Brooks and Dionne on GOP debate brawls, the importance of Iowa

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week’s news, including the last Republican debate before Iowa and whether it hurt or helped Donald Trump to sit it out, the tight race between Democrats Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and how much the caucuses actually matter.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Ladies and gentlemen:

    It's finally here.

    After months of debating, fundraising, door-knocking and mud-slinging, the 2016 candidates face their first real test on Monday: actual voting. Yes, the Iowa caucuses can be an unpredictable lot — and candidates on both sides of the aisle are making their closing arguments in a final bid to win voters.

    Republicans faced off last night in their last debate before the caucus — but the big elephant (not) in the room was businessman Donald Trump, who skipped to host his own event. New York Times columnist David Brooks says Trump's absence hurt him for making look petulant. But it also damaged his rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who became the target for a GOP pile-on, with weak jokes and unattractive complaining.

    And on the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is locked in a neck-and-neck fight with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne notes that Sanders has ratcheted up his attacks on Clinton's Wall Street ties — a sure sign that as the race gets tighter, the jabs get sharper. Will he hold out against Clinton's organization in Iowa?

    It's an exciting Friday in the political land, and you're just a click away from the always sharp political analysis of New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne.

    Read the full transcript below:


    And now to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist and author of the new book "Why the Right Went Wrong" E.J. Dionne. Mark Shields is away.

    E.J., let me start with you.

    One of the big stories last night was the person who was not at the debate stage. Did Donald Trump make the right decision?

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR., The Washington Post:

    You know, 24 hours ago, I might have said no. And at this point, I think he may have made the right decision.

    The no is based on the idea that Iowa caucus-goers are very serious about politics, and they wouldn't take kindly to a guy who says I don't like the moderator so I'm skipping out.

    But that debate produced so much pummeling of Ted Cruz — and here I am channeling Donald Trump, who said, you know, he got pummeled today. The Des Moines Register headline was "Rough Night for Cruz."

    Cruz is Trump's main competitor for number one, and so the results he brought about may actually help him here. I think the other thing that is indicative is that today's talk is very bullish on Marco Rubio, and Cruz has shifted his negative advertising from Trump to Rubio. He's got the ultimate Republican attack ad, Marco Rubio, the Republican Obama.

    So, Cruz, I think, is a little concerned going into this. A week or so ago, I think you would have said he was the favorite. Now he's running behind in the polls, and he's being really challenged from both ends.


    All right, what do you think? Does this help or hurt Donald's momentum going into Iowa?

  • DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times:

    Yes, I think it hurts. It hurts them both. If you look at the polls the last four days, they have been dropping, both Cruz and Trump.

    Rubio has been rising. Some of the others have been rising. And I thought last night hurt both Trump and Cruz, Trump because he looks petulant, he looks spoiled. Shouldn't have gone after Megyn Kelly. His base of report is 67-year-old white male Republicans. Those guys love Megyn Kelly. He shouldn't have gone after her.

    But — and then Cruz, as E.J. said, just got hit, hit badly, and then, as we saw in Lisa's clip, whined about it and really got one-upped by Chris Wallace in some of those exchanges. And so he — his personality was beginning to show.

    So, it's interesting. We have four days of them sliding. They have still got comfortable leads. Rubio and some others rising. And I do think Trump has a gigantic turnout problem. He attracts non-voters, people who have not traditionally voted. He does very well on people who haven't voted in the last four elections.

    There's a good chance some chunk of those people won't turn out.


    E.J., you were just…

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    I think one thing that should be said is that Jeb Bush probably had the best night. If Trump did him the favor, the bully was gone, and Jeb really found his voice. That won't make any difference here, where Jeb isn't in contention, but it could help him in the fight to run at least in New Hampshire.

    And before we completely discount Ted Cruz, which is what the day's conventional wisdom is doing, he's got a very strong organization built on the evangelical Christian movement. And the evangelical Christian movement has won the last two Iowa caucuses for their candidate, Rick Santorum and before that Mike Huckabee.

    But there's no question that Cruz is in a kind of trouble today that he hasn't been in a while.


    And, as E.J. says, his turnout base is the most secure. Those people do come out.

    One of the odds things, also, which E.J. just referenced, is the ad wars. Almost nobody in this entire campaign has gone after Donald Trump, the front-runner, because people are afraid to take him on. And so most of the ads have been run, by some measure, $22 million on Marco Rubio, and Cruz today shifted and started attacking Rubio.

    And so nobody wants to take on Trump, either because they are afraid what he will do. They're afraid of offending his voters. But it's a weird situation, where the front-runner is getting off scot-free so far. And talk about guy with big vulnerabilities. But the ads have not been — with a couple exceptions, have not been run against him.



  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    Although there are a lot of outside groups that have really kicked in here.

    Just watching my television, I have seen a lot of ads trying to tell people Donald Trump is not a conservative. I mean, I think somebody out there is putting money in to try to get at Donald Trump finally.


    So, David, one of the contentious exchanges yesterday was between Cruz and Rubio on immigration. And you kind of see the needle that Rubio is trying to thread here.


    Yes, well, they both flip-flopped, as Bush sort of did.

    I guess Rubio's flip has a bigger flop. He really was the leader of the Gang of Eight. What Cruz was doing, sort of in the crucial week, he was sort of trying to figure out where to position himself. And he was leaning in favor, or at least some amendments that would be in favor, and then he decided to side out against, where Rubio really was a champion.

    What's sad is that it's now a contest to see who can be the most anti-immigrant. And I think that's the legacy of Trump, and that the idea that you could be for some compromise that would close the border and then have a path to citizenship, even though popular among Republicans nationwide, is not popular among Iowa caucus-goers.

    So they are competing to show how anti-immigrant they are and they're competing to show that they would never make a compromise with a Democrat. And so they are really appealing to the hardest of the hard-core right now.


    But, E.J., what happens if you take this sort of a hard-line stance on immigration now and let's you make it to the general and, if you're Marco Rubio, you might want those Latino votes?

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    Well, I think part of the problem Rubio has is, he's flipping and flopping and flipping and flopping on this because he's got in his head two things at the same time, which is, he knows his original position wasn't hard enough, not anti-immigrant enough for many Republican caucus-goers and primary voters.

    But then he has an eye at the same time on the general election, and those Republicans have to up their share of the Latino vote from where it was for Mitt Romney the last time. So I think he's twisted himself into many, many knots. There was — Rubio had a generally good debate, but he didn't look good there. Jeb Bush went on the attack against him really hard on this, proving, among other things, that Jeb Bush didn't take kindly to his protege challenging him in the presidential election.

    But, on the whole, as David said, it's a very bad display by the Republicans, not only of an anti-immigrant feeling, but of an awful lot of opportunism at the top of the party.


    So, David, who is stacked where they are right now in one, two and three going into Iowa, and is that likely to change?


    Yes, I continue to think — and, as viewers know, my predictions have been wrong consistently this entire year — but I think the big story out of Iowa will be that Trump underperformed.

    I do think he's got a turnout problem. I think that Sanders is going to underperform too, because he relies so much on young voters. But maybe they're a little more mobilized to actually show up. Remember, going to the caucus is a multihour occupation. It's not just going to a voting both and getting out of there.

    And so it takes a big-time commitment and an amazingly small percentage of Iowans actually do it, I think one in six or something like that. And so it's — getting people out is the core thing.

    So, I think Trump's the most — the most likely story is that he will underperform and we will be talking about Cruz or somebody else.


    E.J., is that how it stacks up for you?

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    I think nobody knows what Donald Trump people are going to do. He managed to mobilize a lot of people very quickly for that veterans event.

    I think a lot of people are going to be looking at the Des Moines Register, Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, which is — has a good history relative to all the other polls here. I think that Trump needs a significant lead in order to come out winning, because there clearly will be some falloff in his vote.

    But I think if he wins, he wins, whether he runs equal to the polls or not. I think Cruz is a guy who has got to win here. I think, if he loses here, he's the one person who could really be hurt by Iowa.


    E.J., staying with you for a second, let's turn now to Democrats. Sanders and Clinton have been running neck and neck in certain polls. Sanders kind of turned up the heat on Clinton this week, a line of attack saying that she's too connected to Wall Street. Is that a strategy that could work for him?

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    I think, in Democratic primaries, attacking someone for being too close for Wall Street always works. And, clearly, Bernie Sanders has found a very substantial audience for this message in the party.

    I think that — and this last-minute story about e-mails, as Judy mentioned earlier, is just not a story she wants to come out at the end of this, even if, as her spokesman said, it turns out that this is, I think he said overclassification run amok. It's just not the way she wanted to close.

    The other side of that, though, is that Hillary Clinton is always best when she's under pressure. And she's probably run her best part of the campaign in the last week. You could see that in the CNN forum at the beginning of the week. She seems more comfortable.

    And she does have a very, very strong organization and has an older electorate behind her, which, in a turnout contest, is better than having a younger electorate. The way I see it is, there are two sort of markers for Bernie. Some people compare him to Howard Dean in '04. And Dean had a lot of support, and then it just collapsed, a lot of young people from out of state who didn't vote here.

    Or Obama '08. Now, I think he's well past where Howard Dean was. I don't think that comparison is true. The question is, how close does he get to Obama? This is a very tight race. And smart people I have talked to here thinks this could be the race that keeps us up late on Monday night.


    All right, David, if it's such a tight race, would O'Malley supporters play a role in where they decide to — especially in those rooms, where they have to walk from one section of the corner over to the other, right?


    It would have to be really tight for — because there aren't that many of those.

    I think it is, as E.J. says, a turnout thing, and then a message thing. Sanders just has such a clean message. You don't have to be paying close attention. You know what he's all about. As E.J. says, Clinton improves as a campaigner when the going gets tough. But what's the core message of the campaign? What's the one single theme that you know about her?

    You know her history. You know her biography. But she hasn't picked a theme. The Wall Street thing, I do think that works very well among the sort of people who show up at these caucuses. I think, substantively, it's crazy.


    As a line of attack.



    But, substantively, people's wages are down because of technological change and globalization, not because of compensation patterns on Wall Street, as awful as they are. But as a line of attack, this election so much has been about the organization of hatred. It's about finding people or institutions that people in each party really distrust, whether it's Wall Street or Washington.

    And if you can mobilize those, that hostility, that seems to be what is driving people this year.


    Finally, E.J., I have got to ask, is Iowa worth paying as much attention to? It's not by any stretch demographically representative of the entire country.

    Perhaps it's changed over the last 50 years. And this is now a reflection of how the political system has worked and who tries to game it. But should we be paying as much attention to this state?

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    Well, since I'm sitting here, I guess I should say the answer is yes.

    I think there are two things in contradiction here. On the one hand, it's absolutely true that neither Iowa nor New Hampshire are representative of the country as a whole, beginning with the fact that they have a much higher percentage of white voters than the country as a whole.

    But I end up — I find myself defending their role, for the following reason. Campaigns have become so much about advertising, candidates going from airport tarmac to airport tarmac, that there is still something lovely, if romantic, about candidates having to answer questions from actual voters, instead of us in the media. And that part of it, I really like.


    All right.

    Very briefly, David.


    I agree. The process is great, but the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

    I would be surprised if especially the Republican campaign was — I think it will be over maybe in April, May. We have got a long time to go here — maybe the Democratic one, too.


    All right, David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thanks so much.

  • E.J. DIONNE, JR.:

    Great to be with you. Thanks.

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