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David Brooks and Ruth Marcus on a ‘moderate’ new congressional class

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the president's ongoing friction with the press, a leadership battle in Congress and proposed prison reform.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we wait for results from a handful of still-unresolved midterm races, most of the newly elected members of Congress were getting familiar with Washington this week.

    And for analysis on that and more, as we watch this new class get comfortable in Washington, we turn to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

    Mark Shields is away.

    So, before we talk about this new Congress, let's talk about our lead story tonight, and that is this judge's ruling today that CNN should get — that CNN correspondent Jim Acosta should have his pass press returned by the Trump White House. They took it away last week, saying he had behaved in a way that was disrespectful.

    It's a temporary win, it looks like, for CNN. But in the longer term, David, what do we see in this relationship between the White House and the press?

  • David Brooks:

    I see it as a parable of American decline.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    A little, actually.

    When you have grownups behaving like grownups, you don't need to have these big confrontations. There are certain sets of manners. If we go to a dinner party, probably we behave in a decently, civil-mannered way. And then we have a pleasant dinner party.

    You can do that with a press conference, even though that is more contentious. But then you get one person breaks all the norms — and, in this case, it's the president — and then the other people, in order to be heard, have to get a little ruder. And then it just escalates.

    And because it's America, it has to go to a law court and have somebody sue each other. And so what Acosta did was marginally rude, I think only marginally, but given the atmosphere that Trump has set, well within the bounds of what is now the normal.

    What — the White House overreacted. So I think this is basically a win for civility. It's just sad that we have to be in a case where people are shouting at each other in this way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What should we expect, Ruth, in the relationship between the White House and the press?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, what we should expect is — which is something that we have not gotten from this president from the start of this administration, which is an understanding that, yes, the media is going to be annoying, but we are not the enemy of the people.

    We are going to be contentious and sometimes maybe even a little bit obstreperous and grandstanding, but we are not scum, as he likes to call us at rallies, and that the solution to the frustration that every single president has felt is not what only this president has done, which is to yank the hard pass of a reporter and basically stop him from being able to easily do his job.

    And David calls this a win for civility. And it may be, but it's very scary moment, I think, in American democracy. I'm looking at the brief that the Justice Department filed. And it says: "More broadly, there is no First Amendment right of access to the White House. Where the White House has determined it wants to scale back its interactions with a particular journalist, denying that journalist a hard pass is a permissible way to accomplish that goal."

    And what I would ask is, what would conservatives be saying if the Barack Obama White House had kicked FOX News out or even an individual obnoxious FOX News reporter?

    We don't — have not tolerated that previously, and we shouldn't tolerate now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a change in approach, isn't it, David?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, they — basically, as Ruth read, it's just the maximal possible interpretation, that we basically have the right to control who comes here, even though it is the public house, it's not Donald Trump's house. It's the people's house.

    On the other hand, there's just such a vast middle here. The White House is — their argument was clearly ridiculous, that they can control, totally control, when they're just doing a public service, they're part of a public servant.

    On the other hand, if there is some complete troublemaker, then obviously that person doesn't get to monopolize — who has reported — becomes a reporter, that person doesn't get to monopolize the room.

    And so there's — take away Donald Trump. President Smith or President Jones should have some discretion if somebody well outside the bounds. Nobody in that White House room is well outside the bounds right now.

    I mean, we have had confrontational people before. Sam Donaldson was pretty confrontational. Helen Thomas could be confrontational. But nobody's really been outside of the grounds. These are professionals. They work for professional news organizations. They basically do their job within the realm of the human variable.

    And so — the one — the one extreme, which was the White House position, is clearly wrong. The other extreme, that anybody should have complete access, that is also wrong. It's just a question of discretion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Ruth, the concern on the part of the press is that, if there is a decision made by the White House to limit who can cover, we're looking at potentially a change in the ability of the press to do its work.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    You have to be able to get in — you have to be able to be in the briefing, you have to be able to be in the press room to be able to see the president. You have to be able to go on these trips.

    And the argument that what — certainly, if you stood up and you cried fire in a crowded Briefing Room, or started shouting obscenities, yes. And, in fact, the norms would be that your colleagues would come down on you. But that, as David said, is not what happened here.

    And just to sort of argue one — one point on the president's behalf, I'm not arguing that he needs to grant interviews to reporters that he doesn't like or news organizations that he doesn't like, just equal access.

    And, by the way, he manufactured this moment. He didn't need to call on Jim Acosta. He was looking for a fight or an issue. And he got it.

  • David Brooks:

    But it is an underlying theme of this administration that there's no such thing as institutional power in this White House. It's all personal power.

    And so they're not serving the presidency. They're serving Donald Trump. And everything Trump says goes. And it's the — it's the unwillingness to acknowledge that they are in public office, doing — serving public duties and acting in public roles that is a theme throughout the administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the other big thing that we were watching, of course, this week was all these new members of Congress who arrived, most of them, many of them, Democrats.

    And, David, we're seeing it's a — it's a group that's younger, it's more female, it's — there are people of color. They — many of them and many of the existing members who were reelected among the Democrats are saying they're not sure they want the same leadership.

    And so you're watching out in the open what may be and what is already an interesting fight between Nancy Pelosi and some of the people who don't think she should be speaker.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, she's speaking very confidently that she will be speaker. I don't quite see where the confidence comes from.

    There have been about 20 who have said that they will not support. I think she could only afford to lose 16. so don't — not quite sure. And there are a lot of people who are still undeclared, lots and lots of people who are still undeclared.

    The new class, the ones I have met, are very refreshing, very non-ideological, by the most parts. They're sort of the — especially the people who have military service, it's just like, how do we get this job done, sort of that kind of attitude.

    They look like America much more than the other class. They're a sign of the vibrancy of the Democratic Party, frankly . They're moderates, though. Remember, two-thirds of the new members were endorsed by the New Democratic Caucus, the more moderate group among the out — all these caucuses.

    And so the attack on Pelosi is generally coming from the center, not from the left.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see this playing out, Ruth?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, I think there's two responses to David's point. One is mathematical, and the other is practical.

    Mathematically, the — even though she can only lose a certain number, you could get out of this. It might be a little bit too cute by half, but it's happened. It happened with Newt Gingrich. It happened with John Boehner in previous speaker races.

    You lower the number you need by letting people simply vote present. So they're not violating their pledge to their constituents, their new constituents.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a little bit of a weasel, isn't it?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ruth Marcus:

    It's a little bit of a weasel, but weasels have happened before in politics, I would point out.

    The second point is that you can't beat something with nothing. So, I think part of her confidence comes from, who is going to actually take her on and have the chance of winning?

    The thing I find so puzzling about this is that David correctly points out that this is — while it's an incredibly young and diverse and interesting caucus, it is not a caucus of lefty crazies. It is a pretty conservative caucus. Those are the folks who need somebody exactly like Nancy Pelosi in the speaker's chair to make sure that the caucus stays disciplined, that it doesn't overstep its bounds, do things that will make the Republican — Republican-leaning districts that they came from vote them out in 2020.

    These are exactly the people, from my point of view, who should want Nancy Pelosi there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, there are risks, David, aren't they, I mean, for some of these Democrats, if — if they put some new unknown figure in there, right?

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

    Yes. No, putting on my Democratic hat, if I were a Democrat, how would I think? Maybe it's a beret.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ruth Marcus:

    It would be a pink hat.

  • David Brooks:

    A beret.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    A little pretentious hat.

    I would — I would probably vote for her. She's always been an external drag. Republicans love running against Nancy Pelosi. But she's been nothing but an internal bonus, because she has been a very effective speaker, and she raises money like nobody's business.

    And so, if I were a normal, standard Democrat, I would think, it's two years. It's a tough two years. We want somebody who's been there before, who is very disciplined.

    And the external drag diminishes, because, in 2020, Republicans will be running against the presidential nominee, not against Nancy Pelosi. And so, to me, it would be a win to keep her.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    And, by the way, why are we thinking about tossing out one person who was at the helm of this enormous success?

    This is the biggest Democratic class since the Watergate Babies in 1974. And we're going to think about tossing out — the Democrats are going to think about tossing out the person who helped them get there? Doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you just said, they don't yet really — I mean, Marcia Fudge, the congresswoman's name has come up, but..

  • Ruth Marcus:

    We will see. She — we will see if she runs. But she was making talk today about how she's not going to decide for a while.

    David's exactly right. Nancy Pelosi is externally the Republicans' favorite boogeywoman, to coin a phrase. But she is the one who can keep this fractious caucus on the straight and narrow, not to lurch for impeachment, not to lurch for crazy investigations, and to drive them back to victory in 2020, when they can run against somebody who's not Nancy Pelosi, Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK, not even two minutes left.

    And I want to ask you about what we can expect the two parties to work together on. And the president came out this week, David, criminal justice reform, in a way interesting, because he has critics on the left saying it doesn't go far enough, a lot of critics from the right saying, he's caved, it's not tough enough.

    Is this an example of something that could happen? We know Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, isn't quite enthusiastic.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. Well, it should be.

    This has been — the state system is obviously much vaster than the federal system. And the states, red and blue, have been making these reforms, part for just budgetary reasons, part for humane reasons.

    There are a lot of people in these prisons who have been good citizens, they have been good prisoners, and there's just really no reason to pass them. They have passed what they — inside the system they call criminal menopause.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    They're like 60 years old. They're not going to do anything bad. They're fine. You should just let people like that out.

    And so there's all sorts of good reasons to do this. The right is — still wants to be tough, law and order. The left is, we won't take half-a-loaf. I'm a big admirer of Frances Perkins, who was secretary of labor under FDR. And her rule was always take half-a-loaf, because you can get the other half later. Just take what you can get.

    And I think that's a good attitude. I wish more on the left on this issue would take half-a-loaf.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That was said with his Democratic hat on.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Now, with my — I don't know what hat I'm putting on, but…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Forty seconds, yes.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I think the left is willing to take the loaf.

    I think the real question is going to be from the right and, in particular, the clock ticking. Can you get this done in a lame-duck session, where you need to do a lot of spending bills, and you have a majority leader who may not be thrilled about doing this?

    Kudos to the president, the Fraternal Order of Police, Koch brothers and others who are willing to do this. It's the right thing to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating to watch.

    We appreciate the two of you. Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thank you.

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