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Gerson and Capehart on the government shutdown outlook, politics in 2019

Washington Post columnists Michael Gerson and Jonathan Capehart join William Brangham to discuss the week’s political news, including when we might see resolution on the border wall and government shutdown, lessons from the midterm elections and how the Mueller investigation could produce a "polarization machine."

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  • William Brangham:

    Washington, D.C., and the nation are closing out the year in the middle of a government shutdown, with the two parties as far apart as they can be over the need for a border wall.

    For some analysis on this week in politics, I'm joined by Washington Post columnists Michael Gerson and Jonathan Capehart. Mark Shields and David Brooks are away.

    Gentlemen, welcome.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, to you first.

    The chasm between the Democratic Party and President Trump over this shutdown fight over immigration gets wider and wider and wider. Is it your sense that either side genuinely wants a solution, or do they actually relish this fight?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I will take President Trump first.

    I think he relishes the fight. He's been talking about this border wall since his campaign days . He's been talking about it as president. The only thing that has shifted — well, actually a couple things that have shifted, who's going to pay for it? It was always going to be Mexico during the campaign, Mexico through most of the administration.

    And now he's trying to put the American taxpayer on the hook for the border wall. Also, the definition of what the wall — it's a wall. Then it's slats. And then it's whatever else.

    As for the Democrats, I actually do think that they do want to have a solution, not just when it comes to a border wall, but also when it comes to immigration. We have been down this road at least two times this year — and correct me if I'm wrong, Michael — where Democrats have said yes to funding for a border wall, in exchange for protection for dreamers or in exchange for immigration reform.

    And each time, the president has rejected. Each time, the Republicans have rejected it. And so now I think, with Democrats coming into the majority next week, that we might see a push for that, but let's not — let's not forget something.

    Republicans still control the House, they still control the Senate, and President Trump is still in the White House. And they could do something with their majorities that they have right now. Clearly, they're choosing not to.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael, do you see any obvious end to this logjam?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, I think you're correct, Jonathan, that Democrats have the elements of maybe a deal on this.

    It's not as though they're talking about two massively different positions here. It's not — it's a rounding error in the budget. And I talked with a Democratic senator today who said — set out two positions that might solve this problem, one including the dreamers, but said, we no longer trust the president. He has to move first.

    And…

  • William Brangham:

    Because they have offered these — they have put those on the table in the past. And the president has said no to them.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right, exactly, and pulled the rug out. And so he's an unreliable negotiating partner.

    The president and his people, however, do believe that, first of all, they're — they're going to dominate the issue that — instead of the speaker of the House having her issues, OK? I mean, they're going to dominate what the topic of discussion is, and they think that that's a winner.

    This is really a case in which both sides think they're winning. I think it's not likely that the president is winning. But I do think that this is a little bit of a different shutdown than in the past, because it's a very partial shutdown. You're not shutting down Veterans and HHS.

    There are some other…

  • William Brangham:

    You think would be much more politically unpalatable?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right, exactly. I think the cost would be higher. This is a very partial shutdown, which could go on longer for that reason.

  • William Brangham:

    What is your sense about what happens next week? You're saying, right now, the Republicans have all the chips. They're the ones in control.

    How much changes when Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats take over next week?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, the biggest thing will be that Nancy Pelosi will be speaker. The Democrats will have a big majority.

    But Michael hits on something that is going to be the wild card in all of this, and that's President Trump. I mean, I talked to someone today on the House side who brought up the same issue that you brought up, which is, no one knows what the president actually wants.

    A long time ago, Senator Schumer said negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O. I think what you're going to hear is, from the Democrats, here's what our plan is, but we can't move until we hear from the president what exactly he wants. What are the contours of the deal?

    And then, once that's out there, pray that he sticks to it, because as our colleague Catherine Rampell writes in a column today, we have seen many times when the president will publicly say he wants this fill in the blank deal, and then, at the last minute, pull the rug out from under it, as Michael said.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes.

  • Michael Gerson:

    And it's particularly interesting that the majority leader of the — of the Senate, a Republican, is taking the same position.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right. Right.

  • Michael Gerson:

    A neutral position, saying, work this out, I no longer am in this.

    And that is a strange thing as well. I mean, this is supposed to be a unified governing party. And it is not on this issue right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Can I ask you a question about — specifically about the president's rhetoric about immigration and the impact that has on this debate?

    The immigrants who come to this country, they're not all saints, but they are not, as the president portrays them, a criminal, violent, contagious horde that he wants us all to think of them as.

    And doesn't that rhetoric and doesn't the failure of anyone in the GOP to step up and say, this is dangerous rhetoric, doesn't that make this debate really unsolvable, if that's the way he portrays them?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, there are two levels here. There's a policy debate about border security. And that's a valid debate. You can talk about whether you want a wall or whether you don't want a wall. There's no evil approach in here.

    The problem comes when you dehumanize migrants as a way to raise this debate. And that's what the president has done, put it at the center of Republican agenda by dehumanizing migrants. And that's a very tough thing to get any agreement around. You can't come up with a comprehensive solution under those terms.

    The president would have to essentially give up some of that if he wanted agreement. But he thinks that that is his best play going into the 2020 election. It's a little odd, because that was his message in the midterm election. Didn't work — turn out all that well.

    But he came — he didn't learn any lesson from the midterm, as far as I can tell. He still thinks this is the unifying Republican theme.

  • William Brangham:

    And, Jonathan, to this point, it's not just on immigration, it's on so many issues that the Republican resistance to the president, on Syria, on Saudi Arabia, climate change, whatever it might be, the president, he really has taken full leadership of his party.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes, full leadership of his party, but also as viewed through the prism of who he views as his base.

    So, we talk about the fact that the president has sort of a solid 30 percent of the base. He talks only to them. This rhetoric, his closing argument, which, to my mind, was a racist closing argument, about the immigration — immigrant horde coming to the border, he's carrying that throughout, because it plays well with the people who are applauding him, people who are watching certain cable channels that cater to that.

    And, as we have seen in terms of the reaction to what the president may or may not do on immigration, the people who are — who are on television or on radio who might disagree with him vehemently, they have outsized power over the president, in terms of what he will do, what he will propose.

    And so, as long as the president caters to them, and not do what Democrats and Republicans in the White House, in the Oval Office have done for generations — that is, once you get in that office, you broaden your reach — he has not done that. He's made it a point to exclude anyone who he might view as someone who hasn't run — who has not supported him or doesn't support him.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael, looking forward to next year, there's obviously the other elephant in the room, and that is Robert Mueller, and what might…

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    … or might not come out of this ongoing investigation, which the president has — it has been a thorn in his side, to say the least, for the entire — in the entirety of the investigation.

    How do you — when you look forward and imagine how that might play out, what do you think is going to happen?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, I think pieces here are — the rumors are, we might see something drop in mid-February. That's just…

  • William Brangham:

    A report from Robert Mueller.

  • Michael Gerson:

    That's just rumor.

    But if it were to happen in that time frame, then there would be an assessment of how strong the case is here. I think there would be tremendous pressure within the Democratic constituency to support impeachment if there's a strong case made by Mueller.

    And I think that may not be good politics. I have talked to some Democrats who aren't sure that that's good politics, given the Clinton example. But I think there's going to be huge pressure. And then that will be the centerpiece argument of American politics at that point. There will be no other topic as far as, you know, under the radar screen.

    I talked with a member of McConnell's staff, who said — and I asked the question, what can you get done while you're debating impeachment? And the question was just enough to keep things going.

    And I think that's the likely outcome here. And then you have the drama of the House, but then the drama of the Senate, where I think he can only lose a few Republicans. It's not a huge gap that has to be made up.

    And that, I think, is going to be the central drama of American politics.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that how you see it?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Oh, absolutely.

    And I think, if special counsel Mueller presents a report where the evidence is just — it's overwhelming, I think that gives not cover, because, right now, the push in the Democratic Party, if you listen to the base, is, let's impeach the guy now, without any anything from Mueller.

    But what a Mueller report would do, if there is that evidence that we all think might be there, that gives everyone sort of a centerpiece to focus on. I think Democrats in the House would be compelled to start impeachment proceedings if the evidence warrants.

    And I think it would sort of focus the mind in the Republican-controlled Senate. If those articles of impeachment do come over, they have to take them seriously and have to debate them seriously and have to hold the president accountable and judge the facts as they are, if we get to that point, because I think Michael is right.

    It will be the central focus of American life and politics, because the charges and the issues that we will be debating at that time will be that — will be that serious.

  • Michael Gerson:

    And it will put tremendous strain on American institutions, central American institutions, the FBI, the way the Congress reacts, whether it's responsible or not responsible.

  • William Brangham:

    How the courts respond.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right, exactly.

    And so it will be a fascinating historical moment, when American institutions are in distress.

  • William Brangham:

    But let's just say that the — you both have put forward the example that it's conclusive evidence, where it's clearly black or white.

    But if it were more on the margins, and it wasn't as crystal-clear, and there wasn't a smoking gun, doesn't that put that whole impeachment push in much more jeopardy? It just becomes a much more riskier calculation.

  • Michael Gerson:

    I think it's a very possible outcome that you will have a report that is strong enough for every Democrat to support impeachment in the House of Representatives and not strong enough to bring any Republican senators in the Senate.

    That's quite possible. All this…

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    For a conviction.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right, for conviction.

    And then you have what? A polarization machine. I mean, you're just — you're dividing the country in fundamental ways, without a clear argument either way. That's going to put huge strains on American political life.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    But I do — I do think, though, that, even though there would be that strain on our political institutions, that shouldn't be an argument for doing nothing.

    I mean, we have these processes in place, and they are written in the Constitution, to safeguard against someone doing something untoward that is in violation of their oath of office and in violation of the trust of the American people.

    And I think, at a minimum, we have to let the process run its course. Whatever that means for our institutions and our politics, that's what they're there for.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan Capehart, Michael Gerson, thank you both very much.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thank you.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Good to be here.

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