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Face the Nation transcripts December 27, 2015: Colbert, Sanders, Carson & Kelly

This is the transcript for the December 27 edition of Face the Nation. Guests included Stephen Colbert, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Scott Kelly, Ben Domenech, James Bennet, David Rohde, and Jeanne Cummings.JOHN DICKERSON, CBS HOST: Today on FACE THE NATION: The year 2015 winds down, and we will take look what's ahead in 2016.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a tornado in front of us.


DICKERSON: Severe storms in Texas and the Southeast have claimed at least 28 lives this weekend. Temperatures could reach record highs in other parts of the country. We will have the latest.

And it's been a year of the outsider, and we will talk to two outsider candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. As the voting in Iowa gets closer, what kind of course are they charting for victory?

Then, a rare interview with the host of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."


DICKERSON: Stephen, I want to know...

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": I'm having an intimate moment with Sunday morning people.


Is this Sunday?

DICKERSON: It's Sunday.



DICKERSON: We will get his thoughts on politics and the presidential campaign.


DICKERSON: I'm looking for a theory of this election. Do you have one?

COLBERT: Anything goes, I guess. All bets are off.


DICKERSON: Plus, we will go out of this world for another rare interview.


DICKERSON: Station, this is FACE THE NATION. How do you hear me?

SCOTT KELLY, NASA ASTRONAUT: I have you loud and clear. Welcome aboard the space station.


DICKERSON: National Commander Scott Kelly joins us from space to talk about what it's like to have the Earth spinning outside of your window every day.

It's all ahead on FACE THE NATION.

Good morning. And welcome FACE THE NATION. I'm John Dickerson.

Last night, tornadoes killed 11 people in Texas, bringing the death toll due to severe weather on this holiday weekend to at least 28.

CBS News Mark Strassmann is in Holly Springs, Mississippi, for us this morning -- Mark.


Those twisters in Texas capped a Christmas week of violent storm systems that spawned tornadoes across the South. At least 11 tornadoes were reported in areas around Dallas overnight, in bedroom communities northeast of the city like Garland. The day's first light has shown the scope of the damage.

In Garland alone, eight people were killed. It has 600 damaged homes and a disaster zone of two square miles. And the tornado ran for 40 miles. Since last Wednesday, tumultuous weather and record rainfalls have been a way of life in the South. Ten people were killed in Mississippi. Roughly 250 homes were destroyed or have major damage.

The most severe tornado ran for 145 miles with winds of 160 miles per hour. Tennessee had six deaths. People were also killed in Arkansas and Alabama and flash flooding is an ongoing worry.

I met one storm victim here in Mississippi named Kenya Williams. Six of her neighbors were killed, six. When the tornado hit her neighborhood, her elderly, handicapped and blind father was alone in the house. The roof and the walls collapsed on top of him, but he survived with nothing worse than a bump on his head.

Kenya has to rebuild her home and her life from the slab up, but she's content with that -- John.

DICKERSON: Mark Strassmann, thanks.

We turn now to presidential politics.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders joins us from Burlington.

Good morning, Senator.

This year, as we look back, you and Donald Trump are the big surprise political stories. You have suggested recently that your message about the economic inequality can appeal to the Trump voters. Explain how that happens.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, many of Trump's supporters are working-class people. And they are angry.

And they're angry because they are working longer hours for lower wages. They're angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries. They're angry because they can't afford to send their kids to college or they can't retire with dignity.

And I think what Trump has done successfully, I would say, is take that anger, take that anxiety about terrorism and say to a lot of people in this country, look, the reason for our problems is because of Mexicans. And he says, they're all criminals and rapists. We have got to hate Mexicans. Or he says about the Muslims, they are all terrorists, and we got to keep them out of this country. Those are -- that's what we have to deal with to make America great.

Meanwhile, interestingly enough, John, this is a guy who does not want to raise the minimum wage. In fact, he has said that he thinks wages in America are too high. But he does want to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the top three-tenths of 1 percent.

So, I think for his working-class and middle-class supporter, I think we can make the case that if we really want to address the issues that people are concerned about, why the middle class is disappearing, massive income and wealth inequality in this country, that we need policies that bring us together, that take on the greed of Wall Street, the greed of corporate America, and create a middle class that works for all of us, rather than an economy that works just for a few.

DICKERSON: But, Senator, essentially, you're saying that people should be concerned about what you're talking about, not what Donald Trump is talking about. SANDERS: Well, not really, John.

Everybody is concerned about the disappearing middle class or the fact that we have 47 million people living in poverty, that we're the only major country on Earth that doesn't provide paid family and medical leave or guaranteed health care to all people.

People are very worried about how they're going to retire with dignity. And that's why I believe we need to expand Social Security benefits. Those are the issues that are on most working people's minds.

And what I'm suggesting is that what Trump has done, with some success, is taken that anger, taken that -- those fears, which are legitimate, and converted them to be into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims.

And, in my view, that is not the way we are going to address the major problems facing our country. The way we address them is, we bring our people together. We demand that Congress passes legislation which creates millions of decent paying jobs, raises the minimum wage, pay equity for women, making college affordable for all.

And those are the ways, I think, that we improve lives for our people, not by dividing us up and having us hate Mexicans or Muslims.

DICKERSON: Let me switch to the issue of Sandra Bland.

The grand jury in Texas decided that no felony was committed by the sheriff's officer jailers in connection with her death. And you said afterward -- quote -- "There's no doubt in my mind that she, like too many African-Americans who die in police custody, would be alive today if she were a white woman."

What did you mean?

SANDERS: I saw that tape, John. I don't know if you did. But I saw the way the police officer behaved toward her.

It is my very strong inclination that, if she was white middle- class woman, that would not have happened. But it's not just in Texas. What we have seen is, far too many people, often African- Americans, who are unarmed getting shot and killed by police officers.

We need, in my view, very significant criminal justice reform. We need to make sure that lethal force -- now, being a cop is a very difficult job. And I was a mayor for eight years. I have worked with police officers. Most of them do a really good job.

But we need to be clear that lethal force, killing people, should be a last option, not a first option. We need to make...

DICKERSON: But, Senator -- I'm sorry to interrupt. I apologize.

But, in this case, there was no lethal force used against her. You're not saying that her death was committed by the officers in this case, are you?

SANDERS: No, no, of course not.

But she was yanked out of that car, thrown to the ground, confronted by the police officers. She responded, and she ended up in jail, and three days later, she was dead. The way she was yanked out of that car and the way she was treated by that police officer is not something that I think would have happened to the average middle-class white woman.

DICKERSON: All right. OK.

Let's switch to politics here. I was talking to a Democratic strategist who said that, in looking at your campaign, he said that you needed to attack Hillary Clinton as least as much as Senator Obama did in 2008. You said you won't do that.

Is that going to be something that gets in your way in your ability to get the nomination if you don't attack in that way?

SANDERS: You mean do I have to wage horrible attacks against Hillary Clinton? I'm not going to do that.

But what I will do is contrast our ideas and my record with Hillary Clinton. That's what elections are about. And that's what people want to hear. I voted against the war in Iraq. Hillary Clinton voted for it. We have different views on foreign policy.

I do not believe in a situation in Syria no-fly zone, which I think can get us into a real quagmire. I believe in a coalition led by Muslim troops on the ground with the support of the major powers on Earth. I do not want to see the United States getting involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.

I helped lead the effort when I was in the House against the deregulation of Wall Street. I believe that Wall Street's greed and illegal behavior has been a disaster for this country, not only back in 2008, but it remains.

You have got to break up these large financial institutions, reestablish Glass-Steagall. Those are differences of opinion that need to be debated.

DICKERSON: All right.

All right, Senator Sanders, we're going to have to leave it there. We will look forward to seeing you in the new year.

SANDERS: OK. Thank you very much.

DICKERSON: We turn now to the Republican field.

And retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson joins us from West Palm Beach.

Dr. Carson, I wanted to see if we could pick up on something that Bernie Sanders said there about the Sandra Bland case. What is your take on it? Do you -- he said that her situation shows that an African-American is treated so differently by the police than if she were a white woman.

What is your reaction to that?

BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no question that we need to be looking at those kinds of issues.

But I think we also have a tendency to inject race into everything any time that there are people of different races involved in a conflict. Are there rotten police officers? Of course there are, just like there are rotten lawyers and rotten doctors and rotten teachers and rotten journalists. But we don't condemn the whole class for that.

Having said that, there's no question that we need to be looking at some of the various things that are going on in the Justice Department to make it more sensitive to people.

For instance, somebody gets a moving violation, they got a minimum wage job, they're barely making it. That thing costs like $170. They don't have any way of paying that. They ignore it. The next thing you know, there's warrant for their arrest. They lose their job.

All we have to do be a little sensitive and say, look, you can pay this off at $5 a week. These are the kinds of things that I think will make a difference in our society.

DICKERSON: But sensitive to class and economic situation, not to race?

CARSON: Right. A lot of things that are class and economics are ascribed to race, no question.

DICKERSON: Let me ask you about your campaign. There have been some stories this week about its health.

And the -- quoted -- you talked to the Associated Press, and speaking of your staff, you said, "Everything is on the table. I'm looking carefully."

What did you mean by that?

CARSON: I mean I want to make sure that we're doing everything that we can do to make sure that the American people absolutely recognize the choice that they have.

And if there some are things that need to be changed or tweaked, we certainly are going to be open to doing those things.

DICKERSON: Armstrong Williams, who is a close associate of yours, was quote as saying, "Dr. Carson is back in charge, and I'm so happy to see that."

What does that mean?

CARSON: I think you are going to have to ask Armstrong.


DICKERSON: So, you were always in charge?

CARSON: I prefer -- I prefer he speak for himself. And I will speak for myself.

DICKERSON: So, any changes to your campaign that are coming?

CARSON: There will be some alterations.

We have been looking in every particular area. One thing I want to do is have a much more robust response to attacks, particularly when they are false. And we have kind of taken a nonchalant attitude towards that. I think that's the wrong thing to do. So, you will see much more aggressiveness in that region.

DICKERSON: Since we're looking back at 2015, any attacks that you let go by that you would like to correct here from the last year?

CARSON: There are a lot of attacks.

The attacks that I really didn't have a temper, I guess that's kind of flattering. They said, you couldn't possibly have been like that. And then when the articles were found with interviews from my mother and other people, nobody came back and said, oh, we found the evidence.

With the West Point story, nobody indicated that, in fact, General Westmoreland was there in February for a Congressional Medal of Honor dinner, which is what I said. There was a question about the dates, but no one comes back and corrects any of that.

Virtually everything that was said, no one comes back and says, none of that stuff is true. And I just think we have to probably be the ones who forcefully inject that into the narrative.

But, also, the narrative that I don't know anything about foreign policy, if you go back and you look at the things that I have been saying about foreign policy over the last year, you will see that they're the very things that everybody else is talking about now.

And, right now, I'm talking about the fact that we cannot be distracted by Iraq and Syria only. We need to recognize what is going on in Libya. Libya represents an incredible caliphate for them. And it has a lot of oil. And you go north across the water, you're into Southern Europe. You go south, you're into Chad and Sudan and Niger. You know...


CARSON: Go ahead.

DICKERSON: One of the points you're making, Dr. Carson, is that you have said, don't mistake being soft-spoken for not being strong.

Do you think, in this campaign so far, there's been an overemphasis on demonstrations of faith, talking about bombing the bleep out of ISIS and talking about carpet-bombing ISIS? Has there been too much of an emphasis on the showiness of strength?

CARSON: Well, I understand why that appeals to people, because they feel that we have been feckless and spineless. And they want to see, come on now, let's get in there and let's do something.

I understand that completely. But I hope people will not be fooled by just loud speech and gesticulations. I hope people will actually look at what has happened in a person's life, because that's a much better indicator of their strength.

What have they overcome? What have they have been able to accomplish? And if they will look at that in my life and they look at in many of the other lives, I think that will make a pretty powerful argument.

DICKERSON: You said recently you might be a one-term president. What did you mean by that?

CARSON: I meant that I'm not in this for political reasons. I'm in this to fix the system.

The American people deserve better. And I would do the things that are necessary. We have 4.1 million federal employees. That's way too many. We have 645 federal agencies and subagencies. Way too many. We're spending money that we don't have. We're destroying the quality of life for the next generation.

We cannot do that. And we don't even say anything about it. It's craziness.

DICKERSON: Final question here. When the primaries are over, when you look back at this year and how next year will go, when the primaries are over, do you think the Republicans will have picked somebody who is the most popular or will have picked the person with the best solutions for the country?

CARSON: Well, I actually think that, when it comes down to actually making a choice, that people are going to be level-headed. They're going to carefully consider their options. And I do believe they're going to make the right choice.

I am hoping and praying that that is exactly what will happen, that we will not be attracted to the shiny object in the room, but we will look at what is going to actually solve our problems, because they are substantial.


CARSON: Our country is on the precipice. It's about to go over the edge.

DICKERSON: All right, Dr. Carson, we will look forward to speaking with you in the new year. Happy new year.

We will be back in a minute.

CARSON: Thank you. You, too, John.


DICKERSON: There was a lot of news in 2015. And we had a little news of our own here at CBS.

Bob Schieffer stepped down from FACE THE NATION. And CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman" became "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

I sat down recently with Stephen to compare notes on navigating such an action-packed year.


DICKERSON: Stephen, I want to know...

COLBERT: I'm having an intimate moment with Sunday morning people.


Is this Sunday?

DICKERSON: It's Sunday.


DICKERSON: Well done.

I'm looking for a theory of this election. Do you have one?

COLBERT: Anything goes, I guess. All bets are off.

There's a populism to Trump that I find very appealing. And it's only this, is that the party elders would like him to go away, but the people have decided that he's not going to.

DICKERSON: So, you like that...


COLBERT: Yes. You may disagree with anything that he's saying and think that his proposals are a little -- well, more than a little shocking.

But there is something really hopeful about the fact that, well, 36 percent of the likely voters want him, so the people in the machine don't get to say otherwise. I -- that's the one saving grace, I think, of his candidacy.

DICKERSON: You have to look at this mess of an election, and, like, make something of it, make a joke of it, come to terms with it.

Like, how do you...


COLBERT: I always feel bad. I feel bad for the candidates now, because what did we start off with, something like 22 at one point?

DICKERSON: We're still...


COLBERT: That's why we did "Hungry for Power Games," because we were trying to think of, how do we talk about them? Because most of them, we know, are just going to fall by the wayside, if not literally with an arrow in their chest, but certainly massive campaign debt.

God knows what's going to happen to George Pataki. He's going to be swept into the turbines of this election or tossed over a railing to a pit full of piranhas. Something bad is going to happen to all the lower-tier candidates. And I started feeling bad about how excited I was about each of them dropping out.

DICKERSON: What is your view about the facts?


DICKERSON: Facts and their salience in the conversation...


COLBERT: I'm all -- I'm a big fan of facts. I'm not sure they have any bearing on what a person's popularity is, because Donald Trump is like -- I'm not the first person to say this, but I completely agree that he's my old character with $10 billion.

He doesn't -- he's completely playing on an emotional level, and so beautifully. I mean, it's one of the reasons why I just can't do that old character anymore, because he's doing it better than I ever could, because he's willing to drink his own Kool-Aid and manufacture it and distribute it, because he has got all the cash.

He's this very interesting, like, Frankenstein of the idea that facts don't matter and only money does, because, if money is speech, he's got a $10 billion mouth, and doesn't have to spend any of it, because everyone will point a camera at him.

DICKERSON: Before you started the show, you said you were just hoping he would stay in the race long enough...


COLBERT: I really didn't think he'd be doing this well, because I don't really know anything about politics. I mean, spoiler: I just pretended for years to know something about it.

I know something about human behavior, because I'm really just an actor and a writer.

DICKERSON: Well, but you also have a big heart. And you want good stuff to come out of the process.

COLBERT: Oh, yes.

DICKERSON: I wonder where that...

COLBERT: No joke -- no joke for Donald Trump or anything -- or no joke for any individual candidate is worth -- means more to me than what I think is best for the country.

DICKERSON: If the process looks cynical to you, as it sometimes can, do you ever think like, hey, maybe we can reintroduce people to, like, what's good about this?

COLBERT: I respect people who are politically engaged, because so few people are. And whatever candidate they support, I respect that.

For so many years, I lived on -- I pretended to be an advocate for a side. And, as such, I always had to take sides. This person is good, that person is bad, and there's nothing in between.

I think that area in between is where most people live, because we're asked to go one direction or the other, mostly so one side or the other can raise money or one side or the other doesn't have to necessarily explain themselves, and it can be purely on an emotional appeal.

But, boy, it would be lovely if we all could have a conversation that does not involve demonizing the other side. I think that is worth doing. I don't know if it's my job, but I would say that that is certainly an objective of mine.

I have tried to be very respectful to -- I try to be respectful to Donald Trump. The first thing I did was apologize to him. I didn't let my audience get mad at Ted Cruz or boo him. I wanted Kasich to have a good time. I hope all the candidates will come on.

DICKERSON: But you -- there, it sounded like there was a little bit of Trump respect in you for his ability to channel the populist...

COLBERT: Well, I mean, I have respect for Trump for knowing who the real audience is, that if you really want to win, you got to get the people. The people get to make the call, especially now, because the parties are so beholden to big money, that the party apparatus itself has been dismantled in favor of just cash.

And so there aren't wise old people who get to make the call, because that's been farmed out to super PACs, which don't seem to be that powerful themselves, really, but in giving the power over to the super PACs, they have actually completely defanged the party themselves.

That's why you can't stop a Trump. That's a real blowback to the idea that we're going to take power away from the party and just give it to cash.

What I do respect is that he knows that it is an emotional appeal. And it might be emotional appeals that I don't -- can't respect. But he knows that you have to appeal to the voter. And that's why I may be wrong. I made a big deal about, there's no way he's going to win.

DICKERSON: You weren't the only one.

COLBERT: Yes. Again, I don't know anything about politics.

DICKERSON: Yes, but you do know about the country. You have a sense of where the country is. You have a sense -- and I wonder how you get that now.


COLBERT: That's one of the reasons I stopped the old show, is that I had a sense where the country is.

I think people -- I think people don't really want constant divisiveness. I really don't think they want that. And that's what I was aping. And I thought, ah, I can't drink that cup anymore, because I don't think people want to hear it.


DICKERSON: We will have a lot more of our interview with Stephen Colbert coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) DICKERSON: Stay with us. We have more Stephen Colbert ahead.

And to see the full interview, visit us at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram at @facethenation.


DICKERSON: Some of our CBS stations are leaving us now, but, for most of you, we will be right back with more of our interview with Stephen Colbert, our political panel, and astronaut Scott Kelly.

Stay with us.


DICKERSON: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. I'm John Dickerson. Here is more of our interview with Stephen Colbert.


DICKERSON: Have you learned how to interview differently now than when you did in the past? COLBERT: Absolutely. I used to live by the Joe Scarborough rule, which was, if someone on your show talks for more than seven seconds, you've lost control of your show.

DICKERSON: It's constantly interrupted.

COLBERT: Now I lay back and just see what they will say.

DICKERSON: And what about the questions you ask?

COLBERT: It's based more on curiosity. I was always in attack mode before. People want me to attack people still. People are very upset, liberals got so mad at me. Somebody called me like a craven sellout for not attacking Donald Trump.

Like what do you want? What do you want?

There's no pleasing some people. Yes.

DICKERSON: Looking back at this year, what I was struck by is after San Bernardino. You started one segment. You said I'm trying to manage the tonal shift.


DICKERSON: That's what strikes me, is that we have -- politics is crazy. But also we've had Charleston -- the shooting in Charleston, we've had San Bernardino, the attacks in Paris, we're ending the year in kind of a fragile, walking on eggshells kind of time.

COLBERT: And I have a responsibility to do a comedy show. It's like it's sort of water cooler conversation. And that's why it's not always political or even really new. It's just what people are talking about. And I feel like it's dishonest if I don't attempt to do that, especially if there's an absolute tsunami or just something that eclipses any other thought.

DICKERSON: It seems to me a difference between a question and an answer you get and a moment you have.

COLBERT: I love learning new things. We had Michelle Dorrance on, who is a MacArthur Genius, award winner for tap dance.

And she said, would you like to learn something?

I said, absolutely. I've always wanted to learn to tap dance and I've had a chance. And she just taught me like -- what's it called? Half of a shim-sham. I don't know if I'm still saying that right.

DICKERSON: Yes, I like that with a little orange.

COLBERT: Exactly. It's beautiful in the summertime, amazing. So refreshing. I'll have a summer shim-sham. Incredible. So that was an amazing joy.

DICKERSON: And it was a moment. It wasn't you posed a great question.

COLBERT: I started off as an improviser in Chicago. And so, to me -- I learned -- and this is what I really enjoy -- is I like discovery more than invention. Any discovery I can make is always going to be superior to an invention because discovery you don't know what you're going to find, whereas invention you are just presenting to the audience something you've already made. Discovery is always superior to invention.

DICKERSON: Was the moment --

DICKERSON: I hope you're carving this stuff down in stone, by the way. I feel like I'm comedy Moses on the mountain top right now.

This is good stuff.

DICKERSON: This is high quality.


DICKERSON: This is really --

COLBERT: You know what I charge to teach this at the learning annex?


DICKERSON: Your interview with Joe Biden, was that a discovery?

COLBERT: After he left, I thought, oh, that nice man just gave me my show because I had to be myself in order to receive it. I had no other choice. And it was only my third show.

It was such an honor, I was completely moved by his willingness to share that with the audience.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And guy in the back yells, Major Beau Biden, Bronze Star, sir, served with him in Iraq.

And all of a sudden, I lost it.

COLBERT (voice-over): It was one of the -- I almost said the word "happy," because it's not a happy subject but in some ways one of the most sublime moments I've ever had on stage was to be there and to have ability or to have the responsibility and the privilege to receive that from him.

DICKERSON: Yes, a pretty deep, human connection.

COLBERT: Yes, out of nowhere. I mean --

DICKERSON: Created I in a moment.

COLBERT: Yes, yes.

DICKERSON: What would you have asked the pope?

COLBERT: I would have asked the pope about joy, you know, we call the show "the joy machine" and -- because if -- unless you do it with joy, it's just a machine. And in less than five minutes a week, it will grind you up and spit you out and there have been nights.

But I would have asked him about joy and where he finds his joy, like how did he become St. Peter?

How did he get into the shoes of the fisherman without becoming dogmatically so rigid that there's no joy left in him?

Because I'm sure Benedict is a nice guy but you didn't get a real hit of joy off of him. There's no contact high with Pope Benedict.

But Frances just exudes a sense that the spirit of the gospel is in him, as opposed to the abstract interpretation that gets activated into dogma, which is really law.

DICKERSON: What is next year going to be like?

Not for the show for the country.

COLBERT: It's hard for me to remember when we're not in election year what an election year is like. It's the greatest story you could possibly talk about because everybody cares and nobody gets hurt. Nobody dies.

It's not a tragedy, it's just super important. That's why I love the election year. You don't have to explain anything to your audience. You can just go straight to the joke because they understand. You don't have to educate them in any way.

What's next year going to be like?

I don't know. If this is year any indication, I hope it gets better. This was a sad year, dark, really a dark year. Yes.

DICKERSON: We need somewhere to go for joy.

COLBERT: "Star Wars."

DICKERSON: What are your feelings about that?

COLBERT: I am thrilled. I love -- I think there's something so hopeful about reawakening the idea of the force because the force is the idea that it all -- it binds us together, it doesn't divide us. And you know who the good guys are and you know who the bad guys are. And isn't that nice in a world where it's sometimes hard to tell.

In some ways, it feels like it's a great time for a movie like that, the same way after 9/11 it was a very good time to have "Lord of the Rings" movies because there was clarity in our culture. There was a cultural artifact that had moral clarity. You know, I do comedy for a living, though. I just want to be clear. I do comedy for a living. This is like the serious, most serious interview I have done in years.

DICKERSON: I'm a downer.

COLBERT: You're not a downer. You're not a downer.

DICKERSON: You know, the other thing about comedy, though, is we need to acknowledge this horrible thing that happened, we also need the catharsis of the comedy to get us back on the road to controlling what seems like a time of total chaos.

COLBERT: You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time. And so it's like physiologically impossible to laugh and be afraid at the same time. So I'm very grateful for my job, because we think about things like the things we're talking about. But at the end of the day, we have to end up finding some way to laugh about it that is not disrespectful of people's experience of it.

And that's an odd little balance to walk. But hopefully we do it sometimes.


DICKERSON: And we'll be right back with our panel.


DICKERSON: Joining us now is the president and editor-in-chief of "The Atlantic," James Bennet.

Ben Domenech is the publisher of "The Federalist."

Jeanne Cummings is political editor at "The Wall Street Journal."

And David Rohde writes for Reuters.

I want to start -- we're going to look back at 2015 and we're going to go on to 2016.

So, Ben, I want to start with you.

What in 2015 either surprised you the most or did you find the most interesting?

BEN DOMENECH, PUBLISHER, "THE FEDERALIST": I was surprised the most by how quickly we saw the arguments about free speech become essentially a monopartisan affair. Civil liberties, I think, in America, the conversation about them has largely been a bipartisan one historically.

But in the conversation that we saw take place on America's campuses and in our political fray, I think political correctness is now something that has moved over entirely into a conversation on the Right. That surprised me to a great degree. The thing that I found most interesting, though, was actually something that Stephen Colbert made reference to in that interview that you had with him, which was the surprise of the Trump phenomenon. This is a significant one; I think it's politically significant in way that lot of people didn't expect. People expected a celebrity campaign.

I think actually that there's something to be said for finding the good in the Trump phenomenon. He does express, to a certain degree, a degree of Jacksonian populism that has always been a part of American politics and that I think represents a group of disaffected Americans, who basically are standing up and saying the status quo is not acceptable, that they want dramatic change.

DICKERSON: What surprised you, Jeanne, this last year?

JEANNE CUMMINGS, POLITICAL EDITOR, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": What surprised me was the collapse of the Republican Party's establishment class. And it's not just the rise of Trump because they've had candidates like Trump, kind of the outsider candidates, come and go. But they're -- they can't coalesce on -- in the establishment lane.

And it's not just in the presidential campaign. It's the entire House leadership collapsed during this past year because of the push from the outside. And that really surprised me, because they have been top down for decades.

DICKERSON: Yes, it's the other side of what Ben's talking about.

We keep talking about a grassroots lane and an establishment lane, I'm starting to think that the establishment lane is like a bike lane. It's very small.


DICKERSON: The other lane is a lot bigger.

James, what's your feeling about 2015?

JAMES BENNET, PRESIDENT AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "THE ATLANTIC": Yes, I mean, I would go with NASA finding running water on Mars but after that I'd have to say Donald Trump and this class warfare really within the Republican Party, the base revolting against the donor class.

On the core issues that have stood for -- that the Republican Party has stood for for cycle after cycle -- tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation, free trade -- Donald Trump is challenging party orthodoxy on all those issues. And it's working for him.

DICKERSON: Yes. So it's not just you have a kind of shiny object candidate; he's illuminating something big that -- big blocks that are moving.

David, what about you? DAVID ROHDE, REUTERS: This is a little sort of less positive but it's -- and it is Trump-related but it's the breath of the fear of Muslims in this country and the sort of acceptance of open bigotry.

We would have -- we wouldn't have said, you know, it would have been completely unacceptable for someone to say in 2012 that a Mormon cannot be the President of the United States.

So to have major candidates saying a Muslim can't be the president and there really isn't --


ROHDE: -- yes, there really isn't that much of uproar. I mean, if he had said a radical Muslim, an extremist Muslim, that's absolutely fine. But it's this -- it's the demagoguery and the tripling in attacks against Muslims. I didn't expect it to get so powerful so quickly this many years after 9/11.

BENNET: I feel like, though, that does speak a little bit to when it comes to Trump's character, his ability to know how to manipulate. He knows how to manipulate a crowd. He knows human folly like the back of his hand and he knows how to respond to it.

But I also think that it speaks to something more significant in the sense that we see this broad based populist revolt in Europe that comes from both Right and Left. And I think that you see that echoed in America to a degree that we've not seen historically. And that's something that I should -- think should concern both parties.

You saw Bernie Sanders saying earlier that he feels like he can appeal to Trump voters. There is something to that.

Well, it was striking in your conversation with Bernie Sanders, when he talked about the overlap with Trump, Trump, how many times he repeated the word "anger" or "angry", that that was the -- that's the real -- that's where the Venn diagram really overlaps for him and physically on issues like economic populism and so forth.

But it runs counter to something that Stephen Colbert just said, which he thinks Americans are tired of divisiveness.


CUMMINGS: I do think -- I was heartened, though, by the very strong pushback by leadership in both parties to the Muslim ban proposal. I mean, to have Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Hillary Clinton -- you know, there was very strong pushback on that. And I think for the Muslim community that had to have been at least somewhat heartening.

DICKERSON: Yes. Although you still see in the polls that there's still support for it within the Republican Party and Donald Trump certainly didn't seem to fall from that.

Let's switch now to 2016, although playing with all the same themes, basically.

David, to you, what -- is there a big question in 2016 that you hope will get resolved or at least a question we should keep in mind as we're looking at the issues in the next year?

ROHDE: It's who wins -- we've all talked about this -- it's who wins what's essentially an election about inequality.

Is it the Trump sort of rhetoric, which is just playing on the division and getting people to blame Mexicans and others maybe for what's happening?

Or can the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, somehow come up with solutions to inequality?

But I think that is the issue of the coming year, it's the issue of this election and it's so visceral and so it's honest.

DOMENECH: I don't think that it's actually about inequality. I think it's about change more broadly than that. And I think that what we really are seeing is a group of disaffected Americans who are responding to these outsider candidates in a way that they have not historically.

The real question is whether they're going to actually show up and vote. But it's actually coming at time when there is an opportunity, I think, for dramatic change. We saw the change in leadership in the Republican Party when it came into Congress this year. We're going to see additional, I think, generational change in both parties over the course of the coming several years.

And I think that the real question is whether there is one party that is able to translate this anger, this demand for dramatic change into something healthy or whether it turns into a kind of stray voltage effect within the election that isn't actually translated into either party.

DICKERSON: Jeanne, what did we learn, if anything, about money?

We're talking about a situation which basically the grassroots overwhelms the elites. The elites are the ones with the money and there was a lot of talk before this campaign about how candidates with fundraising prowess -- Scott Walker gone from the race; Jeb Bush, shock and awe he'd raised so much money, not doing well in the polls.

Did we learn anything about the power of this populist movement with respect to money?

CUMMINGS: We've learned that you can't buy an election. And that is very heartening, that small donors can still have a big influence.

We also were reminded of a lesson that we knew before but forgot in all of the super PAC moments and that is that donating to a candidate is the first vote. And so the candidates that can draw small donors can survive because that's real support. And the funny thing with Trump that people overlook, is he talks about, I don't want your money, I'm financing my own campaign.

He's not. He's not -- if you go back and look, because he's not buying TV ads, so he's not spending big, he actually has enough small donations unsolicited coming into his campaign that he's financing it with their money. So we have been reminded that the money primary does matter and that is in the small donor, not necessarily the big donor.

BENNET: Yes, that's part of the interesting paradox of Trump that this billionaire would serve as the most effective vehicle for this populist -- this populist strain is something we've heard going back several cycles, certainly to Pat Buchanan. But the Trump is able to call out the donor class the way he has because he's been a member of it, is kind of remarkable.

But put another question on the table, though, that I'd love to answer, too, in the year ahead, which is the problem of Syria, I doubt we'll get that answer. But going back to what Ben was saying about the stress on Europe and the greater Middle East making some progress toward the solution there, seems to me --

ROHDE: I don't see any candidate really -- I mean, there's talk on the Republican side about being more tough but I don't think anyone's going to send in a large number of American troops. That's only way you quickly change and stabilize Syria.

So I think you see more of the same awful -- the deaths, the refugee flows and a stronger ISIS, yes, they're losing ground in Iraq but their message is resonating --

DICKERSON: And Syria is the two-pronged question: Assad and ISIS.

DOMENECH: The most interesting thing I think for both parties right now is what did you learn from the last 15 years?

What are the lessons you took from these experiences when it comes to foreign and domestic policy?

I think what you see on the Republican side is a number of candidates who have taken away certain things. It is no accident that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, the two people who are most critical of the Iraq policy under the Bush administration, are leading in the polls currently on the Republican side. That says something significant.

It's also a question of what Hillary Clinton learned from the last 15 years. We're going to be finding that out over the next year.

DICKERSON: All right. We're going to have to end it there.

Thanks to all of you. Happy new year.

We'll be right back.


DICKERSON: We're back with a very long distance remote, astronaut Scott Kelly joins us from the International Space Station.

Commander Kelly, you first went into space in 1999.

What's different now?

KELLY: Well, my first flight was just on the space shuttle, it was to the Hubble space telescope. And that was before we had the International Space Station. It wasn't a few years later before we launched the first people to the space station, the first human presence in space, which we've had for the last 15 years.

It's a much different experience now with this International Space Station and the international cooperation and all the research we have that go with it and what we were doing back in the 1990s and previously.

DICKERSON: How about for you personally, though, being in space now, relative to that very first time you went?

KELLY: Well, you know, flying in space is a privilege, whether it's the first time or the fourth time.

But obviously back then, it was my first flight, it was seven days long. And since then I've flown three times previous -- or subsequently -- durations of 13 days, 159 days now this next -- this flight will be close to a year so they have been getting larger and larger each time. And I think if I fly a fifth time it will have to be to Mars to get that duration that will be required to keep up the trend.

DICKERSON: Before we go any further, what room are you in there?

KELLY: I am in the U.S. Destiny laboratory module, which is like the main module for the U.S. side of the space station, it's a combination of laboratory and sort of like the bridge of a ship.

I guess you could describe with it a lot of the systems that are required to operate the space station are in here as well as experiments.

DICKERSON: And in case there are any conspiracy theorists out there, how would you prove to us that you're in zero gravity?

KELLY: I would just do this for a while. And unless I was falling that would be kind of hard to do.

DICKERSON: NASA has put a call out for those who might want to be astronauts.

What would you look for if you were on the hiring committee?

KELLY: So I was on the hiring committee last time and we picked a great group. And what we look for are people that are technically competent. You need a background in the scientific field, whether it's as a scientist, an engineer, a medical doctor or a person that's in the military with some kind of technical background.

And we want those people to have proven themselves in their current profession being very high performers but also people that get along well as part of a team because this is a huge team effort, not just your crew members here on board, but also with all the folks you have to work with on the ground.

Just a really diverse group of people with skills that are very broad. We have a lot of systems here on board the space station and we can't call the repair man when one of them breaks. So we have to be generalists in a lot of ways.

DICKERSON: Have you noticed any of the effects on space that you're there to look at and discover in yourself?

KELLY: You know, a lot of the data we collect is stuff that has to be analyzed on the ground. For instance, we can't see bone loss ourselves. That's something that we'll have to notice with imaging technology when I get back.

But there are certain things we can see with regards to muscle mass, like the amount of muscle I've lost in my calf muscle, because we don't walk up here, is pretty significant. Some effects on my vision initially, although those have kind of leveled off have been consistent with what I had on my last flight. But we're also looking at the affects of this environment, the microgravity environment and the radiation environment on myself, on a genetic level, how my DNA is affected and that's using my brother as a control subject on the ground.

DICKERSON: Is it still a thrill to look out the window?

KELLY: Yes. The Earth is a very beautiful place. It's thrilling to look at. But like a lot of things, if you see it ,often it's not as thrilling as the first time you've seen it. But it still never fails to impress.

DICKERSON: Have you been following the news from up there?

Have you watched -- what did you think of the presidential campaign that's going on down here on Earth?

KELLY: We have the news on pretty much all the time unless we're watching something specific. And we have coverage about 50 minutes every hour; so I do follow it very closely. And I have to say it's been very interesting.

DICKERSON: Commander Scott Kelly, thanks so much.

And we'll be back in a moment.


DICKERSON: That's it for us for 2015. We'll leave with you a look back at some of the big stories this year.

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