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Week In Politics: Secretary Of Defense, Eric Garner

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And that brings us to our Friday political commentators, columnist David Brooks of the New York Times. Hiya, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello. How are you?

BLOCK: And, filling in for E J Dionne this week, his colleague on the Washington Post editorial page, Jonathan Capehart. Jonathan, welcome back.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's start with the politics of immigration. House Republicans yesterday passed a bill declaring the president's actions on immigration null and void. Now, that's a symbolic vote - won't get taken up in the Senate. But let's talk about the underlying politics of all this, because House Speaker John Boehner put that up to a vote separate from a vote to fund the government. David, explain why.

BROOKS: He didn't want a shut down. The elephants can even learn their lesson. So, they've try to avoid that. There's a, I think, a small but shrinking fraction of the party that still wants to do that. But it's mostly on the talk radio microphones, and not so much in party itself. Boehner now has much more control over his caucus than he did before and so he's successfully avoiding a shutdown. I think what their - everyone's focus now on the Republican side is what happens next year when they begin to control the legislatures. They want to pass a bunch of immigration reforms, doing a lot of the popular stuff - border security, the high-skill immigrants - in order to take the offensive on this issue and force Obama to veto things.

BLOCK: Does that sound about right to you, Jonathan? We're seeing Republicans taking a more pragmatic tack than we've seen in the past?

CAPEHART: Oh, Absolutely. What they're looking at - well, what speaker Boehner has going for him in all this is that the 114th Congress - he has a much bigger majority than he does right now in the 113th Congress. The 114th Congress is viewed as more pragmatic - read - more manageable than the 113th Congress. And because they're all focused on the 2016 presidential race, Speaker Boehner and the incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all recognize that the Republican Party needs to give the nominee something he or she can run on. And that means Congress has to show that it can actually govern again.

BLOCK: At the same time, David, though, there are some Republican congressman calling on Speaker Boehner to not invite President Obama to deliver the State of the Union address. Others say cut the budget for Air Force One. Those voices are still out there, and they're still pretty loud.

BROOKS: Put me on there for the State of the Union ban.

(Laughter) It's a little boring. I - It is worth emphasizing, even amidst the Republican victory in the midterms, the long-term problem is still a fundamental problem for the Republicans, and they still have to get comprehensive immigration reform behind them. Because if they don't do that, many people in many communities, especially Latino communities, won't listen to anything else they have to say. And I'm not sure the Republican establishment has figured a way to get around that, especially with the coming primaries. That'll be the key issue to see how primary voters - will they punish people for being for comprehensive reform as Jeb Bush is for, or against?

BLOCK: Yeah, Jonathan, how do they navigate through that?

CAPEHART: I don't know and they don't even know. One thing that they could do that could - that would take a lot of the steam away and plaudits from the president would be to pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was passed in June 2013 with 68 votes out of the Senate - you know, by very definition, a bipartisan bill. Because House Speaker Boehner couldn't get his raucous caucus to go for it, not even to pass bits and pieces of it, I think it's - the Republican Party has put itself in the position that it's in - the difficult position that it's in, and I don't see how they get out of it. Primarily, because of what David just said. Republican primary voters are not actually interested and don't want this comprehensive immigration reform bill to go anywhere.

BLOCK: I want to turn now to news that really roiled the country this week. And that's the news that the grand jury in New York voted not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner. And let's listen to president Obama soon after news of that broke. He was talking about communities of color not having confidence in the fairness of the justice system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem. This is an American problem. When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem. And it's my job as president to help solve it.

BLOCK: Jonathan Capehart, he's calling this an American problem and it does seem that there's a far more unified view of this case than there was in the reaction to the shooting-death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

CAPEHART: And there's a simple expedition for that - the country could see it. The country could see what happened to Eric Garner on that sidewalk in Staten Island. Whereas the situation in Ferguson Missouri is murky at best and there are conflicting statements, conflicting eyewitness accounts. But here, what happened to Eric Garner, with your own eyes, you could see it. And you know that - the power of that video because everyone from the president of the United States to the Speaker of the House - they - if there's one thing they agree on, it's that what happened with that grand jury decision in Staten Island was not right.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a bit of tape of House Speaker John Boehner. He was asked about this yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I do think that the American people deserve more answers about what really happened here. And was our system of justice handled properly?

BLOCK: And, David Brooks, Speaker Boehner said he himself has a lot of unanswered questions. He said he wouldn't rule hearings in or out. What do you make of the Republican response to this?

BROOKS: Yeah. I think everyone is, as you say - people are much clearer on what happened. I think they're more outraged. It seemed more one-sided. There's much more support for a federal role, maybe some civil rights action - something to be done. I think what we need is - we need, obviously, the racial conversation has to be ongoing, but we also need a conversation about cops and cop behavior generally. You know, I was out on the streets of New York with the protest last night watching the cops, trying to detect hostility, support, how the cops were behaving. They've got a very tough job there - sometimes in the worst parts of American society and roughest situations and the scary situations.And how do they establish order? Do they do it in a way that's filled with testosterone-rage and a lot racial prejudice? Or is there a way they can establish order that's a little more standoffish? You know, I feel for them because they've got to make scary decisions at the right time. But, clearly, we need a discussion of how one reestablishes order on the street without going overboard into, sort of, this sin of pure, raw bullying.

BLOCK: And apart from that conversation that David is talking about, Jonathan, you wrote this week - the entire nation is left wondering, what does it take to hold a police officer accountable in the death of a citizen? It's more than a conversation that would answer the question.

CAPEHART: Right. More than a conversation but one that we need to have. And it's a conversation about our racial dynamic, but it's also a conversation about our values. I mean, if we put value on human life and if someone takes - if someone murders somebody or if someone kills someone, that person should be held accountable, whether that person does it in a blue uniform or does it as a civilian. And one of the things that I think is so powerful is, when we went through Trayvon Martin, there were protests because George Zimmerman had not been arrested. Once he was arrested and pulled into the criminal justice system, people saw him go to trial. They didn't like the decision, but they accepted it. What happened here is that we see two police officers - Ferguson and Staten Island - who don't even get to go to trial.

BLOCK: Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and MSNBC. Thanks so much.

CAPEHART: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And David Brooks of the New York Times. David, thanks.

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