'Journal Editorial Report' looks back at the biggest stories of 2015

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," December 26, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," a look back at the biggest stories of 2015. Spreading global disorder as ISIS makes gains in Iraq and Syria, and Russia steps in to fill the leadership void. Plus, a growing split within the Republican Party claims the House speaker and fuels the rise of a political outsider. All that, and a look at the rising turmoil in America's cities and on college campuses across the country.

But first, these headlines.


GIGOT: Welcome to this special edition of the "Journal Editorial Report" as we look back at the biggest stories of 2015.

We begin with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the resulting global disorder as refugees pour across European borders and Russia moves to fill the leadership void in the Middle East.

Let's bring in Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; columnist, Bret Stephens; Mary Anastasia O'Grady; and Jason Riley.

So, Bret, start with you.

You wrote a book predicting the rise of global disorder and we appear to be right on time with all of the chaos emanating from Syria, in particular, but also North Africa, elsewhere. What's happened?

BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: I think the policy choices that President Obama made in his first term and the early years of the second term were -- sort of came to fruition in 2015. We saw the retreat of American power, not only our retreats from Iraq, the draw down in Afghanistan, but clearly the willingness that the -- advertising the fact that we were not going to intervene in places like Syria or we weren't going try to address the spreading chaos in Libya. And the result is people sensed -- the rogues of the world sensed there is an open door they could walk through without consequence. That's what they're doing.

GIGOT: Mary, the president's strategy against the Islamic State has been in place for 16 months now. I think he would argue, he has argued, they made a lot of progress. Do you agree?

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Well, I think Bret has it right in that the president doesn't build confidence from the American people and this is fundamentally the problem. So he starts out by saying I'm going to get out of Iraq. He gets out of Iraq. He -- first, he says it's been a success. He gets out. Then he blames George Bush that he got out. And now he says we're going back in. And that kind of -- that doesn't gender any confidence.

GIGOT: But we're back in but certainly not full like George W. Bush.

O'GRADY: The American people don't believe.

GIGOT: We have some special operators on the ground. He gradually increased that number and we're doing a bombing campaign. He would say, Jason, we're making progress.

JASON RILEY, COLUMNIST: It's not just that there have been setbacks. You expect setbacks in a war against an enemy as dispersed as global terrorism is. It's his denial that there have been these setbacks. His insistence that ISIS is contained, that we are making progress. People see Paris.  They see San Bernardino. And they go, wait a minute, they feel insecure.  Recently, he said in an interview that his only real problem, the only legitimate criticism is his messaging in terms of what the strategy is.


GIGOT: That's what every president says.

RILEY: We're making progress but it's not a messaging problem. It's a fact that people believe what they see with their own eyes. They see ISIS on ascendant. They see ISIS recruiting people more and more. And they don't see a strategy out there to defeat the enemy.

STEPHENS: The president had a narrative. The narrative was the tide of war is receding. Al Qaeda is on a path to defeat. We have turned the page on a decade of war. And it turned out -- these are things he said in his second inaugural address, and it turns out that isn't the world we're actually living in. So it's this disconnect from what the president is telling himself, what his advisors are telling him, and the world we're watching unfold.

GIGOT: But in terms of this year, Dan, this -- what Bret describes, I think we made a turn from that politically, at least here from home. I think the American public has changed. The instinct for isolationism on the right has -- I think the rise of Islamic State has killed Rand Paul's presidential campaign, for example, as the American public now puts national security center stage.

DAN HENNINGER COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: Well, there was a feeling for the longest time, Paul, that the ISIS, Islamic State, was all taking place over there in the Middle East. I think the events of this year changed all that. I mean, first there was the massacre in Paris, this extraordinary event, people driving through the streets of Paris gunning down individuals eating dinner in restaurants, then San Bernardino where it was brought home. This made it clear to the American people that Islamic State is projecting power outside of the Middle East. And it was going to take a much larger, more concentrated effort to contain them, that simply bombing them in Syria was not going to be sufficient. And that, I think, is the kind of leadership that American people are looking for now.

GIGOT: Mary, the president I think would also say, look, I actually had a pretty good year in foreign policy. I struck the Iran deal on nuclear -- stopping nuclear weapons. I cut a deal in the Pacific Rim with 10, 12 countries -- I forget the number -- on free trade. And also the global climate deal in December, which 200 nations agreed to reduce carbon emissions. What is wrong with that argument?

O'GRADY: Well, I think in Iran he surrendered. I mean, he basically told Iran that they could go ahead and get a nuclear weapon, maybe not immediately but eventually. The Pacific Rim deal is not done. I mean, he says he signed it. Now he has to get Congress to sign off on it. It's --

GIGOT: It would be good. It would be generally good if it passed.

O'GRADY: It won't. But I don't think he has shown a lot of leadership on trade. And on the climate, it's the same thing. There is no commitment in the climate deal. Everybody got together and signed and came away and said we have a deal. But there is no accountability. It's not clear that he really has anything.

GIGOT: Quickly, Bret, is the terror threat going to be worse or improved in 2016?

STEPHENS: I think it's going to be much worse. We see ISIS becoming stronger in places like Libya. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still is undefeated. So we have a whole sort of a metastasizing jihadist problem that isn't being remotely addressed by what we're doing in Syria and Iraq.

GIGOT: All right, thank you all.

Still ahead, from turmoil around the globe to political turmoil here at home, 2015 saw a growing split in the GOP. We'll look at how it played out in Congress and on the campaign trail next.


GIGOT: 2015 saw a growing split within the Republican Party. House Speaker John Boehner resigned from Congress this fall, brought down by an increasingly fractious GOP conference. And on the campaign trail, the divide gave rise to the political outsider with billionaire businessman, Donald Trump, consistently leading in the polls since he announced his candidacy this summer.

So, Dan, what do you think these divisions are really about within the Republican Party, because they are pretty wide?

HENNINGER: They are pretty wide, Paul. I would go so far as to say we're watching two presidential campaigns, one between the Republicans and the Democrats. We can identify the differences, our tax policy, the role of government. Then we have a presidential campaign being waged between Republicans and Republicans. And the issues there, I think, basically have to do with control of the party, power, whose voices speak for the party right now? You have the Freedom Caucus in the House. You have some folks on talk radio. And then something they characterize as the establishment, which I think is a fraudulent label. I think it's essentially a battle for control of the Republican Party, which is the result of the kind of disarray that has resulted over the last seven years of the Obama presidency, when these people feel not much was done to staunch the forward march of Obama's agenda.

GIGOT: But there are issues in play here, too, Jason. I mean, I see the fall lines emerging on immigration and certainly on free trade, which used to be a Republican consensus, now a division.

RILEY: Right.

GIGOT: What else?

RILEY: I'd add foreign policy into that mix. The most recent person to leave the race was a long shot, Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina. But he represents a wing of the GOP that, you know, we don't see a lot of people out there. I call it the Dick Cheney wing, the foreign policy hawk out there. That was what Lindsey Graham was representing. And the party today, you see people like Ted Cruz taking a much more isolationist stance. You don't see that hawkishness that Lindsey Graham represented. Immigration is another issue where you have people who think that the party needs to expand its base, represent a more diverse country, as we've become more diverse demographically. And you think others who think, no, it's still good politics, election politics for the GOP to play to its base.

STEPHENS: But I think the fundamental division is a division about a kind of an electoral tactics. Does the Republican Party go to this base or what a lot of the people in the Freedom Caucus believe is the real base.  People, they claim, stayed home for Mitt Romney in 2012.


STEPHENS: That's what they claim. I'm not sure that's true. Or do they try to broaden the base by being a more inclusive party, a party of aspiration? I think that's really -- it's a question of is it going to be a party by identify? That's what Donald Trump's candidacy represents, or a party of aspiration? That's I think really the question facing the GOP.

GIGOT: Mary, let me ask you about Congress. Do you think the Republican House is better off with Paul Ryan as speaker than John Boehner?

O'GRADY: Well, I mean, Paul Ryan is a more popular figure. And John Boehner deserves a lot of credit because he tried to manage --


GIGOT: Manage all these factions

O'GRADY: Yeah, the cats, herd the cats. But Paul Ryan, for sure, I think has better skills in terms of bringing people together. And I think what's happening with Republicans, with the Republican constituency is a lot of frustration. I mean, Republicans in general believe in limited government, smaller government. And here you have President Obama, who has done so much to expand the power of the state, and the Republicans seem like they haven't been able to do anything to beat that back. And so this frustration has manifest itself in this very what they call hard right section of the Republican Party. And Paul Ryan has to find a way to bring them along, to give them confidence that longer term he has a strategy that can actually deliver.

GIGOT: Some don't like Ryan either because of his immigration -- he's more open to immigration than some of the others on the right.

Dan, what about Donald Trump and the presidential race? Stepping back, you pointed your finger before at President Obama and the frustrations about him. But is some of this economic? You have a lot of his -- Trump's supporters seem to be blue collar workers who haven't had a rise in real incomes in years. Is that where Trump is getting his strength?

HENNINGER: Oh, yeah. I think that has a lot to do with it, Paul, the fact the economy has grown between zero and 2 percent, a weak economy for seven years. It's created a lot of anxiety out there, especially among blue collar voters. And Trump has brought their anxiety and anger to the surface. The question is, can you drive simple anger all the way into the presidency or at some point you have to offer them a more positive forward- looking vision. I think that's kind of the burden that Donald Trump bears right now and the other Republican candidates in the slip stream behind him.

GIGOT: How big a danger is there, Brad? We don't have a lot of time, but how big -- today a real split, a basic divide of the GOP with maybe a third-party candidacy if he gets the nomination in 2016.

STEPHENS: I think if he gets the nomination, I think that may be the end of the Republican Party as we have known it since 1856.

GIGOT: You can't unify behind him?

STEPHENS: Look, I think he's driving a fundamental division in the party.  If he becomes the nominee, not only are we going to a historic defeat, but a lot of people are going to walk away from that party.

GIGOT: Thank you all.

Still head, protesters return to American cities and American college campuses as we continue our look at the biggest stories of 2015.


GIGOT: Well, 2015 saw protests return to cities across America, not to mention, dozens of college campuses. The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in April spurred two weeks of unrest in downtown Baltimore and reignited a debate over policing in America. And protests over racial intolerance at the University of Missouri led to the resignation of that school's president in November and spurred similar demonstrations at other colleges across the country.

So, Jason, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged this year in response to those incidents. It was politically potent enough to be able to say, dictate to the Democratic presidential candidates, all of them, you cannot say "all lives matter." You must say Black Lives Matter. How potent is this movement?

RILEY: I think it's quite potent. I think it can be with us for some time, Paul. And it's because it's become a political movement. You have political activists funding it, which I think will give it staying power.  Also, to the extent it's linked to black crime rates, and every time we see a black involved in a crime, and the media will hype that, particularly if the law enforcement official is white, this will continue. This will continue endlessly until of course black crime rates fall. And so I think it's something that can be with us for a while. It's very dangerous. It's dangerous because, A, it's based on a lie that Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri --


RILEY: -- was gunned down while --

GIGOT: -- widespread police brutality.

RILEY: -- while surrendering, which has proven to be a lie. But also it can lead to less effective policing of poor black communities, which need effective policing the most. To the extent that cops are afraid to engage, to the extent they back off, don't want to get out of their car, can lead to more violence in these neighborhoods.

GIGOT: And, Mary, we've seen a revival in some of these cities, not least Baltimore, of crime and murder rates in some of these big cities. I think one of the tragedies of this politically is that you had a movement, bipartisan movement, coming together on criminal justice reform, especially for drug crimes and things like that. This may undercut that.

O'GRADY: Yes, I think what's really missing here is some serious leadership in the black community. And, you know, if you look at really the disenfranchisement of the black inner-city community, a lot of it has to do with, as you say, criminal justice reform, but also education. And it's kind of ironic that the same people who are complaining about the fact that inner-city blacks are not successful economically are the same people who are blocking changes in the education system, which really confine a lot of these young black men to lives of, you know, misery in the inner city.

STEPHENS: Dan said earlier this is -- we're living in an era of zero percent to 2 percent growth, and I think no group has suffered more than the black community in America. It's young black men who are not getting on the economic ladder of advancement when you raise the minimum wage or -- you're kicking a lot of those young men off of that ladder. So it's not entirely surprising that given grim economic outlooks, you're getting this kind of fervent --


RILEY: But I was just going to say, you talk about leadership, though, part of the reason this movement has staying power is because individuals like Barack Obama and Eric Holder have, in a way, sided with these protesters who want to scapegoat law enforcement. When you have backing at that level in American society, it's going to help sustain your movement.  Of course, they're doing it for politically expediency.

GIGOT: Dan, I want to get you in here on the college campus question. We saw the protests spill over there. You and I are old enough to remember the 60s. That was in favor of free speech.


GIGOT: Now we have the movement, particularly among students, of an orthodoxy that says, please, we must censor points of view that we disagree with.

HENNINGER: Yeah, and it's organized I think, Paul. It's not spontaneous.  This is the left going back to eat their liberal professors who kind of opened the door to this craziness on campuses. I think it's having a political effect, Paul. If we can just push this into the presidential race, both Donald Trump and Ben Carson have spoken constantly about political correctness. I think the people supporting them feel that the sort of tolerance of this kind of behavior on campuses is a manifestation of a whole range of politically correct attitudes that have led to this kind of breakdown.

GIGOT: It's deeply embedded on campuses, campuses all across the country.  It's going to be very hard to break that culture of one-sided point of view.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, our panel's picks for the winners and losers of 2015.


GIGOT: Time now for our "Hits & Misses." This week, our panel picks the biggest winner or loser of 2015.

Dan, start us off.

HENNINGER: My biggest loser, Paul, is Secretary of State John Kerry, who was the handmaiden for that disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. Now, it was expected he was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize for doing that. He did not. John Kerry's long quest for the brass ring continues to fall short.

GIGOT: All right.


STEPHENS: The flip side of that, the big winner for me is the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini of Iran. Iran has an economy that is slightly smaller than that of greater Philadelphia. Yet, he was able to out=-negotiate not only the Americans and the Europeans but the Russians and Chinese as well.  Quite an accomplishment for a third-world fanatical dictator.

GIGOT: Mary?

O'GRADY: Paul, the national average interest rate on savings in this country for the last three years has been .06 percent. That's $6 a year on every $10,000 you have in the bank. A few weeks ago, the Federal Reserve raised the Fed funds rate from zero to a range of .25 to .50. So my winners this year are American savers.

GIGOT: Don't spend it all in one place.



RILEY: New York's progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, inherited a model big city in 2014 in terms of crime, quality of life. Since then, murders are up. Shootings are up. The welfare rolls have expanded. Homelessness is up. It jaw-dropping incompetence. Bill de Blasio is the loser of the year.

GIGOT: My winner -- some good news about the culture -- the musical "Hamilton" and its writer, lead performer, Lynn Manuel Miranda, wrote it.  It's playing to sold-out audiences on Broadway. It's inventive and instructive. Our culture has degraded in many ways but I recommend you go see this. Bring your teenagers. They might learn something.

GIGOT: That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Happy New Year. We hope to see you right here next week as we look ahead to 2016.

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