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Brooks and Marcus on American politics in 2020 and its impact on Democracy

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the year in politics, including the failure of institutions, the long-awaited COVID relief bill, Georgia’s Senate runoffs, and the frailty of Democracy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, to help us break down the week in politics, we turn to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

    Hello to both of you.

    Not a lot of joy on this New Year's Day, but we are really, really glad to see both of you. Thank you for being here.

    Let's start, David, by looking back at — I'm sorry — at 2020 and lessons learned. I think we all agree it's been a terrible year, thanks to the pandemic. But what do you — what are you taking away from it?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I wish I could come up with something good, but this was a year we sort of lost faith in ourselves.

    We were failed by our institutions, including the CDC and the FDA, big time. We were — failed each other. I mean, de Tocqueville said, Americans may be individualistic, but they can act as what he called the social body, when, in a crisis, they can come together and really solve a problem.

    And we more or less failed to do that. We never shut down the way other countries did. And we certainly are not doing it now. And so we sort of let each other down.

    And I never can permanently believe that America is a nation in decline, sliding, but it was certainly a year where decline seemed to be very much in the air.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ruth, what are you thinking as we close the door on 2020?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, I'm thinking I'm usually the pessimist and David's usually the optimist. So, I — maybe we're switching roles in 2021 or something.

    But I actually take away two things from 2020. One is a more hopeful vision of the pandemic lessons, which is that good government, responsible leadership, capable management could have worked. We could have, with a better president, who had assembled a better administration, and had taken this more seriously from the start, and had not failed at almost every step along the way — the one bright spot is the vaccine development, but now we're botching the rollout of it.

    We could have done better. We could have had — that 20 million figure is just appalling. We would have had a lot of damage and tragedy and economic distress, but not on the scale that we are having, with a better government.

    And we have a president coming in who is going to inherit this mess, which is a lot harder to clean up than it is — was to — is to ameliorate from the beginning. But government can perform better than our government performed for us.

    The part that, for me, is unsettling is the lessons on democracy. Democracy in — at the end of 2020 looked to me a lot more fragile than I understood it to be at the start of the year, especially the aftermath of the election, where we saw what everybody had assumed was a really unassailable democratic norm, that you would accept, even if — a president as irresponsible and self-involved and unpatriotic as Donald Trump would accept the — in the end, however, grudgingly and ungraciously, the results of a democratic election.

    And, instead, we see the spectacle that is continuing and is going to continue through next week on January 6, when Congress assembles.

    I am very nervous about the consequences of that, not for Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as president on January 20, but for how it just shakes our norms going forward and makes the unimaginable more imaginable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, what about going forward? I mean, how much difference do you believe Joe Biden can make as president in what we face as a country?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think significant.

    I mean, as Ruth says, having an actual professional staff will make a big difference in ways we haven't been able to appreciate. We just have had messing up at every single level.

    And I remain a Biden optimist, a Biden optimist in terms of how much he can actually get done. I do think there are a lot of people in Congress who I talk to who really want to pass legislation. There are a lot of moderates who realize this is their moment, this is the moment they can stop the party leaders who want to get super partisan.

    This is the moment they — Susan Collins has the power to stop a lot of stuff if she wants to. And so a lot of people, especially in the Senate, want to have votes. They haven't had the chance to have votes on things, because Mitch McConnell only really cares about judicial confirmations.

    And so there's a lot of pent-up demand to pass legislation. And there are a lot of issues on which that legislation can be passed, not everything. But there are certain issues where you can get pretty bipartisan support.

    And so I remain much more hopeful about the legislative process next year than maybe most.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Judy, can I…


  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about you, Ruth? Go ahead. Sure.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Now we're going back to our usual corners, because I am a sort of "glasses three-quarters empty and not one-quarter full" person when it comes to the capacity of President Biden to get things through this Senate, certainly if Mitch McConnell and Republicans retain control of the Senate.

    The Susan Collinses and others of the world notwithstanding, this is a body and a political system, more broadly, that rewards obstructionism, and through the primary process is only going to reward obstructionism. That was true before Donald Trump came on the scene, and it remains true after he leaves.

    And while there is a capacity to come together through the desire to spend money — that's what Congress is really good at doing — it's not really good at getting a lot of other things done. So, I see way fewer possibilities there.

    I think the possibilities for success in a Biden presidency rest within what's within his control in the executive branch, undoing some of the terrible damage that Trump has done, undoing regulations, passing new regulations, enacting executive orders, to the extent that he has the authority to do that.

    But I really hope that David's right and I'm wrong on this one, because there is a lot of legislative need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, what about right now? I mean, this dispute over the $2,000 check to people. The president's pushing for it. Mitch McConnell says no.

    What about that — those arguments? And what about the political fallout from it, if any?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, first, I note the bipartisan sort of agreement on this between Josh Hawley on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left. I do think there are more of those coalitions to be had.

    Now, having said that, I don't — I don't support it. I think Mitch McConnell and John Thune, who we saw earlier in the program, are essentially right. I think it would be a very wise idea to give people who make under $60,000 those $2,000 checks. I see no reason why we should give people earning more than that those checks. It's just not a good use of federal funds.

    Larry Summers, the — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton's economist, says there's some danger of overheating the economy if we do that. And so I think McConnell's mostly right on the merits. But it is odd how the populist presidency that Trump could have had, if he'd really done populist things, is sort of on the floor of the Senate today.

    He sort of passed that up and went for sort of a populist-in-language, corporate-in-talk presidency — or corporate in action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, Ruth, stopping it dead in its tracks.

    Any consequences from this, or are we just going to forget about it and move on to the next thing in a few weeks?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, we will talk about Georgia in a bit, I hope. So, there could be consequences there.

    But I think that Mitch McConnell has a point about the — and others — about the size of the checks, along with David and Larry Summers. He is not in — he has zero standing to raise this point, because, unless I have missed something, I don't see him taking the Brooksian approach of limiting it to people who earn a certain amount or doing other things that would be more targeted, like extending unemployment benefits.

    He just wants to stop it in his tracks. That's what he's good at.

    Are there consequences for that? I see the president was railing against Senator Thune and earlier and urging challenges to him. So, there may be consequences, I guess, from Donald Trump as he continues to thunder.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of — one of you mentioned Josh Hawley.

    I think it was you, David.

    He's not only sided with the president on this. He's siding with the president — he's spoken up and said he's going to be the senator — so far, the only one — who has said he's going to object to the electors being counted for Joe Biden next week.

    What do you make of what Josh Hawley is up to? Where does this leave him and the Republican Party?

  • David Brooks:

    I think it leaves the Republican Party as divorced from reality intact even in a post-Trump era.

    Josh Hawley, it should be said, went to Yale Law School, arguably the finest law school in the country.

    Sorry, Ruth.


  • David Brooks:

    Went to — he clerked for John — Justice Roberts. He wrote a very fine book on Alexander Hamilton. He's no intellectual slouch.

    And yet he's pretending that something is true that he has to know is not true because it plays to his base. And so it means, going forward, the Republicans are going to do a lot of performative display of Trumpian unreality.

    And so it's very bad news for the country, because truth is one of the things we have lost this year. But it's bad news for Republican Parties going forward. And I'd love to know what's in the head of normal, rational Republicans like John Thune, who we keep mentioning. Like, what's going on in that guy's head as he sees Hawley do this?

    Some Republicans have really stood up, like Ben Sasse from Nebraska, but is the rest of the party really going to follow him? There are some reports that, in the House, you could get over more than 100 House members siding with the Hawley side.

    It's a complete denial of reality. And it's bad news for the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Ruth Marcus:

    It's bad news for the future in the way that I was talking about earlier, in terms of just erasing norms of behavior and allowing just dangerous arguments to go forward.

    But I see a strange upside in the Hawley stunt, which is this. Too often, during the four long years of the Trump presidency, Republican lawmakers, especially in the Senate, have been able to avoid taking a stand on some of the outrageous things that he's doing.

    And if Hawley makes his colleagues take this to a vote, at least we will finally know, who are the Republican senators who are just so dedicated to the cult of Trump that they will go along with the Hawleys of the Senate, and who are the ones who are respecting the Constitution?

    And so the other way to look at it is, any vote that Mitch McConnell fervently wants to avoid is a vote that, in some way, I'm happy to have. So, I guess we're going to have it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, just in the little bit of time we have left, that's the big thing we're watching this week, along with those Georgia Senate run-offs, David.

    We had a Georgia reporter yesterday saying the Democrats look to be in strong shape. What are your sources, what's your reporting telling you?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the polls have ticked up for both Democrats. The early voting in kind was more in support of the Democratic side.

    I'm just thinking that we have undercounted Trump and the Republican supporters pretty often in the last several years, and so I wouldn't get too confident if I was a Democrat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ruth, about 20 seconds.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I wouldn't get too confident.

    But it seems like Donald Trump and his supporters have been doing everything they can to make life harder for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and — in their argument that the Georgia election was rigged, so you can't trust the system, and their argument that you need to reelect these Republican senators, so they can go to Washington, back to Washington, and continue to block your $2,000 checks.

    That doesn't seem like a winning argument to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there's a lot — it's a lot that we're looking for this first week in January, that and, as we said, the electors' vote that's coming up on Wednesday.

    We thank you both on this New Year's Day for joining us.

    David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, thank you.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Happy new year.

  • David Brooks:

    You too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to you.

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