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Politics chat: The takeaways from the Democratic and Republican conferences

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This past week was all about the conferences. House Democrats held their annual caucus issues conference in Baltimore, and in nearby National Harbor, the conservatives held their annual meeting, the Political Action Conference, or CPAC, where former President Donald Trump made a hefty campaign speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: In 2016, I declared, I am your voice. Today, I add, I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.

RASCOE: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line with us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So let's start with what we just heard. Like, was CPAC all about Trump?

LIASSON: It sure was. From the Trump merch to the straw poll that Trump handily won to that one-hour-and-45-minute-long speech, this was all about Trump. It's why many people there were calling it TPAC instead of CPAC. But CPAC is the hot molten core of the Republican base, and a big portion of that base is still with Trump, even though many Republicans, including many conservatives at CPAC, were also talking about moving on to newer, younger candidates.

RASCOE: OK, so we had Nikki Haley, who has declared her candidacy, speak, as did Mike Pompeo, who has not announced his candidacy but is considered to be a potential candidate. Both took swipes at Trump without naming him, you know, saying things like how the GOP should avoid, quote, "following celebrity leaders." But not all of the players were there. Ron DeSantis, for instance, didn't show up. So what is the state of play with this primary for 2024?

LIASSON: I think there are three big questions that remain to be answered. No. 1, will there be a multicandidate group of alternatives that split the anti-Trump vote, allowing him to get the nomination the same way he did in 2016, basically by getting a plurality, not a majority of votes? He could squeak through with 35% or 40%. No. 2, will Republicans coalesce around an alternative to Trump, just one candidate? If that candidate is Ron DeSantis - and he certainly has captured the hearts of the Republican donor class - how will he take on Trump? So far, DeSantis has brushed off every question about Trump, but Trump has already started to attack DeSantis. And at CPAC, without naming him, he clearly attacked DeSantis by saying, we're not going back to people that, quote, "want to destroy our great Social Security system." DeSantis voted many times in Congress to privatize Social Security. And then the third question, which is if Trump doesn't get the nomination, will he decide to burn the whole thing down, run as independent, possibly helping elect a Democrat? He sure seemed pretty mad at the Republican Party and the Republican establishment this weekend.

RASCOE: Now, let's talk about the thing that everyone was talking about at the House Democrats issues conference, and that's President Biden's decision to not veto a piece of legislation backed by Republicans that would undo portions of a new D.C. crime bill. So there's a lot in that sentence, but, like, basically, it all started with D.C. Council's decision to reform parts of the district's criminal code, right?

LIASSON: That's right. Some of the changes would mean lessening the penalties for offenses like carjacking. The D.C. mayor, Muriel Bowser, who's also a Democrat, vetoed the bill, but the council overrode her. And then House Republicans, with help from 31 House Democrats, passed legislation overturning the D.C. Code. They said it was soft on crime. And then President Biden on Thursday pretty much chose politics over principle. He said he was for D.C. statehood. He's for home rule, but he clearly doesn't want Democrats to be on the wrong side of the crime issue. And this is an election year. You already saw Democrats like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot get defeated because of this issue. But the problem was Biden didn't tell Democrats in advance that he was going to sign the bill.

RASCOE: I mean, so in the 30 seconds we have left, it seems like the political execution of this was problematic for some Democrats.

LIASSON: That's right. That's right. There were criminal justice activists who were angry about the substance, but mostly Democrats felt that a lot of them voted against the bill thinking he would veto it. Now they're in a tough spot. They're stuck having voted against it. And it's going into law.

RASCOE: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

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

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.