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Week In Politics: Jeb Bush, Remembering Mario Cuomo

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Which brings us to our weekly Friday talk about politics with columnists E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and sitting in for David Brooks, in person this time, Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review and Bloomberg View. Good to see you both and Happy New Year.

E J DIONNE: Happy New Year.

RAMESH PONNURU: Happy New Year.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the political obituary of the week. To younger listeners, he may have been Governor Andrew Cuomo and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo's father, but 20, 30 years ago, New York Governor Mario Cuomo was one of the most important Democratic politicians in the country, a fabled orator and advocate of the middle class.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ANDREW CUOMO: The middle class - those people who work for a living because they have to, not because some psychiatrist told them it was a convenient way to fill the interval between birth and eternity.

SIEGEL: I think that would count as class warfare today. That's from the 1984 Democratic National Convention. E J, how important a figure was Cuomo?

DIONNE: Well, I think he was very important. I got to say, I have enormous affection for him despite his irascibility. I covered him for the first time when he ran for mayor of New York in 1977 and got beaten by Ed Koch. And years later, Cuomo gave a speech after he was out of office attacking anger in politics and I went up to him and I said, Governor, you are the guy who ran on the slogan put your anger to work. And he said yes, but did that guy win? You never wanted to tangle with the lawyer Mario Cuomo. But if you listen to that speech he gave in 1984, it's - there's a lot of it that rings fresh now, particularly with the struggling middle class, the squeeze on a lot of people, the problems of poverty. And the other thing he was is he was a leading, liberal, Catholic who was willing to publicly argue with the bishops about what the state's role should be on abortion. And what he said was that if we want to preserve our rights, we have to give others the same freedom even if it occasionally produces conduct that we hold to be sinful. He was an extraordinary figure who just never had it in him to run for president.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, as a conservative, what did - what do you think of Mario Cuomo and his legacy?

PONNURU: Well, I think that Cuomo's function for liberalism was to be a kind of voice in the wilderness in the '80s, but he wasn't the person who could point liberalism a way out of the wilderness. That would take Bill Clinton. If you look back at that 1984 Democratic Convention speech, it's really striking how little there is in the way of any positive proposal. Well, this is what we as liberals and Democrats think we ought to do with this country. And you really don't get that kind of forward-looking agenda until some years later with a different person and a different cast of mind.

SIEGEL: It's an ironic twist to the career of Mario Cuomo. E J, as you said, he never ran for president. In 1992, he was one of those Democratic superstars who passed on running because George H. W. Bush looked prohibitively popular, fresh from victory in Kuwait. Who could beat him? And the field was left open to the likes of Bill Clinton.

DIONNE: No, that's absolutely right. And what Clinton saw that a lot of other people didn't is President Bush could be subject to something called the business cycle, just like every other politician. And Bush's popularity was sitting at around 80 or 90 percent after the victory in the Gulf War. Cuomo didn't run I think partly for that reason. But I also think he had personal doubts about possibly himself. There was a curious humility about him. He once said I do desperately want to believe in something better than I am. That's not something you hear from many politicians which is why he was so interesting.

SIEGEL: One thing, Ramesh, that struck me even from that little clip we heard of him, he was an utterly un-cool figure. He was a hot, hot, energetic character who spoke the way politicians spoke decades and decades ago.

PONNURU: Yeah, you know, it's - I've been looking for other reasons at some of the political rhetoric of that era and a lot of it is just much hotter than what we have today. And people look grimmer as they deliver their rhetoric whereas now everybody sort of feels somebody's an image consultant - you got to smile, you got to smile more.

SIEGEL: Well, let's turn now to the future. At the mention of President George H. W. Bush brings us around to his son, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who has resigned from all the corporate boards he's on, evidently cleaning himself up for national political consumption. As he acknowledged a couple of weeks ago, he is very seriously considering a run for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JEB BUSH: This is a really serious and a life-changing decision, and I'm going to take my time. But I realize that at some point, end of this year, early next year, I'll make a decision to really pursue this or to stand down.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, first of all, do you think that that decision really hasn't been made yet, and second, is Jeb Bush the answer to the Republicans' questions?

PONNURU: Well, I think that Jeb Bush could still say no. He has still left that option open to him. But I think that the resignations from these boards is the clearest sign that he is leaning towards a run. And if he does run, I think he's going to be a very formidable candidate and a lot of Republican officials, a lot of Republican money, people are going to be very supportive of him.

SIEGEL: E J?

DIONNE: What better way is there to start 2015 than to talk about 2016? - which is what we're going to be doing all year. I think, first of all, the resignations are interesting because when this campaign happens, it sure sounds like Jeb Bush is going to run. I think one of the criticisms of him is going to be wait a minute, he's got this education reform position but some of these boards he's served on were connected to, you know, a business that really likes the idea of privatization of various education functions. So I think he's tried to push that away. It's a very odd thing. He's a very conservative person when you look at his record, and yet, it shows us where the party has gone. Just because he is for some kind of immigration reform and favors the Common Core on the education standards, that makes him some kind of left winger in the Republican circle.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, what do you think about that? Are those really disqualifying positions or is Jeb Bush who was - I gather, I've been told - was considered the gold standard of conservatism in Florida politics. Will he be acceptable to a broad part of the party?

PONNURU: I'm a conservative who disagrees with Jeb Bush on both immigration and education. But I don't believe that those issues are going to keep him from getting the nomination. The last two nominees for the Republican Party for president have been John McCain, who was for the kinds of immigration reforms that Jeb Bush is for, and Mitt Romney, who was also thought to be vulnerable from the right. He's going to get support from the center and the left of the Republican Party. And that might be enough to get him the nomination.

DIONNE: There isn't much of a left left in the Republican Party, which I think is his biggest problem.

PONNURU: It's a relative term, E J.

SIEGEL: The humorist Andy Borowitz put this out today on his Borowitz Report blog from The New Yorker. It said and in the strongest sign to date that he intends to seek the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has officially resigned his position as George W. Bush’s brother. Is it a plus or a minus to be the brother of President George W. Bush in 2016 do you think?

PONNURU: Well, it's one of the reasons he has the high national name identification he has, one of the reasons he has this network of donors all across the country, so that's a big plus. On the minus side, he is going to have to distance himself from the George W. Bush administration in way that other Republican candidates wouldn't have to. And he can't run as effectively a kind of turn the page campaign.

SIEGEL: Ramesh Ponnuru, E J Dionne, thanks to both of you. And again, Happy New Year.

DIONNE: Thank you.

PONNURU: You're welcome.

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