The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Dan Balz

The Washington Post

Dan Balz joined The Washington Post in 1978 and is currently chief correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., he has covered politics throughout his tenure at the Post and has written four books, two of which became New York Times best sellers.

In this interview, Balz discusses the hardening of divisions in the country during the eight years of Obama's presidency, Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the appeal of Trump's message. On the campaign trail, Balz recalls interviewing rally attendees just after Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, saying "it was clear there was an audience hungering to hear what he had to say."

This is the transcript of an interview with with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on May 24, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's begin by talking a little bit about the promise of 2004.

I can't recall a speech that had such a riveting impact on an audience at a political convention. Political conventions are known for great oratory, and yet in some ways this was so wholly unexpected because he was not a figure who had any kind of national profile at that point. He was an unexpected choice by John Kerry to deliver that speech. ... I did an interview with him much later about it. And he said there was a point in that speech where he realized he had the audience. And you could tell that in the [convention] hall that night. I mean, the emotions were not overwhelming at first in the hall. And then suddenly he caught the moment. And the audience and he were almost like one.

And the response to that speech, both in the moment and in the immediate aftermath, totally changed everything for him. He became overnight an overnight sensation and a political phenomenon that we hadn't seen in American politics in a very long time.

The promise that there's not a red America, there's not a blue America, there's the United States of America. Aspirational or do you think he believed it?

I think he believed it. I think that's genuine in him, despite all of what he's been through and the divisiveness that has surrounded his presidency. I think that is part of him. But it was also, in the delivery of it, it was aspirational. And it caught a moment in American politics. The end of the Clinton administration was messy, to say the least, and the Bush administration at that point, four years in, was very messy. And the Iraq war was so controversial. But there was another aspect of it, which is that we have been through so many years of, as E.J. Dionne once called it, the false choices of politics -- people pitting one another against one another in part for political reasons.

... And this notion of "we're not red and blue, we're the United States of America" – and the delivery of it. I mean if you go back and watch that, the delivery of it is quite powerful, and I think it captured something that was bipartisan. And I think if he didn't believe it at the moment, he became a real believer in part because of the response to it, because the response was so overwhelming and so widespread.

When do you think it dawned on him that he was wrong?

I think that the defining moment for him on that was the budget fight in the summer of 2011. I think he felt that it was possible to make a deal with John Boehner. I think John Boehner probably thought it was possible to make a deal with Barack Obama. And in the end, they couldn't do it. And I think that at that point, the president decided, I'm done with this. I'm not going to try with Congress anymore. It's not going to work out.

They had gone through fits and starts on other things. They'd gotten close on some deals. If you go back to right after the 2010 election where the Democrats got waxed, he had a pretty good lame duck session. And a quite successful lame duck session. And I think he came out of that thinking, "You know, even though this is a hostile Congress in many ways, maybe I can do business with them." And there were efforts made through 2011 to do that. And then you had the budget fight and the debt ceiling and all of that.

And I think the collapse of that left him in such a sour mood. He had played that in a way that I believe his feeling was, if this doesn't work out, those other guys are going to get the blame, not me. And in fact, the public reaction was "a pox on both your houses." And I think that was unexpected for him.

...If you talked to people at the time, and in the aftermath of that, they say that period in August of 2011 was as low a point in his presidency as he had. And there was a lot of regrouping that went on after that. And as a result of that, from then on, he decided, "I'm going to have to fight this out," in a sense, in elections, not in backroom deals with the Hill.

... Let's go to the 2008 election. ... Talk to me a little bit about [John] McCain choosing [Sarah] Palin and if it was part of a bonfire that's going to burn under Boehner and [Eric] Cantor later. How does it get started? What does she stand for and represent in our politics at that time?

If there's a definition of Hail Mary in politics, the Palin pick is a Hail Mary. McCain wanted to pick Joe Lieberman, close buddy, Democrat, they'd shared the same view on Iraq, they'd traveled a lot together. They were simpatico. And he wanted to do that. And with the idea that if they would do it, they would agree and declare that they would do one term only. And they talked to Lieberman about that, and Lieberman, for the price of being vice president, was prepared to make that deal.

McCain and his team were sitting down to figure out what to do. And this was a week or 10 days before they had to make a decision. And Bill McInturff, who's the pollster in the campaign, made a quite impassioned case that if you do Joe Lieberman, you're going to blow up your convention and you're going to spend most of September and part of October trying to put your party back together again. That the resistance to putting a Democrat on the ticket, however attractive it might be to you as an idea of the way to govern, is not going to work politically, you just can't do that.

And so they get to, I guess it was a Sunday night before he has to make a decision later in the week. And they're out of options. I mean, there were no options that he really liked. And they also knew that the campaign was getting away from them, that then-Senator Obama had a head of steam and they had to do something about it. And so they kind of reach out and think, OK, what about this governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin? McCain barely knew her. They had done some vetting of her. It's not as though she had never been under some consideration. There'd been a vetting of public records.

But this was totally unexpected, and a very rush job in picking her. ... She's flown down to Arizona in secret. She goes through a series of conversations with A.B. Culvahouse, who was leading the vetting operation, who was back in Washington, who did a lot of this by telephone. The kind of final vetting is done quickly and in haste. She has conversations with Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter, very, very late at night on the night before she's supposed to meet McCain. And Schmidt is all for it. Salter has real reservations because she's not that well known, not fully vetted in any political sense.

She goes up to see McCain. They have a conversation. And the deal is done. She rolls out the next day. And is kind of an instant hit, as you remember. She electrified the convention. And in the week or 10 days following that, the polls tightened. It became if not a dead heat race, almost a dead heat race.

So there was this feeling that, you know, this pick worked. And then of course it all unraveled. ... It unraveled because of the Katie Couric interview. It unraveled because of other things she said and did. And yet there was something about Sarah Palin that captured the imaginations of a particular part of the Republican Party. And despite the McCain loss, despite the criticism of her as not ready and as being not qualified, she became an instant star in her own right, with a following in the party.

What you called in your story that I read "the left out Americans."

... I think at that point we wouldn't have thought of it that way. But one thing that was observable and yet ignored ... was the degree to which there was real hostility toward Barack Obama on the right. It was overlooked or ignored for the most part because you had the economic collapse, which was a terrible, terrible problem that was affecting everybody. People's 401(k)s were draining off into the gutter. And people had real things to worry about.

Also because in general, the race was kind of decided at that point. I mean, it was pretty clear by October that Obama was going to win that election. And he had around him the aura of hope and change. And a feeling of goodwill. A feeling of let's put partisanship, park it at least to the side for a while.

There was a celebrated moment where McCain took a microphone from a woman at a rally who had said, I think she said, "Obama's a Muslim and I can't trust him," and McCain took the mic and said, "No, no, ma'am, he's a good American. And we have disagreements, but he's a fine person," and all of that.

But when you look back at polling data, you could see the seeds of the kind of divisiveness that happened almost immediately after Obama became president. And I think Palin spoke to that audience. Palin had a quality, has a quality, that's rare in politicians. I mean, she can speak directly to an audience and connect with an audience. Not everybody can.

... She created, in a sense, a pool of conservative voters who were looking for something. Certainly it wasn't hope and change and it wasn't the McCain kind of [conservatism]. And that was there to be plucked and built and turned into a movement.

... As we head into Obama presidency, let's pause for a moment for that TARP vote when many of the Republicans rebel and say no to TARP, and what we've learned subsequently is they were very, very angry at George Bush, in some ways a representative of the Eastern elite Republicans, for not being responsive to their fears about government, to their aspirations for government. Explain that moment.

I think that that was the foreshadowing of so much of what we've seen since. The Republican Party has gone through a transformation or an evolution over a period of years. We always used to say of the Democratic Party, it's the party of the working person and that the Republican Party is the party of the bankers or the country club, or however you want to describe it, but the affluent and the elite. And what we've seen over time, and you saw it with Reagan Democrats, Reagan pulling white ethnics toward the Republican Party, but we've seen over time more and more of that. So that particularly with white working class voters, they're a much more Republican vote today than they were 20 years ago, 40 years ago.

The TARP vote was an indication that there was something stirring Main Street, to use that cliché, that an anti-elite, anti-Wall Street feeling that crystallized in that vote, but was much larger than that. It was an expression of dissatisfaction that in one way or another, the political class, and you could call the political class both Democratic and Republican, but they're going after their -- they're rebelling against their own leadership.

There's a political class that's looking out for itself and not for these folks. I think that Republicans in the House who are in districts where there is a lot of that sentiment, were expressing that. They weren't buying in to the idea that big banks needed to be bailed out. They were buying in to the idea that you're giving money to people who are already well off and that's not the way to go.

And so, that vote, if you look back on it, we think of the Tea Party starting in the spring of 2009. That may be the moment where in a sense the Tea Party began to get formed up.

... What is that world that somebody like Cantor or the Republican leadership saw happening right before their eyes at the inauguration of Barack Obama?

It's kind of the rise of a new America. An America that, by everything we see in census data and everything we see in schools in cities, and everything we see in all kinds of places we go, is a much, much more diverse America than the one I grew up in, for example. For some people, it is the fulfillment of the American Dream. And for other people it is scary, because it looks and feels like America is becoming something that is not just unfamiliar, but is hostile to many of the values that a lot of people think are the core of what's made America great. ...

... And that engenders a certain kind of fear in a certain kind of person who populates the other party.

There's always fear in politics. That's part of the motivation that generates the friction in American politics. It's the fear of the other side. But I think that what happened during the Obama administration is that that got ratcheted up in a way that we hadn't seen it before. I mean, if you look at all kinds of data on public attitudes, one of the striking things is that the way people feel about the political party with which they identify is about the same as it's always been. I mean, they feel good about being a Republican or a Democrat. That hasn't particularly changed. It's not that that number has gone up significantly or down significantly.

What's changed is the attitude toward the other side. And the way you now look, if you're a Republican, the way you look at the Democrats, or if you're a Democrat, the way you look at the Republicans is, you're much more hostile to the other side than they used to be. That's what's created the bigger gap that we have in American politics today. It's created the polarization we have. Or it's deepened the polarization.

And to some extent, the Obama coalition [is] one of the reasons for that. It created a reaction on the right, which then created a reaction on the left. I think the reaction on the right has been larger and more important in kind of getting us to where we are, but there's no question that that gap has widened, and the hostility toward the other side is greater. ...

... The president seemed determined to do healthcare reform from the very beginning, despite the other things on the agenda and despite the complaints and advice of Larry Summers and many others on his economic team. But by the summer of '09, it's stuck in Congress. It's not moving. He can't get anything going.

... There was a point in that election, in the winter of 2008, where there were a lot of Republicans who were drawn to him, who felt that this was a different kind of politician and one that they admired.

His agenda was different. And he never had to quite make that clear in the election. But when he had to make governing choices, to the Republicans everything he was doing was much farther to the left than that kind of bipartisan talk suggested, the kind of presidency he wanted to operate. He has a different view of that. And I take that point.

But that was part of the problem that existed, which was his agenda didn't quite match what Republicans had thought his presidency might seek to try to do. So healthcare becomes, in a sense, the biggest example of that.

Now, from the president's point of view, the healthcare plan he was proposing was not that far left, it was not that radical. It wasn't a single payer system. It was similar to what some Republicans had thought they wanted back when Bill Clinton was trying to do healthcare. So the president's view is, this is a pretty moderate approach to trying to do universal healthcare.

But the Republican Party had moved by that point. The country in many ways had moved by that point. The politics was more polarized. So what he was trying to do was something that was seen as a sharper line of demarcation than I think he thought it was going to be.

And so by the summer of 2009, it is mired. ...And as it was sitting there stuck in the Senate Finance Committee, you've got this movement building up on the outside, the Tea Party movement, which started as a protest to big spending, but really became fiery in its energy around the healthcare bill. That's the climate that gets created in the summer of 2009.

By August, those town meetings ... Some of it was unbelievably argumentative and intense, and in some ways a real harbinger of what was to come.

I attended one of those meetings. Not one of the most fiery, in Colorado, in August of that year, and you could just see the intensity on the part of people. ... Just the anger that they were expressing about what they feared was about to happen. To them, it was a huge government intrusion in their lives. For a lot of people, the government already was too intrusive in a whole variety of ways. And the healthcare debate crystallized that and it just brought out so much energy and anger.

... It was a lot more than just a healthcare bill. I mean, I think it was a kind of manifestation of this fear that, you know, we've got a president in the White House who we can't trust, who's going to take the country left, who doesn't necessarily share our values. Something's got to be done to stop it. ...

... This idea of Obama as the first black president and how hard it is for him to deal with racial issues. ... Talk a little bit for us about the dilemma of Obama and race.

... This was something that the campaign recognized as they were heading toward victory in 2008, that there was this sense of, as they called it, "otherness," that there was this sense of Obama as being different to people. Not quite a real American. And you know, we've seen it in ugly ways throughout his presidency. ... You had real fights going on in those first eight or nine months of the presidency, all of those things become heightened, and they become more visible, and they become harder to manage. And I think that's part of what's going on in the summer of 2009.

Joe Wilson?

Well, I don't know what to say about Joe Wilson. It was shocking when it happened. It was unprecedented when it happened. You could see the look on the president's face when it happened of, what in the, you know, what was that?

... It was as if it was another guy in the bleachers, you know. We're not in the House chamber, we're at a ballgame or something and somebody just yells out something, which is common in sporting events. But highly uncommon in the House chamber.

And I think that moment was one in which, again, people began to realize that we're dealing with something different than we thought we were going to be dealing with in this administration. I mean, there'd been enough at that point to suggest that the president was in for a long, hard fight, not just over healthcare, but over a variety of things. And that bringing the country together was going to be a heck of a lot harder than he might have thought or he might have hoped.

There are moments that are kind of exclamation points at the end of a sentence of something that we've been reading. And the Wilson, you know, "you lie" comment was that exclamation point.

We're now over to the GOP side. We're in 2010. We know we're headed for the midterms. Cantor, [Paul] Ryan and [Kevin] McCarthy are The Young Guns. They're trying to corral whatever forces, or even encourage and build whatever forces of rebellion are out there in Congressional districts all around America. Take me there. What is somebody like Cantor's or Ryan's hope for the new Congress and how to lasso and wrangle the new rebels?

They're seeing something at the grassroots of the Republican Party that says to them, "We can have a big election in 2010. As down as we were after 2008, we can come back. I'm not sure at that point they thought they could necessarily win the House of Representatives, but they could see that something was stirring. And I think that their goal was, how do we maximize that? Because what we need is, we need maximum turnout. We need the Democrats to be unhappy. And we need our side to be totally energized. ...

... And they did.

And they did. It was a huge victory in 2010. Unprecedented victory. And up and down, across everything. I mean, House of Representatives, Senate, governors, state legislatures. I mean, for Obama and the Democrats, it was a total wipeout. I think that the Democrats were shell-shocked coming out of that because they had been at the top of the mountain two years earlier with Obama's election.

And I think that their feeling was, OK, the country is making a turn, that the Reagan era is ended, the conservative ascendance is over. Barack Obama has become president, you know. It's now moving in our direction. And suddenly two years later, they hit a brick wall.

... And what does Obama – is this what he calls the shellacking?

It was the shellacking. It took him to the end of that press conference to finally utter the words that every reporter in the room was -- remember, Bush had done, after his midterm loss, the thumping; it was "a thumpin." And for Obama, he kind of went through that whole press conference and didn't want to acknowledge how much had gone wrong, and he was trying to keep the stiff upper lip, if you will. And finally he talks about the shellacking.

... And he felt bad for a lot of the people who lost because he knew that in some ways it was on his, on his shoulders, that he had pushed them to take a very tough vote on the healthcare bill, and people had done that, and it had cost them their seats. And some of the people who lost were people he really liked and admired and he felt bad about that.

Beyond that, I don't think he believed that what he was doing was incorrect or that it may have had some political consequences, but that history would judge it as the right thing to do. And so, as a result of that, he wasn't prepared to totally change his approach. I still think he thought he was in the right in terms of the policy decisions and the policy choices he was making.

... Tell me about the White House Correspondents' Dinner. What was the background? What led up to it? And how was [Donald] Trump and how was Obama?

Trump had spent the spring looking at running for president. But he'd really spent the spring trying to humiliate President Obama over his birth certificate. Classic Donald Trump, throw something out there and then just keep poking -- poke, poke, poke.

... And I think finally, the president just said, "All right, let's put this to rest." And he, you know, they arranged to go get the long-form birth certificate, and on the day that Donald Trump is going to go to New Hampshire and test the waters for the presidency, as his helicopter is about to land or is landing, the president comes out and unveils the long-form birth certificate, humiliating Donald Trump. Or certainly that was the goal.

... So the White House Correspondents' Dinner is sort of in that period. And Donald Trump is there as a guest of The Washington Post. He was at one of The Washington Post's tables. And I was not at his table, I was several tables away. The president does his speech. The president has very good speechwriters. And he has very good delivery at these kinds of events. And he was totally primed to do a number on Donald Trump. And he did. I mean, just joke after joke after joke was aimed at, you know, making Donald Trump look small or foolish or ridiculous, or whatever.

... It's that moment in which the president shows the power of the presidency, and Donald Trump is a bystander and humiliated at that moment in the process.

... As he heads in to the 2012 reelection, who is this Obama? How is he different than the 2008 Obama? What has he learned? What has he lost?

Well, he's more mature politically because of the battles he's gone through. He's more scarred. To some extent, he would never put this way, but the degree to which the hope and change had a kind of naiveté quality about it, that's gone at this point with him. I mean, he's turned that corner. I think that part of his DNA is wanting to have a more civil politics. But I think in heading towards 2012, they recognized that that was not going to be what that election was about. They could not allow the election to be a referendum on the way he had governed, because the economy was still in tough shape, the right was still in flames about what he was doing and how he was pushing the country and the government to the left. They knew that if that was the frame of the election, his chances of winning were much diminished.

And so they had to shift the focus of it to the choice between him and [Mitt] Romney. And that construct required them, in essence, to disqualify Romney. Now, Obama didn't have to do all of that personally. I mean, they did it with, you know, tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars of advertising. But nonetheless, that's the choice they made. And certainly, he was fully complicit in that choice and knowing how they had to run the campaign, compared to what they had done before.

And you know, so that's a recognition of: I'm in a different place politically by the end of 2011 than I was when I came into this office.

Bipartisanship is gone.

Yeah. Now, it may have been that his belief was, "If I can win reelection and win it convincingly, that finally will bring the Republicans around so that we can begin to govern in a more bipartisan way." Perhaps that was part of his calculation. I think to some extent it was. As we learned later, that didn't work either.

... Trump and Romney. Romney wants the endorsement. What is going on there?

Romney's in a tough fight at that point, and in a tougher fight than he expected, against a rolling set of opponents. The group that ran for the Republican nomination in 2012 was not, by any stretch of the [imagination], the strongest field the Republicans had ever put up. As Rick Perry famously said, "I ran against the weakest field ever, and they kicked my butt."

But there was a holdout part of the Republican Party that was resistant to Mitt Romney. And so, what was going on was, the "not Romney" part of the party kept looking for a hero, kept looking for a winner, kept looking for somebody who could knock off Romney. And so, at any given moment it was Rick Perry or Herman Cain ... [Rick] Santorum or Newt Gingrich. You know, they came and they went. In Newt Gingrich's case, came and went, came and went a couple of times.

But Romney's trying at that point, he's just won the Florida primary and knocked Gingrich back after Gingrich won South Carolina. But he's looking for efforts to consolidate. And Donald Trump is a big celebrity and he can help provide money to the campaign. And so, he wins over Donald Trump, and Donald Trump agrees to endorse him. And they have the endorsement event at the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas, perfect venue.

So it's Donald Trump's turf, and Romney's there, Ann Romney's there. Donald Trump is there. Mitt Romney looks completely uncomfortable. Donald Trump is totally in his element. He, you know, he commands the stage. Romney leaves after it's over. Donald Trump, both before and after, holds court with the press. In a curious way it's Donald Trump's event, not Mitt Romney's event. ...

The party itself is going through some real changes. You've just talked about Trump at the Trump Vegas place with Romney. And [Karl] Rove can't seem to believe it, can't seem to believe that Obama's going to win.

I think Karl Rove was a symbol of much more within the Republican Party. I don't think it was that Karl Rove had one fix on it and everybody else in the party had a different fix. I mean, Mitt Romney thought he was going to win that election on the morning of the election. If you asked him he would say, "Well, I wasn't 100 percent," but he was confident.

Paul Ryan, on the afternoon of Election Day, was talking to people about resigning from his House seat immediately to concentrate on being vice president-elect, believing that, you know, that was going to happen that night.

... They knew they were within striking distance in Ohio, for example, that the final polls still showed Obama a little bit ahead, but what they were seeing and particularly feeling was something different. And you know, it's always dangerous for a candidate to draw conclusions from the crowds that he or she gets on the final weeks of the campaign, because they're indicative of nothing.

But nonetheless, on Election Day, Romney went out for a couple of campaign events. He went to Ohio and then went to Pittsburgh, as I recall. And they land in Pittsburgh. And it was not an announced that there was a big rally set up. They get off the plane and outside the airport grounds, in a parking garage, there are, I don't know how many people, hundreds if not thousands of people, or a big, big crowd, unexpected crowd. And Romney looks up at this and, I mean, I think he thinks there's a spontaneous movement that's bringing people out today, and that's going to push him over the top.

So what Karl Rove later in the evening is expressing is that sense of disbelief that Romney's going to lose this election, that Obama's going to win this election. ...

For Obama, was he able to say, "I've got a mandate, I can really go now, I can make some things happen."

He certainly tried to do that. ... if you go through everything that happened from Election Day through Inauguration Day, this is an expression of a president who says, "I got reelected. This was an important reelection victory. I got reelected by a rising electorate and by the new American electorate, and my administration from here forward is going to be aimed at reinforcing what happened in that election."

So things look sort of positive on the political front for the White House, but there's another issue that is laying there. And that's the Newtown shootings and the gun control hopes and dreams of a president who emotionally reacts in the press room there to just the savagery of what happens in Newtown. And by all accounts of the people who were around him, he really, really thought post-2012 election, and with this tragedy, maybe [there's] something we can do. Tell me about their early optimism, and then what happens legislatively.

... I think for President Obama, who had been through a number of other shootings and had been to memorial services and in a sense had given this talk in his mind too many times, this was the moment in which he said, you know, "We have to try to do something about it. Whatever the odds against it are, if we don't try to act now, who are we? What do we believe if we have these views about the role of guns in our society?"

And so, I think he thought that there was probably more than even a glimmer of hope that this could turn enough people, there would be Republicans, who in most other circumstances would be resistant, who might be willing to give some ground on some things. And so, they tried to structure a package that's designed to go as far as they think it's possible to go.

... They get completely blocked. The NRA proves, even though public opinion is totally on the side of the changes that the president is trying to get, the NRA and the anti-gun control movement prove to be stronger. They are able to hold the line in the Congress, in the Senate, and prevent anything from happening.

And I think it was an emotional setback for the president. It was a huge political setback for the president, and in some ways, helped to set the tone, again, for what was going to come after in other areas.

Immigration. The "gang of eight" believes they're going forward. The president wants to take a little more active role in this, he wants to push it along. And the Democrats are saying stay away from it. If he's the guy that can't go near gun control and he can't go near immigration reform or it will die on the vine, what does that say?

I think what it really says is that he has a constituency. He has public opinion on his side on this issue or that issue or another issue. But that no longer has any material effect on the body that has to make the action for him to be successful. And that in fact he's dealing in that body with a totally different set of calculus.

And so, he learns on immigration, don't go near it. The less you do, the more likely we are to be able to get something done. We all know what you want. We all know where you stand. But don't be an advocate, don't try to come in and lobby. Let the process work itself organically within the legislative branch. Keep the executive branch out of it.

It's an odd diminishment of the power of the president who's just won a pretty substantial reelection victory. And it is a reminder of the kind, the degree to which elections no longer settle things. ...

You said that 2011 was really a terrible year for him in lots of practical ways. It feels like '13 is, too. It's gun control, it's immigration. ... There is a guy who's kind of pollinating both the House and the public discourse named Ted Cruz around immigration and really Obamacare. Bring Cruz on the stage.

Cruz is such an interesting character. He won the Senate seat in Texas, defeating the party establishment. Defeating the lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who had the backing of Rick Perry, the governor. He was not well known when he started out. He was in many ways the Marco Rubio of Texas. Rubio had challenged the political establishment in 2010, forced Charlie Crist, then the governor, out of the race and ultimately out of the Republican Party. Comes to Washington and begins to govern.

Ted Cruz follows a similar path to get to the Senate. And then goes in a totally different direction than what Marco Rubio had done. Ted Cruz recognizes the state of the Republican Party and the frustration of conservatives in the Republican Party about what Republican leaders and Republican presidential nominees had always done, which was in one way or another, in the estimation of Cruz and the people he spoke for, they were, they accommodated. They accommodated to the Democrats. The accommodated to Wall Street. They accommodated to the moneyed class. They accommodated to the elites.

And Cruz came with a strategy in mind that he was not going to play that game, that he was going to be the embodiment of the forces who said, "No, no, no, we're not going to do it the way everybody thinks we are supposed to do it." And he becomes the most visible and articulate spokesman for that part of the Republican Party and that part of the coalition, that kind of that grassroots anger that's been welling up, you know, from Sarah Palin time, Tea Party time, all through this period. And who feel as though every time they seem to be on the brink of success, their hopes are dashed. And Cruz says, I'm going to be your champion.

And what are his actions to prove he's their champion?

His actions are to oppose the leadership as much as he opposes President Obama. His course of action was to, at every move, frustrate what he thought were incorrect actions by the leadership of his own party. I mean, he helps to bring about a government shutdown in the fall of 2013. He continues to lead the fight to repeal Obamacare, though there's absolutely no chance that that's ever going to happen as long as President Obama is in office and has a veto pen. There's no way that that's going to work. He picks fights with Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader of his own party. Unprecedented, a freshman Senator who comes in and takes on the majority leader, in quite pejorative ways. I mean, it's not just like there's a kind of a principled argument, and you know, the gentleman from here, the gentleman from there. It's very personal in the way he does these things.

... The threat that I think he conveys is, "Hey, you guys can play with government shutdown as a powerful tool" -- this is to the House members – "if you choose to pull that trigger." And that's in fact what they do. Tell me what are they thinking, what's happening with that? And what does Boehner think of that?

I think they're thinking that we've always stopped short of calling the bluff of the other side. And it's time to call the bluff. And that in the end, we will not be penalized for that. That others will see that it's the White House and the Democrats who are so unreasonable that they won't accommodate even the smallest of requests that we have. And I think Boehner got dragged into that, and Boehner reached the point where he probably said to himself, "I know where this is going. And it's not going to be a good ending for us. But people have to learn the lesson of the consequence of doing this." And so, the shutdown happened. And they paid a terrible price, but it was a short-term price. You know, their numbers went down. The White House didn't suffer at that moment. And that early October period looked like a total debacle for the Republicans.

But there was another bigger issue happening at that time, which was the rollout of the healthcare website, which became a much bigger story, became much more important symbolically, and in fact ultimately helped to define 2013 as President Obama's lost year, rather than the year the Republicans came apart.

... It was a remarkable turn of events. And it played out the following year in what happened in the midterm elections. Republicans win the 2014 midterm elections. So their view is, "Oh yeah, that shutdown really hurt us. Look what happened, we ended up with another big victory in the midterms."

So Boehner must really understand how wobbly things are after the 2014 midterms. For him.

I think so. I mean, he should have at that point. Boehner's frustrations were evident to, I think, everybody. He was leading a party that he couldn't lead. Or he was trying to lead a party he couldn't lead. He had his own policy priorities or initiatives that he wanted to get done as part of his own legacy. And in fact at every turn was reminded that he had very little power. There would be moments when they would take something to the floor and then have to pull it off the floor because it turned out they didn't have the votes. There were like these popup rebellions happening all the time, that were just, you know, further evidence of kind of the humiliation of the power structure and in particular of John Boehner. ...

... Obama, meanwhile, watching the chaos, feels like, he sort of said, "I can swing away." There's no more artifice, there's no more pretending. He discovers what I'm sure you noticed many, many presidents discover in the second half of the second term, which is, "Hey, there's some things I can just do. And why not?"

Every president who reaches the second or I guess you would call it the fourth quarter, the last two years, is thinking about the frustrations of the first six years, the battles lost, the difficulties they've had and legacy. And because he came with big ambitions that were not entirely fulfilled by any stretch of the imagination, and the clock is ticking, and he's had it with the Republican Party, he begins to move, in a sense, unilaterally. The presidency is hardly an all-powerful institution, as we know. It's designed not to be. And yet there are powers that the president has that go beyond the power of the bully pulpit. You can act. You can do things. And even if you can't do things, you can push in the direction that you want to go. The inaugural in 2013 was in a sense the, you know, the down payment on that: "OK, here's what I'd like to do," and he looks for ways to do it.

The other thing that has been very observable in President Obama is that the longer he has gone, and particularly into the second two years, the more disdainful he has become of the Republican Party. He has spoken, as he's done a number of times in his final years, about the need for bipartisanship, or about the need for some compromise, or his desire to bring politics to a less angry place. But I think he also concluded that that was not going to happen on his watch.

And so, two things are at work. One is, he wants to lay down the marker that if it were possible, he would still prefer this other path, but he believes it's not possible, and he believes it's not possible almost solely because of the Republican Party. And so, his rhetoric has become much sharper toward the Republicans than it ever was in the past. And you can just see that it's like him saying, "You know, I'm not going to, I'm not going to hold back at this point because it's not going to do me any good. I'm not going to get any favors by being more gentle in what I really think about what's going on in the Republican Party."

And so, he's begun to act in ways that he thinks will, in essence, continue to enlarge the constituency of the rising electorate. He's also trying to pin the Republicans farther off outside of what he believes is the mainstream.

... Where is Trump coming from in a political sense as he comes up now, as Obama's looking at the finish line. What's happening? What's fueling what's happening with Trump?

Trump represents something unique. He's not a pure follow-on to the rest of what we have seen. I mean, if there had been a pure follow-on, Ted Cruz would have ended up as the nominee of the Republican Party. But that isn't what happens. What Donald Trump represents is a combination of a message that is focused on "we must preserve the America that we believe is the best of America." And his talk about immigration goes to that. His proposal for a ban on the entry of Muslims goes to that. And his talk about trade goes to that.

He's not a classic conservative politician or movement conservative by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, Donald Trump's been on every side of every issue. He's been on the Democratic side of a lot of these issues, whether it's guns or abortion or you name it, he's been on the Democratic side. And on some issues, he's still on the Democratic side, the Democratic left. On trade, he's closer to Bernie Sanders than he is to anybody in his party elite or President Obama.

What he's able to do is speak directly to a constituency that we thought in the past was almost purely ideological, but is much more purely protest, a protest against the elites, an antiestablishment movement that probably cuts across political lines, but is more lodged in the Republican Party right now.

He figures out that there is, that there is a white working class constituency that has enjoyed no benefits from the recovery, whose wages have been stagnant for decades, who see Wall Street executives not going to jail after the Wall Street collapse of 2008, who see Republican leaders as having been accomodationists or, in Trump's estimation, just weak. They have not had the strength. So at a time of terrorism, economic anxiety and frustrations with Republican leaderships, he kind of hits all of those buttons. And it's not in any way the classic conservative challenge to the Republicans. It's the antiestablishment rising up.

So in some ways, it may not be the end of the Republican Party, but it certainly feels like a different Republican Party in whatever form you want to call it Republicanism.

It's a reminder of how fractured the Republican Party is, and I don't think we know what happens as a result of Donald Trump to the Republican Party. ... And what's been set up is, there is Donald Trump on the one hand and there's Paul Ryan on the other hand. I mean, they have become the two poles of a debate within the Republican Party that will be unresolved for some time. I mean, it's not going to be resolved by the outcome of the 2016 election. This is a battle that's going to go on in one form or another for some time. And I suspect somebody like Ted Cruz is going to become a part of that battle even though he lost the nomination. I just think that there is so much ferment within the Republican coalition that they're going to have to resolve that in a probably pretty messy way, even if they have some semblance of unity for the election itself in 2016.

How much of what happened to the Republican Party over the last eight years is the result of Barack Obama? Or was he a convenient symbol and almost any Democrat would have presided over, watched over that happening?

I think in almost all ways, everything has been heightened by President Obama being in the White House. I think that's because of the agenda that he has. I think it's because of the fact that he's African American. I think it's because of his own particular governing style, which even some Democrats find not to their liking, I guess is one way to put it. But, you know, it's a cerebral presidency at a time when some people want just kind of pure strength and, you know, push, push, push.

And so, for all sorts of reasons, I think President Obama has become such a lightning rod. ... at this particular moment, and as the evolution of the country continues, President Obama is so much a symbol of all of that that I think that it's been a real factor in getting us to where we are today.