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Shields and Brooks on Democratic debates, Supreme Court rulings

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including the first debates for 2020 Democratic candidates, whether that party has shifted too far to the left to be viable and Supreme Court decisions on partisan gerrymandering and including a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been a big week for news.

    Twenty Democrats took the stage for the first time, and nine Supreme Court justices finished their term, with two key cases that could reshape how our democracy functions.

    Here to reflect on it all are Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us from Aspen, Colorado.

    Hello to both of you.

    David, I'm going to start with you.

    You are — you are in Aspen, but I gather you did watch those debates over the last two nights. Let's start by talking about the main takeaways.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I'm getting in touch with the real America out here.

    You know, I think my main takeaway is how far the Democratic Party has gone to the left and how little the moderates in the debates have any interest in fighting it.

    Two candidates, Warren and Sanders, said they wanted to get rid of all private health plans, employer-based health plans. Only 13 percent of Americans agree with that.

    All of the candidates of all stripes seem to think they can't get anybody to their left on immigration policy, and they're wondering very close to sort of an open borders-type approach. And this would be, I think, devastating in the fall.

    This country has 35 percent of the people who call themselves conservative, 35 percent who call themselves moderates, and 26 percent who call themselves liberals. You can't win with 26 percent.

    But this debate was entirely within that — that little parenthesis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that what you're seeing, Mark, in this first debate?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I don't see things exactly the way you do from Aspen.

    But, no, I would say this, Judy.

    For those Democrats for whom the highest mortal objective politically in 2020 is the retirement of Donald Trump, it's not been a good week. The — if you think about it, the great unfinished business of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and Harry Truman's Fair Deal and Jack Kennedy was national health insurance.

    And at great political cost, the Democrats, without any help from the Republicans, with total objection and resistance, passed it in 2010, under a Democratic president, Barack Obama. And ever since then, five consecutive elections, Republicans have run on, we're going to repeal it, going to repeal it.

    As a consequence, Democrats — public by 2-1 thinks the Democrats are better on health care. So what do the Democrats suggest? We're going to get rid of it. We're going to get rid of it, going to get rid of — you like private health insurance that you have and guaranteed for preexisting conditions covered under the Affordable Care Act, we're going to get rid of private insurance.

    I mean, and this is a party, let's be honest, in a polarized Washington, couldn't pass an adjournment motion, but they're going to pass this national health.

    So I would say — I would say it was impractical, unhelpful, and flirted with open borders on immigration. And I just — I just think the whole image coming out of that was not of a party that was responding to voters, but responding to its own interests and its own constituencies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, when you stack all the Democrats up, isn't it the case that most of them are saying they're not ready to throw out private insurance yet?

  • David Brooks:

    Right. That is true.

    And I think one thing that it's worth reminding ourselves about is that most voters are new to these people. And the instant polls after the debates are not quite what we read on Twitter.

    A lot of people — and I mean a lot of the candidates saw their approval rating go up significantly, because, for Cory Booker, it's the first look for a lot of people. And they sort of liked what they saw.

    For Biden, the conventional wisdom he did so poorly, but not so much the instant polls. He did suffer little with that Harris interchange on busing. But people still like Joe Biden, and so he hasn't sunk himself.

    I do think he has to prove next time that he's able to go toe to toe with Donald Trump. And if he couldn't go toe to toe with Kamala Harris on an attack that was pretty — he should have anticipated, it'll be harder to go toe to toe with Trump.

    So, in some sense, his debate performance next time becomes much more crucial.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did you read how Joe Biden handled last night.

  • Mark Shields:

    Badly. Badly.

    I mean, he was unprepared. He had to know the charge was coming, having had so much coverage for his mentioned sort of and reminiscence about Jim Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, his colleagues for whom he had gotten along with, and who were arch segregationists, both, and that he was unprepared for it, almost like he recoiled and it was personal.

    I thought that Joe Biden stood in bad contrast, quite frankly, to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, who accepted responsibility. He owned the fact that the South Bend Police Department had not — had failed to recruit African-Americans, and took that responsibility and said, it's on me.

    And Biden just somehow couldn't do that. And it was a tortured argument he made for the difference between his position in Wilmington and Kamala Harris'.

    I mean, let's be very frank. Civil rights has been a national issue in this country. States' rights has been the resistance mantra. And I just — I just thought Joe Biden did not — did not handle it well.

    When he was asked what his principal objective would be on first day in office, he said, defeat Donald Trump. Well, if you're going to have a first day in office, that's sort of a given. You have defeated Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, whether it was Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg or we — lest we forget the first night, when we had Elizabeth Warren up there with the others.

    Were there candidates who significantly help themselves in these debates?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I would say Warren and Harris would be the two.

    What's interesting is, right now, the key fight is, who's going to be the progressive rival? Who's going to be the progressive — the face for the progressive side of the party? And Warren and Sanders and Harris are all vying for it.

    I think Warren and Harris did particularly well. I have always thought Harris was going to be the most formidable progressive, just because her whole life going back to when she was a prosecutor, she's just a forceful arguer.

    She says, I have been an eye for an enemy, and I know how to go after them. And that strikes me as right for the mood of a lot of progressive and a lot of Democrats. So I think they helped themselves.

    What's interesting to me is, will there be a moderate reprisal? Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota should have come up and say, no, I don't think that our party should go there.

    She should have pulled that punch. Michael Bennet from Colorado tried to do that. And then the final piece is Buttigieg, who seems to hover between the two camps.

    And so I would say his path to the nomination, the way it looks today, is that the two camps get tired of fighting each other, and they need some sort of unity candidate, and Buttigieg could potentially be that kind of person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see the — whether anybody, anybody in this group helped themselves?

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, I would take us back to December 9, 2003, six weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

    Al Gore, former vice president, who had won the popular vote against George Bush in 2000, just three years earlier, broke the political world wide open. He endorsed Howard Dean, the Democratic chairman, former chairman, and made his nomination inevitable. Five weeks later, it was over, was the Dean campaign.

    I mean, so, this is the opening day of the season is what we're seeing. I would say this. I would say, collectively, for the Democrats, it was not good.

    Just think of the 80 yards of the field that Republicans have surrendered to them on the abortion issue. republicans have been running away from what Republicans did in Alabama and Georgia and in Missouri, in Ohio. And the president has been distancing himself even.

    And what do Democrats do? I mean, they basically just endorse abortion and throw in — well, how about trans people, covering abortion?

    I just — I mean, to me, they just — wasn't thinking in terms strategically. I mean, they owned the majority position in the country, safe, legal, rare. And so, to me, I just don't understand the strategy.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I would say, across all issues, there's an insularity problem. They sometimes talk as if they're campaigning for Brooklyn. And so on a lot of issues, whether it's the economy, whether it's abortion, whether it's immigration, I don't think they're quite perceiving how a lot of people, even in Democratic House districts, are perceiving them and seeing them as something quite strange.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you both about the big Supreme Court decisions that came down yesterday.

    David, I'm going to come back to you on this. You saw a divided court, two big decisions, the first one on what's called partisan gerrymandering. It's when states draw lines based on — for partisan reasons, to hurt the other political party. The court basically said, that's OK, that can continue.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think we're all disgusted by gerrymandering. It's a complete manipulation of the electorate.

    The question is, how do we fix it? And I sort of think that the best way to do it is through independent commissions. Voters in eight states so far, five in 2018, voted to create an independent commission, and to have them draw the lines.

    And I, frankly, think that's a better option than letting legislators do it, who are inherently compromised, because it's political, or letting the courts do it, who have no accountability. So I'm sort of glad that the courts decided this is not going to be a court issue. We're not going to impose this on the country, because I think it would politicize the courts.

    But it does mean everybody has to work a lot harder to try to get independent commissions in their own state.

  • Mark Shields:

    The court found out that segregated schools were separate, but unequal, but we're not going to go near that, because it's going to be too difficult.

    That's basically what the decision was yesterday. We found out that this is unjust, it's undemocratic, it's corrupting to have this system, but we're not going to get — we're not going to dirty our own hands with it.

    I agree with David in the best of all possible worlds. It's an Iowa, Arizona approach, where you have a commission and it's fair and fairly done, and not done like it's been done in Ohio, or Maryland, or North Carolina.

    But it's got to be remedied. I mean, we're talking about a democracy that's under siege in this country and from Russia, as we have learned again.

    So, to me, I just think it's — Justice Kagan was absolutely right. It's a duty and a responsibility to act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Both of these decisions very much affecting the functioning of our democracy.

    Just quickly, David, less than two minutes. Of course, the other decision had to do with the Trump administration's attempt to insert a citizenship question in the 2020 census. The court in this case said that the Trump argument had just not — had not been one that they could buy. So — and they sent it back and said, for now, we're going to let this go forward.

    What does this say to you?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, the word I think the justices used was contrived.

    It was a contrived argument. They were trying to think of some way to deter immigration or not provide benefits for communities that had a lot of immigrants or maybe undocumented immigrants. So I think there's no reason to ask this. There's no reason to try to use the census to push people into the shadows, which is really what this is an attempt to do.

    So I'm — I wish there had been a more clear ruling, but at least they did utter the elemental truth that this was a contrived reasoning, which was really an attempt to deter immigration from coming out into the open.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this was a case, Mark, just quickly, where the chief justice joined with the four more liberal justices.

  • Mark Shields:

    He did. He did.

    And it was based on a lie, I mean, Commerce saying the Justice Department wanted this to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which was a total fabrication. It came from the Department of Commerce. It came from the political arm of the Trump organization.

    Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, it did not originate with him intellectually, but it did politically. So it was — it was obviously just an attempt to rob people of what is deserved, I mean, not simply representation in numbers, but so many programs, the formula is based upon need.

    And if we don't even know these people, as David said, if they're in the shadows, if they don't exist, they're going to be deprived of what they are owed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Both of these decisions very much worth — worth reading over the weekend, if people haven't had a chance to so far.

  • Mark Shields:

    I agree.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you both, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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