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Jonah Goldberg On GOP Divisions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is Friday and probably safe to say it has been a long week for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. First, he had to throw in the towel on his party's effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Then the candidate that he and President Trump backed for that Senate seat in Alabama - well, he lost. The candidate who won the GOP primary, Roy Moore, was more than happy to rub it in and make it personal. Here's Moore at a rally the night before the election.

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ROY MOORE: If they can't beat me, then there's a crack in the dam.

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MOORE: And then whole thing falls. Mitch McConnell needs to be replaced.

KELLY: OK. Let's bring in Jonah Goldberg. He's a senior editor at National Review. He's here in the studio. Nice to see you, Jonah.

JONAH GOLDBERG: It's great to be here.

KELLY: A crack in the dam, is that a fitting metaphor for what's going on right now in the Republican Party?

GOLDBERG: It may well be. I think one of the reasons we got to where we are is that the Republicans in Congress haven't been able to get anything done, at least nothing big enough that excite rank-and-file voters. And when you get the sense that nothing can get done, politics becomes even more like entertainment.

Everyone wants to talk about the politicization of entertainment and sports. What we also forget is that the - we're sort of entertainifying (ph) politics. Were making it seem more like a reality show. That's sort of how we got Trump. And so Roy Moore, who's sort of a caricature, just seems like, hey, why the hell not throw that guy into Washington?

And so I think that, you know, the populist - the Steve Bannon crowd, former Trump adviser - they want to make this a profound ideological struggle between this new nationalist populism and the establishment. And I think it has a lot more to do with frustration and boredom with the ineffectualness in Washington.

KELLY: And you're talking about the populist crowd that, you know, wants to drain the swamp led by Steve Bannon and others. And then there's the establishment GOP crowd. I mean, it raises a couple of questions. One is where does President Trump fit in? I mean, are we now counting him as establishment GOP?

GOLDBERG: Well, by definition, the president of the United States is the head of his party. And he is the head of the establishment in a lot of ways.

KELLY: He's inherently establishment. However...

GOLDBERG: Right. So the problem is - you know, the problem is that the populists and the nationalists have no coherent ideological agenda. And the establishment has no coherent procedural plan to get things done, which is why as a traditional conservative, I just feel like this is why we can't have nice things.

And this dysfunction breeds more dysfunction. And talk radio has decided that Donald Trump's enemies are the Republican establishment and Mitch McConnell because they need someone to blame other than Donald Trump for all that befall - has befallen the president.

KELLY: OK, well, let's look at how all of this may play out. Number one, you know, the establishment wing of the GOP is taking some hits right now. Does that make primary challenges to Republicans more likely in elections next year, in 2018?

GOLDBERG: I think it absolutely makes it more likely. I think it's possible to overread Alabama, which, you know, is a redder than red state. Donald Trump won there - I don't know - by 20, 30 points. And so there was no cost to having a primary challenge.

In more moderate purplish states, I think the party might be more effective at fending off some primary challengers. But this certainly makes it more attractive for a lot of people who just want to get in there.

And it is great news for people who want to cast the Republican Party as a bunch of populists yahoos because, you know, Roy Moore and that crowd, they're going to be giving wonderful soundbites for liberal critics of the GOP, forcing Republicans to respond to them all the time.

KELLY: Well, let's look at some of these other states because some of the other developments this week - Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada, Jeff Flake of Arizona, they have clashed with President Trump. And Steve Bannon says he plans to try to work to get them diselected (ph) - unelected, ousted from their seats.

Plus, this week, we had Tennessee Senator Bob Corker announce he's going to retire. Does that open the path to ugly primary states in at least three states - ugly primaries in at least three states?

GOLDBERG: I think it certainly does. And I think, you know, Steve Bannon's business model is sort of a Leninist one, which is the worse the better. And so there's no cost to him to cost Republican seats. But again, the reason why Heller and Flake have been critical of Donald Trump is because those states aren't as deep red as some place like Alabama.

And the idea that a Roy Moore style populist could challenge Heller or Flake and those guys and get the nomination is - sure, that's very possible. Would they win a general election in those states? I think it's very unlikely.

KELLY: All right. Always hard to speculate, you know, a year in advance about what's happening in 2018. The thing that is the focus this fall for Republicans in Washington is tax overhaul - getting a new tax plan passed. Is that something the Republican Party can unite and rally around?

GOLDBERG: Yeah. I'm of two minds about it. One, traditionally, tax reform is one of the hardest things to do in Washington because it is like hitting every beehive in all of Washington because every lobbyist group is invested in the tax code.

On the flip side, since they've gotten almost nothing else done, I think there's a certain existential dread that if the Republicans don't get something like this big done, why are we electing Republicans?

The point you elect Republicans is to lower taxes. And if they can't do - if they can't do what's in the center of their lane, it will certainly encourage more primary challenges. But it also, I think, emboldens a lot of voters to say, well, what the hell are they doing there?

KELLY: Well, and it's - it'll be interesting to watch because it wasn't Democrats who stopped the health care bill from going ahead this past week. It was divisions within the Republican ranks.

GOLDBERG: No, that's right. And I think - you can see, though, that Republicans don't like talking about health care. It's not their core issue; tax reform is. And that's why I think the messaging is so much better on this. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, every - the White House, too, all have their oars pulling in the same direction for the most part on this. So it's a heavy lift. But all of the incentive structure is in the right direction for Republicans in a way that it wasn't for health care reform.

KELLY: All right. Thanks, Jonah.

GOLDBERG: Great to be here. Thank you.

KELLY: That's Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at National Review and columnist for the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.