HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn to the week in politics, which included, yes, a surprise campaign detour to Mexico.
And that means we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks joining us this week from New York.
All right, Mark Shields, start. Let’s go with Mexico for topic one.
This is the surprise trip, Donald Trump, not so surprising, but really a shortly planned trip to Mexico that he took. Now, first the moment itself. He came across looking presidential.
MARK SHIELDS: He did.
Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, said that Donald Trump could win this campaign if he had one sane month. And I think an awful lot of Democrats were quite nervous on Wednesday afternoon, when this sort of thoughtful, almost statesmanlike Donald Trump showed up at a joint session with the president of Mexico.
He listened. It was the longest he had ever been on camera without speaking that I can recall, and almost came across, I don’t want to say presidential, but it was flirting with that, until, of course, he returned to his native land, in Phoenix, totally altered and contradicted that impression with his stem-winder of a speech, basically saying we’re going to round up anybody who’s an undocumented immigrant in this country.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David, what about that, both the moment and when he came back, the policy?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. First, I would point out he has had a sane month, but it’s been spread over 70 years.
But he had that moment. He can utter a sane moment for that time in Mexico, but, when he came back, tonally, he just returned to himself. To pay tribute to Donald Trump, he’s incapable of being a phony.
And one of the things he does express is the true belief, or at least his belief, that America is besieged, besieged by foreigners who threaten us with crime, with terrorism, with cultural decay, with job loss. And that is how he got into this race. And that is what he’s expressing in Phoenix.
And the substance of what he said in Phoenix was actually quietly almost moderate, I think, but the tone is much more important. And the tone is the same old hostility to immigration. And that will be politically determinative. The only people in America who really cotton on to that kind of message are a certain section of the Republican Party. It has really very little appeal outside of it.
MARK SHIELDS: Let me just pick up on one thing David said, Hari, and that is, FOX News poll this week, not exactly a liberal organ, asked the following question: What about undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the United States, do you favor deporting as many as possible or do you favor setting up a system for them to become legal residents?
By a margin of 77 to 19, Americans favor legal status, rather than deporting. And the includes 66 to 29 percent Republicans believe that we ought to have legal status.
So, David, I think, makes a reasonable point. And that is, Donald Trump must believe this, because it’s not a rational political position, if he’s interested in being elected.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: So…
HARI SREENIVASAN: Go ahead, David.
DAVID BROOKS: I would just add that, if you look at the substance of what’s being said both by Clinton and Trump, you can very easily predict where we are going to end up on immigration.
We are going to secure the border. We’re not going to build a wall, but we will secure the border. We will legalize in some form or another the people who are here. And we will shift a little more to a skills-based system than a family reunification system.
That’s the basis of what is going to happen. And within all the violence and all the Sturm und Drang of a campaign, substantively, the parties are sort of heading in that direction.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Mark, how different is the position that he’s taken now, or at least in the last week, vs. what Mitt Romney said or vs. what really the policy is today?
MARK SHIELDS: Mitt Romney’s, of course, was self-deportation. And Trump obviously includes that as one of his planks.
The difference is not simply in tone and emphasis. I mean, this has been the centerpiece. Mitt Romney — it became an issue in 2012, but it wasn’t the defining issue of the campaign.
This was the defining issue for Donald Trump, by his own volition, when he came in. He made this an issue, not that immigration had not been a controversial issue in the country, but he made it the centerpiece of his candidacy.
And he has consistently spoken in disparaging, pejorative, ugly terms about undocumented — there’s no undocumented immigrants who graduated as valedictorians of their school or joined the United States military and served the country well. He treats them all as though they’re criminal suspects.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Brooks, I heard your doubt on the building of the wall and who is going to pay for it. Really, that has become one of those, not just slogans, but he repeats it at every speech, every opportunity he gets, not so much in front of the Mexican president, but certainly when he came back.
And you’re saying, no, we won’t actually build that wall?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, this isn’t exactly dog whistle politics. It’s just whistle politics.
If you look at the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, when they ask people, what are your top issues you care about in this country, well, economy comes up very high. National security comes up very high. Even the deficit has come up reasonably high.
Only 6 percent list immigration as one of their top three issues. It’s not a major issue. And the reason it’s worked for Trump is because he’s playing identity politics. He’s playing us vs. them politics, basically native whites against foreigners.
And so the wall is not really a wall. I think most people know he’s not going to actually going to build a wall, and certainly Mexico is not going to pay for it. It’s a way to say, I’m for us, against the encroachments of them.
And in times of economic stress, or among people who feel economic stress, there’s unfortunately a susceptibility of that kind of identity politics.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Mark, let’s talk a little bit about the ground game that the two candidates have. We had a report on it from Lisa Desjardins and Dan Bush earlier this week.
MARK SHIELDS: Right.
HARI SREENIVASAN: A pretty significant disparity in what Hillary Clinton already has established, certainly in key battleground states. The Trump campaign said that they’re going to — I think they have plans to open 98 more. But do these offices in these states matter?
MARK SHIELDS: They do matter in this sense. If it’s a close race, the idea of being able to contact and turn out your supporters, that is, to identify them and in many cases to persuade them, to find out what it is that they are interested and doubts about or questions they do have.
I would just point out, in 2008, Barack Obama had a rather spectacular ground operation in the field campaign. And in four different states, in Iowa, in North Carolina, in Florida, and Nevada, he won the election on early voting, that is, the people who voted before Election Day.
John McCain actually got more votes on Election Day, the 12 hours, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in which people voted. But he had built up such a number, had Barack Obama, that it was enough of a cushion that he could carry those states and win the presidency.
So, yes, it is important, and it’s especially important in a close race. And in the state of Florida, Adam Smith of The Tampa Bay Times today reported, and a very respected political writer, that, in the state of Florida, Donald Trump has one field office.
Mitt Romney had 48 in 2012. Hillary Clinton has 50 as of today, and Donald Trump has only one. So, this is one area where his campaign is not really competitive.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Brooks, the Trump campaign would probably say, well, we’re doing pretty well, considering we only have one.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s true in the polls.
And I do think, if you look at the ground game, I think it’s the effect, the marginal effect on the race is probably 2 percent, 3 percentage points, which is significant, given there will be 50 states, and a certain number of them in most elections are going to be close. I think TV ads are about the same.
So, we’re shifting sort of on the margin here, at least in a normal race. This race has been far from normal. And I think, basically — I will quote Peter Hart, too — he wrote a memo today, which I think was making the very effective point, is, the majority of people have decided they don’t want to vote for Donald Trump. They just have to know they can live with Hillary Clinton for four years.
And so, if she can prove that she’s livable with, then she’s probably going to probably rack up a big victory. But she hasn’t done that. Her popularity ratings are sinking right now. And I’m not sure they’re sinking because she’s campaigning too little or too ineffectively or because she’s campaigning too much. I sort of suspect the latter, and that she would do better if she was even quieter than she is now.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about that quietness since the bump that she got after the conventions and some of the criticism that Donald Trump got after going after the Khan family, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Right.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But she’s largely in August been taking the time to raise money. And she has sort of stayed out of the spotlight.
MARK SHIELDS: And raise money, she did, what, $140 million for her campaign and the Democratic Party.
And two events struck me. I mean, she basically has been in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, the Hamptons, the tony suburbs of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. One event was a $250,000-per-person entry price. I mean, those are boxcar numbers. Another was $200,000 for an individual to get in.
And I think that the question of what she does as a candidate, I mean, I think she’s effective in small groups. I think she’s effective when she shows empathy and a personal side. But she doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt on the question of trustworthiness and transparency. And they have been anything but transparent on this question of emails.
And emails — I think the one great moment she had unscripted in this campaign were the Benghazi hearings, when, for 11 hours, she stood there and sat there and took and answered and took on and basically vanquished her Republican interrogators on the House side.
But, since then, there is sort of a closing down and a lockdown, it seems to me, and a lack of transparency. So, there is — I think this raises further questions about her trustworthiness.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Brooks, even today, we had more information from the FBI about notes about the interview that they had, the long interview, and sort of a summary of their findings.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, as far as we know what came out today, nothing really transforms our version of the story.
There is carelessness, but it’s mostly reiterating the pattern of closedness, which has been going back 20 years, the pattern of insularity, the pattern of secrecy. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s almost psychological at this point. I don’t know if it has to do with her marriage, her upbringing, whatever it is. She’s just not an open and transparent person.
But one of the things she has been doing in the last few weeks is preparing for the debate. And I do think she understands that the Olympics sort of changed the culture. The country was super, super into the election. And then the Olympics came along, and something uplifting came along, and people were saying, hey, I can watch something on TV that I enjoy watching.
And I do think interest in the campaign has waned a little since then. And it may not lock in, especially for low-information undecided voters, until that debate. And so, if she’s spending a lot of time trying to make herself an attractive and presentable personality in that debate, that may not be the stupidest thing she could do with this period.
MARK SHIELDS: I would agree.
I think she has an advantage going in the debate, in that she has debated, and she’s a good debater, and she’s debated under high-pressure one-on-one situations. Donald Trump has never been in a one-on-one debate, where, for 90 minutes, you’re one of the two people on the firing line.
The second thing is, to disadvantage for Hillary Clinton, is because she is such a good debater, because she is so knowledgeable and thoroughly prepared on all matters policy, she’s going to go into this as the overwhelming favorite.
And that’s what happened to Al Gore in 2000. He took George W. Bush lightly. It’s what happened to Barack Obama in the first debate in 2012. He took Mitt Romney too lightly. And I think she and her campaign are guarding against this possibility.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mark Shields, David Brooks, thanks so much.