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Week In Politics: Clinton Emails, Ferguson Police Department Report


And now, a review of this week in politics with our Friday political commentators, E J Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey, E J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And filling in for David Brooks this week, Ramesh Ponnuru with the National Review. Welcome back.


BLOCK: And let's start with another Democrat in the news this week, Hillary Clinton. The news being that in her four years as secretary of state, she exclusively used a private email account rather than a government address. So two strains of thought here. One is that this is an Inside the Beltway story. Voters don't care about this. The other is that this is indicative of a real pattern and a problem that would haunt her presidential run. Ramesh, where do you come down?

PONNURU: I guess I'd split the difference. You know, Democrats this week are getting some practice in trying to defend Hillary Clinton from ethically dubious practices. And it's practice that's going to come in handy for them because I think they're probably getting some flashbacks to what it was like defending the Clintons during the 1990s. And they've got to remember these - they're secretive. They are often skating the line ethically, and there's going to be more and more controversies that attach to them.

BLOCK: E J, what about that? Hillary is considered the prohibitive Democratic favorite. Should this open the door for other Democrats to think, well, you know, not so fast?

DIONNE: Well, I think some of those thoughts were happening this week. And I also think Democrats were sitting around and saying, my god, we really do not have a candidate anywhere nearly as strong as Hillary Clinton, which is why I think slowly people in the party are going to kick in behind her. I think the issue here is what is at stake here? It's easy to talk about a scandal. You know, it does not appear that the administration, which knew all along that she had this private email account, ever told her to change it. We don't know that she destroyed any email. There's no evidence of that. We don't know that there was a national security leak problem.

You know, I think at some point she will have to explain why she chose to have a private email. It used to be common. Now, all people in government, you know, use the government email. That is the better way to do it. But I don't think we quite know whether this is a scandal or whether it's a bunch of questions she has to answer. But it's going to be interesting to see how she deals with this 'cause I think transparency and openness and answering a bunch of questions is the best way for her to put this aside.

BLOCK: Ramesh.

PONNURU: They have had, we learned today, six months to prepare for this becoming news. And so far, they have not been able to come up with a persuasive answer with Hillary Clinton herself, rather than her surrogates, providing those answers.

BLOCK: Let me...

DIONNE: Well, I also think they were surprised that it made this much news, which is part of the reason they aren't prepared.

BLOCK: Let me ask you about another story. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments again about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. And the question is whether the law allows federal subsidies for healthcare exchanges run by the federal government, not the states. It's always dangerous to predict an outcome based on the questions posed by the justices, but I would like to hear your thoughts on whether you think the court will side with the Obama administration or with the opponents. E J?

DIONNE: Well, predicting the court off this, you know, off the questions justices ask is very risky.

BLOCK: It's a perilous task, yes.

DIONNE: And what appears to be the case - I mean, it could be a paradoxical outcome because it's clear that the four liberals, or moderate liberals, on the court are going to go with the administration on this. And I think the administration made a really good case that throwing this out on the basis of a very odd reading of the law would be a mistake. But they need one more vote, and it could come from Justice Kennedy.

And what the paradox is is that Kennedy could vote to sustain the status quo on states' rights grounds that most liberals would reject in other cases but would welcome here, saying that, you know, the reasoning would be that the federal government could possibly use this power to coerce the states into, you know, establishing exchanges, and that it would be a huge burden on the states for the court to throw this out now.

So the betting - the hope of the supporters of the Affordable Care Act is Kennedy will rule with them on the basis of principles they might not necessarily agree with.

BLOCK: And, Ramesh, we'll remember that it was actually the chief justice, John Roberts, who was the crucial swing vote, not Justice Kennedy, back in 2012 in that 5 to 4 decision that upheld the healthcare law.

PONNURU: Right, and in that 2012 case, what was a constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act became a question of how do you interpret the statute? This time around, it's a case that starts out as a how-do-you-interpret-the-statute case that Justice Kennedy maybe transform into a constitutional case, so there's sort of an inverted version of what happened last time.

But as E J points out, if the court says this is an unconstitutional coercion of the states, that opens the door to re-examine a lot of federal programs that interact with the states, and liberals may not like the ultimate outcome there.

BLOCK: Care to prognosticate on where this might be headed?

PONNURU: Why no, I don't.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Shocked, I'm shocked.

DIONNE: You know, what you could have is a plurality ruling, where the liberals say this should not be thrown out on completely different grounds but join with Kennedy just to get to the result, for precisely the reason you say, which is they probably won't want this logic to prevail on everything else.

PONNURU: And there are number of ways they could go. They could also rule that the law says what conservatives say that it says, but open the door for future cases just on this coercion point.

BLOCK: Let's end on this topic - the Justice Department's reports this week on Ferguson, Miss. The department is not going to bring civil rights charges against the former police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown, but the Justice Department has detailed an extensive pattern of discrimination and bias by the Ferguson Police Department, municipal court, city management. I've looked through the entire report. It is fascinating, but sobering reading. E J, what's your take?

DIONNE: It's devastating. I mean, the - and in a way, it gets even more - the sharp critique of racially biased policing has more credibility because they didn't go after - they didn't go after the police officer. And, you know, in a town with - where - that's roughly two-thirds African-American, you know, 85 to 92 percent, I think, of things like stops, and tickets and the like...

BLOCK: Arrests, yeah.

DIONNE: ...Are against African-Americans. And I hope this leads to - and I think it will lead to - a major discussion of policing around the nation. That's the purpose of this commission. And it was very significant that the commission included some of the protesters there - who were at Ferguson. So this was a kind of broad commission that included cops and protesters alike.

BLOCK: Ramesh.

PONNURU: I would take two points away from the report. The first is the suggestive, though I think not conclusive, evidence about racial bias in policing, but the second, which I think deserves more comment, is the use of policing to generate revenue...

BLOCK: Yeah.

DIONNE: Yes, agree.

PONNURU: ...Which is certainly not a problem just confined to Ferguson and something that needs more of a spotlight. Sometimes, particularly if you have a disproportionately white police force and a minority population, that's going to be experienced as a racial thing, but it's not everywhere. But everywhere that it happens, it's a problem.


BLOCK: OK. And we'll have to leave it there. Thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E J Dionne with The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Ramesh Ponnuru with the National Review and Bloomberg View. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.