AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's time now to talk about the week in politics, and we're joined by our political commentators David Brooks of The New York Times - hey there, David...
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Hello.
CORNISH: ...And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Welcome back.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
CORNISH: We're going to turn to international news and Iran. Tensions between the United States and Iran have been escalating for more than a week. Last week the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. The State Department ordered some staff to leave the U.S. embassy in Iraq. And the president was asked directly yesterday if the U.S. is headed to war with Iran, and his answer was, I hope not. Now, yesterday we spoke with former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, and he echoed Trump's position.
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MICHAEL ANTON: I don't think he is escalating tensions. I think he's responding with strength to a threat that we perceive precisely in order to ratchet tensions down.
CORNISH: So, David, he says everyone has it all wrong. What do you think the administration is trying to actually accomplish?
BROOKS: Well, if the Iranians send out messages to their militant armies that they should target Americans with terror attacks, then the Americans obviously had to do something. And so he is ratcheting...
CORNISH: But would they have done that because they were designated a terror group?
BROOKS: Well, they've been designated a terror group since 1979. But the U.S. had to respond. And any administration would respond. I'd feel a lot better if the administration didn't seem to be overconfident that Iran will capitulate. They seem to think the Iranian economy is so weak, the sanctions are having such an effect that they're bound to have a success if they ratchet up tensions and if they do sort of squeeze. I think they're probably overconfident. And so they could ratchet up tensions, and then Iran will ratchet up tensions and so on and so on. We'll get someplace where we don't want to be.
CORNISH: E.J., candidate Trump ran on a position of no more foreign wars. Is this risky for a president to be presiding over a national security team that is moving in this direction?
DIONNE: Well, in fact, it's so risky that you can't tell what Trump himself actually believes from day to day on this. I think there are three really scary things going on here. One, as you suggested, the president has made statements suggesting that he doesn't even agree with this policy, at least on some days. What, me, go to war? And yet this policy is rolling forward. So who's in control here? Secondly, there's leak after a leak about supposed threats from Iran that, upon inspection, don't really hold up or turn out to be much more complicated than the leaker wanted to suggest.
This sounds like the run up to Iraq. And it's something we've got to be careful about - we in the media and we, obviously, the public. And then the third is they seem to be setting up a situation that could explode. Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of State and undersecretary of State under President Obama, had a piece in The New York Times that began - either the Trump administration is trying to goad Iran into a war or a war could come by accident because of the administration's reckless policies. And I'm afraid she's right about that.
CORNISH: I want to move to immigration, the big domestic story of the last 24 hours. The foundation of this plan is, quote, "a merit based immigration," kind of rejiggering the configuration of mix of people who come in compared to the past with more family-based immigration. David, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called it condescending to use this term merit-based. What's wrong with trying to attract the best and brightest?
BROOKS: Yeah, nothing to me. You know, it's - the Canadians have this kind of system. The Australians kind of have this system. I've always thought we should shift a little more toward a merit-based system in part because immigration is sort of a competition for global talent. We want the talent to be here. And second because, well, America will accept immigration better if we don't have a permanent underclass. And we don't want a permanent underclass. This particular bill is dead on arrival. It's not a comprehensive reform. It doesn't address the core issues. But the shift toward a merit-based system, I think, is a good thing.
DIONNE: Well, I think the problem with the word merit is that it implies that some people have more merit than others. The idea that we might, as part of a compromise down the road, have a system that targets particular kinds of people who could fill jobs we need filled, I think that's very possible. Problem with what Trump did is there's no compromise in here at all. There's no mention of the DACA kids, those children who were brought here by their parents when they were young and are American in every way except that they don't have citizenship. Secondly, there is no - nothing here to deal with the 11 or so million who have come here illegally. So I don't think this was a serious proposal. If Trump ever wanted to get serious about this, maybe something could happen, but they're just not serious.
CORNISH: Finally, we're going to check in on the ever-growing Democratic primary race, where we're now up to 23 people running. David, you've been intrigued by an interesting pattern that's emerging among Democratic voters. What's that?
BROOKS: Yeah. There's always a split on some demographic line in a reelection. And what's interesting to me is where the splits are not. There's sometimes a split by education level. There's no split among where Democrats land by education, gender. There's no gender gap, which is surprising 'cause there's so many women running. There's no split on income. Where there is a big split as on age. The older voters tend to be for Biden, and the younger voters less so but still significant. And so it's a contest between older voters who, I think, are less interested in systemic change and younger voters who want that systemic change and want somebody more radical. And we'll see if that split persists. I suspect it will.
CORNISH: E.J., you have your ear to the ground. What are you hearing?
DIONNE: Well, first of all, on the age split - Ron Brownstein had a piece on this in The Atlantic this morning. And you can look at it two ways. It's quite true that Joe Biden is weaker among young people than among older voters. And I think one way in which that's going to be important is as a test of his electability because Democrats are going to have to turn out a lot of young people to win. On the other hand, the numbers that Ron cited - Biden was getting 45% of the over-45s. He's still getting 31% among the under-45s. So that's pretty good. If he could hold that, he probably wins the nomination.
What I'm also struck by is that Bernie Sanders seems to be running into a little rough water because Biden's entry seems to have taken some votes away from him from voters who are looking for - experienced and running somebody older obviously. But Elizabeth Warren has been rising and seems to be taking some of the constituency on the left part of the party. So I think this is going to be a challenging time for Sanders and his supporters in the coming weeks.
CORNISH: Are you guys hearing about any other names that intrigue you? I mean, I can't think of two more known quantities than Biden and Sanders. Let's suss it out. We're talking 23 candidates.
DIONNE: I would say - Pete Buttigieg has entered really the top four and has had an extraordinary start. That is where you see an education split, by the way. Mayor Pete's supporters tend to be older. I think Kamala Harris is the other person...
CORNISH: David, jump in here for the few seconds left.
BROOKS: I'm just amazed how much just beating Trump is on voters' mind, anybody who'll beat Trump. And Biden seems like a fair bet. But I've heard a lot of people - I don't know if other people have heard this - a lot of people say we got to nominate a white male because the vote - America will not vote for somebody who doesn't fit that category. That, to me, is a morally problematic way to choose a candidate. But you do get to the point when you ask people, what's your main issue? Beating Trump seems to be the main issue.
CORNISH: E.J., is that reflected?
DIONNE: Well, I think that - I've heard some of that from some people - some Democrats. But I think it's striking that Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have - are in that top five at the moment. And they've each gained some ground, Warren especially, Harris in part through her handling of her work on the Judiciary Committee.
CORNISH: We have plenty more time to talk about this over the next few months. David Brooks of The New York Times, author of the new book "The Second Mountain." Thank you so much.
BROOKS: Thank you.
CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Have a good weekend.
DIONNE: And you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.