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Week In Politics: San Bernardino, Calif., Shooting, U.S. Policy On Syria

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Time now for our Friday regulars to talk about politics - David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: Since Wednesday, we've been hearing the country's political leadership react to San Bernardino. Yesterday, President Obama was very cautious in choosing his words. In the Oval Office Thursday morning, he was not ready to call this terrorism.

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BARACK OBAMA: It is possible that this was terrorist-related, but we don't know. It's also possible that this was workplace-related.

SIEGEL: Some Republicans showed no such reticence, nor did Hillary Clinton, who was campaigning last night in New Hampshire.

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HILLARY CLINTON: We will learn more about what went on and who these people were and what their motivations were. But it's becoming clearer that we are dealing with an act of terrorism.

SIEGEL: By this morning, the semantics of the event were rendered moot with news that Tashfeen Malik, the woman suspect, had declared her loyalty to ISIS. How to speak of it, how to react to this, how to prevent anything else like it - all of that has been under discussion this week. And I'd like to hear from the two of you, what of all this has made sense or not made sense to you? E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I guess I wasn't surprised that President Obama was very reluctant to declare this a terrorist event before it was confirmed because that carries an enormous implication. I mean, we have largely avoided events like that. The other thing that's really struck me is, yes, at a certain level, it matters greatly whether it was a terrorist act because that has foreign-policy implications. On the other hand, it would have been an equally awful act if it had not been terrorist-related. So are we suddenly living in a world where we have the normal shootings in our country that seem to happen on a regular basis, and we don't worry about those as much unless we call them terrorists? And I found that kind of disturbing.

SIEGEL: David, what did you think?

BROOKS: Well, this was a terrorist act. It was an act of religious terrorism. And I think we're going to see an upsurge of religious terrorism in this century because we're going to see an upsurge in extremist forms of religion. And that's not because religion is bad, but religion creates groups. And there's some small, fringe minority in each group that want to kill people outside the group. And I - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a book recently saying that the answer to religious terrorism is going to be found within religion and reinterpreting the text, and it's going to be done by religious people. Religious people listen to other religious people. And what has to happen is - we already have a theology of loyalty and love for people within the group. There has to be a theology of justice for people outside the group. And so it's up to religious leaders to really show how you can love your own group, but you've got to treat others with a form of justice. And I think it's - this is a war of ideas as much as anything else.

DIONNE: I thoroughly agree with that, and I admire Rabbi Sacks, as well. But also, you wonder if this will make us start thinking about the same laws that we talk about to prevent other forms of gun violence, other forms of mass shooting. Will we suddenly take those laws - the possibility of such laws more seriously now that we're more worried about this sort of terrorism? In the Senate last week, it didn't seem so. There was a provision proposed that if you're on the no-fly list, you've got to be restricted in buying guns. That didn't pass. So you can't fly, but you can buy a gun. That seems odd.

SIEGEL: Well, as people raised the point, they said, here is a couple that wasn't on any no-fly list. Whatever might have been done to prevent people accused of terrorist links from getting a gun or doing anything else wouldn't have stopped these people. They don't seem to be mentally ill. There's no record of hospitalization. And none of the steps that have been proposed, except for just saying, look, it should be a lot harder to buy a gun - that seemed to be about the only...

DIONNE: Which seems a sensible idea to me.

BROOKS: I mean, it seems sensible to me, especially the guns they used. Any gun that makes you look like Rambo-esque, you don't need to have it. But the other thing that has to happen is ISIS has to be deglamorized. I mean, here's a woman sitting out in San Bernardino, Calif., suddenly decides ISIS is going to give her life some meaning. And it has to be deglamorized by humiliating, and that means defeating it on the battlefield the way al-Qaeda was more or less defeated. And that's part of the project, too.

SIEGEL: OK, on to Republican presidential politics. Ben Carson appears to be dropping in the polls. And he didn't help himself yesterday at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. In his description of the two major Palestinian factions, Dr. Carson pronounced Hamas in such a way as to suggest hummus, a Middle Eastern chickpea mash.

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BEN CARSON: The challenge is the split between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah and Hamas operate in a constant state of conflict. Fatah rules the West Bank. Hamas rules the Gaza Strip.

SIEGEL: I just couldn't resist playing that. He didn't quite same hummus, actually, but it cane close. David...

BROOKS: It's better than the split between Fatah and matzo.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

DIONNE: Or the Tabbouleh insurgents in Afghanistan, perhaps.

SIEGEL: Well, Carson is dropping out of the top tier, it seems, in the polls. David, you write today that you expect Donald Trump to lose the lead as Republican caucus-goers and primary voters get more serious. The ink was barely dry on my New York Times - reading your column - when CNN released a poll that shows Trump up 36 - with 36 percent the vote - 20 points up on Ted Cruz. What's going on?

BROOKS: Hey, well, if you ask me where I'm going to eat February 1, I'll give you an answer. I love a restaurant called Cookshop in New York. Maybe I'll be there, but I'm really not thinking about it. And so who knows where I'll be on February 1? So that's the way voters are right now. Eighty percent of them - you know, we pay intense attention to this - 70, 80 percent of them are not thinking about it. So if you ask a question, they'll give you an answer. But if you go back to the last Iowa caucuses, the last New Hampshire caucuses, people make their mind up in the last 30 days. And they think very differently about it when they're actually choosing a president and when they're just trying to name somebody who makes them feel good at the moment.

SIEGEL: But they've been naming the same person now since July. This has been a pretty strong run in the polls.

BROOKS: Right, but Trump does - he makes them feel good because he's obnoxious. They get to feel that he's going to shake up Washington. He says things that are - seem bluntly true to some people. But when you actually think about the nuclear trigger, when you actually think about running the government, I just don't think a party that has chosen Mitt Romney and Bob Dole and John McCain has suddenly changed personality that much.

SIEGEL: You've just mentioned three people, E.J., who did not get elected president. That's part of what's happening here. What do you think, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I guess I take Trump's supporters more seriously than David does. I want to say that I do not think Donald Trump will be elected president if he wins the Republican nomination, but I was very struck, as well, by that CNN/ORC poll. And the reason I think Trump has staying power is that he has built a very definable constituency. Ben Carson's gaffes have lost him support because there was never strong support for him, whereas in that poll, Trump is getting 46 percent among Republicans without college degrees. He has become the spokesman - a billionaire has become the spokesman for Republican working-class discontent. And if I had a dollar for every time people said Trump will fade after Labor Day, Trump will fade after Thanksgiving, I could buy a lot of Trump's properties. I think he's got staying power.

SIEGEL: David, I won't ask you to pay E.J., but you get the last word in defense of your column.

BROOKS: (Laughter). Well, listen, if - Nate Silver did a very good thing because you've got to measure how much uncertainty there is in this. And if we reflect the uncertainty in the actual poll - undecided, 80 percent, Trump, 5 percent, Rubio, 3 percent - that is the reality. People have made a decision, but it's a provisional decision, like just trying on clothing.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington post and the Brookings Institution, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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