Brooks and Capehart on infrastructure, reconciliation priorities, Virginia Gov. election

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including how President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is playing out on Capitol Hill, and what’s at stake in the race for governor in Virginia.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post.

    As always, it is so good to see both of you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Great to see you, too, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you for being here.

    But what we are going to talk about first is the mess. We were just describing it, Jonathan, on Capitol Hill. They have gone day after day. They can't come to an agreement. The Democrats can't come to an agreement on the president's priorities.

    He himself, was there today. Why is this so hard to get done?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I think it's so hard to get done, Judy, because Democrats understand that, even though the presidential term is four years, the way the presidency is these days, it's really just one year.

    Nothing is going to get done in Washington, on Capitol Hill come 2022 because of the 2022 midterms, and the fact that the House majority, Democratic House majority, hangs in the balance in 2022. Maybe even also the Senate majority hangs in the balance.

    And so what's happening is, Democrats are trying to cram in every policy priority that they have into that reconciliation bill. And right now, no one seems to want to give up their pet project. But we're getting down to the wire here, where folks are going to have to decide, what's your number one priority? You can't have everything. What's your number one priority? And how can we get to yes?

    And you call it a mess, and it is a mess. But I think we're so unused to legislating that this is what's happening. Usually, it's between Democrats and Republicans. It's kind of hilarious that it's Democrats negotiating with Democrats. But that's what's happening here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hilarious.

    But, David, for the speaker, and for the president and others, it's — they want to get this done and it's not happening.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, that — yesterday was definitely a setback for Nancy Pelosi. How many times in her years as leader have we seen her not in control of her caucus? That's rarely happened. And she was not in control and didn't get — have the votes she thought she had yesterday.

    But I have a feeling they're coagulating their way toward a solution and it may take weeks, but I think they will get there. And the difference between $1.5 trillion in 3.5 is a big difference. And that's why it's so hard.

    And I think one thing that may clarify is that they go, what is this for? As Jonathan said, right now, this is for everything. This is the whole Democratic agenda thrown into one thing. But they're not going to get everything. They're going to come down, as Lisa said, and I have been hearing to $2 trillion, $2.5 trillion.

    So, how do we do that? And I would say, what is this for? To me, this is for, over the last 50 years, folks without a college education in some of the poorer parts of the country have been left behind. And there are a lot of things in this measure that would redistribute money from folks with a college degree who are doing well toward folks without a college degree who needs some help, both in the child subsidies, the jobs.

    And that would be a major accomplishment, if we could rewrite some of the bad distribution that's been happening over the last 50 years, and if we could show that we respect the dignity of those people who have been left behind.

    And if you can have a $2.5 trillion bill that shows respect for those who's left behind, that's an amazing legacy for any party or president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as both of you are saying, Jonathan, the progressives are very clear that this is what they want.

    And I hesitate to put a label on everybody else, but the moderate, more moderate Democrats are saying, wait a minute, it's too much money.

    What's at the heart of this division among Democrats?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, I think what's at the heart is, they all want to get this done.

    If you talk to them, do you support the bipartisan infrastructure plan, they all do? Do you want some of the things that are in the reconciliation bill? They all want things that are in the reconciliation bill. Right now, everyone has to focus on the content, instead of the price tag.

    I disagree with David, in that this has been a setback for Nancy Pelosi, simply — for Speaker Pelosi — simply because the talks are ongoing. If the talks had broken down and everyone had left Washington, that would be one thing.

    But the president went to the Hill. He talked to the conference. From some of the reports I have heard, he made it very clear to them what he wants them to do. I think that they will come to some sort of — some sort of agreement that makes it possible to vote on the bipartisan plan, while still punting down the road the actual — the work on the reconciliation bill.

    It has to happen, because the Democrats need it, but, also, it's the president's agenda. The progressives have been very smart in saying that this isn't us arguing with each other. This is the president's plan. We're not the radicals here. This is the president's plan.

    And at the end of the day, I think that's what's going to carry the day for this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, I mean, we the two of the figures we have been talking about throughout this processor are Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

    I looked up today. The population of those two states together is nine million people out of a country of 330 million. How do they have as much clout as they do?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it's a 50/50 Senate.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    And I think they're a bunch more, Jon Tester. There are other moderates who are sort of hiding behind their coattails.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    True.

  • David Brooks:

    But they represent — Joe Biden was elected as the most moderate member of the Democratic primary field. So there are moderates in the Democratic Party who probably worry about the spending.

    I think Joe Manchin, some of the things I'm not crazy about, but when he says we should means-test, we should not be subsidizing upper-middle-class people with whatever, pre-K education, but we should be focusing our money on those who are most in need, that's not a stupid argument.

    And I think a lot of means-testing is one way they could bring the cost of this down. There's going to have to be decisions made. If they have to bring it down by, say, a trillion, are we going to do Medicare expansion in this? Are we going to do climate change?

    And reading what the progressive seem mad about right now, it seems like some of the climate change stuff may be on the chopping block. The worst thing they could do is keep every little piece of the bill, but just make it cheaper. And that would ensure that they did everything badly.

    And so they have really got to make some priorities. And if it comes to shove, then Joe Biden's got to say, OK, here's the compromise that I support. You're either — you going to support your president, or are you not?

    And I think they will get to that as well. When I hear the Democrats talking, I do not hear them erecting walls. I hear them getting to yes, but in a way where they get the most.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you agree the worst thing they could do would be to just cut everything a little bit to get to a lower number?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, it depends on how you're defining cut.

    One of the things, one of the options I have heard is — you know, this is a 10-year plan. This is not a one-year plan. It's a 10-year plan. So if you have the child tax credit, say, or free community college over 10 years, well, what if you scale it back to five years? How much does how that bring down the cost of this infrastructure plan?

    Congresswoman Suzan Delbene, I think she is the chair of the New Democrats. She's all about, let's do a few things well, and then be able to say — show to the American people that we have got this done. So if you shrink the number — the number of years the program carries over, then that brings down the cost.

    If you focus on a few things, and do them, well, that would bring down the cost. But they have got to do something to get everyone to yes.

  • David Brooks:

    There's a little smoke and mirrors in that.

    When we have these cliffs, where, oh, it's going to lead — only the child tax credit for three years, well, we all know it's going to be permanent. You're just not counting the money you actually are spending. So there's a little chicanery, I would say, in some of these cliffs that they have built into this plan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A little chicanery, just a little.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just from the — both of you on how much President Biden has riding on this.

    I mean, he has to get this done. Is that fair to say?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes. Yes, absolutely.

    As the progressives have been arguing correctly, this is the president's agenda. It's called the Build Back Better Act. That's his whole campaign slogan. And he ran on everything that is in that bill.

    And if a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate cannot pass — get the Democratic presidents agenda passed, then what's their argument in 2022 to be left in the majority? And what's his argument in 2024 to be reelected? That's why this is so important.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And the weakness for Biden right now and this poll slide is competence. Can he do stuff? And if can't be competent, then the whole reason for his election — so he'd be in real trouble if that happens.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we're talking about 2022, 2024.

    But there is an election — there are two elections happening this year for governors. One of them, we — New Jersey, we think we know what's going to happen there.

    But in the state of Virginia. Jonathan, you have the former governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, facing off against a Republican Glenn Youngkin, who worked in private equity, I think, for 25 years. This race is closer than the Democrats have seen in a while. Democrats are nervous.

    And we have got just a clip of a debate in the last few days between Mr. Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe. Let's listen.

    Glenn Youngkin (R), Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate: There's an over and under tonight on how many times you're going to say Donald Trump. And it was 10. And you just busted through it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Glenn Youngkin:

    You're running against Glenn Youngkin.

    Who knows who's going to be running for president in 2024, in all candor?

  • Question:

    If he's the nominee, will you support…

  • Glenn Youngkin:

    Who knows? Let me just start. If he's the Republican — if he's the Republican nominee, I will support him.

  • Fmr. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA):

    Here's my message to Congress. I'm really sick and tired of all of them.

    You know what? They ought to follow the Virginia model. We got things done. That's why so many Republicans have endorsed me. We do things in a bipartisan way. They got to stop their little chitty-chat up there.

  • Question:

    All right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what — you get a taste of the debate from that, Jonathan, is Terry McAuliffe talking about, we need more bipartisanship.

    But with Glenn Youngkin, who has been endorsed by President Trump, and has said he would vote for him if Trump were the nominee, how do you see this contest?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, look, when Terry McAuliffe won the Democratic primary, I saw someone very close to him. And I asked, I just said, congratulations. In the crowded field, you won the primary. And so now what's it looking like in the general?

    And the person said to me, that was the easy part. Glenn Youngkin is someone who's not going to be easy.

    So what we haven't in Terry McAuliffe is someone who always runs as if he's 50 points behind. But the fact that Terry McAuliffe came out of the gate understanding the challenge that Glenn Youngkin poses, I think, puts him in the right mind-set to tackle him.

    The thing about Glenn Youngkin — the thing about in that clip that you just showed of Glenn Youngkin saying, you can say Donald Trump all the time, Donald Trump is a motivator for the Democratic — for the Democratic base, and that's exactly what Terry McAuliffe is going to need if he is going to turn these slim poll majorities that he has, within the margin of error in some of them, into electoral victory.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does this look like to you?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I mean, Virginia has swung pretty blue. The fact that this is close, I don't think it's Terry McAuliffe fault. I think it's just there are headwinds for Democrats, because President Biden's approval ratings because of COVID.

    What is striking me about the race is, the strongest argument that McAuliffe can make against Youngkin is, you're a Republican. And Youngkin is saying, well, I'm kind of a Republican. I'm sort of a never-Trumper, but I'm also forever Trumper. I'm trying to — I'm kind of a Republican, but not really.

    And Youngkin's strongest argument against McAuliffe is, you're a Democrat. And he's like, well, I'm not like those Washington Democrats.

    So the parties are unpopular. And so the candidates, especially for governor, are saying, well, I'm kind of in the party, but I'm kind of not in the party. I'm more tied to Virginia than I am to a party.

    And they're both doing this dance. I think both of them are doing it pretty effectively. You still have to think that it's a Democratic state. If McAuliffe loses, I would think that that would be a sign of national headwinds for Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The question — one of the questions about this race, as both of you were saying, Jonathan, is, how much of a factor is President Trump on the ticket a year after he — this governor's race, they will vote in early November.

    How much of a factor is Donald Trump?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, he's just — he is a factor because, for Democrats, he's a motivator. People are still angry at him for what he did to the country during his administration.

    But, also, Youngkin's answer about, well, if he's the nominee, I'll vote for him. Well, if Donald Trump isn't the nominee, that Republican is going to be a MAGA-esque person. And so, for Democrats, that's, OK, so it's not Trump. Well, we have to still worry about Republicans.

    And so that's why I think Donald Trump is a major factor in this. And to your point about they don't want to be part of the parties, one of the reasons why Terry McAuliffe is saying, Washington, get your act together, pass — basically, pass this bill, yes, he's running away from them now.

    But if they end up passing the bipartisan bill, he's going to be a very proud Democrat.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. The man did run the Democratic Party for a while.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, I mean, every — but, David, every Republican running from now until certainly until 2022 and 2024, as long as Donald Trump is around, is going to be asked, what's your connection to…

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

    And it's going to be problematic. But I think his success so far, moderate success in the polls at least, is that you can do it. You can say, I'm from Virginia. This is not national politics. I'm from Virginia.

    But who knows what Donald Trump is about to do? He might say, if you're not 100 percent with me, I'm going to come out against you. And that would be really poisonous for any Republican officeholder.

    So, a lot of it is, how — does Donald Trump want Republicans to win state races? Not clear that he does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he's chastised, I guess, Youngkin and other Republicans who haven't been sufficiently embracing.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes, he was in Georgia, and he said nice things about Stacey Abrams because Brian Kemp did something he didn't like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to leave it there.

    David Brooks, Jonathan Capehart, thank you both.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, Judy.

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