Brooks and Marcus on Democrats' clash over qualifications, GOP nominee questions

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the week's political news: the renewed war of words between the two Democratic candidates for president, a former president's skirmish with protesters, and how Wisconsin has altered the race for the Republican nomination.

We get analysis now from Brooks and Marcus. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks, joining us from New York, and here on set, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away this week.

And we welcome both of you.

So, let's talk about this war of words that's been going on the last few days between the two Democrats.

David, it's gotten — the language has gotten tougher. It's gotten more personal. What do you make of this?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: They're like 1/100th of the Republican level so far.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I think that I'm most amazed that Bernie Sanders wasn't here months ago, frankly.

You know, he made a decision early on, I think the wrong decision, to take the e-mail issue off the table and take a bunch of issues off the table and not go after Hillary Clinton. And so he really wasn't as tough on her as he could be.

Now he's going after her, to me, on the least promising possible grounds, that she's unqualified. Whatever else Hillary Clinton may be, unqualified, at least by any conventional measure, is not one of them. And so I'm a little mystified.

I do not think it will hurt the Democratic Party. I think, if you look at the polling numbers, people — most — the vast majority people on both — who support either candidate would be happy with the other. And so I think you will still get a reasonably united Democratic Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth, what do you make of this, and why do you think it's happening now?

RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: So, it's happening now because this is the stage in every protracted primary campaign where candidates are tired, nerves are frayed. Everybody kind of wants it to be over and wants the other guy to go away, or woman to go away, and to win finally.

And so these — this is the moment when these things tend to happen. And they always tend — David is right that this is really rather tame compared to what happened on the Republican side.

I mean, on the Republican side this week, you had Donald Trump accusing his main rival of having committed a federal felony by coordinating with his super PAC. So, this is pretty mild.

These things also always look worse at the time than they do in retrospect. If you look back at some of the words that occurred between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, there was a lot of angst at the time about how Hillary Clinton's supporters would never, ever be willing to vote for Barack Obama after what had happened to her.

Back in June of 2008, only 60 percent of them said they would vote for Obama. Well, guess what? They did. He's president. So, this is going to — we had ramp-up Thursday yesterday. Today was kind of tamp-it-down Friday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Calm-down Friday.

But, David, you don't see this having an effect in the fall, that this could come back to bite whoever the Democratic nominee is? We assume it's Hillary Clinton, but we don't know for sure.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Yes, no, I really don't think — I think, first of all, as Ruth said, wounds get healed, especially around convention time. Everybody has a party. They feel good against each other — with each other.

And then, you know, Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or somebody like that is sitting out there, a very good unifying device for Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth, what about this exchange between Bill Clinton yesterday and these Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia? They brought up the crime bill, criticizing him, criticizing Secretary Clinton, his wife, for being his wife, for supporting him at the time.

Now she's saying this is something she would change. But is this something that has traction, do you think?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, there's a few different risks embedded in there.

One is the sort of continuing role of Bill Clinton, who is simultaneously her most powerful surrogate in chief and also Hillary Clinton's most dangerous surrogate in chief. So, when he tends to have that finger-jabbing red-in-the-face moment, it can be a dangerous moment for Hillary Clinton.

In terms of Black Lives Matter, again, it sort of depends on the context. Compared to what? The Black Lives Matter protesters have an issue with Bill Clinton and to some extent Hillary Clinton and criminal justice reform and the 1994 crime bill. But guess what? They have the same issue with Bernie Sanders. And guess what? They're going to have a bigger issue even in this general election with a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump.

So, it's an irritant, but it's an irritant — and I don't mean to dismiss it, but it's an issue that Hillary Clinton has tried on the campaign trail to defuse by saying she's sorry for mentioning super predator and she is sorry, and she regrets a piece of the 1994 crime bill went too far.

So, to me, this is another one of those things that looks like a bigger deal this week than it's going to look in a few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think there are a couple true facts, most of which were uttered by Bill Clinton.

The one that wasn't was that the crime bill, the Clinton crime bill, didn't have a huge measurable effect on crime or incarceration rates particularly. It was — some pieces of legislation don't have much effect. And that was one of them.

The second thing to be said is that there are such a thing super predators. And Clinton sort of made that point, that some people are really doing harm to their neighborhoods. And the third thing to be said is, we have too much incarceration in this country.

And so any honest appreciation of this issue contains two opposite facts. One is that there is a crime problem, and that has to be cracked down on, and second that there is racism within the enforcement community, and that there is overincarceration.

And I think Clinton — the Clintons sort of stand for those two ends of the spectrum here. And that's probably what most voters recognize, that we have to be tough on crime, and, as Tony Blair said, tough on racism or tough on the causes of crime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to wrap up the Democrats, Ruth, looking like what in New York, which is coming up in another week-and-a-half, the New York primary?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, Bernie Sanders is a natural-born New Yorker, to use a constitutional phrase. Hillary Clinton is an adopted New Yorker.

But she is in a much stronger position. This is a state that she's won, as she likes to point out, three times, in two Senate races and in a presidential primary previously. And so she is in a quite good position with New York. He's in a less good position.

I have to say, as for New York, I can't let the week go without mentioning that what a great week in American politics, when Ted Cruz is going to the matzah factory, to the matzah factory, and Bernie Sanders is going to go to the Vatican next week. So, how great is American politics?

JUDY WOODRUFF: He just revealed that, revealed that today.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we're going to get to the Republicans in a minute.

But, David, anything to add on the Democrats in New York? What do you see with the two New Yorkers confronting each other, one adopted and one home-born?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, if Hillary lost here, it would be — that would be bad.

I think that, if she lost here, if she lost in California, that would be bad. Otherwise, she's still basically got the math on her side and she's rolling along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, let's turn to the Republicans.

Donald Trump took quite a drubbing in Wisconsin this week. Ted Cruz picked up almost all the delegates, I guess, in Wisconsin, and he just keeps picking up a delegate here and a delegate there. How much less inevitable is Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, or is he?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, in the corridors of cognoscenti, if any of us are to be believed, there's been like a 180 in the conventional wisdom.

A couple weeks ago, it was, Trump is inevitable. He's rolling through everything. Now it's, Cruz is inevitable. There's just a lot of chattering that suddenly it's going to be Ted Cruz. And the basic argument is that Trump will not get a first-ballot majority at the convention. And the sorts of people who are delegates to a Republican Convention are the sorts of people who like Ted Cruz, and that given the chance on a second or third ballot, they would love to dump Trump and go to Cruz.

Magnifying the fact is events like has been happening or is about to happen tomorrow in Colorado, where the actual delegate selection process is something the Trump campaign is fumbling horrifically, and the Cruz campaign is pretty good at.

And so as we focus on the delegates, and less the raw vote totals, Ted Cruz is looking pretty. So, I don't know — I think it's a little overstated, because I think Cruz is about to suffer some really bad defeats. I think he is going to look a lot worse off after the Trump-Cruz civil war goes on for another couple months, but, right now, the glow of inevitability has suddenly shifted over to Ted Cruz.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see the glow the same way David is describing it?

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: I think to use the word inevitable about the Republican race in 2016 is going to be all kind of constantly wrong.

But it's just undeniable that Donald Trump had a very bad night in Wisconsin and a very bad couple weeks leading up to that. And those both affect this aura of — this shift in the aura of inevitability, because what we have seen with Donald Trump is underperforming, underperforming on an electoral level, right?

He won New Hampshire with 35 percent of the vote, but he lost Wisconsin with 35 percent of the vote. He is not — as the field has winnowed, he is not increasing his vote total. Probably more significant is something that David alluded to, is that he is not doing well in this tension between being possible President Trump and being real Donald Trump.

He's not doing well alleviating the tension between professionalizing his campaign, which he's trying to do with bringing in Paul Manafort to do his delegate selection and convention, and ad-libbing his campaign, which is what he is wont to do. And ad-libbing his way through editorial board interviews and different discussions of abortion has not served him well over the last few weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he's been off the trail.

We haven't really seen Donald Trump for day or so, other than that tweet today about tending to his business, David. But is there room for Donald Trump to come back and be this term we keep hearing him say, his wife wants him to be more presidential, and to get his act together when it comes to building up his delegate lead?

DAVID BROOKS: You know what? I think a lot of wives have imagined wishes for their husband's change in behavior, but they rarely come about, certainly not in the case of Donald Trump.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I do not think he's going to be more presidential. He is an aggressor. He's an attacker.

He's been doing that since 1990, or since anybody ever heard of Donald Trump. And so he is the same thing. He's just not that substantive. I think some of the organizational problems with the campaign could be fixed. If you look at what's happening in Colorado, you know, people show up at the congressional districts' delegate committee hearings, and the Trump campaign hands them who to vote for.

But the people on the list that they're handed who to vote for don't match the people actually on the ballot. That's just a basic organizational incompetence.

I do think, however, he's going to have a bunch of rebound and he's going to look a lot better as we head to the Northeast. Ted Cruz is just not a Northeast/Mid-Atlantic candidate. And so the vibe around Trump, as he starts racking up some big wins, will probably change.

Right now, he's probably at a little nadir, but it is significant that a big nadir could come in Cleveland. It could all come down to that first or second ballot, or the negotiations up to that first or second ballot. And there is a much higher likelihood than there was a couple weeks ago that he won't get there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, Trump's people are saying that's not the case. His delegate man came out today and said, we're going to have it.

RUTH MARCUS: Right. They have got it locked. It's inevitable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they are also hanging this phrase that Ted Cruz used back in a debate in January critical of New York values around his neck, making it a little bit harder for Mr. Cruz.

RUTH MARCUS: What a surprise that they would dredge up that phrase.

It was — New York was going to be hard, as David mentioned, for Ted Cruz. It's not his natural territory. The Northeast is not his natural territory. Even if he hadn't derided New York values, that was going to be difficult for him.

And so that leads to the situation we're going to see Trump in going forward, which is, things are going to look better. He's going to rack up these wins. But, at the same time, there is this subterranean war for delegates going on that he needs to really improve his performance on to not have more of this kind of Colorado debacle that we're seeing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we're watching it, both terraneanly and subterraneanly.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth Marcus and David Brooks, have a great weekend. Thank you both.