it was sort of all panic all the time on the Russian dossier. And then all of a sudden, it came out that that Hillary Clinton's people were involved. And that's when the crickets started. And so that sort of flip in the coverage, it came across to a lot of people I think as feeding the distrust of the media. And this is exactly what people think is going on with the Washington press corps and the media. And that - the fact, for example, too, Michel, that Friday night, Mueller's office - I assume that's who it was - somebody fed it to CNN only that there would be indictments coming on Monday is just outrageous. And so that's...

MARTIN: Well, let me just be clear on this. And we are not reporting this because we have not confirmed this, so let's just be clear about where NPR is on this.

CARY: OK. But that's - what I'm saying is this is feeding the distrust of the media the way this story gets one coverage one way and then not the other. And that is a problem, I think, for the brand. As a journalistic brand, it's bad.

MARTIN: Steve. Let me just ask you briefly, is this story that I'm just talking about here, is this an issue where you are or is this more of a Washington thing right now?

GOLDSTEIN: It's really more of a Washington focus. But as long as we have Senator McCain still in the Senate, he is happy to talk about this quite often, I think.

MARTIN: Well, before I let either - any of you guys go, I do want to bring up this - the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault which has been - we've been talking about for weeks now and I might say years if you include the allegations against Bill Cosby. But these past few weeks these new allegations keep coming out. And most recently, the influential political journalist Mark Halperin accused of harassing women in the workplace when he worked at ABC a decade ago - this was reported by CNN - and even former President George H.W. Bush.

Mary Kate, I'm sure this is painful for you because I know you worked for him and admired him greatly, but he's been accused of being touchy with women in a way that they found offensive. And he's apologized for this, but I'm going to ask you to take a step back and just tell me your reaction to this as a person who's worked in politics for a long time and is a thoughtful person. How do you you assess these last couple of weeks?

CARY: Well, to your to your first part, you know, I - George Bush is the best boss I ever had in my life. I've made films about him. And nothing will change my mind that he is an American hero. And he's 93 in a wheelchair with Parkinson's. And, you know, I just think that was completely unbelievable. So - but for the rest of the story on sexual harassment, I think that this is a good thing that this conversation has started, especially in the media and politics. As Dylan would say, the times, they are a changing.

The one thing I would caution is that I think there are various degrees of conduct ranging from, you know, dirty jokes and unwanted attention to sexual assault and rape. And there's a big difference, and we need to be careful about that. But as far as you and I go, Michel, and our daughters, you know, I think there's a cultural shift. And this is good for our girls that hopefully they won't have to face any of the stuff that some of these women have had to put up with for years. So I think it's a good thing.

MARTIN: Robert, I only have a minute left, but I can't help but think that, you know, Mark Halperin was in a position to direct some of this coverage around if this conduct was happening in politics. And so I don't know, it's just - I'm just interested in what your take on all this is as a person who is in both journalism and politics and sees it from a wide lens. What's your take on it?

COSTA: It's alarming if you do step back and you think about institutions like Hollywood with Harvey Weinstein, politics with Mark Halperin, men who have acknowledged misconduct, sexual harassment. They were key figures in these institutions and industries. And it's going to make everyone, I think, in those industries and elsewhere, give greater scrutiny to who are the leaders that if you're going to really have a place of prominence in this country, you have to have behavior and conduct that identifies and is - it needs that moment.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see, won't we? That's - that was Robert Costa, political reporter for The Washington Post. He was nice enough to join us here in our D.C. studios. Mary Kate Cary is a political analyst, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs. She joined us from Charlottesville, Va. Steve, sorry we had to pass you by on that last one. We'll have you back. Steve is host of KJZZ's Here And Now. Thank you all so much for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.