NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Yuval Levin, editor for National Affairs, about the secured Iran nuclear deal votes, Donald Trump's recent loyalty pledge to the eventual Republican Party candidate, and Kentucky clerk Kim Davis going to jail.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now our weekly conversation about politics with columnist E J Dionne, of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, who is in San Francisco this week. And in Washington, sitting in for David Brooks, Yuval Levin, who is editor of the quarterly, National Affairs.
Welcome to both of you.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
YUVAL LEVIN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Let's stick with the Iran deal, which as we've just heard is an issue out there in the campaign. President Obama, E J, was able to find enough senators - Democratic senators - to guarantee that he can sustain a veto if it comes to that. How significant is all this?
DIONNE: Well, I think it's usually significant. In the end, I am not surprised by this because despite all of the heavy lobbying and despite a lot of Democrats feeling very cross-pressured on the issue, the argument that there is really is no alternative to this deal that is plausible, I think was bound to carry the day with Democrats. I think there's some real fallout here. First there's still the question of whether Democrats will get 41 votes to prevent a vote on this all together. And then we're going to have a lot of issues to deal with. Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to either have to establish a new relationship again with the Obama administration or he's going to continue to fight on, I suppose, hoping for a Republican president. And you saw today with the Saudis, the president wants to reassure our allies that this deal does not mean we're backing away from them, which it doesn't.
SIEGEL: Yuval, this issue has pitted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu against President Obama. It's divided American Jews. Democratic and Jewish Senators Chuck Schumer, of New York, and today, Ben Cardin, of Maryland, came out against it. Does the political landscape change at all as a result of all this?
LEVIN: Well, you know, the striking thing about this process has not been that ultimately the president secured the votes that he needed but how difficult it has been for him to get the votes he needed to make sure that Republicans can't override a veto on this resolution of disapproval. Remember, he only needs 34 votes, and he has 44 Democratic senators. And so the fact that he's had to work this hard is, I think, in one sense, a reflection of the challenge of selling the deal itself, which is problematic. And which, you know, in a sense, it's strange to say but Donald Trump made a pretty good case against it. We've just heard a piece of it. And every Republican has made essentially the same case. It ends up being a pretty powerful case, it's not the easiest thing for the Democrats to ignore. But it also, I think, does show the some of the weakness of the administration's relationship with Congress in general, including with Democrats in Congress, which this president has had trouble rallying again and again. He's made sure, of course, that there's not an alternative. So to say that there's no better alternative - there's only one president, and only the president could really provide Congress with an alternative here. This is what he wants, and he presents it as a yes or no question. Ultimately, he'll get his way, but the difficulty that he's had is really telling.
SIEGEL: A lot of Republicans...
DIONNE: Could I just?
SIEGEL: Yes, E J, go ahead.
DIONNE: There's an alternative explanation here, which is that Republicans chose to make this a partisan issue. And even Republicans who might have been inclined to support this - Senator Flake, Senator Collins - were under immense pressure to take the party line. I think it is troubling for the long run that an issue this important could become so deeply partisan. And after all, so far only three Democratic senators have announced their opposition.
LEVIN: Yeah, there's no question that this is one of the ways in which foreign policy has become deeply partisan in the last few years. But when you look at public opinion on this, it also seems to be divided along similar lines. So it does seem as though the partisan divisions are substantive and not purely political in this case. And again, the case for the deal is hard to make. Even the administration's best case for it is that there's not a better alternative at hand. That's a serious case, but it's also a function of a failure to achieve a better alternative.
SIEGEL: From Iran to Kentucky, and the Rowan County clerk's office, where clerk Kim Davis refused to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples despite a Supreme Court order.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KIM DAVIS: We are not issuing marriage licenses today, so...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Based on what?
DAVIS: ...I would ask you all to...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why are you not issuing marriage licenses today?
DAVIS: Because I'm not.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Under whose authority are you not issuing licenses?
DAVIS: Under God's authority.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Did God tell you to do this? Did God tell you to treat us like this?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't believe in your God.
SIEGEL: That was Kim Davis, talking on Tuesday to a local gay couple. By week's end, she was charged with contempt and jailed.
Yuval Levin, some Republican presidential hopefuls have sounded sympathetic toward Kim Davis. Is trying to block same-sex marriage after this Supreme Court ruled it a constitutional right - is this worth Republican time and energy?
LEVIN: Well, look, I certainly am concerned about the fate of religious liberty in the wake of the court's decision on gay marriage this year. But I don't think that this kind of move by Kim Davis or that defenses of her are a good way of advancing the cause of religious liberty. The concern about religious liberty is about private institutions and private individuals being allowed to live by their conscience in the public square and in their private lives. That's ultimately what religious liberty protects. This case is about a public official claiming the right to ignore the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution in - with respect to a law that she's been elected to uphold. It is a very different kind of question, and to confound these two types of questions is not a way to advance the cause of religious liberty. And ultimately, defenders of religious freedom in America have to ask themselves, how we can call for laws protecting religious liberty and at the same time call for allowing public officials to ignore laws they don't like? What would be the point?
SIEGEL: E J, you agree?
DIONNE: I agree with that. You know, to use an extreme example, we rightly have laws at a time of a draft that allow people with religious objections to war to become conscientious objectors, but a general can't wake up in the morning, declare himself a pacifist and order his troops to lay down arms. Some months ago, Doug Laycock, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia and a moderate on these questions, says, somebody has to issue marriage licenses, you can't just tell somebody in the county to go to the next county. So as it is, a church or a synagogue that opposes gay marriage doesn't have to marry anyone, but this involves a government official and civil marriage.
SIEGEL: On to a spectacle in New York City yesterday. The Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus made a house call to Donald Trump, and Trump emerged from their meeting loyal to the GOP ticket, having removed the threat of a third party challenge.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
DONALD TRUMP: So I will be totally pledging my allegiance to the Republican Party and the conservative principles for which it stand, and we will go out, and we will fight hard and we will win.
SIEGEL: Yuval Levin, is this the most valuable thing Donald Trump can say to the Republican Party at this point, I will not launch a third-party race if...
LEVIN: You know, that twist on the Pledge of Allegiance makes me a little nervous, I have to say. I do think that what this loyalty pledge story - strange as it is, and it's part of a long series of strange stories this summer - tells us is that Republicans, the party establishment, are not so much concerned about Donald Trump winning the nomination - which, rightly or wrongly, almost nobody that you talk to in the party apparatus thinks is likely at this point. They're concerned about Trump running as a third party candidate. And, in fact, they kind of see Trump running as a third party candidate now within the Republican Party, running a race that's not really about the Republican Party and doesn't have much to do with what the Republican Party is. But it's about this one individual. And yet he's running as a Republican candidate for president. What they see - what they fear in looking at that is a third party run in the general election, which would siphon votes away from the Republican candidates and help the Democrats win. That's their big concern at the moment. And so for them this is a big moment. Now...
LEVIN: ...It doesn't mean that he's actually going to keep to this pledge, but it makes a difference. It puts some pressure on him when the time comes.
SIEGEL: E J, you have the last word - but a very, very short one - about Donald Trump.
DIONNE: Trump said he had gotten an assurance that, I will be treated fairly. A man who invoked - has been involved in four bankruptcies, can surely find a way to declare this deal void if he decides he's been treated unfairly.
SIEGEL: E J Dionne, of The Washington Post, Yuval Levin, of National Affairs - thanks to both of you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
LEVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.