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Shields and Brooks on midterm results and GOP ‘lockstep loyalty’ to Trump

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Amna Nawaz to discuss the results of the 2018 midterm elections, the staff shakeup at the Justice Department and an ‘ugly moment’ between the president and the press.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's been a dramatic week in politics.

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

    Welcome to you both. Happy Friday.

  • Mark Shields:

    Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You may remember there was an election earlier this week.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Look, yesterday, Lisa Desjardins and our political team did a wonderful breakdown looking at the new Congress. She called it a generational change, a lot of turnover, and demographic change, too.

    So, David, let's start with you. Looking forward, how do you see this new Congress being able to actually legislate?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, occasionally, you get a Congress or you get a class that defines a generation.

    So, in 1974, they were the Watergate Babies. Ninety-four, you had Newt Gingrich. The Watergate Babies pushed Congress to the left. The Gingrich people pushed it to the right.

    In this, we may have a class, we may call them the Trump babies, if they can remain coherent. And I would say it's a reasonably hopeful class for two reasons. One, it's much more diverse and looks like the way America actually looks.

    Secondly, it's reasonably moderate. One of the things that we have seen over the last few days is, people have done an analysis of which kind of Democrats won. And in general, the progressive, the ones endorsed by the more progressive groups, didn't do well. Those endorsed by the centrist new Democratic groups did very well.

    And so I happen to think the Democratic Party is moving to the left, but a lot of Democratic voters are not moving to the left. And they tended to put some pretty big victories for moderates. And that may hearken to something.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I'm picking up some optimism there.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mark, do you share that?

  • Mark Shields:

    I mean, that's refreshing, optimism.

    (LAUGHTER)

    No, I think it — I think it was a — it was a significant election.

    What I was most alarmed by was the president's announcement that it was a great victory for Republicans.

    (LAUGHTER)

    The Republicans lost more seats than they did under Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, both of whom accepted the fact that the party had suffered a shellacking.

    And I was particularly struck by the president's reaction at the post-press conference. Gene McCarthy, the late senator from Minnesota, once described a mean political opponent as being the type of person who, after the battle is over, come down from the hills and shoot the wounded.

    And that's exactly what Donald Trump did the next day. He went after, named and shamed Republicans who had lost. The lone black Republican woman in the Congress, Mia Love, he went after personally and said, Mia showed me no love, because — in that sense, I had just never seen anything like it.

    The election was about Donald Trump; 65 percent of the voters said it was about him. And his dominance of American politics to me was complete, in the sense that states, you could almost trace the — track the Republican vote for Senate or major office with Donald Trump's favorable job rating in that state, I mean, Ohio, for example.

    And I think — I think the victory — David and I disagree on this. I think it was enormous personal victory and political victory for Nancy Pelosi. I really do. She was the one who passed health care in 2009, almost single-handedly. And the party paid for it in 2010.

    And, ironically, in 2018, it was the issue that rode that the Democrats rode back. And I thought she showed iron discipline by keeping the party on that issue. And I think it's — I think it's significant.

    Thirty-three or 34 women elected to the House for the first time who are Democrats.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

    So, both of you have noted that the — demographically, there were huge shifts with this new Congress.

  • Mark Shields:

    Absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But they were largely in one party and not the other. That is — that's a fair assessment.

    David, what do you make of that, looking forward at our biggest and strongest two parties? One path is clearly moving towards more representation of the general public, and one not so much.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, a couple things. First, Donald Trump seems to have walled them in — walled himself in with 45 percent of the electorate. And so he's built some pretty strong barriers. It's hard to see people leaving and coming in.

    Second, it should be said that, for all there was a blue wave or a huge surge in turnout for the Democrats, there was also a huge surge in turnout for the Republicans. And to me, that is basically the white working-class saying, we're still hurting.

    Some of it may have to with Kavanaugh hearings and things like that. But life in rural areas is still marked by huge numbers of men outside the labor force. You have got jobs that are part-time in the big economy. You have still got a lot of economic strain. And those people just came out because they're still hurting.

    Now, can this party get outside that 45 percent? I don't think so. I think Trump has really walled themselves in, and the party is a Trump party.

    And George Bush and John McCain and every other Republican spent so much capital trying to win over Hispanics, trying to represent the new American, Asian Americans, all the groups. And in a stroke, I think Donald Trump has ended maybe two or three decades of efforts in that direction.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Does that walling then make it harder for these folks who are being sent to Washington to actually do their jobs?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think so.

    I mean, Donald Trump ran on immigration. And for a lot of people, that was — that threat, the threat of both a demographically altered country, but also a threat to their jobs and a threat to what they feel is their safety, opinions them that issue.

    And that's why I still this agree with Mark on health care, even though the Democrats — I still think, if you look around the world, what's the issue that's dominant in country after country? It's national identity. Who are we as a nation?

    And that's a fundamental issue. Trump has one answer. I think the Democrats are still going to have to come up with a different answer, which emphasizes diversity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So I want to ask you about this, Mark.

    Democrats won. They won control of the House. They also won the power to launch investigations into this president, subpoena powers, et cetera.

    The president has already promised a warlike posture if the Democrats start to investigate his personal and financial dealings. How does this play out?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I mean, the president has to be sure that his troops are behind him. I'm not as sure that Republican senators like Cory Gardner in Colorado, who's up in 2020, or Susan Collins in Maine, who's up in 2020, are going to be enthusiastic about just joining a lockstep support of the president and his positions.

    Just to pick up on David's point ,I do think immigration is a major issue. I think it's been cavalierly dismissed by the elites, especially on the Democratic side. And it's a legitimate issue and a real issue.

    And I think the Democrats have to come up with a response to it. But it wasn't up to the Democrats to set the agenda in this election. I mean, this was a midterm election. It's a referendum on the president. And I do — I do think that the Democrats come out of this stronger, although they're going to face the fragmentation, the polarization of a primary, a contested primary, and which will try and pull the party to the left.

    There's no question about it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to move on now to the other big story this week.

    That was the forced resignation of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the appointment of his replacement, a man who has been openly hostile to the special counsel's investigation. That is Matthew Whitaker.

    David, Senator Collins, who Mark just mentioned, proposed today legislation that would protect Robert Mueller. How do you see that moving forward? Will Republicans move to do that?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I was really struck by how aggressive she was, and even signals from new senators like Mitt Romney, you can see sort of taking her side on these sorts of things.

    I wonder if there will be a loosening in the lockstep loyalty to Trump now, whether some people will look around the — especially if they're not in solid red states, look around, I have got to establish some distance, and there may be a weakening in the loyalty there.

    So, I sort of expect that to happen. But Donald Trump does what he wants. And he's wanted to get rid of Sessions for the longest time. And he went against members of his own administration, members of his own party, and say, I'm just going to do what I want, and I'm going to pick one — somebody's going to protect my flank.

    And what strikes me about Trump and his attitude toward the attorney general is that all power is personal for Trump.

  • Mark Shields:

    That's right.

  • David Brooks:

    That it's about, you have got to be loyal to me. It's not about the institution of the Justice Department or the institution of the federal government. It's about me.

    And so I think he just doesn't even see the possibility that somebody like Jeff Sessions could be serving a different loyalty than personal loyalty to Donald Trump.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But what does that mean, then, for something like the Mueller investigation, for the integrity of these institutions?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, it means, first of all, I think, Amna, that Matt Whitaker's days are numbered at the Justice Department.

    When Donald Trump said today as he — that he wasn't sure he'd ever met him, after praising him as a great guy just the last month in an interview, it's — he is distancing himself. I mean, loyalty is strictly a one-way street with Donald Trump.

    I mean, Jeff Sessions was the first and only senator for a long time who endorsed Donald Trump's candidacy, and yet he disparaged him in conversation with many people as being dumb and a dumb Southerner and even worse.

    And the one blessing of this is that Jeff Sessions, like Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus, now will be spared that abuse, that daily ridicule that came from the president.

    I just — I mean, to me, it's beyond comprehension that you would treat people like this and expect that something — David's point about the Justice Department being a personal attorney who works for you I think is absolutely on spot.

    I mean, he — this is his approach. It has always been his approach to the Justice Department. He wants an attorney general who is his attorney general, not the attorney general of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, very quickly, I want to touch on what was a very contentious press conference between the president and members of the press corps earlier.

    It ended in one of the members of the White House press corps having his credentials revoked. I have covered a lot of countries where that happens regularly. It's happening here now increasingly.

    How do you view that?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, he — I thought the revoking of Acosta's press credentials was silly. I thought that whole episode was sort of a distraction and silly.

    But what's not a distraction and silly is picking out three African-American reporters and insulting their questions. That's — that's who Donald Trump is. I don't think that requires further explanation.

    But it's all, again, not respecting the institutions. The press has a role. Our job is to ask questions. Sometimes, the questions are unpleasant. And his — the president's job as a public servant is to answer the questions.

    And going off on the press the way he's done, in a much more, frankly, bullying posture, is him simply to say, it's me against these people. And we all know what he means by these people.

    And so it's an ugly moment.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, those three reporters you mentioned, I just want to name. It was April Ryan, Abby Phillip, and our own Yamiche Alcindor, who were singled out for particular division and insult from the president.

    What do you make of that?

  • Mark Shields:

    Particularly Yamiche, because I watched it — I mean, it is true of his treatment of April Ryan as well and then Abby Phillip today.

    But Yamiche asked an absolutely legitimate question about nationalism and the encouragement of sympathy that his position, as a stated nationalist, gave to white nationalism.

    And we already are aware of support, echoes of support for him from these groups and individuals. And so he immediately attacked her for a racist question.

    I mean, this is the oldest gambit in the world. He does it over and again — again. It's a bullying tactic. It's a mean-spirited tactic. And it's — it — to me, it shows the pressure that he is feeling from this defeat that he suffered on Tuesday.

    I thought we got a little peek into how he treats those around him in the White House by the way he treated those in the press.

    The Jim Acosta thing is unforgivable. It is — to use a doctored tape from Infowars to somehow make the case that he had mistreated this White House intern, which he didn't do, and — I don't know. I just wish Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas had had a shot at this guy, I mean, to ask tough questions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, good to talk to you, as always.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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