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Shields and Gerson on Georgia election pressure, Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News fall

April 21, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including Democrats falling just short in a surprisingly competitive special election in Georgia, why some Republican lawmakers are starting to criticize the president, foreign policy inaccuracies in the Trump administration and Bill O’Reilly’s downfall from Fox News.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.

Welcome to you, gentlemen.

There was a special congressional election this week, Mark Shields, in Georgia, the Sixth District.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Really?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: My question is, the Democrats fell just short. Lessons learned, wider implications, what did you see?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I saw all of them.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrat, a 30-year-old rookie with experience in public life of being a congressional aide on Capitol Hill, managed to raise over $8 million from activists around the country who are committed and his own support, and managed to get, Judy, more votes than the first five Republicans in a district that Mitt Romney won by 20 points that has been electing nothing but Republicans to Congress, including Dr. Tom Price, the secretary of HHS, by — and Newt Gingrich by substantial margins.

But he didn’t get the magic 50 percent, which in the jungle primary of Georgia, where everybody’s in it, is the magic number. But I would say it was impressive. After Kansas, what it means…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where they had another special election.

MARK SHIELDS: Had a special election, where the Democrat didn’t win, but, again, in a district that Donald Trump had won by 23 points, he won — he lost only by seven.

MICHAEL GERSON, The Washington Post: Even more impressive, actually.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that’s right.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats, they have cut the margin. And, right now, I would say the wind is at the Democrats’ back.

What does that mean? What is the significance? The significance is this. If the Democrats do win, surprising. It would be quite surprising if they could win in Montana, quite frankly, because it’s an 11-point Republican advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s another election coming up soon.

MARK SHIELDS: For Ryan Zinke’s seat.

If it does, Judy, it means they’re going to get better candidates. That’s what happens when you win special elections. You start to get — recruit better candidates for the next general election, more attractive, more appealing, more competent candidates. And the other side starts to see retirements.

Candidates in tough races decide to spend more time with their family, rather than doing a contested…

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see in these tea leaves?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it’s not unusual for this to happen.

Most presidents in their first midterms don’t do very well. But this is happening early. This is happening 90 days into a new presidency. I mean, this is supposed to be a high point of presidential influence. And what we’re seeing in both these data points is a very serious problem for Republicans.

They’re hurting in places they shouldn’t be hurting. And I think that has great significance. You know, who knows how it trends in the future, but, right now, I think Republicans are seeing alarm bells ringing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And knowing that, if the Democrats can mount strong candidates in these districts, they’re in trouble. Now, that’s — can they do that in 2018, or not?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the prospect of winning has encouraged people to run.

I would just point out, in defense of the Sixth District, that, while Mitt Romney carried college-educated whites by 14 percent over Barack Obama in 2012, Donald Trump only carried them by four points over Hillary Clinton. And this is a district where college-educated voters are remarkably — the percentage of them is remarkably high, one of the 10 highest in the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, you mentioned Republicans may be feeling a little nervous, the White House feeling a little nervous.

Some Republicans feeling comfortable enough to start criticizing this president. You had two Republican senators in this past week. Joni Ernst — these are sort of gentle criticisms — the senator from Iowa, came out and said the president needs to spend less time at his Mar-a-Lago resort on the weekends, more time at the White House.

And you had Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and a few other Republicans saying the president needs to release his tax returns.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this just the kind of typical intraparty split, or what?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I think it means something.

Every Republican candidate has to make a Trump calibration to determine what percentage they support the president and what they don’t, depending on their districts.

Right now, there is a huge difference between a president at 60 percent and a president in the low 40s. People feel like they don’t need to explain things for him that are difficult to explain.

You watch some members, like Tom Cotton, a senator who I really like, a sharp guy, trying to defend why the president won’t release his tax returns, and looks foolish in the process.

MARK SHIELDS: Right.

MICHAEL GERSON: So, some of the cost, the intimidation factor has been reduced because of the president’s standing. And some people are just not going to put up with explaining the unexplainable.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with Michael.

Senator Lankford of Oklahoma, this is the reddest of red states, Oklahoma. And he’s a true-blue conservative, no pun intended, he, Senator James Lankford. And he was asked about the tax returns. And his answer was, he promised he would, and, therefore, he should. I mean, it was that straightforward.

That — it’s unassailable logic that’s absolutely true. And he had — he promised a number of times that he would do so. Then he said the promise was — he, the president, said the promise was negated because he won the election.

The president today, in an Associated Press interview, said he was going to have a big, huge, wonderful tax cut bill next week. And anybody on either side of the aisle will have a tough time answering the question, if this is the proposal, what will it mean for — what will President Trump’s tax cut mean for billionaire citizen Trump’s personal taxes?

And I think that is …

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a question.

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL GERSON: He’s materially undermining his ability to get that legislation through the Congress because of his refusal to receive this material.

They are not going to pass, including many Republicans, a law without knowing how it benefits the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as far as we know, there is no intention, is that right, on the part of the White House to — or the president to release it.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, it’s a — I used to be a political hack. Maybe I still am.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: But it’s a pretty safe — you have all the Cabinet officers had to provide their income information for confirmation. Wilbur Ross is a billionaire. All you have to do is run the numbers. What would the proposed tax cut mean for Wilbur Ross? What would it mean for Steve Mnuchin, the secretary of the treasury?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: What would it mean for any of the …

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don’t have that information on the president.

MARK SHIELDS: For him. But it is going to put — it will increase pressure on him. It will make — it will put Republicans very much on the defensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other things.

One is, Michael, some wrinkles this week when it comes to foreign policy, defense policy, the story about the carrier group that the president said was on its way to North Korea. It turned out it was heading in the other direction. The Pentagon came back and said, well, there was a miscommunication.

And the other is, frankly, different signals coming from the Cabinet officers, from — even from the secretary of state, on Turkey and from the White House. Are these just sort of incidental things that happen, or what? How do we read all of this?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, some of it is real incompetence in the aircraft carrier circumstance, but that might not have been the White House. But it was genuine incompetence.

I look at something like the president saying that Korea was once part of China.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: That is not just mispronouncing a name. That is offending a country that is our ally in the midst of a crisis. This is serious.

But there are also some tensions. There is tension here between the president’s word, ethno-nationalist, retreat from the world, and his personnel, people that he’s chosen, like McMaster and like Mattis. These are internationalists. They’re not consistent with his public voice.

So, you have those divisions within the administration. He has picked a variety of people that don’t seem to share his foreign policy vision. And that creates questions on — natural questions on the part of both friends and enemies: Who speaks for the administration, under what circumstance?

MARK SHIELDS: Thanks to the public partnership, private-public partnership, they keep track of a very interesting number.

And that is the number of Senate-confirmable important positions there are in every administration. There is 554 that the Senate has to confirm that every president appoints. As of this moment, 473 have not been appointed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow.

MARK SHIELDS: I think — so, I think, Judy, what you have in part is just they’re thin, their — the level of competence, the level of trust. There is that lack of cohesiveness.

But — and Donald Trump has kind of boasted that he’s keeping people off balance. Every president, when he gets in trouble domestically or gets stalled domestically or just fails in his domestic agenda, loves to go on foreign policy, where he has a far freer rein.

And he’s not the first one to do this. But to sustain and forge and maintain a coalition, it’s based on trust. It’s based not on unpredictability or mercurial behavior. It’s based on a sense of dependability.

And we talk about the USS Carl Vinson steaming toward the Indian Ocean, when they — the Koreans were told, our allies, and the Japanese were told it was headed toward the Korean Peninsula.

And, Judy, that sends tremors, quite frankly, through our allies. And so they have more serious problems than just having egg on their face.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they have been mocking the U.S. in China, and certainly in North Korea.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The last thing I want to ask both of you about comes out of news from FOX News Channel, Michael, that Bill O’Reilly, who was their, I guess, highest-rated news star, has left, been forced out after these allegations by a number of women about sexual harassment, and, I guess, secret, until now, payouts, payments to these women, $25 million severance, we’re told.

What does this mean in the world of media? Certainly, in the world of conservative media, it’s a big teal.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it’s an epic change in conservative media.

This has been the most important Republican influence, I think, bar none, over the last 15 years. FOX News has played that role for many activist Republicans. And now the brains of the operation, Ailes, and the face of the operation, O’Reilly, are gone. That’s a massive change.

It’s also an indication just — maybe one way to put it is, sometimes, conservatives need liberals. And liberals have been talking about workplace equality for a long time. And they were absolutely right.

This is a case where FOX tolerated the intolerable, and did so time after time. That’s a systemic problem. And I think they need to face that very directly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just over 30, 40 seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

Judy, I think it’s always been about power more than about sex, sexual harassment. It’s men in position of power who have had women who have been vulnerable, who have needed promotions, who have needed jobs, who have needed just sustenance.

And it’s all — and I think what we see in this, quite frankly, societally, is a revolt and a revolution. And what we saw, cable TV is about two things. It’s about eyeballs, the number of people who watch it, and it’s about dollar signs.

His eyeballs, the number of people who watched Bill O’Reilly, was still up there, but the dollar signs were hurting. Corporate sponsors were withdrawing. And it was because women, and men, too, but women led it, and they led a boycott and they led a threat.

And that, I think, can change our society for the better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.

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