AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're joined now by our Friday political observers, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.
E.J. DIONNE: Hey, good to be with you.
CORNISH: And Reihan Salam, a columnist for the National Review and Reuters. Hi, Reihan.
REIHAN SALAM: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So for the last few years, the economy has been the top issue that Republicans have used to take President Obama to task, but this week, with the crisis in Ukraine, foreign policy has taken center stage. And to give you a sense, we have some voices from the Conservative Political Action Conference.
JOHN BOLTON: Vladimir Putin has a strategy and Obama has nothing. Where Putin has a growing defense budget and ours is shrinking.
DONALD TRUMP: You look at what he is doing with President Obama. He's, like, toying with him. He's toying with him.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: We have a president who believes but by the sheer force of his personality he would be able to shape global events.
GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: As we see the president of Russia invade a neighboring country, while our president wants to downsize our military.
CORNISH: That was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and former UN ambassador John Bolton. Quite the range, Reihan. Will the Republicans be able to gain traction over these events? I mean, is this - what are you hearing in these pointed digs at President Obama as being weak on foreign policy?
SALAM: Well, there are two tensions here, one of which is that foreign policy is just a very low salience issue for the American voting public in general, and the other tension is that Republicans are themselves pretty divided on the question of foreign policy and specifically whether or not the United States should have a strong interventionist forward leaning foreign policy or if the United States should pay more attention to domestic affairs.
And I think that there are rising voices in the party who are saying we ought to assert ourselves, even if that's not the most popular thing to say at the moment. But there's definitely that internal debate.
CORNISH: And E.J., who are you hearing over the last day maybe who has tried to talk about foreign policy at CPAC, that has made some mark with you?
DIONNE: Well, I think the guy who was most aggressive about it was Marco Rubio. But I got to say, I am really struck by what seems to be a terrible case of Putin envy on the conservative side. It's really remarkable what conservatives who want to attack Obama have been willing to say. Rudy Giuliani was not at CPAC, spoke with admiration for Putin. He went to their parliament. He got permission in 15 minutes. That's what you call a leader. Obama, he's got to think about it, said Giuliani. This is just really quite astonishing.
But I think Reihan is absolutely right that Republicans are split and I think one of the things to look for this weekend at CPAC is how many votes does Rand Paul get in that straw poll, because Rand Paul is a non-interventionist Republican and I think you may see, despite all this hardline rhetoric, still a lot of anti-interventionism among conservatives.
CORNISH: Yeah, people might not be looking to Rand Paul just to make that mark. Maybe he'll say something a little bit different. Reihan, what's been your sense of this conversation about the non-intervention wing versus, you know, the people who have been hawks on, say, defense spending?
SALAM: Well, Rand Paul is very much his father's son and someone who's learned from his father's experience. So for example, though Rand Paul is often characterized as a kind of isolationist, he's been very careful to associate his foreign policy views with those of traditional Republicans. He'll often invoke the name of Ronald Reagan. Now, at CPAC this week, Rand Paul really focused primarily on the NSA, on dragnet surveillance rather than on foreign policy issues as such.
And I think that there are a lot of people who are basically taking a step back and kind of trying to think deeply about what's going on. But I do think that you have some traditional foreign policy voice in the party, like John McCain, for example, who are very concerned about how U.S. allies perceive the Obama administration's foreign policy in the gulf vis-a-vis U.S. negotiations with Iran and a whole host of other issues.
So I think that there are lots of concerns about whether or not President Obama has been sufficiently reassuring to many countries that look to the United States for support in a dangerous world.
DIONNE: Although it's ironic, if I could say, that those who are talking about Obama's leadership on this, Obama is really pushing our allies, even as he is working with them, to take a tougher line on Putin's, you know, invasion of Crimea and that it's odd to talk about disagreement when so far, on the fundamentals, it's as if they're disagreeing even when we're agreeing because there's a lot of consensus on what we can and can't do in response to Putin's actions in Ukraine.
SALAM: There's a lot of different thoughts regarding the precedents that are at work and whether or not Putin is responding to, for example, of what is perceived as American weakness abroad in other regions and it's a very thorny question that I doubt we're going to settle now.
CORNISH: Now, I want to look to CPAC more generally. Each year, this is looked at as a kind of pulse taking, at least for a certain wing of the party. Reihan, what are you seeing this year that either has surprised you and maybe the way the head-liners are approaching the crowd.
SALAM: Well, I think that there is tremendous energy behind Rand Paul at this particular conference. If you're looking at the college Republican crowd, if you're looking at many activists, they're very enthusiastic about him and I think that that's very telling. Yet, it's also true that some of the Republicans showing up at CPAC aren't just speaking to that crowd of activists.
They're trying to speak beyond that crowd of activists. And I think when you listen to people like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Mike Lee, who is not an aspiring presidential candidate, you're hearing some common themes about the idea that conservatives can't just be against things, they have to be for things as well. Chris Christie very interestingly struck the note that the pro-life cause needs to be about the whole course of people's lives, about looking after their best interests as schoolchildren and much else. It was very interesting. There's this groping towards a more constructive agenda, a real alternative. Mike Lee referred to what he calls the growing opportunity deficit in America, and I think you're going to hear more of that from Republicans in the months and years to come.
CORNISH: And E.J., you get the last word on CPAC.
DIONNE: I think part of the issue here is whether conservatives really care about new ideas, or are they infatuated with the idea of new ideas. I was struck when Paul Ryan said for the most part, these disagreements have not been over principles or policies, they've been over tactics. Well, if these are fights over tactics, they're not really fights over new ideas.
And Chris Christie's emphasis, while I agree with Reihan that that statement he made on the life issue is very important as a change in rhetoric certainly, his focus was on let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again. So I still think there is a lot more rethinking to be done. Right now it does seem to me to be more about packaging and winning.
CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Reihan Salam of National Review and Reuters. Thanks to you both.
DIONNE: Thank you.
SALAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.