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Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru on Democratic divisions, citizenship data

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest in politics, including brewing tensions between progressive and moderate House Democrats, President Trump’s executive action on acquiring citizenship data, the role of money in politics and remembering Ross Perot.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us to the weekly analysis and that means Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of "The National Review."

    David Brooks is away.

    Hello to both of you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Hi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's pick up, Mark, on what we just heard in Lisa's report, what's been going on all this week, this series of disagreements between Speaker Pelosi and a group of newly elected women Democratic members of the House

    They have been called the quad squad. What do you make of this? How serious a split is this?

  • Mark Shields:

    It's serious, Judy, in that it represents a profound change in our politics.

    When I came to Washington shortly after the cooling of the Earth…

  • Mark Shields:

    … there was a rule that you didn't get to learn any freshman member's name until he or she had won a second term, because they — that was what their first term was about, was learning the place, learning what they're supposed to do, and then getting reelected.

    That is no longer the case. I mean, AOC comes in with 4.7 million Twitter followers. So, she doesn't need the traditional means of communicating, going to a press release or talking on — even on television. She's just available.

    So it's a real — politics is the most imitative of all human art forms, with the possible exception of political journalism. Donald Trump showed that tweeting gets you directly to voters, that you can bypass traditional media.

    That's what these people are doing. I just wish that the four members of the Mod Squad had ever served in the minority and known for eight years what it was like, and the effort, energy, talent and skill of Nancy Pelosi and people who worked with her to win back the majority after eight years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And they're accusing her of being too — not liberal enough.

    Ramesh Ponnuru, how do you read this?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think there are two different voter bases going on here.

    Nancy Pelosi has remarked that she and these members are in deep blue solidly Democratic districts, where a room temperature glass of water with a D after its name could win the election.

    But most of the Democrats who won the swing districts that made the Democrats the majority, they're in moderate districts. They can't take the same positions. And you add to that, they don't have the Senate. So there's always going to be frustrations, when legislation passes the House, and then doesn't get anywhere in the Senate.

    We had a loss for the Democrats on immigration. And part of what's going on here is a blame game, where people can't just accept you have got one half of one of the three branches of government. There's just some times you're going to make — you're going to take some losses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're referring to that vote a few days ago on money for the border, wherein Speaker Pelosi, as Lisa reported, Mark, ended up going along with Republicans.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. No, exactly.

    And just picking up Ramesh's point, it's only — what is it now, 12, 15 years ago since Barack Obama electrified the political world, and particularly the Democratic Party, at the convention in Boston, where he said, we don't — we worship an awesome God in blue America. We have gay friends in red America . There is no red United States. There's only the United States of America, not a blue United States.

    And I just wonder if that kind of a speech and that kind of a spirit would be well-received in this present climate of Democrats, who are fractious, divided, and I think an increasingly divisive group.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is this — Ramesh, from your perspective, is this the kind of split that lingers into next year's and infects and spills over into the presidential race?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I don't think that many voters are going to vote on the basis of this kind of inside baseball dispute between Democrats, especially since none of these members of Congress are going to be on the presidential ballot, the ones that we're talking about anyway.

    But I do think that it makes it harder for the Democrats to have a unified message, where they're talking about their shared agenda, and they're prosecuting the case against Trump, if they're all pointing fingers at each other.

  • Mark Shields:

    It's a very good point, Judy.

    I mean, the reality is that the Democrats, I think, are misreading the results of 2018. In 2010, you will recall, the Republicans won a stunning majority in the House. And Barack Obama was reelected two years later.

    In 2000 — in 1994, Bill Clinton was crushed, and yet — Republicans swept into power for the first time in 40 years, and two years later, he was reelected.

    A congressional election midterm is entirely different from a presidential election. And I don't think that's quite understood by some of these fractious Democrats right now. They'd better figure out — 30 million people voted in the primaries in 2016; 135 million voted in the general.

    But that 30 million, what is said will be remembered all the way through to the last hour in November, the first Tuesday after the first Monday, by what is said in New Hampshire, what is said in Iowa.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    And I think Democrats would be well-advised to remember that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to turn to President Trump, Ramesh.

    And, yesterday, we were all waiting for the president to announce that he was going to sign an executive action or take an executive action in order to add a citizenship question to the census. As the day wore on, we learned that the White House, the president decided not to do that, a complicated set of reasons.

    It was more — it was harder to do than they thought it was going to be. Instead, they are ordering government agencies to put out information, to share it with the Commerce Department, so we know more about who's in this country without documents.

    What does this say about President Trump's efforts to go after immigrants? Does it know an end? I mean, what else do we look for here?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think it says a couple things about this administration.

    One, this is the biggest legal defeat that it suffered. It had a mixed legal result from the Supreme Court, but the ultimate end of it was that they didn't get their way in putting the citizenship question on the census. They ran up against the clock, and they ran up, frankly, against their own incompetence.

    That's the takeaway number two. The Supreme Court said, you can add a citizenship question to the census, but you have got to dot the I's and cross the T's and provide us with your reasons.

    And that was what the administration was incapable of doing. That's, I think, what led them to this place where this basic priority, they are not able to follow through on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you end up in a situation, Mark, where ordering the government to turn over health records, Social Security records of individuals who may or may not be citizens, does that end up being even more invasive than rounding — I mean, than asking them to answer this question?

  • Mark Shields:

    Potentially so, Judy.

    But I think it was a stinging defeat and rebuke of the president. And the president doesn't admit defeat. I mean, I think this was a way out. I mean, the president took a stinging defeat last November. We learned today it was Paul Ryan's fault that the Republicans suffered the loss of the House in November of 2018.

    The closing of the government, that wasn't a defeat for the president. So he can't accept that it is a defeat.

    I think all of this, quite frankly, to look at it in a very uncharitable way, is nothing but a fear campaign to intimidate people from the census, and therefore to lead to an undercount.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A fear campaign?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, look, I think that there's an open question about whether congressional districts can be drawn based on voting eligible population or based on total population.

    And, obviously, what Republicans want to do is draw the lines according to the voting-eligible population, because that will increase their representation in Congress.

    But that's the real motive.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    But they weren't willing to say it and defend it openly in court.

    And, again, I think that that's why we ended up with this — this alternative, which, as you point out, does have some privacy implications that are troubling.

  • Mark Shields:

    The problem is the Constitution.

    I mean, there's nothing about voting age population in the Constitution.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, the Supreme Court just left it open whether — so we will — we would have to see.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, but I think it's pretty clear we're talking about — in a census, we're talking about the number of people.

    At the same time, we have got a number of social programs, the formula of which is based upon the people of — who need it in an area. If you're living next door to people, and you need and your family is in — qualifies for a needs program, and you're denied it because somehow they're undercounted in your district, I mean, that's unjust and, in the final analysis, inhumane.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, that's right.

    I mean, there's a lot of federal money that is tied to these sorts of numbers. So the stakes are very high.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Quickly circle back to the Democrats, to the presidential race.

    We had some movement in the presidential race this week, Mark. Eric Swalwell, the congressman, got out. The billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who's Mr. Impeachment, he's the one who's run millions of dollars of ads advocating the impeachment of the president, is in. He's now running.

    This comes in the same week that Bernie Sanders issues his — announces his anti-endorsements, billionaires and millionaires, who he says he doesn't want their endorsement.

    How much money does — how much difference does money make in 2019 in American politics?

  • Mark Shields:

    It is the mother's milk of American politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still.

  • Mark Shields:

    And, as Mark Hanna said, there are two things that matter in American politics, money, and I can't remember the second one.

    And there's no question about it. And, obviously, the number of people who contribute, 650,00, or 130,000 in September, contributors necessary to get on the stage in the Democratic debate. So it is. It is important, and whether you can hire people, run a campaign and all the rest of it.

    As far as Bernie Sanders, he's just borrowing a page from Grover Cleveland, whose nominating speech at the 1884 convention was, we love him most for the enemies he has made, and, therefore, to identify the special interests, big money that is opposed to you, and to thereby give you a virtue.

    And I think it's a totally legitimate strategy on Bernie Sanders' part.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    You know, the money obviously matters. There is a reason politicians spend so much time raising it.

    But there are so many past candidates who have been big spenders and not gone all the way.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's true.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    John Connally in 1980, Phil Gramm in '96, Jeb Bush in the 2016 cycle.

    I think — so, if you're Tom Steyer, it's not going to be the money that determines whether he wins or not. It may be a prerequisite, but what he's got to show is that he's got a message that takes off.

    And maybe being an impeachment obsessive will be what does it. Maybe enough Democrats will be frustrated by inaction on that front that they will rally to him. But that, I think, is the question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is whether impeachment, Mark, is the cachet that can get him, not just into the debates…

  • Mark Shields:

    If it is, Democrats have just written the longest suicide note in the history of American politics, if that's the case, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Speaking of billionaires, we want to finally remember someone who ran for president twice back in the 1990s, Ross Perot. He died this week.

    Mark, he was remembered as somebody who talked about deficits and standing there with his charts. Some of us who covered those campaigns remember it well.

  • Mark Shields:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is his legacy?

  • Mark Shields:

    His legacy is not to be confused with any other billionaires who have run for the office.

    He was sui generis. And he, quite frankly, in 1992 ran a campaign, Judy, that forced the two parties to confront the national debt.

    If you recall, from the founding of the country to 1980, nine wars, one Depression, we had run up a total in debt of some $1 trillion. In 12 years of supply-side economics under Reagan and Bush, we had quadrupled that.

    And Ross Perot said, you got to do something about it. It's unfair to your children and your grandchildren. Democrats didn't want to go near it, because they were dying to get back in to get the keys to the treasury. Republicans didn't want to touch it because they acknowledged it happened on their watch.

    Bill Clinton was forced basically by Ross Perot persuasiveness to address it. And they were the only balanced budgets in the past half-century, since World War II, Bill Clinton's, as a consequence of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And only a little more than 30 seconds.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    The strongest third-party showing in the last 100 years, in part because of that.

    I think the other thing that comes to mind is whatever disagreements one had with Ross Perot, he wasn't running for himself. He wasn't running for fame. He wasn't running for fortune. He was running as a patriot who had serious concerns about his country's future.

    And that, I think, is something to admire.

  • Mark Shields:

    Amen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And on that note, we thank you both, Ramesh Ponnuru, Mark Shields.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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