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Shields and Brooks on Democrats’ Senate momentum, John Lewis’ legacy

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including how declining support for President Trump is shifting the momentum in several key Senate races toward Democrats, Trump’s decision to send federal forces into cities experiencing protests, Republican inaction on the pandemic and the legacy of John Lewis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

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

    It's so good to see both of you.

    So, let's pick up, David, with what we were just hearing about these Senate races moving in the direction of the Democrats. What is going on here?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I would say, among Republicans, what had been concern has now turned into full-bore panic.

    The president is behind by sometimes 12 or 13 points in the national polls, way behind in many of these states. And that was survivable if you were a Senate candidate maybe in 1980, when you had a lot of ticket-splitting, and you could — you could run well ahead of your — the head of your party.

    That doesn't happen anymore. In 2016, there was basically no ticket-splitting. If the president won in that state, the Senate candidate won. And so it's just super hard to win when your president is losing.

    I don't think there are any Republican candidates who have successfully found a posture, how to be loyal Republicans and not totally Trumpists. And so you're not only looking at Arizona and Colorado, which seem gone for the Republicans, but we're talking about states like Iowa and Georgia.

    And if — those should be solid Republican seats. And it's just a — it's a just a complete collapse, it looks like, right now in the polls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, as Lisa pointed out, the year started out with Democrats worried and thinking they might not be able to take the Senate.

    Are you surprised at this turn of events?

  • Mark Shields:

    I am, Judy. I'm surprised at a couple of things.

    David's right about Democrats being on the offensive and Republicans being on the defensive. But I guess what surprises me more than any — it should not surprise me — is that this has been the pattern.

    When a president gets in trouble, his Senate colleagues face the same fate very often. In 2016, for example, every Republican — every senator who — won in a state that the presidential candidate of that senator's party carried.

    In 2008, when Barack Obama swept, only one Republican survived in a state that Obama had carried. That happened to be Susan Collins in Maine some three terms ago.

    And we saw, in 1980 — David mentioned 1980 — 12 Senate seats switched in 1980, giants of the Senate. George McGovern, Warren Magnuson, Frank Church, John Culver all went down and that year, and the Republicans won the Senate for the first time in 26 years.

    Why? Because the presidential candidate, or the president at the top of the ticket, was just incredibly weak. Jimmy Carter was at 31 percent job approval in 1980. George W. Bush was at 25 percent job approval in 2008. Even though he wasn't on the ballot, we had the financial collapse. We had Iraq going absolutely south on him.

    And so this is what Republicans face right now, is that same kind of climate. And that's why they're worried.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, it's interesting, because, as we just heard in Lisa's conversation, that these Democratic candidates are — they turn out to be candidates who are talented in an election year when people are paying attention to the challengers.

    So often, it's the incumbent who's favored.

  • David Brooks:

    And, so often, it's the incumbent who has the money advantage, and that's often not the case right now.

    Mark Kelly in Arizona has twice as much money as the incumbent. You're seeking big fund-raisers. The Democrat who is running against Lindsey Graham has — is raising huge amounts of money. So they're getting the money.

    But I think it's not even the campaign. So, James Fallows once said that this year is like 1918 with the flu, 1932 with the Depression, and 1968 with a war. And so we have all of that all at once. And I think it's just not an election like any other.

    It's just a much more intense political era, a much more revolutionary political climate. And it's, in this kind of climate, if ever — and it's unprecedented, so we don't know — I just think you're going to see something much vaster than we — than we think in a normal political year, even when there is a wave.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, at the same time, the Democrats who are running who are challenging these Republicans have to be in a position to take advantage of what comes their way.

  • Mark Shields:

    Oh, exactly, Judy.

    And I thought the point in Lisa's piece that Jessica made that was so important is that nobody has been able to figure out how to distance themselves from Trump effectively.

    I mean, two leading Republicans who did distance themselves from Trump, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, both found themselves on the outs, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and outside the Senate.

    And so, how do you do that? How do you walk that line? Richard Nixon used to say, when — say anything you want to another Republican. Say anything you want for me or against me. Just win. There was a practicality about it.

    Donald Trump doesn't have that same approach. I mean, it's total loyalty to him, and — which is coming with an increasing political price, as David mentioned, in the numbers that are currently in polls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of the president, David, what we're seeing from the president now, and just yesterday announcing the Republican Convention isn't going to happen anymore, at least in Jacksonville, the big event that they had planned.

    But you also have him being judged on an almost hourly basis by the way he's handling this pandemic. You have him sending federal agents into American cities and threatening to send them into more.

    I mean, that's the atmos — that's the political reality that this presidential race is taking place in.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the loss of the convention is bad news for Donald Trump, because he's behind, and he needs some events that can maybe shift the race, and he's down another one.

    So, all that's left is the debates. And so we're — and he will give a speech, I assume, some sort of convention speech, but it'll just be another day at the news cycle.

    The violence in Portland is something I'm curious about. I think most people — certainly, I'm appalled to have nameless random officers acting like this is not a democracy, acting like this is some sort of fascist state.

    On the other hand, there is a lot of violence in Portland. And if you go on a Republican news feed on the right side of my Twitter feed, it's all the violence of the protesters.

    And so Donald Trump has tried to recreate a 1968 law and order campaign. And maybe this will turn some minds about that. Maybe there will be a sense of panic. I tend not to think that. The violence is not widespread. It's in one place.

    I think that the general trend, most people will look at that and say, are we turning into a police state? But that sense of, we need law and order, I think that's the only way I see Trump appealing to some people who are genuinely scared, if they are genuinely scared, which I'm not sure about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, is that an attack that could be effective at this time, when the president is facing so much criticism for the way he's handled the pandemic?

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, he's dealing with a pair of deuces right now, if this were a poker game. I mean, he's playing what he can play. And that seems to be — maybe he a night to — soul-to-soul meeting with Roger Stone after his pardon — or his commutation, I should say, and was reminded of the best scenes from 1968.

    The reality, Judy, is crowding upon him; 39 states saw increases in coronavirus, in the COVID-19, this past week. We had four million cases for the first time.

    And the one point where I have seen any Republican encouragement is that, for the first time, Donald Trump seems to be taking it seriously. He doesn't do it well. He reads it. He cannot read from a teleprompter. No one's ever taught him how to do it. And it's not very convincing.

    But he had a week where he was at least addressing the gravity of the situation and acknowledging it, and acknowledging that, in spite of the record heat wave in Washington and elsewhere in the country this year, that it's not going to miraculously disappear in hot weather.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, and just quickly, because I do — there's something else I do want to ask you both about.

    But you have the Republicans in the Senate unable to come to any kind of agreement, David, over what sort of relief to give the American people, with these additional unemployment benefits about to run out.

    Could this be a political serious blunder for the Republicans, if they don't make the right move?

  • David Brooks:

    I think so.

    The economic crisis is still ongoing. And the way we solved it temporarily was to give people $600 checks. And now the Republicans either want to cut it to $200, which is an insult in a time of crisis, or Steve Mnuchin seems to want to reform the process of distributing the money in the middle of a crisis, for bureaucracies that are barely keeping it together right now.

    And so it seems — it seems just like, when Republicans have to have a complicated thought, they revert back to fiscal discipline. But this is not the time for that. They should be shoveling it out the door, in the nation's interest and, frankly, in their own political interest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, I do want to turn both of you in our final seconds here to John Lewis, of course, the civil rights icon, someone who laid his body on the line for what he believed in, who fought in his quiet way for civil rights his entire life.

    You had many occasions to be around him. What would you say about John Lewis?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, one of the absolutely disarming qualities of Congressman Lewis was, whenever you ran into him, he would just grab you by the hand and said: "Hello, my brother. How are you?"

    And I don't know. Being called your brother by John Lewis was sort of special, and no matter how many times it happened.

    Judy, you put it best. He put his — he here is, the 10th child of poor sharecroppers at Alabama, born in the segregated South. And he put his life, he put his body on the line. At the age of 23, he was at the Lincoln Memorial. He was the firebrand that they were worried about speaking before Martin Luther King.

    Twenty-five, he walks across Edmund Pettus Bridge, seeking the vote, the right to vote that was promised to Americans and denied systematically by state after state, including his own. And he had his skull fractured, his body broken, but never his spirit.

    He was an incredible gentleman. He was an incredible leader, an incredible example. He left America so much better than he found it. And people talk about changing the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to John Lewis Bridge, which is fine.

    What they ought to do is pass a Voting Rights Act, after the court decision in 2013, which naively thought this problem was over. We have seen the systematic denial of the right to vote, whether it's cutting polling places, cutting hours, purging of lists, I.D.s, voter I.D.s.

    And that would be the testimony and memorial to John Lewis that would be appropriate, is a Voting Rights Act, a real Voting Rights Act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, he will lay — people will pay his — respects to him next week. His funeral is one week from today.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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