Shields and Brooks on GOP home-district hostility, Trump policy reversals

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to politics, starting with the backlash some GOP lawmakers are facing in their home districts this week.

WOMAN: Answer it!

MAN: Answer it!

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's the second major congressional recess of the year, and Republicans are again facing tense encounters with their constituents.

Take last night's raucous town hall in Mesa, Arizona.

AUDIENCE: Shame on you! Shame on you!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Senator Jeff Flake was booed lustily during an exchange on health care.

WOMAN: Mr. Flake, why is it that, in Germany, we have had a universal health care system since …

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

WOMAN: Wait a minute.

Since 1871?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: Well, thank you for that. I just — I don't happen to agree. I think the free market system …

(BOOING)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in South Carolina on Monday.

REP. JOE WILSON, R-S.C.: Obamacare is denying services, delaying services.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Joe Wilson heard it from voters who parroted the charge he once hurled at President Obama.

AUDIENCE: You lie! You lie! You lie!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wednesday night, Colorado constituents demanded that Representative Mike Coffman break with President Trump.

WOMAN: I would like to know when you are going to stop voting with the president who has a 35 percent approval rating, and start fighting for Coloradans?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REP. MIKE COFFMAN, R-Colo.: When I disagree with the president, I will speak out with the president. But I'm not going to do it every other day. It's when it's something significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Attendees at that event had to show an I.D., and limit signs to notebook size.

Other Republicans have opted against holding mass voter events at all. Instead, some are conducting tele-town halls over the phone and social media.

A big question is, will the anger translate beyond town halls? This week in Kansas, in a rock-solid Republican district, the GOP only narrowly won a special election for the House seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, who's now director of the CIA. There's another closely watched special House election next Tuesday in Georgia to replace Tom Price, the new secretary of health and human services.

And with that, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Welcome, gentlemen.

So, David, what do you make of all this hostility at some of the town halls?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Yes, I think there are two issues here.

One is the hostility of the town hall. I'm not sure what to make of that. I think it means that progressives are as enraged as the Tea Party people were of several years ago.

The larger issue is the shift in the polls in that Kansas race and some of the other races and the shift that we see in the polls generally. And that's less — that's not only the fact progressives are more energized, but it's also the drifting away of Republicans from the Trump administration.

And it's not happening on a state level, so this is Trump-related. And so, if I were a House member with — maybe if I had won my last seat, and I am Republican, by 10 or 15 points, I think I would be more nervous than ever before in my career.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you attribute all this to?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, first of all, Judy, the Joe Wilson segment was particularly appropriate, South Carolina.

It was September 2009 where Joe Wilson, I think, changed American politics. He was a member of the House of Representatives then, as he is now. President Barack Obama was addressing the Congress on Medicare, joint session, and the president said illegal undocumented immigrants wouldn't be covered under the health care plan.

And Joe Wilson broke all customs, traditions and stood up and said, "You lie, you lie," and he was reprimanded officially by the House of Representatives. He had to apologize. He apologized personally. He raised $1.5 million the next week.

And that's when it — learned that there wasn't a consequence to such behavior. And it sort of, I think, really raised to a different level the polarization and the personalization of our politics, that anything goes as long as you raise money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was kind of a turning point.

MARK SHIELDS: I really feel that way.

So, I agree with David. I think there is energy, there's no question, and passion, just as there was then against President Obama in 2009, 2010. There isn't any trace of any racial component to the opposition to President Trump, but there is passion.

And I think that's what you see. What I would be worried about, Democrats should be, that this looks orchestrated, that it looks planned, that the Democratic National Committee sent out a message saying, get in Jeff Flake's grill, so that it's not just a question of spontaneity, of people expressing their own opposition or criticism about policies, but, instead, sort of organizing.

If it starts to ring of an organized effort, I think it hurts. As far as the special House elections, they're always aberrational, but if the Democrats are going to win the House in 2018, they have to win districts like the one in Georgia, which…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The one that is up next Tuesday.

MARK SHIELDS: … Mitt Romney won by 20 points and Donald Trump only won by two.

It's twice as college-educated a population, electorate as the reset of the state. And this is the kind of place they have to break through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What determines, David, whether Democrats stay energized or not?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we have learned that hatred is the organizing — the great organizing principle in politics.

And, of course, they have done so poorly in the midterms because their output, their turnout tends to be low in those races. You know, to me, it's very hazardous to linearly project out. We have seen in the last week the Trump administration shift in a radical way.

And so something really bad could happen, something really good could happen, but the odds that the future a year from now will look like the present, those strike me as infinitesimally low.

We're in a position there is just wide variance on what could happen. And so I'm not sure it makes much sense to think, what is 2018 going to look like, because there are probably — as many days as there are between now and then, that's how many changes of directions we're probably going to see.

MARK SHIELDS: One quick measure of prospects is the ability to translate that enthusiasm into contributions.

And the Democratic candidate in Georgia, Jon Ossoff, who is really untried, untested, I mean, a young man, 30 years old, with a very thin resume, has raised over $8.5 million.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of it from out of state.

MARK SHIELDS: Most of it overwhelmingly from out of state.

When the Democrats did last capture the House from the Republicans in 2006, one of the reasons they did is that the Democrats, under Rahm Emanuel's leadership, now the mayor of Chicago, devoted incredible effort to recruiting candidates who fit with the districts in which they ran.

That's when they ran Blue Dog Democrats, conservative to moderate Democrats in conservative to moderate areas. Since then, they have kind of turned over the nominating process to national liberal groups and whomever they support.

And I think that's been a mistake and I think they have paid for it at the polls.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could make one quick comment about the town halls, I probably wouldn't go to them.

Like, I love political discussion. But having people shout at each other, even if you agree, it's just — I think it's bad in general. Whether you agree with them or not, it's just not a conversation. It's just umbrage and it's a little bit theatrical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they used to be very quiet, didn't they? This is a big change.

But, David, you mentioned a minute ago something that I do want to ask you both about. And that is what appears to be a change in position by the president on a number of things, around trade, around NAFTA, that he's going to declare China a currency manipulator on day one, that he's going to get health care passed.

And that's a different issue, that you have to have Congress go along.

DAVID BROOKS: Janet Yellen at the …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Janet Yellen, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's going on here? Are these genuine changes of opinion? What — how do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: Certainly struck by it.

There are a lot of data points all of a sudden. And most people, if they — especially if you're an academic or an writer, if you spend many months arguing that China's a manipulator, a currency manipulator, you don't just then turn on a dime.

But Donald Trump is different. He's a marketing guy. He's a business guy, whatever is working for him at the moment. And it seems, from this many data points, he's making the conclusion that the populism and the Bannon-ism is not working, and he's going to go to something else.

Now, what exactly that else thing is, we don't really know. It could be sort of a corporatism. It could be, let me trust my business guys, let's go to the CEOs, and let's — those guys, I can trust.

There seems to be some instinctual sense that he's shifting teams of who he wants to be his key advisers. And with Trump, because he knows so little, it's not him personal initiating policy. The crucial question is, who is he listening to?

And there's a clear shift, at least in one week, that there has been a radical shift in his advisee team.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it is a remarkable number of issues that the president appears, Mark, to be taking the opposite stand from what he said during the campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: No, you're right, Judy.

Even during the campaign, when he said things that were inconsistent or occasionally contradictory, the defense, the rebuttal of this on the part of his supporters was, hey, he may not always be — but he says what he means, and he means what he says, and the guy just doesn't say it all of the time with polish, but he says it with conviction.

Well, his convictions turned out to have the shelf life of a used kleenex. They just disappear. So, you know, now he's moved toward orthodoxy, sort of a Republican orthodoxy, business — pro-business orthodoxy, international responsibility, America is the — if not the policeman of the world, then certainly a projector of force and influence in maintaining security around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, just in the last week, the bomb that was dropped in Afghanistan, the strike in Syria, right.

MARK SHIELDS: The bomb in Afghanistan.

But in both Afghanistan and Syria, there wasn't any consequence of — real likely consequence of any national retaliation to the United States. They were enormous acts. I mean, they got the world's attention.

North Korea is different. And tough talk in North Korea is not going to stop Kim Jong-un from — I don't think, from a nuclear test. And I think the consequences in North Korea and our dealing with North Korea really are enormously consequential and very, very serious, and should be of concern to everybody involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, the president, it seems to me, has been pretty loose with the tweets. He's been saying, if China doesn't help us get North Korea in line, we will go it alone, we will do it ourselves.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

One is always unnerved. The North Korea situation is unnerving. But I have to say, I think the president has had a good week on the subject. The shift in China, the harsher tone from China toward North Korea, the, in effect, drawing a red line against North Korea and also against us, that's a win.

That's a very significant development, that China is clearly upset, clearly concerned about what's going on, and they're willing to step into North Korea and say, don't cross that line. And so that is a significant shift.

And one has to give some credit to Donald Trump. And two things have happened. One is the Syria thing happened, and the sense that the U.S. is sort of active again in the world, which it hasn't been for many years.

And, second — and I made this point last week, and Mark didn't respond favorably to it — which is, there is some advantages and disadvantages to having an unpredictable guy as president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: Disadvantages if you're an ally, but some advantages toward the enemy, because they don't know what's happening.

And I do think the more assertive U.S. has had some role in this and progress on the North Korea thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A week later, where are you?

MARK SHIELDS: A week later, I accept David's apology.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No.

I mean, Judy, I mean, unpredictability is not the defining — shouldn't be the defining characteristic of a presidency. I mean, the ability to take new information and to change direction, you know, yes, and change policy, is there any indication that there is any thought been given to this policy?

I mean, the great consolation that people in Washington take, whether they should or they shouldn't, is James Mattis, General McMaster, you know, that these are people of seriousness, Rex Tillerson, people of stability and consequence. They don't have anything comparable at the home — on the domestic side.

And, you know, that's it. I just don't think you can have somebody do it on whim and by tweet. And I really — David's far more sanguine about North Korea and China right now than I am.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I'm not saying sanguine. I'm saying progress.

But I do think this emphasizes a point, is that we could be moving toward an administration where Trump is less dominant and less influenced by Bannon, who I think was a very bad influence, and you get a team of advisers who are building a structure around him, and the McMasters and Gary Cohns and maybe the Jared Kushners.

And so we could be going into something that looks a little more like Cabinet government than we have seen in a while, where Gary Cohn does what he wants on economic policy, Jeff Sessions continues to do what he wants in a more populist on immigration policy, and we're looking to the second tier to actually making more decisions, and maybe the top guy is just out doing his tweets.

MARK SHIELDS: Gary Cohn better be careful. He better not be on a "Saturday Night Live" skit featured as the dominant figure in the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Referring back to Steve Bannon.

MARK SHIELDS: He better not be on the cover of TIME magazine.

That, in itself, I think — I mean, Donald Trump, whatever else he is, we know, is sensitive to, aware and keenly interested in publicity and who gets attention. And I have to think that Steve Bannon's star wasn't elevated or helped by the kind of attention he got in the press.

JUDY WOODRUFF: "Saturday Night Live" is — an unforgettable image of him as the — death, not just the Grim Reaper, but death.

MARK SHIELDS: Right. That's right, and the dominant figure with his puppet.

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

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