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David Brooks and Ruth Marcus on Senate’s witness vote, Sanders’ surge

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the Senate’s decision not to call witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, Republicans’ varying defenses of Trump’s conduct around Ukraine and what recent polling trends among 2020 Democrats suggest about Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.

    Hello to both of you.

    We're going to talk about Iowa in just a moment, but let's start by talking about the news of this evening.

    It was just before 6:00 Eastern time, David, that the Senate did take a vote on witnesses or more evidence, and it went down. It was 51 against to 49 for.

    How do you sum up what's been happening in this trial, the arguments that both sides have made?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well, my view of the whole affair hasn't changed since we read that first transcript of that first call lo these many months ago, which was, he certainly did it.

    And over the last however many months it's been, we have had evidence after evidence that, yes, he certainly did it. And whether John Bolton writes in his book or not, he would be witness number 937 that it certainly happened.

    And my reaction all the way along has been that this probably merits removal. And I have to say right now sitting here tonight, I'm very glad he's not being removed on Wednesday.

    If they took a vote and removed the president, with the country split, with no public minds having been made up, with, if anything, Trump rising in approval a little, I think it'd be a cataclysm for the country, and 45 percent of the country would feel it'd be a coup d'etat.

    Now, how can I hold these three views logically in my head? I have no idea, but I'm telling you these three things are in my head.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you look at this?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, a couple things.

    One is this vote on witnesses. I have seen, we have all seen a lot of really dispiriting votes in the United States Senate. This is one of the most appalling to me, because I have some of the same reservations, though not quite to the extent that David has, about the gravity of removing a president from office, especially with a country split like this, especially with a country facing an election in November, though I would, in fact, vote to convict him and think he should be removed from office.

    But, at the very least, let's — let's get the witnesses out there. Whether we have known it from the start, he has denied it from the start. There's been dispute, including from his own lawyers, about whether or not this happened.

    And it's a bizarre situation, because they're engaging in a cover-up that they know is going to be exposed in a matter of months, if not weeks and days.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because more information is coming out.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Because more information is coming out. The Bolton book is coming out. So at least have the witnesses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there is the…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David.

  • David Brooks:

    What would we learn?

    I mean, I could see if you don't know if the — if a crime occurred, if a burglary occurred. But we know the burglary occurred. And so I'm just playing devil's advocate here. What — like, do we expect the witnesses to change any minds? I really doubt any Republican minds would change.

    Do we expect them to give us a very different picture of what happened? Doubt that would happen.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Your own newspaper reported today that John Bolton tells us that the conversations, including directly with the president, urging him to reach out to Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, something we had not known before Bolton declined to do it.

    But it's part — it's this — because this is not about one perfect conversation, which wasn't perfect, which is a very disturbing conversation on its own. So we have read that transcript, as the president has asked us to do.

    This is part of a long-term effort on the part of the president to use his power as president to damage a political opponent. That is as serious as it gets. And as we learn more details about that, maybe minds don't change, but at least we will know what we're dealing with.

  • David Brooks:

    I do think, since the first transcript appeared, we learned over the course of all these testimonies it wasn't just one call. It was an extended campaign.

    And I guess we have one more chapter in that extended campaign with Bolton. To me, it's a — we're at diminishing returns.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, I think that arguing about diminishing returns, David — and I'm saying this with all the affection I have for you — is a really odd argument for a journalist to make.

    We want to get to the facts. And we should make decisions based on the facts.

  • David Brooks:

    Ultimately, my fallback position is, it can't hurt to hear what John Bolton has to say. Like, there's no downside here. So I probably would have voted for witnesses. I'm just trying to annoy Ruth.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ruth Marcus:

    You have succeeded.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me come back to the Lamar Alexander point, though, is that he's not taking — he said, we understand this is what the president did, but he shouldn't be removed over it.

    I mean, tackle that idea.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And Marco Rubio on Medium has a similar argument, line of argument. And I think the way you could make that argument is that this is not purely a criminal trial. This is a political thing. And you have to take into account the larger context.

    And while I say I would probably vote to remove, it would make me very nervous if we had persuaded nobody in the American public. And this body rests within the larger realm of the American public.

    And maybe America is not persuadable by evidence and facts anymore. In that case, we have got a problem. But if we haven't — if the people saying he should be impeached and removed have not changed a single mind, and if there's any evidence they have gone the opposite way, and we have a society where everything is delegitimized, I think this would massively delegitimize Washington.

    And maybe that's the fault of the voters, the Trump supporters, and not the fault of Washington, but it's a reality.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    So, Lamar Alexander used a very Milquetoast adjective to describe the president's behavior. He said it was inappropriate.

    And I agree that, if you think that this behavior was merely inappropriate, that's a very grave step to take to oust a duly elected president, as the president's lawyers kept telling us.

    But this wasn't just inappropriate. This was at the heart of what the framers considered to be an impeachable offense. And that's — and the reason we know that is that Jonathan Turley, who was the Republicans' witness, who has been writing for The Washington Post, said in the House that, if proven, this would be an impeachable offense.

    He didn't say must convict and remove, but it's very serious.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where does it leave us? I mean, just — I know it's hard to project. They haven't had the final vote, but we expect there will be an acquittal in coming days. They're now saying maybe the middle of next week.

    But, David, where does it leave the government in this country that we have been through this now?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it's been a wrenching period.

    And it's been a wrenching period for the Republican Party, who really didn't, as the Republican Party did in Watergate days, step back from their partisan affiliation, and seem to be fair-minded jurors.

    I thought, frankly, they did better than I expected them to. But my expectations were FOX News level. And so I think that they actually did some wrestling.

    But we didn't have what you would call a fair even explanation of what they were secretly thinking. You just had the sense of massive bad faith, which is now 3 years old in Republican minds, where they're thinking one thing inside and they're mouthing a bunch of party slogans on the outside.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, one of the really interesting things that's going to come will be the question of whether the Republicans are — become Lamar Alexander Republicans and at least break with the president about whether his conduct was perfect, or whether they will buy into a different argument, which is that it just doesn't rise to the level or — I'm sorry — whether they will stay with the president's perfect or they will say it doesn't rise to the level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will — we're watching in the days to come. We're waiting to find out right now when this is — at least this piece of it's going to be resolved.

    But let's quickly turn now to Iowa.

    We just heard the Stephanie Sy report, David. It sounds like we don't know. I mean, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden have been doing well. We don't know about Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren.

    What's your sense of Iowa and what it's going to say?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I would say, in the last week or 10 days, it really makes — makes sense to pay attention to the vectors. Which way are things moving?

    And things are pretty clearly moving in a Sanders direction. He clearly has some surge going on. Biden is not doing terribly, but Sanders really is surging. And what's interesting to me is, Warren is falling, but not as much as Sanders is surging.

    And so it's not just he's taking votes from her. He's taking votes from somebody else. And the other surge that is worth mentioning is Amy Klobuchar, who is also surging. And she's within a shot of overtaking a Warren or even a Buttigieg now.

    So these things, when they start moving in the final days, they tend to go further than you think. And so I take a Sanders and even a Klobuchar not winning, but moving up, I would take that seriously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you say?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    And just to underscore David's point and to agree with him for a change, that is ratified and underscored by the fact that 60 percent — only 60 percent of people say they have definitively made up their minds.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Have decided, yes.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I think that Sanders is a serious threat to win, both in Iowa and New Hampshire. And that would be — and this is not just this sort of usual argument about — in the Democratic Party.

    This is a struggle for the heart and soul of the party. It's an argument between young and old. It's an argument between left and center-moderate, and it's much more than last time around, which was the first chapter of this, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

    There is really a surging wing of the Democratic Party that is way left. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had just 12 percent of Sanders voters supporting capitalism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Oh.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Having a positive view of capitalism. That's a really big deal. Sixty percent had a positive view of socialism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is it going to say? I mean, as we just heard in Stephanie's report, David, I mean, this is a state that is clearly big majority white, Caucasian, white.

    What does it say about the Democratic Party overall and where this race goes from here?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I don't think Kamala Harris or Cory Booker's chances were killed by the fact that Iowa is largely white, because, you look at the national polling, they weren't getting picked up for whatever reason nationally

    And so I don't think — I think Iowa is still a fair place to begin, because they do take it too — so seriously. They're not too representative on the Republican side. They tend to be too social conservative.

    But I think, on the Democratic side, they have done a reasonable good job of picking.

    Just one thing on Sanders that has been obsessing me. You ask people of all different candidates, if your candidate loses, will you support the Democratic nominee, for Warren and all the others, it's 90 percent. For Bernie, it's 52 percent.

    And so — and if you look at the margins in 2016 in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the margins were dominated by people who voted for Sanders in the primary and Trump in the general.

    And so the Democrats may be in a position where they can't nominate Sanders, who's too far left to win, and they can't not, not nominate him, because his people will bolt. And that — if I were a Democrat, that would be my nightmare scenario.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's an argument we're starting to hear from other Democrats.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Absolutely.

    And there's one more vector, to use your word, that is not an Iowa effect, but that I think we need to start paying some serious attention to, and that's Mike Bloomberg, who has spent close to $300 million.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    He is also moving up in the polls.

    Especially if Sanders performs very well, as may be expected, in Iowa and New Hampshire, there is going to be a lot of attention to Bloomberg coming up as the Sanders alternative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the Democratic National Committee today announced they're easing up some of the rules on contributions from supporters, which will make it now possible for Bloomberg to qualify for that debate.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Will be in the debate, which will be a good thing for everybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which will make it even more interesting.

  • David Brooks:

    More panic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan right now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ruth Marcus, thank you. David Brooks.

    Thank you both.

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