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Shields and Brooks on Democratic debate, Bolton’s departure

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the third Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, results of the special congressional election in North Carolina, the departure of John Bolton from the Trump administration and movement toward gun reform legislation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's talk about this debate.

    David, for the first time, the 10 top candidates on the stage one night. We don't have two nights of debate.

    What did you take away? Did one or another help himself or herself, or what?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, if you go by raw quality, I thought Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg just did the best.

    It doesn't seem to help them, no matter how good they do. But I thought they were confident. They were sometimes forceful, sometimes emotional. They're the sort of candidates that Donald Trump probably couldn't pound down very far.

    Among the leaders and the people who were actually seem very likely to get the nomination, I thought Joe Biden, while wobbly a lot, had the best night, forceful, beginning to hit back at Warren and Sanders on the they're going to take away the private insurance.

    I thought Warren had a — quite a good night, too. So the fundamental thing — and I guess this is common agreement — nothing really shifted in the debate, but things sort of solidified a little more. And that's probably good for Joe Biden.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You agree. Solidified for Joe Biden?

  • Mark Shields:

    I don't. I don't agree with David. I think he's too glib and too…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, Judy, somehow, since the last two debates, the Democratic candidates discovered that there had been one Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt who twice won the White House with over 50 percent of the vote.

    His name was Barack Obama. He was the big winner last night. All of a sudden, he became the most popular guy. Everybody wanted a piece of Barack Obama, which worked to Joe Biden's advantage, because Joe Biden is obviously the closest in everybody's mind, and in actuality, to Barack Obama.

    So I thought — I thought that, to me, was the most — there wasn't a game-changer, I did not believe. I think Elizabeth Warren set out — she's got — probably maximized your support, based upon her plans and ideas, which are, let's be frank, if a Senate will not pass with 93 percent support in the country for background checks, will not pass it, the likelihood of passing these comprehensive, sweeping changes is remote, at best.

    But, at the same time, she filled out her persona, personal resume. She's been all message and little messenger. I thought her messenger part was filled in last night very well.

    Bernie Sanders is all message and not messenger. I don't argue with David in his assessment of who did well. I thought Pete Buttigieg…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And who did you think did well?

  • Mark Shields:

    I thought Biden had a good night, in the sense that he went in as the leader and came out as the leader, with wobbly moments.

    He's not — he's not somebody who's going to let your guard down at all times. I do think that Buttigieg had a good night. He is as disciplined and as thoughtful and as coherent as anybody.

    In his answer on national security, he used his credential as a military person, I thought, the most thoughtfully. I thought the Democrats were pretty shallow on national security. And I thought Buttigieg, on his argument that there should be a re-upping every three years of an authorization of military — use of military force by the Congress — the Congress has been missing in action for 18 years in going to war.

  • David Brooks:

    I would say Mark's reference to Obama reminds me of the where the party's center of ideological gravity is.

    I think some of the earlier debates, Obama and sort of that kind of Democrat was seen as complicit in the status quo, and therefore that all had to be torn down.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    And now Obama is seen, well, no, he's a very progressive guy, but not as progressive as the Sanders-Warren wing.

    And so what you saw was a bit of resurgence of the normal progressive center. And Biden's poll support suggests that's a real thing, in part because a lot of African-American voters are not quite as progressive on some issues as the Warren-Sanders wing, and they're sticking with Biden.

    And so you saw the Klobuchars, the Buttigiegs begin to hit back on — especially on this health care issue, where they said, you're limiting people's choices. You want to put everybody into one system.

    And then the second dynamic is that, sometimes, people on the — on the left, if we want to put it that way, hit Biden in ways that attract sympathy for Biden.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ah.

  • David Brooks:

    And that — we saw that with the Castro exchange. We saw it with the protesters late in the debate, when Biden was talking about his late wife.

    And, sometimes, some of the attacks become so vitriolic, people say, wait, I like Joe Biden. And it redounds to his benefit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead. Yes.

  • Mark Shields:

    There's a reservoir of good feeling for Joe Biden. And I think we saw that among Democrats last night.

    Castro was on everybody's short list for vice president, until he wasn't. And he, I think…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You think last night dis…

  • Mark Shields:

    I think he was the queen of mean. He was Leona Helmsley of the Democrats. I mean, that was that a…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whoa.

  • Mark Shields:

    It was really — I mean, he didn't just — it wasn't just a throwaway line. He came back and repeated it twice to make sure you got it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He said it wasn't personal. But…

  • Mark Shields:

    It wasn't personal? Who was he talking about? I'm sorry. Was he talking — missing — did I miss somebody in this? He was talking about the institution? So, no, that just — that did not work.

    But the one organic moment of real humor in the whole evening was Cory Booker, when he said, I'm going to — my answer is no. He was talking about he was going to impose his vegan taste upon beef-eating Texas, and he said no. And I will translate that into Spanish. No.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, that — it was good.

    I mean, Amy Klobuchar had some good lines, but they were good lines.

  • David Brooks:

    Right. And his was organic, and I give him credit for that.

    But, somehow, it just doesn't come together for Cory Booker yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another piece of politics this week, just quickly, David, was that makeup race in North Carolina, the Ninth Congressional District, a do-over.

    The Republicans won, they held on, but by a much narrower margin than what we saw President Trump take that district in 2016. Is there a message here for Republicans and Democrats?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I mean, it could be that there's a message.

    And it was Trump won it by 12, and then they now carried it by two, so that's not a good thing. But my bias is that we tend to cover local races with a strictly national perspective, and that we see it only as about Donald Trump.

    But the Republican Party behaved pretty disgracefully in this race in 2018, with corruption and all this stuff, which is why we had to have a do-over. And so it could have been in part also just personal sickness with the Republican Party.

    And McCready, who was the Democrat, did not do — he did worse in rural areas than he did in the first version of this election. And that highlights the core problems for Democrats in places like that, which is, they have got to get out of their core and start winning over people in the more rural areas.

    And they're still not quite able to do that. And McCready was a very good centrist candidate, good for that district.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some bleeding among Republicans, for Republicans, Mark, in the suburbs around Charlotte.

  • Mark Shields:

    Big.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so is that something — I mean, is David right that this is more local, it's different because it was a congressional race, or is that something Republicans nationally should worry about?

  • Mark Shields:

    Republicans have to worry about it. We're going to see it this fall in Virginia, where the legislature is being elected in a statewide election.

    Judy, the — Mecklenburg County, which is the heart and soul of the Republican greater Charlotte area, 13 percent McCready won by. David's absolutely right that the Democrats — these are historically Democratic areas.

    Take Robeson County. Barack Obama got 58 percent one time, 57 percent another time. John Kerry carried it. This is where Donald Trump actually carried it over Hillary Clinton. And those conversions, if you will, those white rural Democrats left the Democratic Party.

    They barely broke for McCready. I mean, he should have carried that county big on Tuesday for the Democrat. He didn't.

    I think Republicans have a big suburban problem. Democrats have that white rural problem, and it's real. But they have voted Democratic in the past. So Democrats can't dismiss it and say, oh, they're all racists, they're all narrow-minded.

    They voted for Barack Obama in that county, Robeson County.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about what happened at the White House this week.

    David, the president has parted ways with yet another national security adviser, representing just the latest sign of a lot of turmoil in his foreign policy, national security staff.

    Is this just the typical Washington turnover? Or is this something the American people should be worried about?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, the Trump administration, it's always the typical Washington thing.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Now, it's — I mean, in the one sense, you sort of give Bolton, John Bolton, some credit, that he did stop some pretty bad things.

    He seems to have dissuaded Trump from meeting with the Taliban in Camp David and doing a deal with North Korea. Trump wanted to do deals, so he could have nice headlines and a good TV show. And Bolton seems to be among those who slowed him down on that. So he gets some credit.

    The problem — I think the larger problem is that the NSC is supposed to be running the process. There are lots of different players in the foreign policy game, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Intelligence Agency.

    And the NSC is supposed to be running the process to coordinate all this information, and so the president can make a decision.

    But, with Trump, there's no process. And so there are supposed to be meeting, principals meetings, undersecretary meetings, all these different layers of meetings. And, apparently, that's not happening.

    And so we have Donald Trump conducting foreign policy in a room. We have got 800,000 people in the intelligence community, two million people in the military, lord knows how many in the State Department, all of whom are kind of irrelevant right now, because Donald Trump is sitting there watching CNN or whatever he's watching and making foreign policy.

    And I think that's the scary thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Scary, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Scary, Judy.

    John Bolton never met a foreign engagement that he didn't like, in my experience. I mean, he loved military confrontation, except when his number came up in the draft, and he says, I confess I think the war in South Vietnam — in Vietnam is not winnable, and he has — so he confessed he had no desire to fight in it, which — being an armchair commando you think might inhibit him from sending other people's children into war.

    But watching the shoot-down or the face-off between him and Donald Trump was reminded of like being an agnostic at the football game between Southern Methodist and Notre Dame.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, I really — I wasn't rooting for either side.

    I mean, he was not a yes-man. Trump wants a yes-man. And he is not — he was not a yes-man.

    And…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you saying that's what Secretary of State Pompeo…

  • Mark Shields:

    I think Secretary Pompeo has played Donald Trump like a virtuoso plays a Stradivarius, I mean, all the way to the point where Donald Trump gave him credit for making the decision not to wear two hats, as Kissinger, to be both national security adviser and secretary of state.

    So he's figured it out, just as Nikki Haley figured it out.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former U.N. ambassador.

  • Mark Shields:

    Former U.N. ambassador.

    So, I'm just not — I'm not going to miss John Bolton. I think he probably did have a sobering influence at certain junctures, as David points out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing quickly I want to ask you both about is the prospect for any sort of legislation on guns.

    All these mass shootings, the Democrats are now talking about it. They're pushing legislation. You both talked about it came up in the debate last night.

    David, the Democrats are pushing it. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, is saying, I'm not going to do this until I know President Trump is going to sign something.

    What does it look like right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think the smart thing to do would be to — Marco Rubio and Susan Collins and Angus King and a few other senators have a red flag bill that would — that would withhold weapons to people who have set off psychological red flags.

    And it may seem modest compared to what a lot of people are calling for, that they're going to — Beto is going to seize everybody's assault weapons.

    But I think it's important to at least crack the wall of inaction. And if you get one thing done, then maybe the NRA's wall has been cracked a little and you get other things done down the line.

    I'm not sure the Democrats see it that way. They may want to have the issue and have some big thing down the line. Donald Trump has said he'd be open for background checks. I'm dubious he will actually do it.

    Ted Cruz came out today and said, don't weaken the Republican base. You don't want to do that. And I wouldn't be surprised if that argument won.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fifteen seconds.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, this is an issue that has changed.

    It's been the third rail of American politics. You can't go near it. Guns has changed to violence. I think we saw it with 135 CEOs coming out. I think there's a — I think there's a sea change.

    I think Beto O'Rourke became the public witness and the public source last night in a very large way. I think America is changing on guns.

  • David Brooks:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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