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Brooks and Dionne on the GOP’s dilemma and the role of ‘common decency’ in the campaign

August 12, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Donald Trump made more controversial statements this week and remains behind in polls. But it was not a great week for Hillary Clinton, either: more emails were leaked that could prove damaging. Judy Woodruff speaks with David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post about Republicans' quandary, the characters of the candidates and “unimaginative” tax plans.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now back to the world of politics, and to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

Welcome.

Mark Shields is away this week.

So, let’s pick up, gentlemen, with where I left off a few minutes ago with Robert Costa of The Washington Post.

David, what a week for Donald Trump. I guess we all thought maybe things were going to slow down, but first there was the comment about the Second Amendment that — seen by some as a threat to Hillary Clinton, and then the ISIS comments.

How do we interpret how Donald Trump is communicating with everybody?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, this isn’t a decision he is making. It’s a condition he possesses.

And we’re not used to talking about the psychological mental health of our candidates. And in some things, I think it’s not fair to talk about his mental health, in terms of how he operates with his kids in his private life, but there is a such a thing as public psychology and political psychology.

And in public, he obviously displays extreme narcissism, but most of all, he displays a certain manic, hyperactive attention. And so if you graph a Trump sentence, every eight-word verse, he’s like associative thinking.

And there is a term in psychology called the flights of thought, where one word sets off an association, which sets off an association. And as one psychiatrist said, compare his speeches to Robin Williams’ monologues, but without the jokes, but with insults.

And so he’s not in control of his own attention, I don’t believe. And, therefore, you get these rambling, weird sentences. You get things he patently shouldn’t be saying. And then even this, I’m being sarcastic about the sarcasm, I’m obviously being sarcastic, and then maybe a fifth a second later, he said, but not that much.

So he is contradicting himself within 12 words. And that’s a condition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, E.J., how are we to understand this, as people trying to understand this election?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I have been thinking about it, that there is the English language and then there’s the Trump language.

And in the Trump language, words change their meaning day by day depending on his own political needs. I won’t go into the learned psychological explanation that David gave, but there are a lot of people now talking that way about him.

But, politically, he doesn’t seem to care much about what he says. He gauges the effect. Sometimes, in the middle of a speech, he will change his direction if the audience doesn’t like him.

And I had a very instructive trip this week to York, Pennsylvania. It’s a conservative county, Southern Pennsylvania, not far from here. And one of the most interesting conversations I had was with Allison Cooper, the editor of The York Dispatch.

And talked about how people in this very Republican area — York City is Democratic, but the county is very Republican — are people who care about manners and decorum. And she spoke about — what she said is, common decency is a core part of who people are.

And I think in this campaign, we have talked about soccer moms, we have talked about angry white men, and I think you’re starting to develop common decency voters who are just reacting to what Trump says.

A Republican county commissioner I talked to up to there said that she’s been active with veterans. And after what Trump said about the Khan family and what he said about the Purple Heart, she said, I can’t vote for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The convention.

E.J. DIONNE: And so something deep is happening, and it has nothing to do with ideology or even party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, David, we’re trying to understand. As we just heard Robert Costa reporting a few minutes ago, leaders in the party are betwixt and between trying to figure out, how do they deal with this?

He’s saying, I’m going to go my own way. They know they’re not going to separate from him. But how do we — again, how do we understand the state of his campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo points out that, in today’s polling, if you just take the states where Clinton is up by 10 points or more, she has got 273 electoral votes, enough to win. And so that’s 10 points more.

Can we imagine a state where he moves the numbers in Wisconsin by 10 points? That would be a huge and unprecedented gain at this stage. And so it’s looking very bad for him.

And so the Republicans have to figure out what to do. And so a lot of them are writing open letters, but even more are saying things privately, let’s get the RNC to defund the campaign. We just cut them off. And that either drives him crazy and he quits, or else at least we have got more money for our own people.

And to me, that’s sort of interesting. Just take away the morality. I think the morality is, you cut off funding, but just on political grounds, do you think, well, if we spend the money on Senate campaigns, at least we can shore those up.

But the blunt fact is, if Trump completely collapses, and gets 38, 40, 42 percent of the vote, then the tsunami is so big, it probably sweeps out a lot of the congressional races, no matter what they spend on locally. So, where to put the money is an interesting question.

E.J. DIONNE: And Republicans are in a real catch-22, a lot of their candidates, because they know that if they get too close to Trump, they could lose a lot of voters in the middle, my common decency folks, but if they cut him off too aggressively, the Trump constituency is still a very big part of the Republican base.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is still a constituency out there.

E.J. DIONNE: And if they lose those votes, they’re in trouble.

And that’s why I think you’re seeing timidity and uncertainty on the Republican side, because they don’t quite know what to do with Trump.

DAVID BROOKS: And I would say, it was interesting, even after the Second Amendment comment, and all that, his poll numbers were flat this week. In fact, he narrowed a little with Clinton. It’s possible we’re seeing a floor and that he can’t — he can say all sorts of crazy things, but he’s not getting above or below where he is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If the question is, what are the options for Republican leaders, the options are what? Just to wait and watch and see what happens?

E.J. DIONNE: I think that the way — partly, it depends on individual candidates.

There are candidates in states where they know Trump is going to do very badly, and they’re already running away from Trump. There are other candidates who are, as I said, worried about this mix of votes they’re going to get. I think, more and more, you’re seeing — Republicans for Clinton is a real deal. The Clinton Republican is kind of the Reagan Democrat of this election at this point.

And I think more and more the leadership is going to look at the threat to the Senate. The Senate is very shaky, their control there right — on the numbers right now, and say, it’s not worth propping this guy up, we have got to let him go and support our candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, David, it wasn’t an especially great week for Hillary Clinton, in that she did — today, we saw she put out her tax returns for the last year, adding to, I guess, a number of years.

But what the Trump camp continues to say is, wait a minute, we still want to see those e-mails. And, in fact, there were a couple of leaks this week that make it look like there was something going on between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s staff at the State Department.

DAVID BROOKS: And it looks like they were soliciting money and then exchanging access.

And so I think that Clinton’s overall past is not a surprise. And this is contrast, say, the Obama coterie. The Obama coterie doesn’t get in mini-scandals. The Clintons’ coterie gets in constant mini-scandals. And it’s never decisive. They never break their, end their political careers, but there’s just the whiff of scandal. And this goes back to the Rose Law Firm. This goes back for decades.

And this is just part of their pattern, where what they’re doing is probably not disqualifying. If we got rid of everybody in Washington who sold access for donations, then the town would be empty. But it’s unseemly.

And so I think it rises to the level of unseemly, unseemliness, which confirms a lot of the mistrust people have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a problem is it for her?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, just to say, I don’t think we have the evidence yet that they sold access for contributions.

And the Justice Department decided not to look into this. Nevertheless, I think the existence of the Clinton Foundation is a problem for her. My notion is that if she were ever elected president — and if I were she, I would announce it ahead of time — I would announce that for the duration of my presidency, this is going to become the Eisenhower-Kennedy Foundation.

Let’s pick the two popular presidents when Bill and Hillary Clinton were kids or were young. Let David and Susan Eisenhower, Caroline Kennedy be trustees. Just push this aside, because you can even borrow from Prince, formerly known as the Clinton Foundation.

But you just don’t want these stories coming out continually, even if there is nothing actionable in terms of the law. And I would just kind of push this aside, because you have never had a chance where a former president — they all have these foundations of one kind of another — actually has his spouse in the White House.

They got to figure out what to do with this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, meantime, you do have — there was this instance where Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department went up to New York and was involved in important meetings at the Clinton Foundation.

Is there something wrong with that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think minorly. Apparently, she paid her own way.

I think minorly. As I say, the way life works, not only in Washington, but in every business that I have ever heard of, is that a friend wants something and you want them to give money to a good cause, and so, you know, people join boards of directors to make some professional connections.

There is no pure line between those things. So, would it be better if there was a pure line in some ideal world? Would it be better if the Clintons didn’t have a predilection for blurring every line that they could? That would be better.

But, again, I think it’s the width, but I don’t think it’s — I can’t get super angry about it, to be honest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, E.J., you’re saying it’s — you don’t see anything there that is actionable, actionable?

E.J. DIONNE: I don’t think we have seen anything actionable yet.

What the Clinton people are saying is, look, every big foundation of this sort deals with aides, or other problems in the world, always have interactions with the State Department.

But, as I say, people are going to keep asking these questions as long as the Clinton Foundation is around and as long as she is in public life. So, I’m against Trump’s wall with Mexico, but they need some kind of wall here to protect themselves and to kind of push these stories away.

DAVID BROOKS: It would be a good experiment to know how much money they would actually raise as the Truman-Kennedy foundation. It might be $1.29 a year, but…

E.J. DIONNE: Lot of love for both Ike and JFK.

DAVID BROOKS: Not from foreign lobbyists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, meantime, there are Clinton e-mails still out there. And we expect they are going to be out in the — leaked out into the public arena between now and the election.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said something about their economic plans this week.

David, do we learn anything from this? What’s the bright line between the two of them?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there certainly are bright lines.

I was depressed by both of them.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I think the country, the economy has some new, genuine challenges.

We have had incredibly laggard growth. Productivity increases have been meager and terrible. Hundreds — millions of people have dropped out of the labor force. These have all happened this century. And to me, what both Clinton and especially Trump did was have economic plans built for 1973, as if we’re going to have labor-rich manufacturing jobs come back.

Labor-rich manufacturing doesn’t exist anymore. Manufacturing jobs are white-collar, Silicon Valley programmers or highly-skilled technicians. They are not going to employ lots of people. And so we had two economic plans that had, in my view, very limited growth agendas.

Infrastructure is good, but not it. Very limited productivity agendas, and really nothing to help people who are out of the labor force. So, they were so unimaginative. They were sort of grab bags, in Clinton’s case, of either the normal policies that Democrats have been proposing 20 years, or, in Trump’s case, a mixture of weird things that are left over from supply-side and populism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did you read all that?

E.J. DIONNE: I saw — I thought there was more growth and sort of forward-looking stuff in the Clinton plan than David was.

I was particularly struck that she began her speech by talking about the inventiveness of companies in Michigan and how they were taking advantage of change. And it reflected this issue that Democrats have to deal with. They want to sort of talk about how things are a lot better than they were eight years ago — and they really are — but if they say that too much, they look out of touch with all the people who are hurting, whereas Trump, I thought, if you listened carefully, he’s giving the words to the workers and money to the rich.

The tax cuts that he has sort of make Reagan look like a — you know, almost like a Democrat. I mean, these are steep tax cuts for the wealthy, getting rid of the inheritance tax, the estate tax, which would be particularly good, as Hillary Clinton loves to point out…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he’s trimmed some of the taxes…

E.J. DIONNE: I’m sorry?

JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s trimmed some of the tax changes he’s talked about.

E.J. DIONNE: He trims it, but it’s still a huge tax cut, with nothing, no talk of compensation for the deficit or anything else.

And Hillary had fun saying that this is really good for Trump’s family and his friends, but it’s not clear who it’s going to help.

I don’t know what the net of this exchange is, but I think you’re seeing is, Clinton is not going to leave blue-collar voters to Trump. She is fighting for them. And a lot of what she’s done in the last two or three weeks has been to try to shore up her position in those swing states with a lot of blue-collar voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we do get a chance to talk about the economy again. And we wanted to talk about the wonderful American results at the Olympics, these young athletes who are performing so well. But we’re going to save that for another time.

E.J. DIONNE: Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, they can all run in 2032.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

And that’s a great lead, because we have got the Olympics coming up.

David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thank you very much.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

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