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Shields and Brooks on pandemic partisanship, VP debate

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including how the pandemic is influencing voters in battleground Wisconsin, President Trump’s response to his own coronavirus diagnosis, the vice presidential debate and Senate races in the spotlight.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Each week lately brings such a whirlwind of news, it is hard to make sense of it all.

    Just this evening, the Commission on Presidential Debates has officially canceled next week's debate, following President Trump saying that he would not participate in a virtual event.

    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, after another-news filled week.

    Mark, you just listened to the report from Wisconsin, Yamiche's report. What is your sense of voters' take on how the president has handled coronavirus and how it's affecting their vote?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, it's not good, Judy.

    This is an area where Joe Biden has a decisive margin over Donald Trump.

    And one of the misleading, I think, impressions about Wisconsin, why it is important, is that every Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984 has carried it, up until Hillary Clinton. But the margins were incredibly thin.

    Trump carried it by eight-tenths of 1 percent in 2016. But Al Gore carried it by two-tenths of 1 percent in 2000, and John Kerry by four-tenths of 1 percent. So, it is really the ultimate battleground state.

    And I would say that, as of this evening, it's not encouraging for the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, what did you hear from those voters that tells you where this election may be headed?

  • David Brooks:

    The power of polarization.

    In Yamiche's report, the Republicans thought the disease, the pandemic is not that serious. The Democrats thought it's very serious.

    So, it's an objective, scientific, medical thing. It's not a matter of opinion. And yet your — one's opinion about it apparently is largely shaped by which party you follow.

    I do think — and this is reflected in the shift in the polls in the last two weeks — is that now that COVID is overwhelmingly the dominant issue of the election, it's weirdly made the election and the campaign less ideological.

    We're used to campaigns where there's a conservative philosophy against a progressive philosophy. This is about COVID. It's not particularly ideological. It's about getting rid of a pandemic.

    And I think, for that reason, it's a lot easier for some former Trump voters to switch over and support Biden, because they don't have to say, I'm renouncing my philosophy. They just say, I need a guy, somebody who will fix this COVID thing.

    And I think that's one of the reasons we're seeing some shifts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about that, Mark? I mean, we have seen a remarkable response by the president. He went into the hospital a week ago today. He was out a few days later.

    He said — he's been saying he's immune. He's inviting hundreds of people to the White House tomorrow, been showing up in the Oval Office. Is this — I mean, is this helping him, as he presents himself to the American people?

  • Mark Shields:

    We will find out, Judy.

    I just want to endorse what David — the point David made. There is no ideology in putting out a fire. There's no ideology in rescuing a child from a burning building. This is not a question of philosophical — this is — Americans are very pragmatic. And I think that's their approach to coronavirus right now. And I think that's why the president is playing very much on defense.

    And, as far as the president is concerned, I really think that you can — you can feel in the air that there's a certain desperation in his candidacy, and you talk to Republicans.

    And all I — all I'm reminded of is 1980, which was a two-to-three-point race all through the fall between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, the incumbent, and then the one debate resolved it, and the doubts about Reagan were resolved, and voters did what they wanted to do, which was to terminate President Carter's time in the White House.

    I think the same sentiment is pervasive now, that voters want to really terminate Donald Trump's contract, and get the United Airlines over to 1600 Pennsylvania before the 20th of January.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what do you make of what we have seen from the president over the last week? Air of desperation, as Mark said?

  • David Brooks:

    A bit of that.

    I mean, we have seen the warp speed version of Donald Trump's version of masculinity, which is a version of masculinity that never admits vulnerability, that's always about conquest and competition, and doesn't share — show a shred of humility. And that's been evident in his COVID reaction.

    Mark pointed to 1980. I would point to 2008. When the Lehman Brothers fell in the beginnings of the financial crisis, all of a sudden, the electorate took a look at the possibility of just waves of chaos. And they wanted to know which candidate seemed more orderly.

    And for all my reverence for John McCain and Mark Salter, my friend Mark Salter, at that moment, John McCain did not seem like the safest pair of hands. Barack Obama seemed like that.

    And, right now, I think a lot of people are looking at Trump's behavior, and not seeing a safe pair of hands. And Biden, by contrast — one of the amazing things that's happened is that Biden's approval rating has gone up by 10 percentage points in the course of this campaign.

    That does not happen. When you're in the middle of the campaign, you're being attacked with negative ads. Usually, your approval goes down, no matter if you win or lose. But Biden's is going up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I should say Mark Salter, in the book, actually acknowledges that John McCain didn't handle a lot of what happened in 2008 very well.

    But, Mark, pick up on that.


    Go ahead.

  • Mark Shields:

    I will. I will.

    I — let me disagree with David. John McCain was not the incumbent. John McCain was paying dearly for the sins of George W. Bush, who, at that point, was looking at the — 12 percent of American people think the country is headed the right direction, and a job rating of 25 percent.

    So — but I think that that's why I say '80, when you have an incumbent on the ballot, is the analogy to this.

    No, Judy, I just — I really think that the race has changed, and changed dramatically. Joe Biden, you're right, he's now above water, his favorable/unfavorable, which is a tribute to him. He came in with — left the White House as vice president with a 2-1 favorable rating, but he's been unfavorable ever since the race began.

    For the first time, in the most recent polls, he is now above water. He is more positive than he is negative, which I think is a tribute to his campaign and also an indication of support.

    If you're voting for somebody, you do have a more favorable impression of them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, I mean, are we getting — well, I don't want to put words in your mouth.

    But, as we said, the Commission on Presidential Debates tonight announcing they are definitely not going to be having this second presidential debate this coming week.

    Is that likely to have any bearing on where this race is going?

  • David Brooks:

    Feel free to put words in my mouth. They got to be better than the ones I put in my mouth.


    Yes, the first thing that strikes me is, I have never seen a losing candidate not want to have as many debates as possible.

  • Mark Shields:


  • David Brooks:

    So, for Donald Trump not wanting to debate is just crazy.

    And then the second thing is that not having it, I think, is the wise decision. But, again, it reduces the number of opportunities he has to turn this around.

    And, third, even looking at the vice presidential debate, the Democrat go in with a clear strategy, which they implement, especially Kamala Harris, which is that, we're not a crazy left-wing party, we're the Obama party, you can be safe with us.

    And she implemented that, I thought, really effectively.

    Pence, I'm not sure the Republicans have a consistent strategy through the debate. So, whether Pence did good or bad, to me, was beside the point, because there's no strategy. There's no residue he's leaving. It's just randomness.

    So, not having the debate, though, is certainly to cement where we are right now, which is Biden ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what about the effect, or lack thereof, of these debates on what's going on?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I think the debates this year, vice presidential were probably more important than ever, given, A, the health and age of the president and the age of Joe — of Joe Biden, and questions about his physical fitness for the job. So, I think there was probably more attention paid.

    I agree that Donald Trump giving up 70 million people on national television in a debate to go for three million FOX News makes absolutely no sense.

    I had a leading Republican say to me today: Can somebody please teach these people at the White House arithmetic? If he's going to turn the race around, you speak to the largest audience you can. And he's — he made the choice not to.

    I thought that Kamala Harris — Kamala Harris had a bad performance in the hearings with Brett Kavanaugh. I thought she came across, not as a prosecutor, but as too prosecutorial. That was shelved in the vice presidential debate.

    I thought she played — she was the surrogate for Joe Biden. She made the case for Joe Biden. And she made the case against Donald Trump as well as anybody has in my experience.

    I thought her case on the coronavirus was terrific. And she brought in the taxes in a way that left Mike Pence, who played defense, but you don't score on defense, Judy. Mike Pence played perfectly fine defense, but it left him speechless.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, while we're talking about the election, there are these Senate races. Senate's hanging in the balance. David.

    Are there a couple of those races you're watching to tell what may happen?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, obviously, we're sort of transfixed by the South Carolina race, Lindsey Graham suddenly tied with Jaime Harrison. That's astounding. And then, in North Carolina, we had what seemed like a Democratic pickup With now suddenly a tossup because of a sex scandal.

    And so, overall, the sense from the Republicans, senators, and the Republican staff that I talk to is, there's just a gigantic stone around them. And they are struggling to rise above Donald Trump. And they're finding it harder than even in past times, when they have to run with an unpopular candidate. But we do have these odd things happen, like in North Carolina.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, races you're watching, Senate races you're watching.

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, I mean, South Carolina, I agree.

    I mean, the historical irony, the remarkable, miraculous event, if, in fact, Jaime Harrison were to win and defeat Lindsey Graham, that means that South Carolina, Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, would be represented in the United States Senate by two African-American senators. That is just — that is remarkable, in itself.

    The North Carolina race, I mean, talk about a blown opportunity. Cal Cunningham, veteran family man, state senator, raised all this money, running ahead, and gets exposed for carrying on an illicit affair in the middle of the campaign, and has all of a sudden made it a race.

    And if the Senate balance hangs, the majority hangs in the balance of North Carolina, his name will live in infamy in Democratic circles, because he had a — he had a significant lead over Thom Tillis.

    But I think Iowa is fascinating. I think Maine is fascinating as well. And I think Arizona is now put away for the Democrats, it appears.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, with three-and-a-half weeks to go, we are going to leave it there.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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