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Shields and Brooks on Trump vs. Cruz, Clinton’s concern over Sanders

January 15, 2016 at 6:35 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the rivalry between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz in the latest Republican presidential debate and Hillary Clinton’s attacks against Sen. Bernie Sanders.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And with that backdrop, it’s the perfect time to turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, what do you make of that debate last night?

MARK SHIELDS: Trump, Cruz, I think that no question about it.

I think, more than anything else, what I got was a sense of how dominant Donald Trump has been in setting the terms of the debate in both parties in 2016. I mean, candidates in both parties — maybe not Bernie Sanders, but virtually everybody else — is responding to or reacting to.

I mean, we saw Marco Rubio doing sort of a feisty, aggressive, not a knock-off Donald Trump, but sort of a variation of it — that and Ted Cruz’s first unforced error of the season by his New York, New York. He gave…

(COUGHING)

MARK SHIELDS: Pardon me.

He gave Trump — I apologize — a great opening, which he took advantage of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why don’t you take a sip of water?

And let me turn to David.

Do you have the same impression from…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m sort of cross-pressured on that. I’m an American citizen born in Canada, like Cruz, but I’m from New York, so I have got New York values.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: So, I don’t know who to dislike more.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But it is a Cruz-Trump show right now. And, to me, the paradox is that I thought Cruz won the debate, just had better debating points.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You did? You did?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought he was — on some of the stuff, on the birther stuff, I thought he’s just more forceful. He’s more skillful as a debater.

But, as Mark said, Trump dominates the discussion, and so he’s the central figure. Cruz may beat him, but Trump is still the story. And if you’re looking for a strong leader, which apparently — the Republican Party apparently is, well, Trump is still the main arena. And so he can afford to lose a debate and still come out ahead. And that’s where I think we are right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, where is that — where does that translate into, though, Mark? Where does that leave this race? Does it mean it’s down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, all the numbers in Iowa suggests it’s the two of them, and with Marco Rubio nipping at the heels and Ben Carson sort of fading in fourth or somewhere.

As an example of Trump, let me just give you what I thought was — it was a brilliant formulation he did on the birther issue. He did the birther issue against President Obama, you will recall. He had his people in Hawaii who had uncovered all of this information, which turned out to be totally bogus, as so much of the charges and allegations always have been.

But what he did with Cruz was — on the birther issue wasn’t that he was born in Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, but that he’s putting the party at risk by opening himself up to a legal suit. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, if I made him my vice presidential…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, even if I made him my vice president.

So, all of a sudden, he puts Cruz on the defensive of trying to prove a negative. It really is — it’s shrewd.

At the same time, Judy, I do want to give a shout-out, quite bluntly, to Jeb Bush. He demonstrated character. He’s demonstrated character on the issue. And the Republicans, to a man, without Jeb Bush and without Lindsey Graham no longer in the race, and with the possible exception of John Kasich, quite frankly, but they were anti-Muslim.

I mean, they were bigoted and narrow-minded and intolerant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When they were asked, would you keep Muslims out of the country?

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: And Jeb Bush pointed out, well, you are talking about Indonesia, you are talking about India, you are talking about the Kurds, you are talking about our friends. I mean, this is an absolutely irrational policy.

But, you know, but he stood alone, with the possible exception of Kasich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, does that mean something, though, for Jeb Bush? Does it — does that translate into something for him?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Jeb Bush is part of a large group of people who are like the team at halftime who — like the Republican establishment, who feel like they’re down 50 points and they have decided they’re going to lose the game.

And that’s how the Republican establishment is right now. They don’t believe that Ted Cruz or Donald Trump can win. They think it could imperil their majorities in Congress, and yet they’re doing nothing about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what could they do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I wish we had gray men in suits. We don’t have that.

But the donor class could do something. Frankly, the country is filled with state legislators who are Republicans, congressmen, senators, local committeemen, a lot of whom are in panic. And so maybe they should do something about it. Maybe they should have a MoveOn.org-type organization and get some rallying, which the other side has already done, and have a counterweight, so they don’t send the party into suicide.

And that might involve, not now, but after New Hampshire, winnowing the field, and donors and other people going and saying, we’re just going to pick this guy. We’re going to pick Rubio. I’m sorry, Jeb, you’re not going to be president. Christie, you can be secretary of treasury, but we’re going to get organized here and we’re not going to go quietly into the night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, go back to some kind of smoke-filled room? I mean, is that…

DAVID BROOKS: I’m pro-conspiracy right now.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: You think it’s that critical?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I’m sort of — I have no confidence in my judgment. I shouldn’t say that on TV.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Because…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark and I have confidence in your judgment.

DAVID BROOKS: Because I thought Trump would fade. And I still sort of think he will fade. But it’s not looking…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sort of? You have backed…

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, it’s — right now, Trump and Cruz are both looking pretty good. And I don’t think either is electable, and neither do a lot of Republicans. And so the question is, why do they just sit there and do nothing?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, but, I mean, that — Mark, again, that raises the question. What about these other candidates? There is Rubio, there’s Christie, there’s Jeb Bush, there’s John Kasich.

Why are they having so much difficulty rising and getting critical mass?

MARK SHIELDS: I think they’re having sleepless nights trying to figure it out, Judy.

I mean, John Kasich insists on mentioning in every sentence that he served 18 years in the House of Representatives, which is a disqualification in the current climate. If you have spent more than two high school tours in Washington, that makes you morally suspect to these primary voters.

Jeb Bush, 75 percent of Republicans said as recently as last June that they could vote for Jeb Bush, see themselves voting for Jeb Bush for president in November. That’s down in the same Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out last night to 42 percent.

For some reason, you know, they’re visiting a wrath that they feel toward his brother. I mean, remember, the Tea Party was spawned at some degree in reaction to what they felt had been the — not the perfidiousness, but certainly the breaking with the conservative compact of the Bush years on immigration, on spending, on any number of issues.

And with the others, Christie is running a one-state campaign. I mean, he’s running in New Hampshire. If he were to do well, I don’t know where he goes from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he has to do well there.

MARK SHIELDS: He has to do well there.

So, that’s — Rubio is — you know, Rubio is everybody’s second choice. But he’s got to have a victory. And I don’t know where that is.

DAVID BROOKS: And I’m not sure he’s taking the right tack by trying to be Ted Cruz-lite.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s darkened his tone. He’s gone on the attack on immigration and all the other stuff.

And, to me, you want to be the alternative. You don’t want — if you — if people want the Cruz mood, they are going to vote for Ted Cruz.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.

DAVID BROOKS: And then Mark has made this point about other campaigns.

When A and B attack each other, sometimes, C benefits. But if it’s C, D, E, F, and G, it’s not going to benefit. So they got to have a C. And so I think a lot is going to happen. Iowa and New Hampshire, I do not think are going to decide this thing. We are going to go through a lot of states. So, a lot can happen down the road.

But, somehow, somebody has got to take some initiative if it’s not going to be Ted Cruz.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, over on the Democratic side, the Hillary Clinton camp is feeling some anxiety, Mark, over Bernie Sanders, who’s doing better in Iowa, has been doing well in New Hampshire.

We have seen a really interesting back and forth, I mean, her camp going after Sanders this week in a way they weren’t before.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. It was kind of good old Bernie, until he became a threat. As Bernie rose in the polls, he became a more formidable adversary, but also a more menacing adversary.

The Clinton campaign this week, in perhaps the stupidest act of the entire year, took the one person who’s a character witness, who is a privileged observer of Hillary Clinton, who can testify about Hillary Clinton as a human being, as a mother, as a grandmother, as somebody who’s always been there, who’s been a force for decency in her life, who’s taught her and loved her, Chelsea Clinton, and turned her into a political hack.

I mean, it was just absolutely reckless and stupid. They neutralized the advantage and the value of Chelsea Clinton by turning her into an attack dog on a phony charge that Bernie Sanders, a supporter of single-payer national health insurance, is somehow going to dismantle children’s health and Medicare.

I mean, it was — it tells you how nervous, how dumb, what bad judgment there is in that campaign.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re worse on the attack. They’re worse on the counterattack.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: They tend to overreact.

And if I were Hillary Clinton, I would think, I may lose Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s possible, but I got a lot of big states with more diverse electorates. I’m still fine. And so don’t poison the brand.

And so I think they’re just getting too combative, overreacting and making it worse. Now, I understand why they’re concerned. There is a gigantic anti-establishment mood in both parties. I understand that. But there is — so far, there is little evidence that Sanders can translate early victories into victories in states, frankly, where there are more minority voters, more — more — frankly, more conventional and more representative of the country.

And she’s still sitting pretty in those states, and she should just let it be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you think she should just relax and not worry about losing Iowa and New Hampshire?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, unless she can counterattack effectively, not with something that is plainly disingenuous.

If you’re going to hit a weak spot, Bernie Sanders’ weak spot is not that he is against health care for people who need health insurance.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Bernie Sanders, whatever else, you look at him, he’s not pretty. He’s not a backslapper.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, his wife would disagree.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, but he’s not a storyteller. He’s not somebody you say, oh, gee, I want a cuddly Bernie, or, boy, he’s a well-polished guy.

He’s authentic. He’s absolutely authentic. And this attack was synthetic. It was fabricated. And I would say that there is a concern in the Clinton campaign. What you have got to do is somehow project her as a more likable person. This didn’t make her a more likable person or candidate.

And, Judy, nobody has been nominated in the modern era who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh.

MARK SHIELDS: So, there’s a chemistry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, maybe she shouldn’t relax about losing…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but this isn’t a normal year.

And — go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: No, I just think that momentum could be dangerous, and especially how you lose them.

If you lose them looking mean-spirited and small-minded, it can’t be helpful in Nevada.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. In some sense, I almost feel like the big question is not day to day. It’s how deep is the disgust in the country. It’s the tectonic question.

And if the disgust in the country is — it’s certainly deeper than — we all knew it was there. But there is a level of anger which is not only there, but building. And I think events are building it, even the attacks on Cologne, especially on the Republican side, building that anger. And that could sweep away the — all the establishment candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, on that note…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks and Mark Shields, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thanks. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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