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Shields and Brooks on the GOP push to stop Trump

March 4, 2016 at 7:48 PM EST
Judy Woodruff joins syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks to discuss the week in politics, including takeaways from Thursday’s contentious GOP debate, the mainstream Republican revolt against Donald Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ chances to upset the Democratic race and the fallout from the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who’s joining us today from Santa Barbara, California.

And we welcome you both, gentlemen.

So, the CPAC conference, that was going on today. It will continue through the weekend, but let’s start with last night.

David, what do we make of what happened in Detroit?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Embarrassing, demoralizing. I have been in Waco, Texas, and out here this week, and I have seen so many Republicans depressed.

I’m used to seeing moderate Republicans say they don’t recognize their party. But now I have heard a lot of conservative Republicans say they don’t recognize their party., first the tone and temper of the debate, the things Donald Trump chose to speak about, and then just the nasty back and forth and the shallow name-calling.

It was, I think, a demoralizing debate, and for a lot of Republicans, possibly the worst outcome you could get, with Trump marching, but everybody else sort of hanging around, and a lot of internecine warfare over the future of the party, if there is one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Demoralizing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Judy, what strikes me about these debate is the name of Ronald Reagan is constantly invoked by just about everybody.

And Lou Cannon, who was a peerless political reporter, Ronald Reagan’s biographer, for more than a quarter of a century covered him, said of Ronald Reagan, anybody — a crowd heard Ronald Reagan, they felt good about them and they ended up feeling better about themselves.

There is no way that anybody who is not a fierce partisan or blind partisan of one of the candidates could watch last night and feel better about themselves or their country. When the front-runner for the Republican nomination to succeed to the office that has been graced by Washington and Lincoln and FDR publicly boasts about the dimensions of his private parts, you have reached a new low.

I mean, it is dispiriting. It’s beyond partisanship. It’s just discouraging as a citizen, and I don’t know what we do, other than tune out to this. I know we can’t, but I just don’t think you should encourage it by listening to this stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, does this hurt Donald Trump, does it hurt all the candidates? Who is affected, who is damaged by this, or is anybody?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we will see.

You know, I think we will see whether — I think ultimately the debate helped him because the candidates said they’d support him in the end. One of the things we have noticed this whole campaign is, Donald Trump just has more courage. Whatever you might think of him — and I don’t think much of him, but he has more courage than his opponents.

And for his opponents to say he’s a scam artist and a con artist and a liar and reckless and would hurt the country, but I would support him, it just doesn’t make sense. And it was a lack of courage on their part to go there.

And Mitt Romney today said he would not support them. And that has to be the case. Normally, you support your party’s nominee, but with somebody like Trump, if you say all the things you say about him, you have got to say, no, I will not support him. I will go third party or I will won’t vote in the presidential election.

So that failure of courage hurts Trump. We will see if a Romney-led Republican officialdom can launch a sustained attack on Trump. I have always thought that the core attack is not to going to go after him for what they have been going after him for, which is what voters like, that he’s politically incorrect and sort of a change agent, but go after him for the fact that he’s a narcissist who thinks about himself and has betrayed all those around him.

They’re beginning to lay that case. It may be too late, but I think it’s the most effective case they have against him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the case that — the most damaging case, Mark? And do you agree with David this doesn’t really necessarily hurt Donald Trump, what happened last night?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it hasn’t up to now.

At some point, it becomes cumulative, Judy. I think where they failed to make the case, first of all, Mitt Romney, who was a — had to be an act of conscience on his part to make the statement — there was no political payoff for him. It’s to no real advantage politically or personally for him to do it, to make that statement.

The problem in Mitt Romney’s statement, first of all, was that he himself didn’t acknowledge that he had sought and accepted gratefully Donald Trump’s endorsement in 2012. But at the same time, his message is, you have been bamboozled. You’re not quite bright enough to understand this.

What they have to do is exactly what was done to Mitt Romney in 2012, and that was to show the people or at least to present the people who felt that they had been hurt by his economic activities. Remember the company that Bain had taken over and then closed the jobs, and they asked people to build the stage while they announced that they were — their jobs were going overseas.

It has to be a personal connection. You have to show the people…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean, whether it’s Trump University or one of the other…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Trump University or the small companies that have been hurt when he went into bankruptcy and put people out of business, people who lost their jobs, who lost their savings, and who been hurt.

You have to put a human face on it. And they haven’t done that. And when you just say anybody but Trump, that’s no endorsement for any other candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the argument, David, that Mitt Romney made yesterday? He called Donald Trump a con artist. He used just about every negative term one can think of.

Is that going to make any difference?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you have to believe that, at some point, Trump voters, like any other voters, rely on the information they have.

And a lot of the — a lot us of have — with Trump voters, they buy Trump’s version of events, which is that he’s a successful businessman and that he’s made a ton of money. But there is another version of events, which is Trump Mortgage, Trump University, Trump Steak, Trump Airline, and the bankruptcies, that he’s not a successful businessman.

He’s a marketing genius who offers no substance. And people either got pushed into subprime loans by Trump Mortgage, or they got suckered into racking up huge credit card debt to buy courses on Trump University, and they were left high and dry when those things went belly up.

And so that’s a story that I think can be told. In a country which is feeling betrayed, he is a mass and serial betrayer. And so I think that’s the line that can be used. But I have to assume all voters are information voters, and, as they get more information, they could change their minds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if it’s not Trump, Mark, then who is it? Which one of these other candidates? Ted Cruz has, what, won four states. Marco Rubio’s won one state. I mean, is it Mitt Romney?

MARK SHIELDS: If you want to know what — how weak the Republican field is against Donald Trump at this point, Bernie Sanders has won more states than all the other Republicans other than Donald Trump.

And one can talk about Bernie Sanders has made a marvelous insurgent candidacy, but they just — they haven’t been competitive. And John Kasich got very good reviews last night, which encourages him to stay on the stage, which is a part — nobody outside of the Kasich family sees any logical way that John Kasich can win the nomination, other than by some weirdly broken convention outside of Erie, Ohio, at the Cleveland convention that John Kasich somebody brokers.

But as long as there are the three of them, none of them has the strength. Marco Rubio, I think, is reduced in stature as a consequence of his going back and forth in this sort of junior high school locker room language with Donald Trump. And Cruz just doesn’t show to have the kind of reach beyond a certain regional appeal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, wasn’t it Mitt Romney’s recommendation that voters support, I think he said Rubio in Florida, Kasich in Ohio, Cruz in — I mean, he’s encouraging everyone to stay in.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, strategically, the idea is to get — prevent Trump from getting a majority of delegates.

But, Judy, I would say this is bigger than just one nomination. This is about the future of the Republican Party and really the future of the country. For almost a century-and-a-half, the Republican Party has stood for a certain free market version of America, an America that’s about openness, that’s about markets, that’s about opportunity, and a definition of what this country is.

Donald Trump offers a very contrasting image. It’s an image of closedness. It’s an image of building walls, of closing barriers, an authoritarian style of leadership. And so the Republican Party’s future is at stake.

And, you know, I think preserving that future in some coherent form is the number one task for the party. Ben Sasse, a senator, has said he is going to — he is advocating a temporary third party, just a conservative who could run for president. You would split the right-wing vote, the conservative voted, and you would lose the White House, but at least you would preserve some integrity of the party and maybe preserve the Senate and the House of Representatives, if you can get some conservatives to show up for the polls.

But that’s, I think, the frame in which to think, that it’s not just about one year. It’s about a long tradition in American politics which may be being replaced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the short run, as David just said, Mark, that could be good news for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or whoever is the Democratic nominee.

MARK SHIELDS: No, it could be.

But, at the same time, I don’t write off Donald Trump by any means. If you’re one of the two candidates on the field in…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean if there were three — if there were three candidates?

MARK SHIELDS: No, no. I mean, if, in fact, he is the nominee running against either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, it seems most plausibly Hillary Clinton right now — Hillary Clinton has tied herself, Judy, to President Obama.

She has run as Hillary Obama. She has made an appeal to African-American voters. She has made an appeal to the most loyal of Democrats, that she represents a continuation. So, whatever happens, whatever the October surprise is of 2016, and how President Obama handles it or doesn’t handle it, her fate is tied to him and his performance and the performance of his administration over the next eight months.

So, you know, it’s not a lay-down hand, as some Democrats say, oh, there’s no way Donald Trump — Donald Trump has enlarged the electorate in a way that is impressive. I mean, yes, he’s alienated a lot of the people David’s described. He’s brought in a lot of other people to vote in the Republican primary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, what about that? There are people who have come out to vote in these primaries and caucuses who weren’t engaged in the — at least in the last few election cycles. Trump has brought them out.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. They have been displaced.

They have been displaced by the economic crisis. They feel they have been displaced by immigration. They feel they have been displaced by globalization and disrespected by the political class. And, of course, there’s some basis to that.

It’s hard to see how that wakes up into a natural governing majority, though. And I agree with Mark. If you have two people, then anybody could win. There could be a terrorist attack. There could be a recession. Nobody knows what could happen, and Trump could somehow vault into the White House.

But, given the numbers now, it’s very hard to see he could win, given the huge numbers of Americans, the vast majority of Americans who say they could not support the guy. And I still find it hard to believe that somebody as policy-thin and as knowledge-thin would very well — he might be able to wear well with the electorate that we have in the Republican primary. It’s really hard to see him wearing well with a general election electorate, which is a very different thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Mark, in less than a minute, just quickly to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, do you — Bernie Sanders is not getting out of the race.

Does he — is he a factor at this point?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he’s a factor. I mean, he’s moved — you heard Hillary Clinton today in the excerpt on…

JUDY WOODRUFF: On trade.

MARK SHIELDS: On trade. He’s moved her on trade, I mean, or at least helped her to move, put it that way.

On the pipeline, the Canadian pipeline, he’s moved her on that. You know, we had today news, Judy, of job increases and wages actually going down. So we now have the top one-tenth of 1 percent, to qualify for that distinct group, you have had to have your wages increased 500 percent since Ronald Reagan was president.

And yet the median household income today is lower than it was 18 years ago. It’s just exactly what David was talking about. And Bernie Sanders turned out more people in Colorado, where he won 60 to 40, than had ever turned out before. There is encouragement for him to keep going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on that note, gentlemen, a lot to chew over.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

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