Brooks and Capehart on Senate shakeups and Brittney Griner’s release

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including how a win in Georgia expands Democrats' majority in the Senate despite the loss of a party member in Arizona and the release of wrongly detained basketball superstar Brittney Griner.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A win in Georgia expands Democrats' majority and the U.S. Senate, but the party loses a member in Arizona. And the U.S. trades the world's most notorious arms dealer for a wrongly detained basketball superstar.

    For analysis of this week's news, Brooks and Capehart. That is columnist David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart — David Brooks with The New York Times — and Jonathan Capehart, who's an editor at The Washington Post.

    It's so good to have both you. Want to make sure we get your titles right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    I thought I had been fired there for a minute.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just in the case the audience forgets.

    So, a lot of news this week that we want to try to tackle.

    David, let's start with Kyrsten Sinema. She — some say it's not entirely a surprise, but she now has left the Democratic Party. She's going to be an independent. She says she's not going to caucus with Republicans. But what does this mean for the dynamic in the Senate?

  • David Brooks:

    I don't think it means all that much.

    She had been an independent all along. She was a — sometimes a vote and sometimes not a vote. And she's going to still get her committee assignments. So I think it'll be pretty much — with minor differences, pretty much the same.

    I think, as Lisa mentioned earlier in the program, it affects 2024 for her race back home. And that's what strikes me. It's sort of a bold move. Basically, I think, if you want one calculation, could it be this? That she thought she has no chance against Ruben Gallego in a Democratic primary.

    So she goes to the Democratic Party, the national Democratic Party, and say: I'm going to run independent. I'm going to split the Democratic vote and you will get your Republican senator. So, you have got to do for me what you do for Angus King in Maine, independent Maine, and Bernie Sanders or Vermont. No run — don't run against me.

    So it's basically holding the hostage — party hostage. But if there's anybody who could do it, it's her.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I was going to say, holding the party hostage again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A little bit of that before now.

    How do you read it? What does it say?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, I read it the same way — the same way David does.

    And since we're quoting people who were on in the first block talking about Sinema, I'm going to quote Stephanie Sy, who — she said Senator Sinema broke up with the Democratic Party before it broke up with her. And it made me think of Missy Elliott, who had the lyric, I broke up with him before he dumped me.

    So, she did the — she did — Sinema did the same thing. But it's not going to change anything. She's still — as David said, she still has her committee assignments. She also said: I'm still going to vote for political appointments and judges and ambassadors.

    So, nothing changes.

  • David Brooks:

    I would say the one thing — this is a country with a rising group of independents. And you're not only seeing that on the ground. You're beginning to see it in the Senate.

    There are three. Lisa Murkowski is kind of an independent. And so I do think it reflects something that's deeper in the country, that there are just a lot of people who are sick of both parties.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And this kind of rhetoric that she has appeals to a group, not a huge group in Arizona, apparently, but it appeals to a group.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that was what she said, right, in part of her statement.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right. That's what she said. And that's part of her statement.

    But I'm not going to give her all of that credit, David, that she's doing this because she's representing this bigger part of the country. I do buy the argument that Senator Sinema's action today was more about her and her political future and the ability of Senator Sinema to hold that seat than it did this overall thinking that, well, there's a movement out there for independents, and I'm going to go out there and lead them from the great state of Arizona.

    Not buying that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're not suggesting crass politics could have been involved?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Oh, I couldn't possibly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking — while we're on the topic of the Senate, there was an important run-off election, David, this week, as we know, in Georgia.

    And Raphael Warnock, the Democrat, hung on by a couple of points to that — several points, to that seat. It's now been three days. What does the result tell you about Mr. Warnock, Reverend Warnock, about Georgia, about the — and about the two parties right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, if you do it objectively, take aside ideology. Warnock ran a good campaign, has been a pretty effective senator, and Herschel Walker ran a completely terrible campaign.

    And so it's a sign that candidate quality still does matter. I'm glad for that. And it's a sign that there's some sort of — we never count Donald Trump out, but there seems to be some sort of continued degeneracy, not only his candidates doing so bad on election night, but doing bad this week.

    He has allegedly mounted a campaign for president without actually doing anything. There are no rallies. He hasn't done anything. And then the wackadoodle comments and the dinners and all that stuff, I think Republicans are looking at him and wondering.

    And I wouldn't — as I say, I still think he's likely to get the nomination. But there's some sort of…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do still think it's likely?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it's more likely than not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    But I think it's less likely than I thought two weeks ago.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Interesting.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I want to keep talking about Senator — Senator Warnock, who — the race was maddeningly close, even on election night swinging back and forth.

    But I do think Democrats were reasonably confident that he would eke it out, because he did travel. He didn't depend on Atlanta for — to get the votes. He traveled all around the — all around the state to red districts, and just gave those voters the courtesy of at least asking for their vote, but at least: Listen to what I have to say.

    He ran a positive campaign, especially during the general election, when people were trying to get him to talk about the travails of Herschel Walker. He spent all of his time talking about: Here's how I worked with senators from the other side to compromise to do things for Georgians.

    And he wasn't afraid to do all of that while standing firmly on capital-D Democratic values, not running away from the fact that he was a Democrat or is a Democrat, and asking people, hey, give me your vote, give me a full term, and look at what I will be able to do.

    And on the side of Herschel Walker — yes, Herschel Walker — it was a cynical ploy by Republicans to put up a Black man to run against a Black man who was woefully unqualified to be a member of the Senate, thinking that all they had to do was put up another Black man, and that would be enough to siphon off enough African American votes to help them get over the top.

    And what we saw on — in the run-off is that that didn't pay off. In fact, they insulted a lot of people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, on Herschel Walker, I noticed, David, that in his concession speech, he seemed to be separating himself from Donald Trump, interestingly.

    He made the comment about: We should uphold the Constitution. We should respect elected officials.

    Did you make anything of that?

  • David Brooks:

    Things are bad for Trump when Herschel Walker is separating himself from you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I mean, he can do that now, maybe as a sort of reputation repair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    But you think of the scandals, the abortion scandals, the children, the weird things he said about vampires or whatever, it…

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    And werewolves.

  • David Brooks:

    Werewolves.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    It was just like a campaign like no other.

    And it was cynical to put somebody up that transparent. I mean, this is not a secret who Herschel Walker is. It was cynical for them to put him up.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    And I would add he did something else said that Donald Trump has never done. He took responsibility.

    He said: We ran a race, and we came up short. And that's on me.

    That was breathtaking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he said, respect the results.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right. Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another major development this week, of course, was — David, was the return of Brittney Griner, superstar women's national basketball, WNBA superstar.

    She'd been held for most of this year in Russia, traded for a notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout. What do you make of the administration? You have heard their explanation, that they — it was either — it was either this or nothing. What do you make of the decision to do this, the optics of it, the reality of it?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I don't think anybody feels great about it.

    I mean, her crime was, what, a few ounces of marijuana, and his crime was arms dealing to people that kill — to people who kill Americans and others? So it's not an equal case.

    But I think there's a fundamental rule that, if somebody has an American passport, you bring them home. And you don't like it, because dealing with Vladimir Putin is never a pleasure. Somebody said, he punches you in the nose and then asks to negotiate. But I think the Biden administration did the right thing, which is to get an American citizen home.

    And I wish they'd gotten Paul Whelan home. My paper has a new story on how complicated that arrangement was. The Russians wanted somebody who — an assassin who was in German hands. And the Americans tried to get the Germans to give that person back, so we could get both our people. And the Germans said, no, he's an assassin. We're not going to give back an assassin.

    And so there was long, complicated negotiations. I think the Justice Department didn't want to do it. The White House wanted to do it. So this is all super complicated. But, still, to have an American home, that is better than nothing.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I agree with David, but I just want to just correct a little bit.

    It wasn't marijuana. It was cannabis oil in a vape…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    I stand corrected. Yes, I stand corrected.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    So, it's — yes, there's a big difference.

    But, yes, it's great that she's home. And imagine what — how the American people would have felt if they'd found out that the administration had an opportunity to bring an American home, and they didn't take that chance? It'd be a whole different conversation tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of conversation about — speaking of that, Jonathan, about whether the fact that she was Black — she is Black, she's a woman.

    Did that have an effect?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Lesbian too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Lesbian in Russia, where they're debating LGBTQ lives in that country.

    That — as someone who's Black ad and an out gay man, I feared for her, on top of just an American citizen being behind bars in a totalitarian state, absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what does it say, do you think? You're — I hear what you say about, if it was — if we learned that the government had not taken advantage of this.

    But does it send a signal that the U.S. will accept the worst kind of trade to get it citizens?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I mean, they the thing you worry about in these cases — and it happens all the time in the Middle East when terrorists take hostages — is, does it reward kidnapping, basically? Does it reward hostage-taking?

    And I do think there's some moral hazard there probably. But my argument against that would be, like, Vladimir Putin is not waffling on whether to be a bad guy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    He's going to do what he's going to do.

    And so us making this deal is — or — is not going to encourage him to do more brutal stuff. He's going to be more brutal stuff. And so at least we got a human being home out of unjust prison.

    So I do accept the moral hazard. I do except where the Justice Department doesn't like this. It doesn't exactly serve the cause of justice. But, sometimes, people are more important.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    And you know what?

    We should also not forget the statement put out by Paul Whelan's family, which I thought was incredibly gracious, in celebrating Brittney Griner's return, but also talking about the fact that they appreciate the administration doing everything it can to bring Paul home.

    I was waiting to hear what the family was going to say and how they said it. And I was relieved, because these are very — these are very emotional, tense things. You want your loved one to come home. And to find out that they were this — possibly this close to getting them home, and that didn't happen, I would have understood if they put out an incendiary statement against the president.

    And yet they didn't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the administration says they're continuing to work hard on winning his release. But he's been there since 2018.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And we do hope the people who got Brittney Griner out will continue to work to get Paul Whelan out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

    David Brooks, Jonathan Capehart, thank you both.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, Judy.

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