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Shields and Brooks on final presidential debate, key Senate races

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including Florida’s complex electoral dynamics, how President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden performed in their final debate and the outlook for key competitive Senate races.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In these tumultuous times, it is reassuring to have some constants.

    Thankfully, we have the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you on this Friday evening.

    And let's start by talking about Yamiche's report.

    Mark, what did you make of what some of those Florida voters had to say? And, in particular, I'm thinking of Lambert Rowe, the young Black man who said he's not very enthusiastic about Joe Biden.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I thought Yamiche's piece captured the complexity of Joe Biden's problems, as well as Donald Trump's in Florida.

    Florida is — anybody who thinks they understand American politics, I challenge them to go to Florida. Judy, 50 million votes cast in Florida since 1992, and the difference between the two parties — that's when Florida really became a battleground state — 200th of 1 percent between Democrats and Republicans.

    It's consistently voted about 3 percent more Republican than the country. And that's why it's so important to Donald Trump. But African American women are the most loyal and important constituency in the Democratic Party, and African American men are lagging in their support.

    And I think Lambert expressed that, and Yamiche captured it well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, what did you take away from Yamiche's reporting and what the voters said?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, the young woman from Cuba, Daily, expressed the sort of apocalyptic fear that I certainly hear a lot, especially from Trump supporters, the idea that, if Joe Biden wins, either he is going to make some fundamental change and destroy the country, or the people around him, or there's sort of a cultural Anschluss that will destroy the country.

    And so I do think that apocalyptic tone is part of why this election, and especially what Trump mobilizes, is so fraught.

    The statistic of the evenness of Florida is astounding. I regard it — when we get to November 3, at night, I will be looking at Florida, first and foremost, because there's a lot of ways you can imagine Joe Biden winning if he doesn't win Florida. It's super hard to imagine Donald Trump winning if he doesn't win Florida.

    And so, if he loses that — and maybe we will know that night — who knows — it's really hard to see how he retains the White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's connect all this to last night's debate, Mark.

    Not as many fireworks, some sharp differences. What did you take away from it?

  • Mark Shields:

    No tantrum, no food fight, Judy, and therefore, it's Lincoln-Douglas.


    I mean, it just — it's amazing how our expectations have been lowered by the earlier performance of the incumbent.

    Judy, a presidential campaign is — has been compared to parallel skiing cross-country. The two skiers go in different directions, see different scenery, and then they collide or intersect in a debate. And that's what the debate — the debate had to change things for Donald Trump.

    By all the fundamentals of this election, Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Americans do not like Donald Trump personally. Americans do not think Donald Trump is doing a good job. He had to change it.

    And I don't think it was a — I don't think it was a night that changed the election. I think they emerged where they came in, Biden ahead, maybe slightly less, maybe some Trump people energized. But I don't think it was the game-changer that Trump needed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what has stayed with you from last night?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think the attempt to bring Biden down to his character level by the attack on Hunter and the attacks on the alleged business dealings with foreign countries. I don't think that particularly landed. It may have somewhat mobilized the base.

    Partly, a lot of his base — a lot of people sort of like the policies, but don't like the guy. And so he needs to reduce the character gap between the two. So, maybe he did that a little.

    I thought Biden was best when it — something touched his moral core. And he showed genuine moral outrage on the separation of the children and the families. And his summation at the end was good.

    The one moment I think people are underplaying, which would worry me if I were on the Biden team, was that moment of transitioning away from oil and gas. That — Hillary Clinton said something like that about transitioning away from coal last time, and it really hurt her, not only in coal countries. It's a cultural statement.

    A lot of people say, hey, I work in manufacturing. I work in industry. What, do we just not exist for you people? And so I think that statement has the potential to reverberate a little in some communities in a way, frankly, that a lot of us in the media won't quite anticipate how people are hearing that, hearing it as an insult.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what about that?

    And then just — yes, pick up on that. And then I want to ask you about the campaign overall, where it stands.


  • Mark Shields:

    David makes — David makes a very good point there.

    I would just add, Judy, that Donald Trump has a problem with women voters that is unprecedented in our country. You look at the year's polling, and by a 58 percent to 35 percent margin, women oppose Donald Trump, support Joe Biden. And women are 52 percent of the electorate. I don't know how you make it up.

    And the issues of most concern to women across the board, the issues of climate, the issues of health care, Donald Trump doesn't even address them.

    And I have to say, on the coronavirus, I mean, I don't know what galaxy he's living in. He's talking about turning the corner, on the very day, the very day that more people were hospitalized under COVID-19 than any day thus far this year, and when hospitalization is up in 38 states.

    So, I just thought — I thought, on the issue that is driving the country, concerning the country, worrying the country, killing the country, Donald Trump just failed the test.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, put this in context.

    I mean, how do you see this race overall right now?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think Biden's nine points ahead. This is not 2016, I don't believe. Mark and I have talked about that.

    And he continues, as we have said, to get more popular, even more popular week by week. So, that's not 2016. Hillary Clinton was never close to this popular.

    I think Joe Biden understood the year. People generally want the opposite of what they had before. In 2016, the operative emotion was rage. In 2020, people are just raged out.

    And I think Rahm Emanuel said, the opposite of rage is compassion and empathy. And Joe Biden has certainly shown that, and decency. And so you can get a lot of policies wrong, but, if you get the emotions right, you tend to do pretty well in politics.

    And Trump, unlike a lot of other — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in 2016, understood rage was what people want.

    But it's over now. It's over now. People want decency, compassion, empathy, a different set of emotional registers. And Biden just happens to inhabit those emotional registers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, another very big thing we're going to be watching on election night, of course, are the — is the Senate, the United States Senate.

    Right now, Mark, of course, it's in Republican hands by a few votes. But there are a surprising number of Republican senators who are in toss-up races. What are some races you're looking at?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think it's impossible not to look at the Midwest, and look at, particularly in Iowa, where Democrats are quite bullish that they can capture that Senate seat from Joni Ernst and that — Theresa Greenfield.

    Democrats, all of a sudden, are getting a little bit encouraged and more optimistic about Kansas with Barbara Bollier, the former Republican Senate — state senator, is running a very, very strong campaign in a state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

    Republicans are, frankly, despairing and despondent about both Arizona and Colorado, Republicans I talked to you today. And I — Maine remains a battleground. There's just a bundle.

    I think what has backed — Republicans I have talked to today were concerned in comparing it to 1980, that if, in fact, Joe Biden did win by eight, more than 8.5 points, which as Bill Clinton's margin in 1996 over Bob Dole, if he were to win by double digits, that the Republicans could lose not simply control of the Senate, but lose a bunch of Senate seats, that, all of a sudden, places like Alaska come into play, as well as North Carolina.

    So, I know, it's tough not to watch a bundle of these races, because they're all really within the margin of error, or at least within the margin of significant change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, David, what about you? What are you looking at in these Senate races?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I'm looking at Georgia, where there are two races, because one is an appointee.

    And so both those are extremely close. There's the David Perdue race. Jon Ossoff is the Democrat. There's like a generational difference there. They're running pretty conventional campaigns, no distance between their party leaders, no — they're running on the normal health care issues.

    The other race is the Kelly Loeffler seat, which she was appointed to, a businesswoman. And she's got Raphael Warnock, who is a Democrat who has suddenly been searching a bit over the last month. There's a cast of thousands in this race. I think 20 people are running. There's another Republican in the race…

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • David Brooks:

    … Doug Collins, who was an impeachment manager.

    And so these are all tough races that are being run pretty much along party lines. But what's so interesting is the demographics. As suburban, college-educated people flee from Trump, he's got to make it up in the white working class and somewhat in Latinos.

    And it's not clear he can do that. He's only in the game in Georgia because white working-class Southerners have stayed with him in the way that white working class Midwesterners have not. So, he's in the game, but it could be finally the year that Georgia actually really does turn a little bluish.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, how much different would it make?

    I mean, we know — we don't know what's going to happen on Election Day, but if Joe Biden does win this election, how much difference does it make for his presidency whether or not there is a Senate that's Republican or Democratic?

  • Mark Shields:

    Oh, I think it makes it an enormous amount of difference.

    One thing, every — power is the perception of power. And if the Democrats win the Senate, with Joe Biden at the head of the ticket, there's a perception the part of Democrats that Joe Biden was a strong leader, that his coattails provided them help, that he provided a favored wind.

    Plus, I mean, Joe Biden is — his great strength has been working legislatively, cooperatively, collegially, both across the aisle and within his own party. And I think, in that sense, it gives a Biden administration a running head-start that it won't have if, in fact, Mitch McConnell returns as the Senate majority leader.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, how do you see the stakes if Biden's elected?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, huge, if they don't take the Senate.

    And it should be said, the pollsters now give them 3-1 odds of taking the Senate. So that's pretty good for Democrats.

    But imagine — I mean, this is not the Senate of 20 years ago or even 15 years ago. Imagine if it's Biden and 51 Republican senators, and Mitch McConnell decides to stonewall, stonewall confirming Cabinet appointments. And that's entirely possible.

    And then, suddenly, we're in the mother of all gridlocks. So, for Democrats — I mean, maybe they can win over some Democrats — some Republicans. But, in that circumstance, probably, Susan Collins is not around.

    And so it just could be the fate of his presidency depends on them getting the Senate as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, a majority — as you say, a majority isn't always necessarily a majority.

    But we will see. So much to keep an eye on.

    Thank you both, David Brooks, Mark shields.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • David Brooks:


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