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Week In Politics: White House Responds To North Carolina Bathroom Bill

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to stay on this topic for a moment with our Friday political commentators. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and sitting in for David Brooks today Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review was in New York. Welcome to both of you.

E J DIONNE: Thank you good to be here.

REIHAN SALAM: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And the attorney general this week, E.J., told transgender Americans the Department of Justice and the entire administration wants you to know we see you, we stand with you and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Governor of North Carolina called today's Department of Ed and Justice letter a massive executive branch overreach which clearly oversteps constitutional authority. What do you call it?

DIONNE: I call the respecting the rights of a small minority of Americans who have only recently gotten recognition by the rest of us. I don't think this is going to play in a big way in the current election campaign, which is obviously something you might suspect after all the explosions today. I think it's a sign that the Obama administration wants to lay down markers before it leaves on behalf of gay rights. And I think it's an issue that will sort of move voters who are already on one side of the issue - it's not going to change a lot of votes.

SIEGEL: Reihan, a writer for your publication, National Review, today criticizes what he calls the Obama administration's transgender agenda. Is there such an agenda?

SALAM: You know, what I will say about the president's decision is that it's part of a larger pattern in which the president has very effectively deployed what some folks call wedge issues. A wedge issue is best understand as an issue where your side is pretty united while the other side is pretty divided.

So, for example, under George W. Bush he saw same-sex marriage as a wedge issue that at the time appeared to divide Democrats while it united Republicans. Low and behold about 10 years later that flipped entirely. In the late 1980s, Republicans were very effective at deploying wedge issues like flag burning and the death penalty, other issues that divided Democrats. And now the shoe is on the other foot. You now have the president on things like his contraception mandate and a variety of other things of finding issues where he believes that his coalition is entirely united and yet he can put Republicans who are, you know, again, have a lot of conflict around these issues - based on age, based on class and many other things - on the wrong foot.

SIEGEL: But implicit in what you're saying is it's a political step is what you're saying.

SALAM: I do believe that it is - I'm sure that there are, you know - I'm sure that there are many motivations behind and beyond politics. But I do believe that when we look at how the administration has handled issues like this that had traditionally been handled at the local level, I think you can see a pattern of deploying wedge issues very deftly and very effectively.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: Yeah, well, Reihan might be right in that political analysis, but it's funny because about a week ago I heard from a liberal who said that this issue was actually being deployed by social conservatives who know they don't get the same bang out of the marriage equality issue that they used to, and so they're turning to this. I think each side will use this issue to mobilize pieces of their base. But I think it is still primarily the administration trying to stand up for gay rights broadly understood.

SIEGEL: We're talking about bases and people in pieces. Let's move on to this week's big GOP meeting in Washington - Donald Trump and Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House who pronounced that a good meeting but acknowledged in a news conference real differences with the party's likely nominee.

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PAUL RYAN: To pretend we're reunified without actually unifying then we go into the fall at half strength. This election's too important to go into an election at half strength. That means we need a real unification of our party.

SIEGEL: Reihan, can there be a real unification of the Republican Party without some very substantial concessions either from Trump or from someone like Ryan?

SALAM: Well, it's very hard to see how those concessions will unfold because we're dealing with in Donald Trump a political figure who is very unconventional. And indeed his whole pitch is that he's an unconventional political figure. You know, what kind of concessions would he likely make whether it be on substantive policy? You know, that's hard to say because Trump has emphasized again and again that he wants to be unpredictable. He does not - he wants to be preserve his flexibility. He doesn't necessarily want to commit to a very well-defined policy agenda. So that's why I have a hard time seeing some kind of give-and-take as you might expect in another contentious primary race of this kind.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: I think that's right. I mean, I was struck this week that they seem to be talking about how unified they were in talking about unity because they didn't want to talk about disunity. And then I think what you'll see is a certain number of conservatives and Republicans just not getting to Trump. Ryan trying to walk this line where it's dangerous for him on either side because if he breaks with the party, he's got a problem with a lot of people on the Trump side. And if he doesn't sort of create some distance between himself and Trump, he seems untrue to a lot of the things he's said in the past. I just think the difficulties around this week showed how difficult Donald Trump is going to make life for a lot of Republican candidates.

SIEGEL: But Reihan, I seem to see a lot of Republicans who seem to be discovering that after all, you know, Donald Trump isn't such a bad guy, which seems to be the theme of the week.

SALAM: Well, that varies considerably depending on which politicians we're talking about. You know, you've seen a number of high-profile figures including, for example, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who has said I will support the nominee. Yet, he does so reluctantly. He does so begrudgingly. He does so without any great enthusiasm.

So, you know, you're going to see that cleavage in the party and you're going to see other figures like the Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse who are a bit more forthright in their opposition to Trump. So unfortunately for Mr. Trump, I don't think it's likely that you're going to have an entirely unified GOP, you know, behind his candidacy.

SIEGEL: Let's turn to the Democrats for a moment. Hillary Clinton still has the math on her side. But in West Virginia this week, once again, Bernie Sanders had the votes on his side, and he pledged to stay in the race.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Let me be as clear as I can be. We are in this campaign to win the Democratic nomination.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: E.J., what does the persistence of Sanders and of his supporters say about the Democrats prospects for unity in November?

DIONNE: Well, one thing I think we learned in West Virginia this week is that there is absolutely no way a Democrat is going to carry West Virginia this fall, particularly Hillary Clinton, but I think it's true of Sanders. One of the striking things in the exit polls is voters who said that they wanted a government more conservative than President Obama has voted for Sanders which suggests Sanders is picking up a lot of protest votes out there. I think looking forward as long as Clinton can hang on to California at the end of this process, it's going to be very hard even to make an issue of this, even if she lost California, she'd have the delegates she needed. But I think if she can cap off the whole run with a victory in California, then you're going to have complicated negotiations with Sanders, some platform concessions, but I think she will be fine.

SIEGEL: And, Reihan, what do you make of the Democrats?

SALAM: Well, Bernie Sanders had to be persuaded to run as a Democrat and now he's become one of the two or three most influential Democrats in the United States. He's done that by building a constituency outside of the traditional party. And I believe that he is going to seek to retain that, and he's going to seek to build a larger movement that is not entirely parallel to the kind of more centrist liberalism as represented by Hillary Clinton.

DIONNE: I agree totally that Bernie Sanders is and should build a movement out of this campaign. I see it as a resembling the old CIO, supporting middle-of-the-road Democrats when they need the support by pushing them in a more progressive direction. That could be a real legacy of his campaign.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Reihan Salam of National Review, thanks to both of you.

SALAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.