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Brooks and Capehart on voting and gun violence legislation, Biden’s first news conference

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including efforts to restrict voting, gun violence legislation and Biden’s first presidential news conference.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now for a deeper look at some of the week's major news stories, we turn to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post.

    Hello to both of you on this Friday. It's so good to see you. And there's a lot to talk about.

    Let's start with voting rights, and, David, what the state of Georgia did yesterday, they have enacted a new law to tighten the rules around voting. President Biden is saying that this is designed to keep people from voting, especially minorities. Georgia officials — and we heard one election official telling our Lisa Desjardins earlier in the program — say that's wrong, that it's really meant to really make access more fair.

    How do you see it?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, one, there's no problem here. There is no widespread voter fraud, so there's no — really no problem to address.

    Two, restricting voting is a bad look for anybody. Three, if you're criminalizing handing out a bottle of water to people in line, you have probably wandered into the wrong territory. Four, we have a history here. There's a history of Jim Crow. There's a history of voter suppression for 150 years or whatever it is.

    And so I just think this is a political endeavor.

    The one final thing I say, which is I guess good news, is that people have done research on this. And efforts to impose voter I.D. laws have relatively little effect on actual voting. On the other hand, efforts to expand absentee ballots have little effect on actual voting.

    And so people, it seems, according to the research, vote when they want to vote, regardless of the law. And so — it makes this look even more just like political theater.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jonathan, political theater? How do you see it?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I agree with David 100 percent.

    And I will add to that I found it interesting this morning, I found that someone retweeted a tweet from Governor Kemp on Election Day of the governor going to a ballot drop box and delivering his own ballot, voting via dropbox.

    And I found it interesting, because what that Georgia law now does is, yes, ballot drop boxes are still allowed, but they're only allowed inside polling places and inside early voting centers.

    If you want people to vote, if your goal is to allow access for people to vote, then those ballot drop boxes would be outside in places that make it more convenient and in — plentiful in places all around Georgia to allow people to vote more easily.

    That and the food/water thing alone makes this, as David says, theater.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, other states, we expect, one after the other, Republican-run states, are going to be trying to tighten voter laws.

    Is there some middle ground here? Where are we headed with this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I do think they're going to try to do it. I'm not sure why.

    As I said, the research shows it doesn't have the effect. And Republicans, actually, some of them have — Republicans have some voters which are not sort of steady voters. And expanding the ease of voting may have some minor effect on getting Republicans out to the polls, as well as Democrats. In general, it's a good thing for democracy.

    We may be headed to a federal vs. state showdown, with H.R.1, which is the Democrat-sponsored bill to sort of nationalize and fight back against these states, and the act in Georgia shows H.R.1 is necessary.

    The actual bill itself is apparently something of a disaster. There was a very good piece in The Daily Beast from a reporter who actually went around calling state officials who support the intention of the bill, but say the people who wrote the bill didn't actually talk to anybody who knows much about elections and in charge of enacting them.

    So, the bill mandates that states adopt voting machines that don't yet exist. It mandates that state use this automatic phone-in system for registration, which no state actually uses and no state thinks is a good idea.

    So, again, it's a — the idea is, this is, so far, just political theater, and nobody is looking at the nuts and bolts of actually how you fix it or how you — we have a decent voting system.

    But we will probably end up with some sort of national vs. state conflict here to decide how we can have open elections, where everybody can vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jonathan, is that where we're headed, some kind of collision between Washington and what's going on in — especially in these Republican-led states?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, sure.

    And I think it's happening right now. I think it's the Brennan Center put out a study that there — in 43 states, there are 253 bills related to, as they say, suppressing people, keeping people from voting.

    And so, at a minimum, what H.R.1 is trying to do, or it hopes to do, is to put sort of a federal overlay to make it possible for people to not only register to vote, but then to also be able to exercise their right to vote when it comes time — when it comes time to vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another issue we're watching out of the many, David, of course, is gun violence.

    Since I have seen the two of you, another — we were talking about one mass shooting last Friday. Since them, there's been another terrible shooting in Boulder, Colorado, 10 people killed. A lot of talk about guns and the need to do something about guns. I interviewed the congressman from Boulder, who said that guns are metastasizing across the country.

    But I remember you said last week we have got to do something about lonely young men. And there is a lot of conversation around mental illness and what's wrong with the people who do this.

    Where do you see this headed?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we have got to do something about guns and about lonely young men, but both of them are extremely hard problems.

    You know, I would be for all the various policies Democrats have been talking about for 25 years to control guns, the assault weapons ban, closing the loopholes, background checks, anything you can mention.

    But my understanding of the research is that you throw all these things in there, and you might have some modest effect on reducing gun violence, but you will not have a transformational effect.

    And so the more I look at it — and I'm not alone in this — the more you conclude the simple problem is we have too many guns in America. There's upwards of, some estimates, 350 million guns in this country. And so when you get a lonely young man who is detached and sociopathic, getting a gun for that person is not hard.

    And so we spend a lot of time on these things like background checks and assault weapon bans. And that's fine. But a lot of effort has been put into things that aren't that effective. We just have to have a debate on, how do we reduce the total number of the guns in the country?

    And other countries have done this, Australia and others, through buybacks and other things. It's obviously super difficult politically. But, to me, it's the only way to have a meaningful difference.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    And, you know, Judy, I would…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jonathan, how do — go ahead.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes.

    No, and I would add to what David is saying, the conversation needs to be about access to guns. Yes, mental illness plays a role in the shootings that we have been talking about. Racism and bigotry play a role in mass shootings that we have seen in this country, at least over the last 10 years or so.

    But the other thing that we don't talk about when it comes to access to guns, it's that, when people have access to guns, suicides go up. When we're talking about access to guns, it's more than just mass shootings.

    And I want to point out something that I read in a book that's actually here on my bookcase, "Dying of Whiteness" by Dr. Jonathan Metzl. And he looked at gun — the gun laws in Missouri and what happened when Missouri loosened their gun laws.

    Let me just read you this one thing that he wrote. He said: "In 2015, white men comprised roughly 40 percent of the population of Missouri, but were victims of nearly 80 percent of gun suicides."

    That's in Missouri when — in documenting what happened when they loosened their gun laws. And so I think something needs to be done to limit the number of guns in people's hands, but also limit the number of guns, to David's point, that are awash in the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do something — everybody agrees, or a lot of people agree we need to do something, David.

    But, as we heard President Biden say yesterday, or suggest, the likelihood that something is going to happen quickly, there's going to be some agreement, the chances of that are almost vanishingly small.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Before I get to that, I just want to emphasize that, though mental health is a problem for some people who commit gun violence, most people who suffer from mental health issues are not violent, so just to make that clear.

    One of the problems…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank…

  • David Brooks:

    The vast majority of people.

    The — one of the problems is that the gun issue has become a cultural issue. I seem — feel like I'm talking about this week after week, where we're not talking about the actual substance of an issue, but where it stands in the great culture war.

    And so, for a lot of people, their guns is not necessarily about what kind of weapon they're holding. Their gun is about not being looked down upon for being rural. And so the gun has become a symbol of rural identity and rural self-respect. And it's unfortunate we have got here.

    Somehow, as the culture war rages, and as everything is about identity, and not about the actual issue, then it becomes very hard to tackle this problem.

    And so I guess I'm — I don't — I'm not optimistic we're going to have any kind of solution on anything about this, because it's either/or. It's either you respect my rural identity, or you don't. And so it's not about the guns anymore. It's culture war.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    And you know what? One more point on that, David.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is…

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Jonathan Metzl in his book also adds to that. It's not just rural identity, but it also plays a role in masculinity, showing how masculine you are by having guns.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question for both of you.

    The president's first news conference, David, 65 days into his administration, how did he do, President Biden?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, with President Biden, we always talk about age.

    And I guess, by standards, has he lost a step, I guess that we would all agree he passed with flying colors, showed vigor, and energy, and control.

    I think what's interesting about him is, he's doing a lot of very bold things. A new $3 trillion proposal is coming down the pike on infrastructure. But he really does talk a very pragmatic game, quoted Bismarck, I think, that politics is the art of the possible.

    And so he says: I want to get things done.

    And his rhetorical aspect is not to go high ideology, not to go high abstraction, but to talk really pragmatic. And so he can do both things and still be boring, which is clever.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    And so I took that away from his press conference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jonathan?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I thought…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I thought the president did very well.

    I think that conservatives knocking President Biden for conducting the press conference with a big briefing book, with notes in front of him, I think, are off-base.

    After four years of a president who used opportunities with the press to pick fights with the press, attack his political opponents and private citizens, to have a president of the United States who's actually willing to answer the questions posed, and do so substantively, to the point where the viewer is actually bored because they're so deep in the weeds, I will take that over what we went through the last four years any day of the week.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And on that note, we will leave it.

    Jonathan Capehart, David Brooks, thank you both. And have a good weekend.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, Judy. You too.

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