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Week In Politics: Republican Debate, Tax Returns, Super Tuesday


All right, there's a lot to unpack here, and we're going to do it with our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. He's at Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.

Hey there, E.J.

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

CORNISH: And here in the studio this week, Eliana Johnson of the National Review.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: All right, so out of all of his rivals, (laughter), Chris Christie endorses Donald Trump. Eliana, I'll start with you because you've thought a lot about kind of which candidates can knit together the party. Your reaction to Christie's move?

JOHNSON: I think Chris Christie, when he dropped out of the race, wanted to figure out where he could have the most impact. You know, plenty of public officials, more junior public officials, have endorsed Ted Cruz. A lot of public officials have endorsed Marco Rubio. But Chris Christie, who loves celebrity, who loves attention, figured and calculated that he could make a real impact by endorsing Donald Trump, and that's proved to be the case. He's captured the news cycle, and moving forward, he has a real shot at an appointment in a potential Trump administration - difficult as those words are to utter.


CORNISH: E.J., for you, what strikes you about this pairing?

DIONNE: Well, you know, there's a lot of talk among, I guess, the so-called establishment of the party. They seem to want everybody to drop out to support Rubio, who has yet to win a contest. And I think the calculation that it's all either Trump or anti-Trump ignores the fact that this is actually a choice among several candidates. There are a lot of Republicans who actually don't like Rubio or don't think he's ready, and Chris Christie is clearly one of them, and you saw that in the sort of power and contempt of his takedown. By the way, Trump patted Christie on the back for that. He said of Rubio, I thought he was going to die. Good going, Chris...


DIONNE: ...He said of that. And then you also have people who supported Jeb Bush, such as former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who've gone to Kasich. So I think this a really bad sign for Rubio because he is not - he's getting a lot of endorsements, but he can't rally the whole party, and are clearly some Republicans who even prefer Donald Trump to him.

CORNISH: And the vitriol in this campaign right now is striking. We heard Don Gonyea in his report - insults upon insults, and then this moment summed it up for me in last night's debate. This audio, courtesy of CNN.


DONALD TRUMP: I mean, first of all, this guy's a choke artist and this guy's a liar.

MARCO RUBIO: This guy always goes...

TRUMP: You have a combination of factors.

RUBIO: This is so typical.

TRUMP: He can't do it for the obvious reason and he can't do it because he doesn't know how to tell the truth. Other than that, I rest my case.

RUBIO: This is the typical thing he does. Any debate about policy...

HUGH HEWITT: One at a time, gentlemen. Governor Kasich, you have the floor.

RUBIO: Hugh, I get a response to that.

HEWITT: You will have a response, but I promised Governor Kasich he could respond.

BEN CARSON: Can somebody attack me, please?

CORNISH: All right. Ben Carson at the end - could somebody attack me, please? Eliana, is this too little, too late, right, all this heaping on Donald Trump? I mean, what can these candidates really do to prevent him from ending up the nominee?

JOHNSON: The most important thing I think that happened in the debate last night was that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and in particular Marco Rubio, started to play by Trump's rules. They were acting like bullies and acting like they needed to be the biggest kid in the sandbox, and I think that's really significant. Up until now particularly Ted Cruz has been playing by Ted Cruz's rules, pointing out that Donald Trump is a liberal, he's not conservative enough. That's the way Ted Cruz thinks about the race. Finally Marco Rubio said he was going to play by Donald Trump's rules. We heard him earlier doing that, mocking him. That's what these guys need to do and prove they can beat Donald Trump at his own game. He's the only - that's the only way that he's going to be beaten. And there are two and half weeks until the winner-take-all primaries on March 15, and, you know, Marco Rubio almost destroyed himself in three minutes. So two and a half weeks is plenty of time for a lot to change in this race.

CORNISH: E.J., after nine debates, finally we see the opposition research folders emptied out, right? I mean, is this - are these comments going to come back to haunt these candidates in the general election?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I can imagine people saying after that if you listen to them, you have a con artist running against a choke artist running against a liar. I mean, they're all going to get pro wrestling names soon, I think. And yes, this is obviously something all Democrats will relish. Eliana's right, of course, that they're finally going after Trump, and Rubio did prove something to his backers that he really can throw multiple punches. But it really is very late in the game. It's hard to see Trump losing very many of the primaries this coming Tuesday. The key is for Ted Cruz to carry his own, Texas. But even that could be good for Trump - if Cruz wins Texas, the opposition remains divided. And I don't think they're going to have any success in forcing John Kasich out of the race before any of the big Midwestern states get to vote. So yes, they're going after Trump, but it's awfully late.

CORNISH: What did debates accomplish this season? I mean, other than boosting CNN's ratings? Eliana, do you feel like this was helpful to the party this time around, the way it was structured?

JOHNSON: I think the debates were enormously instructive. They - to be sure, they didn't matter until late in the game. But the moment that Marco Rubio had on that stage arguably cost him the entire race if he doesn't end up the nominee. He arguably could've beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire - ended up in fifth place. And this debate last night, where we really saw who may be equipped to take on Donald Trump and who is not. And in that sense, I think debates, they bring out these personal characteristics of the candidates that are enormously important. In terms of having the candidates face-off against each other, I think it's enormously important for the public to see those sorts of things.

CORNISH: E.J., I want to put this question to you. Obviously, Democrats had a lengthy debate season as well.

DIONNE: Right, and I think the biggest lesson is if anybody wants to - and I doubt very many voters will - wants to watch a Republican and a Democratic debate back to back because if you wanted to know how different these parties are, how differently they talk about issues, how much they disagree on, and also, I would say, how much more policy-focused the Democrats have been this year than the Republicans, partly because Trump has pushed even candidates on the Republican side who might want to talk about policy away from it. I think that is the - a key contrast this year. And on the Democratic side you clearly have the difference between what Bernie calls himself - a revolutionary. Hillary is a reformer and a gradualist. That's a very clear kind of choice for the voters to make.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, and this week, Eliana Johnson of the National Review.

Thank you so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Thanks so much.

DIONNE: It's great to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.