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Shields and Brooks on Flake’s Trump diatribe, confronting powerful men on sexual harassment

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s denunciation of the Trump presidency and his decision to not seek re-election, the impact President Trump has on Republican politics and whether #MeToo is a turning point for men and sexual harassment.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The rift in the Republican Party widened this week, as outgoing Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona called on his party to stand up to President Trump, and House Republicans aired their disagreements over a plan to overhaul the tax code.

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

    And, gentlemen, welcome to both of you.

    So, we have spent much of this week examining, talking about that stunning speech, David, that Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona gave on the Senate floor this week, where he essentially took on the president and challenged his colleagues.

    Let's first just listen to a short excerpt of that.

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.:

    We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country, the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency, the reckless provocations most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That was Jeff Flake on the Senate floor.

    David, what change — what effect has that speech had?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it sounded like a call to arms at the moment, but it's pretty clear it was Appomattox in reality.

    What Flake made clear is that you can't survive a Republican primary if you don't sound like Donald Trump. And whether with Flake leaving, Corker leaving, McCain sort of in the end — toward the end of his career, the Republicans who want have a political viability have to be Trumpian.

    And so what you have is most of the Republicans saying, I may not like this guy privately, I may worry about this guy, but this is my guy, I am going to support him.

    And so this was really the week, I thought, something atmospheric shifted and Donald Trump, and Steve Bannon really took control of the Republican Party.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I think David is absolutely right, Judy, that the Republican Party is the wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump at this point.

    And the polls show it that Republican voters rate Donald Trump off the boards in high marks and actually give negative marks to Republicans in Congress. So, the choice has been made, it would seem.

    And I thought that when Jeff Flake said the fragrant disregard for truth and decency, and then Bob Corker, senator from Tennessee's indictment as well, they aren't philosophical difference. I mean, Bob Corker obviously talked about the danger of World War III and Donald Trump's not coherent leadership, but they're an indictment of character.

    And that's — but for the other Republicans to remain silent on that, if that's the question, if character is the question, then they just say, oh, we just want to worry about our own reelection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you about that, David, because Jeff Flake went on to say to his fellow Republicans, our children are watching, and he asked — he said, what are we going to do about that? What are we going to do when the next generation asks us, how did we respond at this time, in other words, saying they are complicit.

  • David Brooks:

    You know, I had some conversations with some Republican senators who support Donald Trump, by and large, and I guess their argument is, well, you know, I really believe in this tax cut, he's for that, we can get some economic policy passed.

    When his administration calls my office to say who they want to be deputy secretary and this and that, and I give them a name, they hire the person, so I have been able to have some influence on the administration in that way.

    And I grant, for some conservatives, Trump offers something, and maybe the administration is hiring a lot of their former staffers in a way they think is good and influential.

    But I guess I would say, your priorities are messed up, that if you are supporting Donald Trump because he will get you a tax bill you like, you're putting money above morals. And the character and the morals of the country and the social fabric of the country are more important than whether the tax rate is 39.6 or 35.4.

    And so — and I would ask them to think about that. I guess when I do make that point, a lot of the things I find outrageous about Donald Trump's behavior, they seem kind of distant and they treat those things as unimportant. They put sort of a vast distance between them and some of the daily fights and dishonesties that I think characterize a lot of this president's behavior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark, are we talking about values here? What does it come down to?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I certainly think that's the way that Jeff Flake framed it.

    It is a question of character. It's destiny. And I think the fact is, Judy, David mentioned tax cuts, and that's it. That's the last stage out of Dodge for the Republicans. They have failed at every turn in this Congress and in the Trump administration. They have nothing to show.

    They talk about Justice Gorsuch. Fine. But they really have nothing to show, no accomplishments with total Republican dominance of both the Congress and the presidency. So, this is it. And this is the one thing that ties them together. You know, it's shameless. A party that talks so movingly about balancing the budget and not putting the burden on our children and grandchildren, and adding $1.5 trillion, they voted to this week — the president pushed to do it — and to the new debt over the next 10 years.

    And, you know — but this is it. This is their last chance to say, we did something in this election.

    And the key, the problem that Republicans are facing and a real confrontation is, the FOX News poll showed that Republicans, if you could vote for — had to vote for Congress today, would you vote for a Democrat or Republican? And by 50 to 35, people say they would vote for a Democrat.

    And even in 19 — yes, go ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No, I was just going to say, so you're saying the Republicans have that to worry about?

  • Mark Shields:

    They have a general election in November of 2018 that they have to be scared silly about, given those numbers in the FOX News poll.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, given that, David, and the fact so many Republicans are saying, we need to work together to get something done, what are the prospects for tax reform, tax cuts?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think they're pretty grim.

    You know, they might be able to fall back to some sort of tax cut of something, maybe the corporate tax rate or something like that, but getting some sort of big bill, where they take on some of the deduction for local taxes, for the 401(k)s, there are pretty entrenched interests.

    And it takes a lot of political skill to get that kind of more comprehensive reform passed. So I'm not particularly optimistic about that.

    If I could just take one point that Mark made, and maybe go a little deeper, what's been interesting to me — and my colleague Tom Edsall has written about this — is that the nature of the party affiliation has changed in the last few years.

    It's no longer really about ideology. It's no longer about belief system. It's about identity. It's as if being, say, Pennsylvanian or an Italian American or a Jewish American, all the things that people who used to form their identity about, those have all fallen away.

    And now it's just, are you a Republican or a Democrat? And that's become the primary identity marker for a lot of people. And when you're like that, you will follow your president or your party leader absolutely anywhere they're willing to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And where does that lead us, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, it leads us to, Judy, to — there are 192 safe Republican House seats right now. They're considered safe by Nathan Gonzales, who is a great analyst and appeared on our broadcast.

    And in there, your election is not — your concern is not nearly so much about November 2018, although it should be, because, right now, the outcome or the signs are dire, but you're worried about the primary, and that's what you don't want.

    Bob Corker in Tennessee was at 61 percent/21 percent favorable, 3-1 favorable in February this year among Republican voters. Criticized Donald Trump, and he's now at 37 percent/48 percent favorable among Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, a drop.

  • Mark Shields:

    A drop of, what, 60 — or 50 votes — 50 percent.

    So, that is what you're scared of if you're a Republican. But you're terrified if you're going into the general election, because Donald Trump is toxic, and he excites — the excitement and intensity right now is on the part of Democrats, rather than Republicans, heading into the next election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, to pick up on the point that — where you stopped and I asked Mark, where does it lead Republicans, if they are simply defining themselves by their party?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it probably leads them in a 38 percent position, which is pretty bad.

    The only thing I would say is, I wouldn't underestimate the Democrats' ability to mess this up. One of the things we have seen across Western Europe is the complete collapse of center-left parties. People who were in the center-left are now going to green parties. They're going to socialist parties. They're going left.

    And I think that's happening here, too. And one of the things — I assume that's going to happen. And what you see is, it looks like the Republican Party is in crisis, but they're reasonably strong on the state and local level.

    But it could be that both parties are in crisis, which is what you do see in Britain and a lot of countries around the world, just a decay of the party system as we know it.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. I think…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what are we going to end up with?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, in our country, where I guess I disagree with David is, a national party is defined by its leader, the face of the leader.

    You don't have a coherent national philosophy for a party until you nominate a presidential nominee and probably elect a president. So until the Democrats do that, they will not have an overarching message.

    But, in 2018, all you have to be is the other guy, if there's great dissatisfaction.

    Just to put the numbers in perspective, Judy, in 2010, when the Republicans picked up 63 House seats from the Democrats, won away 63 House seats, did the Republicans, the difference in that generic of who would you rather have, a Democrat or Republican, was nine points.

    It was nine points more Republican. Today, it's 15 percent more Democrat. So, that really is unsettling.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    For Democrats.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Complete change — go ahead.

  • David Brooks:

    It means they can't move because of the partisan alignment, so they're stuck losing, but they can't be anything other than they are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to keep on talking about this into 2018.

    I do want to change the subject, though, David, with what we — the interview that I did a few segments ago with Sheila Nevins, who's probably the most powerful woman in television filmmaking, about her own experience with sexual harassment.

    She said in that interview that she thinks the country has now — is now going to change, that men are not going to be able to get away anymore with what they have gotten away with before now. What do you think?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I do think the norms have been steadily shifting over the decades.

    But I thought the key point that she made is there's — you can now, if you're a woman and you have been harassed and oppressed, you can now join as a group. The technology makes this a lot easier, and that you can come out — because guys who are harassing, it's not just one case. It tends to be a lot of cases.

    And so people can come out as a group. They can find each other online. And they can say, yes, this happened to all of us, and it's a lot more effective.

    So, I don't think the norms have shifted. The stuff that people are being accused, everybody knew that was awful. But what is happening this week is, the punishments are coming down in a way that we have never seen before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are things changing, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Oh, I think have changing dramatically and are changing dramatically.

    Just imagine, 1991, Judy, when the Clarence Thomas hearings and Anita Hill case appeared. That male Judiciary Committee was just — shamed her, and were adversarial.

    Just think if that testimony were given today by somebody of Anita Hill's credentials and believability. You would have to take it seriously.

    I think women in position of power — this is about abuse in these actions we hear. It's cruelty, but, most of all, it's about power. It's somehow that I can exercise power and that you're not another human being.

    And until every man acknowledges that every woman is either his sister, his mother, his daughter, his niece, his favorite child, then I'm afraid that this is considered a perk by a number of powerful men.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, that's my question.

    As long as men hold the vast majority of the powerful jobs in this country, powerful roles, is anything really going to change? I understand you're saying women can now speak up as a group, but they are still going to be facing this.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, the power dynamics will be what they are.

    But this is not going to go away. Abuse of women in — around society is as old as time, because some men have some power addiction. They have a masochism. Some men have an addiction to seduction, where they're always crudely coming on and sort of driven by some sort of pathetic hole.

    And so the idea that it's going to stop happening is not going to — it's not going to stop. It's just woven into some people's distorted natures.

    But at least they can stop getting away with it. And I do think that is becoming much and much more likely, that they will get caught.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we certainly hope that some things are changing for the better.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you, Judy.

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