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Week In Politics: Sanders Stays In, Trump Accepts NRA Endorsement

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more on campaign politics, we turn to our Friday commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

Welcome back.

E J DIONNE: Good to be here.

CORNISH: And columnist David Brooks of The New York Times.

Hey there, David.

DAVID BROOKS: How are you?

CORNISH: So I want to continue on this thread for a moment because Scott's story laid out also some of Sanders's logistical challenges at this point in the race. And one question going forward as he pushes for the nomination is whether, you know, he's taking basically a scorched-earth strategy in terms of attacking Hillary Clinton. I spoke with Clinton supporter Howard Dean and Sanders's campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, earlier this week. And let's start with Dean 'cause I asked him about Sanders's tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HOWARD DEAN: He can do this if he wants to do the tough stuff all the way to the end. But if he does, it could very well cost us the presidency and make Donald Trump the president. And he doesn't want to do that.

CORNISH: And here's Weaver's take.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JEFF WEAVER: I think what Bernie Sanders is talking about, it's not how to tear down the party, it's about how to build the party.

CORNISH: E.J., how do Clinton and Sanders wrap this up without doing lasting damage to their cause?

DIONNE: Not clear to me, but I think that in the end, Sanders has said over and over again he doesn't want to elect Trump. This is leading to a lot of people around him, not necessarily close like Jeff Weaver, but others, saying, OK, if you don't want to elect Trump you're going to have - you and Hillary are going to have to come to some accommodation. There are a lot of ironies here. On issues and ideology, the difference between Sanders and Clinton is probably significantly smaller than the difference between Trump and many people in his party, assuming one actually knows what Trump believes, and that's not always clear. The other irony is so that Sanders's position on some of these rules, like wanting the open primary, is at odds with what liberals and the left - his side of the party - have always wanted. They wanted the closed primary. The open primary was seen as friendly to moderates. Now the situation has changed. It's seen as friendly to outsiders. I'm sure Clinton would be happy to give him some stuff on the rules in the end.

CORNISH: David?

BROOKS: Yeah, I sort of see where Sanders is coming from. I mean, the Democrat's establishment is saying, you know, you're beating our candidate. Stop beating our candidate. And he's saying, well, I'm winning. Like, I am beating your candidate, and winners don't have to drop out. And so I understand why the momentum is like, we're doing fine. He's not going to get the nomination, but he is pushing ideas. He is pushing reforms. He's in it for the ideas and reforms as much as for his own personal candidacy. And frankly, I really doubt he's hurting his party in the long run. Hillary Clinton supporters, only 60 percent of them said they would vote for Barack Obama in 2008. That was a much more divisive campaign, and they all came around.

DIONNE: I agree with that point, and I think - but nobody is telling Sanders he has to drop out. Hillary Clinton herself said, look, I ran against Obama till the end, of course Bernie can.

I think this is more a battle about tone and whether he is ginning up supporters to say Hillary has won, she's ahead by 2.53 million votes and that it's illegitimate. That's what the fight's about - because I agree with you, he's got every right to stay in till the end.

CORNISH: And I think Sanders has been making your point, right, David? The elephant in the room here is that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are getting very good likability ratings. You know, polls showing them very unfavorably right now. And David, do you think this has some broader implications?

BROOKS: Well, you know, in - just a few years ago, when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had a 66 percent approval rating. Now she's got a 52 percent un-approval rating. And so she's just slid down to where Trump is on issue after issue. On honesty and trustworthiness, on leadership, they're the same. Does this person share your values? Sixty-six percent of Americans say Trump does not. Sixty percent say Clinton does not. She's had a major slide, and it's not that Trump is going up. It's that she's coming down to his level, which makes the campaign look a lot more closer than I would've thought.

CORNISH: E.J., too early in the process to read much into this? I know sometimes media, we can be over-reliant on polls.

DIONNE: Well, especially this year, when polls are all over the lot and their quality is very mixed. Just in terms of Clinton's decline in popularity, back in the day when she had those wonderful numbers as secretary of state, there were a lot of Republicans who said they liked Clinton, and they were saying it because it was a way of saying we like her better than this Barack Obama. So some decline was inevitable. Once she became the leader of the party, most of the Republicans left. Nonetheless, these are two very negatively rated candidates. I think that, A, leads to a rather bitter and negative campaign. Trump knows he's not going to win with pro- Trump voters alone. He's going to go negative on Clinton, and that's his proclivity anyway - just ask Lyin' Ted and other people in the Republican primary about that. Clinton knows that she is going to have to go anti-Trump to win. The one question is, does this depress turnout or not? And the - you know, the general view is when voters don't like either candidate, turnout goes down. But in this case, they really - voters dislike the other so much that that could increase turnout.

BROOKS: It's worth noting we've never in our history had two candidates so unpopular going after each other, and it is going to be the generative fact of the entire election. And the challenge for Trump is Trump. He will go after - he will talk about rape, he will talk about everything. He'll blame Bill Clinton's affairs on Hillary. He'll just go after her in a way, even given her long career, she's never been gone after. And they'll develop a lot of hatred for Trump, as every Republican candidate loathed Trump. And how do they deal with that fact? How do they present a calm demeanor, a presidential demeanor, which is the key to her success while at the same time internally they're in this barrage of mud? And it'll be a character challenge for Clinton to stay humane but also be tough and to face up to him. It'll be a psychological challenge of the kind no candidate has really faced.

CORNISH: To jump in really quickly, the Never Trump movement is essentially in the rearview mirror. I mean, this week, you had Donald Trump releasing his SCOTUS nominee, Supreme Court nominee suggestions, accepting an endorsement from the NRA today. Does this bring him in line? Like, is this working for you, David?

BROOKS: Oh, totally.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: It was a rhetorical question.

BROOKS: You know, what's amazing to me is the normalization of Donald Trump. I spoke to so many Republicans, even this week. They said, well, he's a little more erratic than I would prefer, but, you know, we can educate him.

You can't educate this guy, and plus, he just crushed you. You're not going to educate him. And so the people pretending that he's a normal candidate is mystifying to me. I will say one thing on the Supreme Court thing. I think that was counterproductive for Trump, on him releasing this list of names. I think his key to victory is winning over weird, disaffected, independent, even Sanders-supporting, disaffected voters.

CORNISH: The Wall Street Journal op-ed? They liked it.

BROOKS: Yeah, well, I sometimes differ with my employer.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And so if you throw a very conservative Supreme Court in front of former disaffected Sanders supporters or independents, they may pull back from you.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: Yeah, and I think also disaffected Sanders supporters including a lot of young people. And when you look at the polling among young people, Trump is massively rejected by the young, who are a very liberal constituency. So pandering too much to the old Republican conservatism could hurt him among a lot of groups he has the potential to win over. But the Never Trumpers haven't died entirely. I mean, I see a lot of Republicans out there. You still have Lindsey Graham. You still have Ben Sasse. A lot of the Republican right or intellectual types are saying, no, we can never get to Trump. So I think that, yes, he will unite a lot of the party. A lot of people are going to eat their words that they spoke just maybe three weeks ago, but there's still resistance out there.

BROOKS: We're in a phone booth, it should be said.

CORNISH: Yeah, I was going to say it's like the left behind.

David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks so much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, have a good weekend.

DIONNE: And you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.