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Shields and Brooks on health care, Trump’s Khashoggi reaction

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss health care, Democrats’ campaign strategy and an unfolding American “cultural drama.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, joining us this evening from Los Angeles.

    And welcome to both of you.

    Midterm elections, we can just feel it. They're just a bit over two weeks away.

    The president has been out on the campaign trail. He's been talking up Republican candidates. His language, the rhetoric is getting more combative.

    I want you both to listen to something he said. He was in Montana last night talking about the terrible things that will happen if Democrats are elected, mob rule and so forth.

    But he went out of his way to praise Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, was convicted two years ago of misdemeanor assault on a news reporter. And here's what the president had to say last night.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Greg is smart.

    And, by the way, never wrestle him. You understand that? Never.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • President Donald Trump:

    Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my kind of…

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    He's my guy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So he's been talking — he's been partisan, David, but now the language is getting tougher, more combative.

    What do we make of this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, a couple things.

    One, it's appalling. I mean, anybody who assaults a journalist for doing their job has done something appalling. And anybody who praises that is doing something appalling.

    Second, he is a showman. He's like the Mort Sahl of the ethnic right. And so he tries to offend. And when he offends, his people go crazy and they like it.

    And so I sort of think it is appalling. I sometimes wonder if we should ignore it, because it sets off a cultural drama where one group of people gets upset, and then the other but people are delighted the other group of people got upset, and it just creates this drama that benefits Trump, frankly. And he's not stupid about that kind of thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So we're amping it up by talking about it, Mark.

  • Mark Shields:

    I think we have to talk about it, Judy.

    I mean, this is a week in which the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, the murder of a journalist, a Washington Post journalist, for what he was writing, apparently, has been front and center. And the president is not unaware of this, because he's been a central figure in disparaging the investigation and taking up the cause of those who were allegedly involved in it.

    So this is — this is irresponsible, it's reckless, and it's really cheap, in the literal sense of it. This is a — this is a reckless act of an irresponsible man. And I don't think it go unremarked upon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there consequences, David?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I mean, I think the major damage Donald Trump is doing to the country is weakening the norms of decency and civility.

    And if you don't have those norms, it's all dog eat dog. And so I don't underestimate the harm that gets done.

    I just observe that, since the first presidential debate, when he went after Carly Fiorina for the way she looked, and other people, those — the ethos of World Wide — the World Wide Wrestling Federation has been the ethos Donald Trump has played on, on the campaign trail.

    And there is some bit of owning the libs, as conservative say, that the desire to offend is part of the fun of the thing. And, sometimes — I totally get Mark's point. You got to try to maintain some sense of standards of how public officials are supposed to act with integrity.

    But, sometimes, I feel manipulated when I do react, because that's sort of what Donald Trump wants.

  • Mark Shields:

    I want David to trust his own instincts, which are good.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I mean, but David touched on what I think is the central element of this campaign.

    Are we going to have guardrails. Are we going to reestablish guardrails in this country as to what is right, what is wrong? And I think that to a great degree is what this election is about.

    But I mean, let's remind us — our listeners that Gianforte himself publicly apologized for what he did after it happened and accepted the court's judgment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, meantime, there are hundreds of congressional races going on around the country, hard-fought congressional races, dozens of hard-fought Senate races.

    And I was honored to be asked to be part of moderating a debate, David, last night in Missouri, in Saint Louis, between the incumbent, Democrat Claire McCaskill, her Republican challenger, Josh Hawley.

    And what came out of that discussion, I think, loud and clear is that health care really is an issue in a lot of these races.

    I just want to play just a bit for the two of you of what Hawley and Senator McCaskill had to say about that.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    We need to fix the problems in Obamacare, not throw it out.

    And his lawsuit is so reckless, because there's no backup here. There's no backup plan for preexisting conditions if he's successful. If he believes we should protect preexisting conditions…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two minutes.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    … he should ask tomorrow for the case to be dismissed.

  • Josh Hawley:

    So, here's the bottom line, is that Senator McCaskill will not support any plan to cover people with preexisting conditions that isn't Obamacare.

    Obamacare was written to hold hostage people with preexisting conditions, so that you have to have Obamacare, supposedly, to get this coverage. And that's exactly what she's based this campaign on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, health care, the Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, was working against Democrats. Now they're trying to use it to their advantage.

    Do you think it's working?

  • David Brooks:

    I think a bit.

    If you ask Americans what is the top issue that you care about, health care comes out first, the economy slightly second, guns, and then immigration. So health care does seem to be the dominant issue.

    And it is a tradition that, once an entitlement, once a benefit from the federal program is instituted, it becomes pretty sacred, Medicare, Social Security. And Republicans fight it for a little while, and then they give in. That's what Dwight Eisenhower basically did to the New Deal.

    And so I do think it is working. Democrats certainly think it is working, because if you look at the ads they're buying, 55 percent of the ads congressional level and even at the gubernatorial level are about health care. So they're making that issue front and center.

    I sort of think, though, just finally, that the norms, as Mark and I have been discussing, what Trump is doing to the culture and the political culture, is actually more of an issue and more of a vulnerability. And I wonder if Democrats would win over more swing voters if they focused on that, because there are a lot of pretty conservative people who think what's happening to the country is pretty awful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, Mark? And what about whether health care is now working to Democrats' advantage or not?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I mean, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act. It took courage on the part of a lot of Democrats who voted for it, who knew that they were staring into the political abyss, and lost their seats in Congress as a result of it.

    The leadership of Nancy Pelosi in particular deserves great credit. But it was unpopular. It's been unpopular. Donald Trump has made it popular, and the Republicans have made it popular. They came within one vote of repealing it, Judy, repealing the entire Affordable Care Act, which includes preexisting conditions, I would mind — I would remind Attorney General Hawley.

    He signed that suit that seeks to repeal the entire act, to have it thrown out as being illegal, which would take away the Affordable Care Act; 1.1 million Missourians have a preexisting condition. And they would be denied or left to the mercy of the insurance companies.

    And we know their record prior to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. So, I mean, this is — this is a real — this is a real issue for real people. And it is total hoax to say, I have a plan to — 80 years, they tried to pass limited national health care. They finally did it in 2010.

    And the idea that we're going to magically do it. And but for the one vote of the late Senator John McCain, it would have been repealed, and we wouldn't even be talking about preexisting conditions or Affordable Care Act in any way today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is some kind of turnaround, if it turns out that this is something that works to help Democrats.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, Mark brought up the Jamal Khashoggi disappearance a minute ago, the Saudi journalist.

    We have been hearing about that now for several weeks. I think, just tonight, the Saudi government is saying they're firing people, asking people to step down. They're detaining others in all this.

    We still don't have a clear picture of what the Trump administration is going to do. How do you see — can the president walk a middle line here, at the one — on the one hand say, yes, it was a terrible thing, but we don't want to — we don't want to in a serious way change our relationship with the Saudis?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, that's what's going to happen.

    In the Middle East, people understand you go through periods where people have to pretend to be mad at you, and then they go back to normal affairs. And I suspect that's what the Trump administration is going to do with Saudi Arabia.

    To me, the prior problem is that whoever made the decision in Saudi Arabia to do this didn't worry about Donald Trump, didn't worry about America. And if the U.S. withdraws its normal role as the enforcer of some sort of international decency, then the people like Putin, the people like those in Saudi Arabia, the people like those in North Korea are just instinctively and almost unconsciously going to think, well, I can get away with this, and so you get actions like that.

    So it's almost the prior withdrawal of American power and standard-setting that seems to me the core problem.

    And then, when you look at the Trump administration reaction, this happens every time they align themselves with a bad person, whether it's Putin or this or another. The bad person does something bad, they try not to react because they like the bad person, and then public opinion drags them into some grudging, meaningless acknowledgement.

    And that's sort of the pattern here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does the administration, Mark, have to take a tough line, or can they get away with trying to walk a middle ground here?

  • Mark Shields:

    I don't think there is a middle ground.

    But, I mean, Judy, Michael Hayden, the former CIA director under President Bush and then President — NSA director as well under President Obama, remained, made, I thought, just a penetrating observation.

    He said, President Trump has close personal relations with three heads of state who have on their hands the murder of a citizen in another country, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Putin, and now the Saudi royal family.

    And, I mean, I know if you — you're accused of mudslinging if you quote the president, but I do want to quote the president. Some of his ardent supporters say he shouldn't be quoted because he doesn't always mean it.

    But he has said that: "Am I supposed to dislike them?" speaking of the Saudis. "I like them very much. They make me rich. They make millions and hundreds of million. I make them — make them — a lot of money with them."

    And this is about his values. And these are now the United States' values. I mean, that's what he's embodying. That's what he represents. And I just think it's absolutely terrifying for United States foreign policy and who we are and what we believe in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does this have long-lasting consequences, David?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we will see.

    And I guess this is why I'm a little mystified that the Democrats are not going after this issue more, why they're going after health care and other policy issues.

    To me, this is the big issue of the election, that if — frankly, if Donald — if the Republicans keep the House and the Senate, then Donald Trump will feel unleashed. He will feel that this style of politics, this style of foreign policy, this definition of our moral order, has been totally vindicated by the American people.

    And so, to me, that's the core issue. How do we see ourselves as a country? What kind of country do we say? Are we strictly a money country? We sometimes look like that to outsiders. I don't think that's true.

    But that is pretty much the ethos that Trump is embodying in a quite unembarrassed way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, 45 seconds.

    Can Democrats do something? They haven't…

  • Mark Shields:

    Will Democrats do something?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Will they?

  • Mark Shields:

    Will — Democrats willing to stand up and say, this is a matter of national strength, national character, national identity, and national values?

    I mean, when Pat Robertson becomes the moral theologian of the Republican Party and says, going out to Saudi Arabia for a journalist's disappearance is not worth risking $100 billion worth of arm sales, does that tell you about moral leadership?

    I mean, that's really what — the proposition that has been presented by this president to the country.

    And the Democrats, do they have the courage, the decency and the integrity to stand up? I mean, these are the people running a civil war in Yemen and murdering children by the thousands. And we have been essentially mute and supportive of that enterprise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, on that note, I'll thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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