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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week’s political news, including the battle between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over rules for a Senate impeachment trial, how the presidential primary race is shaping up among 2020 Democrats and the year’s most surprising political developments.
From the impeachment trial of President Trump, to the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the end of 2019 leaves a lot of unanswered questions heading into the new year.
For a little perspective, and hopefully some answers, we have got the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Good to see you both.
The two biggest stories of 2010, I think it's fair to say, will also carry over into 2020, the impeachment and the 2020 race.
David, let's start with impeachment.
It was a quiet week in Washington, by and large, but we were still talking about impeachment because of some comments by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. She said she was disturbed by hearing Mitch McConnell say he's in total coordination with the White House.
Did her remarks surprise you?
Well, no, because I agreed with them.
But I couldn't tell how disturbed she was. It was an Alaska broadcast interview. And it wasn't like, oh, I have got a flea under my ankle disturbed, or was it, this is terrible, I'm going to do something about it?
So that part wasn't clear. But it's certainly true that — when I started covering the Senate, you had senators like Robert Byrd and Arlen Specter, some of whom loved the Senate more than they loved their party.
And the institutions and procedures of the Senate were very valuable to them, and they knew a lot. And they were always quoting the obscure rules.
And Mitch McConnell is not of that school. And so the Senate's job here is to be the judge, to be the arbiter, the objective arbiter. And he's just saying, no, forget all that. We're siding with the White House.
And I can understand why it disturbs Lisa Murkowski. I don't — it should be disturbing a lot of other people.
You know, Mark, the New York Times Editorial Board published this editorial late today. They called it "A Stirring of Conscience in the Senate." They also wrote: "At least one Republican, Lisa Murkowski, wants the Trump impeachment trial to be more than a test of party loyalty. Others should follow."
Do you think others will follow?
I think others are tempted to follow.
I think Lisa Murkowski, let's first acknowledge, she is unique. In the past 65 years, exactly one United States senator has won as a write-in candidate. She did that in 2010, after she lost the Republican primary to the Tea Party candidate backed by Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin and all sorts of other distinguished Americans.
And she came back and won as a write-in. So she stared into her political grave already. I mean, she knows. I mean, she's not a bed-wetter or a nervous Nellie, or whatever you want to call it, when it comes to anxiety.
So, I think that that gives her a certain independence that many of her colleagues in both parties don't have.
And I think — I think it's significant. I think David's point about Mitch McConnell is an important one, that Mitch McConnell is strictly an inside player. He can't take it outside.
In other words, if it's a debate about outside, Mitch McConnell loses. He's a very formidable operator inside the Senate, sort of when nobody's looking in procedures and this and that.
But, I mean, this is a question. Are they going to just rush to judgment, ignore any witnesses, ignore testimony, and live by the lie which the president is telling, that is, I want these people to testify, I have forbidden them to testify, but I want them to testify, because I want it out in the open?
Well, you can't have it both ways.
I do think he's helping the Democrats.
I think it's — I personally it's in the Democrats' best interests that they get rid of this and they move onto the campaign.
So, in a perverse way, he's helping them. And he could be holding a long trial and keeping all the Democratic Senate candidates in Washington through January and February. And he seems to be not inclined to do that.
You think this gridlock that we have right now over the procedure of how the Senate trial, the rules for which it will move forward — you have got Senator Schumer saying that they want to call witnesses, they want to have additional testimony, Mitch McConnell saying, absolutely not.
And now Nancy Pelosi has not yet transmitted those articles of impeachment. They cannot begin their work in the Senate until that happens. Does that benefit Democrats too?
No, I don't think it does.
I think the rules favor the Republicans in the circumstance. The majority sort of rules this thing. And they have very little leverage. And as we discussed last week, it's not leverage to tell somebody who doesn't want to do something they can't do something. And that's what basically what Nancy Pelosi is doing right now.
Can you make a prediction for what's going to happen next in 2020 in the impeachment trial?
I thought it was clear all along he would get impeached and then he would get acquitted by the Senate. Nothing has changed.
I differ in this sense.
I think that testimony only hurts. And to the degree that there is pressure for testimony, and that people are unwilling, whether it's Republicans in tough races in 2020, to say they want to rush to judgment without hearing testimony, I think any time it opens up — if Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, had something good to say that exonerated, exculpated the president in any way, he would have said it.
He's certainly done everything else. He's been enough of a toady in every other respect for the president. He would be shouting it from the rooftops. But he hasn't said anything.
I mean, so I do think — I think it's live and it's real.
It's live and it's real. And it's certainly going to be dominating a lot of the headlines in 2020 as well.
Let's talk about the 2020 race. It feels like we have been talking about this since 2016. We're coming off the last debate of the year, weeks away from those first ballots being cast in the early states.
Mark, kick us off. When you look at the lay of the land in the Democratic field right now, what are you seeing? How are you assessing the candidates and where they are going into the new year?
Well, doing them alphabetically — no.
We don't get beyond B.
I think we have to remind ourselves, I mean, history's — of history's mandate.
And that is that there are only three tickets out of Iowa. We can look at it and say, someone says I'm going to run a really strong fifth in Iowa, but I'm going to bounce back in Florida.
No, you're not. I mean, if you're not in the top three in Iowa, history tells us you're not going to continue. If you're not in the top two in New Hampshire, you're not going to be nominated.
Nominees only come from those select groups. So there will be an incredible paring in a big, big hurry.
I guess, if you look at it, one of the things that has surprised me is Bernie Sanders' staying power. I mean, Bernie Sanders has raised more money in contribution — individual contributions than Donald Trump. And Donald Trump's raised a lot of money.
So it shows that warmth and personality aren't everything.
But, I mean — no, I mean, a lot of Democrats are interested in ideas, ideology or positions, and Bernie's got a lot of all those things.
Yes, David, he's consistently stayed towards the top of the pack in all of the polls, right?
And when you're looking at this last debate, it was the smallest debate field in terms of who made it to the stage, but still a very crowded total candidate field.
And he's got 18 to 20 percent of Democrats. And his supporters are more likely to say, I'm decided. I'm going with Bernie.
And a lot of them decided four years ago. And they have stayed decided. So he's got a very solid base of support, more than any of the other candidates, at least more solidly loyal.
The question is, does he have any of the other supporters from the other current candidates? Are people out there thinking Buttigieg or Sanders, Biden or Sanders? And the evidence so far is that he's got fewer of those people. There are a lot of people that are not thinking about him at all.
Like, they have three people who they may support, but Bernie is not one of them. So he's got a very solid core. The question is, can he get anybody else to join that core? And I think that's why it still remains unlikely he will get the nomination.
But you have seen a ripple of panic go through the Democratic establishment this last couple weeks, as they think, well, it could be him. What do we do then?
We have also seen some of the candidates start to kind of focus their fire more on some of the moderate candidates who've been ticking up, seeing some minor surges, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg.
What do you think their futures hold?
Well, I mean, Buttigieg is — understands history.
I mean, he's running first in the Iowa, accorded the Iowa Des Moines Register poll, which has been sort of the gold standard, certainly, of polling over the years, in the last one. And that's why the fire is on him.
I mean, I think there's a fear among Sanders, Warren, Biden, whoever, that, if Buttigieg becomes the fresh new face and wins Iowa, and then vaults into New Hampshire, it could be tough to catch him. So they're trying to knock him down to size before that.
I mean, that was the last debate, in which you played such a prominent role, was all about, was getting Pete, it seemed to me.
I have been struck by the real animosity to Buttigieg, especially among a lot of younger voters.
That's striking to you.
Yes. I mean, they're really ferociously hostile toward him.
And I think that's three things. One, for a certain class of people who went to a certain sort of school, they all knew the kid who got the Rhodes Scholarship, and they didn't like that kid. And he's like that kid. Oh, he's the guy who went to Oxford.
Yes, he was a more friendly version.
Yes. Yes. Bill Bradley.
Second, he is — somebody wrote this, and I have forgotten who — that he provides the illusion of generational change without the substance of generational change.
So he is an old person's idea of a young person. And so he doesn't really represent a radical break. And, third, he has tacked to the center, and now is a moderate. And the left is out to get him for that reason.
And the debate between the moderate wing, what we call moderate — they are all liberals. They're all pretty progressive. Like, as somebody pointed out, the most moderate person in this race is way to the left of Barack Obama.
And — but them vs. the Bernie, Warren, that is the crucial debate of the next year, because the debates on the left are more important than the debates on the right, right now.
Have we moved the needle forward on any of that?
I mean, a lot of those major issues, health care and the economy and so on, those have been built along those fault lines, right, the moderate wing vs. the progressive wing. Has the Democratic Party found its way forward yet?
No. I mean, they're still wrestling.
We heard — argued about free tuition. And the Democratic Party is — just somehow needs a dose of practicality. I mean, there are two million fewer Americans today with health care than there were when Donald Trump became president because of Donald Trump's policies, because of his administration's policies, steadily and specifically.
The Democrats just won a major — the biggest midterm election victory in their history in 2018, just, as I looked at it, about 13 months ago. And so what do Democrats want to do? Give up the advantage? My goodness gracious, no, we don't need that. We're going to scrap this.
And, to me, it makes no sense practically, when you have them on the defensive and you're on the right on the issue. So, no, the logic is all to stay where they are.
David, I think, puts it well, whether it's moderate or not. I mean, the problem with Buttigieg is that he looks too practical to too many people.
But there is a generational — I mean, older people like him more than do his contemporaries, which…
Well, we should note, gentlemen, this is the last conversation we get to have with you in the year 2019.
So I'm going to ask a dangerous question, which is, sometimes, when you look back over the last 12 months, it can feel like we fit three years into one.
Is there anything that stands out to you as a greater consequence, something you never thought that you would see that happened this past year?
I mean, my standout is that everything happened, but nothing changed, that Donald Trump's numbers are just where they were. The political landscape is basically where it was. He has not really suffered a loss in his base particularly large.
And so my view is that events are not really changing politics and partisan affiliation, the way they used to, that sociology is driving events, and that, if you're an urban person, you're probably a Democrat. If you're a rural person, you're probably a Republican.
And we vote according to our sociological categories these days, and events don't knock us off those categories.
Mark, we have got a minute, minute-and-a-half left.
What do you think?
Donald Trump — and this is a visual that probably is not terribly appealing — but when it came to political coattails, turned out to be wearing a tank top in 2019.
He went in and campaigned hard, made it about his presidency in both Kentucky and Louisiana, states he had won by 25 points and 20 points, said his presidency was at stake, that he had to win, backing Republican candidates, both of whom last.
John Bel Edwards, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, eked out a victory, but an impressive victory nevertheless, after he had expanded Medicaid coverage, after he increased teachers' salaries, and after he had balanced the state budget from a $2 billion deficit that he had inherited from Bobby Jindal, and had the best answer to Donald Trump, who had savaged them in the campaign.
The president of the United States, God bless his heart.
And I just thought — I thought it was a brilliant, a brilliant way of doing it.
The biggest surprise to me, quite honestly, being in Washington, D.C., was seeing the president of the United States booed at the World Series.
He's the only president in 100 years not to throw out the opening ball of the baseball season. And now I understand why.
And anybody who thinks, oh, Washington's a Democratic town, people who go to the World Series, as David can attest, are, if not the top 1 percent, the top 5 percent. I mean, this is a — it's an expensive ticket and it's an expensive proposition.
And to see a spontaneous "Lock him up, lock him up" was really — it was a shock to me, and I know it was to the president.
It was a packed, packed year in 2019, certain to be a packed year ahead too.
We're so grateful to both of you for being here.
David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.
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