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Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru on Trump’s trade war and Biden’s lead

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including President Trump’s trade war with China and attacks on the Fed and how they’re affecting the U.S. economy, three recent Democratic departures from the 2020 presidential race and the legacy of billionaire GOP donor David Koch.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, President Trump continues his disputes with China and the Federal Reserve, as economic jitters grow. And three Democratic presidential candidates have now bowed out of the 2020 race.

    Here to help us understand the politics of it all are Shields and Ponnuru. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of "The National Review." David Brooks is away.

    And hello to both of you on this Friday night. We have got a lot going on and a lot to talk about.

    Mark, I'm going to start with you.

    Today, we started out with China announcing higher tariffs on, what, $75 billion worth of American goods, somewhat expected. But then the president unleashed a barrage of criticisms, not only on China. By the end of the day, he had slapped new tariffs — said he was slapping new tariffs on more than $500 billion worth of Chinese goods. He was attacking the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and on and on.

    What are we to make of it?

  • Mark Shields:

    I wish I knew, Judy. I really do.

    I mean, it's a performance of staggering instability, more than anything else. You look at the president attacking his own chairman of the Federal Reserve, and comparing — saying that his damage to the United States is greater than that — greater threat than that of Chairman Xi.

    Quite honestly, China is a human rights abuser of historic dimensions. There's million people who are Muslims right now in reeducation camps. There's religious persecution abroad. I mean, this is so unfair, unjust, and inaccurate.

    But, in a larger sense, domestically, it's unnerving to the United States, to those who want to invest in the country, employers who want to hire, want to expand. They're looking for predictability. They're looking for stability. They're getting absolutely none of that.

    Three times this week, the White House changed its position on a tax cut. I wish I knew. I bet Ramesh has a lot better answer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, massive instability, Ramesh?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, the president's tweets today attacking the Federal Reserve chairman that he himself appointed, declaring China an enemy, but possibly not as much of an enemy as that appointee, were — they were appalling tweets.

    But one of the points he made was absolutely true, which is that China has abused the trade system, its intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers. Those are real abuses.

    The problem is, Trump has created a problem for himself. He has backed himself into a corner. He has made a big part of his identity that he is going to be the president who, for the first time, takes those abuses seriously, holds the Chinese to account.

    And he's finding that, the way he's done it, going unilaterally, going with — in with vague demands, without even a unified team of his own negotiators, is not working. And I think that is the frustration that is boiling up in these tweets and now boiling up in actual tariffs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, can we write it off then to just frustration with the problems that he's had inside his administration? I mean…

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, every presidency — and I have been through 11 of them now — is basically a mirror reflection of the man at the top — and eventually will be a woman at the top — but the strengths and weaknesses of that individual.

    This is — Donald Trump, the pattern is familiar by now. He finds somebody, they're the best, because he knows the best, and the best people want to work for him, and he hires them. He praises them to the sky. They get in trouble, he loses confidence, he banishes them to the outer darkness.

    I mean, outstanding Americans, like General Jim Mattis and others have just served, served their country, and been gone. I mean, so the instability begins right at the top.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, I mean, even on top of that, which is something I discussed earlier with Catherine Rampell, Ramesh, and that is his ordering, in a tweet, ordering American companies to stop doing business with China.

    I mean…

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    And, of course, presidents can't do that. Presidents don't have that kind of authority.

    But I suppose, if you're the sort of person who thinks that, as president, you should just be able to say something, and it happens, that would add to your frustration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But does this help him politically, all this?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    I don't think so. I think that it is undermining the economy.

    The reaction of the stock market suggests they don't believe — the people with real money on the line do not believe that this is going to produce Chinese concessions that are going to be worth it for the economy going forward.

    And I do think that, as fashionable as it is to say that nothing can dent President Trump's approval ratings, the one thing that could is a weakening economy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're saying this could…

  • Mark Shields:

    Let me just pick up on Ramesh's point, because I think it's a good one.

    Judy, in the final analysis, it's a personal assessment people make of their president. And there is a very simple four-part question that has been asked for the past 45 years. I like the president personally and I agree with most of his policies. I like the president personally, disagree. I dislike the president, don't agree, dislike the president, agree.

    With Ronald Reagan, 75 percent of Americans liked him, liked him. That is formidable job when you're trying to unseat somebody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whatever they thought of his policies.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

    Even Bill Clinton, going through the Monica Lewinsky and impeachment, was at 73 percent approval rating, and with 65 percent liking him.

    Donald Trump, Donald Trump, with the lowest unemployment in 50 years, has 30 percent of Americans who like him, who like him. So that's the benefit of the doubt he has going.

    And I just — I really think he's in enormous political trouble. And I think he understands that, and I think that's anxiety-generating in him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's turn — I mean, there's a lot to say about all that happened today, and the Federal Reserve and China, but let's spend a few minutes talking about the Democrats.

    Ramesh, we lost three more of the — I guess you could say the candidates who hadn't really caught on this week. Today, Seth Moulton, the congressman from Massachusetts, announced he's not running.

    But you still have a good 20-plus candidates in the race. Where does this Democratic race stand right now? Has it firmed up? Is it — is it all over the map? How do you see it?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think that Vice President Biden has shown stronger staying power than people might have thought, even after that first debate, where he seemed to be rattled by Senator Kamala Harris' attack on him.

    He has maintained his leadership at the polls. He's maintained, I think, very importantly, a multiracial coalition. You don't need one of those to win a Republican presidential nomination. You do to win a Democratic presidential nomination.

    And, right now, he's doing better among blacks and Hispanics than he is among white voters. And there's nobody else really at the top level of the party who can say that they have got a similar really broad coalition.

    So he's riding maybe a little too much on electability. Maybe he doesn't have enthusiastic support. But I still think you might rather be him than any of the other candidates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see this Democratic race?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Bob Strauss, the great Democratic chair, said once that the toughest thing is not to announce that you're running for president and throw your hat in the ring or take a chance. The toughest thing is to admit you have lost and to withdraw.

    And that takes an awful lot of guts to do it. And so the people who left, Hickenlooper in Colorado and Inslee in Washington, were people of accomplishment. I mean, they have been governors. They have been mayors. They had a record of achievement.

    I mean, my bias for executors vs. legislators is admitted. And so I think they're — they're a loss to the party in that sense. And Congressman Moulton launched a challenge to Nancy Pelosi for the speakership, and in the presidential nomination, did just about as well.

    And they all have to get back to trying to get elected, as with Senator — Mayor — Governor Hickenlooper is trying to do right now in Colorado.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So he's running in Colorado for the Senate.

  • Mark Shields:

    He's running in Colorado for the Senate.

    So, no, I think, Judy, that Ramesh's analysis is pretty solid. Joe Biden is running on electability. The only drawback to electability is, you have to win. And if you don't win Iowa and you don't win New Hampshire, then your electability, even though it looks good in November, is undermined.

    I think anybody who looks at the Democratic race has to be impressed by what Elizabeth Warren has done. She came in under the worst circumstances, self-created, and forswore any big money. She's managed to…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Took a lot of criticism.

  • Mark Shields:

    Took a lot of criticism, has raised — has raised money, has generated enthusiasm and great response. And her numbers are up.

    And Kamala Harris' numbers, she went after Joe Biden. She was the one that hit them. She belled that cat. And she's paid for it. I mean, — she's her own numbers have shrunk in the meanwhile.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing I want to ask you both about is what we just heard in that report from John Yang. And that's the legacy of David Koch.

    Here you have a multibillionaire, Ramesh, who gave millions and millions, I don't know what the total is, to conservative causes, as well as to charitable causes. What's his legacy in American politics?

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    Well, I think that he was able to move the needle on some issues, not so much conservative issues, as libertarian issues, where a lot of conservatives weren't with him.

    But he was a principled libertarian. And he supported drug legalization. He supported…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which a lot of people don't remember.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    That's right.

    Supported same-sex marriage. He gets a lot of criticism from the left, but, because of those principles, he was willing to work with liberals on those issues.

    I think, though, his death comes at a time when that philosophy is waning in America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The libertarian…

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    The libertarian philosophy, the small government philosophy.

    You see Republicans like Donald Trump moving in the direction of tariffs and immigration control. And you see Democrats moving in the direction of national health insurance, Green New Deal.

    So you do wonder whether this death is maybe a little bit more symbolic.

  • Mark Shields:

    I met David Koch in 1980. He was a vice presidential nominee on the Libertarian ticket, a party that was dedicated to the abolition of the federal income tax, abolition of child labor laws, and the repeal of Medicare.

    He is proof of the golden rule in American politics. He who has the gold rules. They put in hundreds of millions of dollars. They put in dark money. It was — it against any disclosure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Money…

  • Mark Shields:

    Money that was not revealed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … was unlabeled.

  • Mark Shields:

    And, Judy, whether you're talking about opposition to clean air laws or clean water laws, under libertarian philosophy, yes, but there's no question about it, the air is less clean and the water is less clean.

    And I just — I just think that with the dark money, you talk about climate change. You saw Brazil today. The two are bookends, that and the Koch brothers and what they have done politically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But your point, Ramesh, is, the money moved the needle, at least to some extent, on some of these huge issues.

  • Mark Shields:

    It did, elected a lot of people, a lot of state legislators.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    And advocacy as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru, good to have you both. Thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru:

    You're welcome.

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