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Shields and Brooks on politics in science, Biden’s working-class outreach

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including President Trump’s vaccine rhetoric, the administration’s political manipulation of science, Joe Biden’s campaign message for working-class voters and Trump’s approach to U.S. history education.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, to help make sense of this week in politics, it's time for the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    Let's start with the president and science.

    David, today, the president is saying Americans should all have access to a vaccine by April, but this is completely different from what he said yesterday. He was contradicting his own director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Robert Redfield, who had said it would take time, it would take months, that masks are important.

    Yesterday, the president said of Dr. Redfield, he's mistaken, we're — it's right around the corner.

    What are we to make of the president's leadership on this? How much does it matter to voters?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, we have had six months now of erratic behavior, erratic statements, some completely crazy statements.

    You contrast Angela Merkel in Germany and many other leaders around the world with Donald Trump, and it's a night-and-day contrast.

    We're even learning — and The Times has a story out recently with e-mails that Michael Caputo, the — Trump's HHS official, and a part-time associate professor named Paul Alexander were sending to the CDC to basically terrorize the scientists at the CDC.

    The CDC was created for a moment such as this, and they were rendered strangely mute. And now we understand why, because there was essentially a campaign of intimidation to get veteran scientists at the CDC to not say what they believe.

    And so it's not only the administration. It's sort of the semi-competent or incompetent brutes in the middle of the administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what does this add up to at this point?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, in a crass political sense, Judy, it's bad for the president.

    I mean, this is an issue, the pandemic crisis, in which the president is running about 2-1 behind Joe Biden in virtually every poll as to who's better on it. The only other issue in which Biden is comparably as strong as health care.

    So, every time Donald Trump talks about it, in that sense, he hurts himself, because he's talking about an issue in which he is not believable and has very little public confidence.

    The second factor is, for a vaccine to be effective, there has to be confidence and trust in the American people. The last poll, I saw that 51 percent of Americans at this point, because of all that's going on, and all sniping and the criticizing and the sabotaging that David described, has resulted 51 percent definitely would take a vaccine.

    A vaccine will be of no value unless it's nearly universally taken. So, in a public health sense and a political sense, it's been disastrous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, what are the American people to believe?

    I mean, it's not just the president's statements contradicting his own scientists. As you said, it's what appears to be, if the reporting is right, political interference, NIH, or the National Institutes of Health, officials throughout the administration — Department of Health and Human Services, I should say — apparently tinkering with the Web site of the CDC, giving counter — giving advice that's counter to what others have said, scientists have said.

    What are the American people to believe?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, there are credible witnesses out there.

    The head of the NIH, Francis Collins, is one of the most credible men in America. And he's been strong. And he's not letting the administration push NIH around. Dr. Redfield has been more aggressive recently. Fauci has been strong throughout.

    And so we — I think there's a sense that some of the people who run these institutions, whose honor is in the professional standard of the institutions, are beginning to stand up. And the people can trust those leaders.

    It's mostly the vacuum in the White House. A lot of the things we have known about COVID are not brain science. Wear a mask. I mean, these things are just not — they're not hard. We just need a sense that everybody in society believes in them, and so there's a sense that we're all holding each other accountable.

    And that has been lacking for six months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does that have longer-lasting — does that do longer-lasting damage, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, it does, Judy.

    I mean, I'm not saying politics has been — science has been politics-free. It hasn't. But it's been partisan politics-free in this country, and especially in the institutions that you have mentioned, whether NIH and CDC.

    And it's a pattern. But I cannot think of a single public institution that is strengthened, embellished, enhanced by this administration, where public trust, public confidence has been increased. It's a terrible, terrible indictment.

    Just in a crass political sense, it's a disaster for Donald Trump. I mean, he's — just on the matter of expectations, he's set unrealistic expectations on this. The debates are coming up. Joe Biden has led in every poll for every month since January over Donald Trump.

    The debates are his best chance. So, what do they do? And George Bush people in 2000 going into the debate against Al Gore laid out the predicate that Al Gore was a world-class debater, and, boy, they were just a poor boy from Texas.

    So, when George Bush showed up and did pretty well, he did better than expected, it was a victory.

    Instead — running against Joe Biden, Donald Trump, instead of saying, gee, Joe Biden twice, voters — debated as the vice president. He crushed Paul Ryan, who was the golden boy of the Republican Party intellectually, what do they say? He can't put two sentences together, sleepy Joe, dumb Joe.

    So, they have lowered the expectations. So, when Biden shows up, as he did last night in the town hall on CNN, and is coherent and lucid and empathetic, it's a victory for him.

    I do not understand what Donald Trump is doing. He's making himself the issue, a referendum on him, is trying not to make it a choice election, which is the only chance he has to win.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, is Joe Biden's message or messages getting through?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I think the one thing he has shifted to recently that I think is necessary is a much starker working-class message.

    This was how I faulted the Democratic Convention. They really did not go after working-class voters in places like Pennsylvania. If you look at the polls, the Democrats and Biden campaign is doing quite well all of a sudden in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, but things are tightening in Pennsylvania and Florida.

    And somehow — somehow, there's a little drainage there for Biden. He's going down. trump is going up. And so they have shifted in the last few weeks to a much more populist rhetoric.

    And that's sort of the rhetoric Obama used against Romney years ago. And it worked. It worked for Obama. And so I think moving to a little more, he's the rich guy, this is the class of the rich guys, let's not forget that, that's something that he has to hit a little harder than he has hit so far.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, we have seen some polls move — some polls moving around in different directions.

    But, Mark, you mentioned Biden's message, how he came across last night. Is his message overall coming through? The president, clearly, is getting a lot more coverage, because he's simply generating news by the hour.

  • Mark Shields:

    He is Judy, but has it been good news?

    I mean, I agree — I agree with David that Joe Biden's message has been better and sharper. Understand this about Joe Biden's campaign. He won one major primary in 2020, South Carolina, and then he breezed to the nomination. So he really did not have a battle-tested campaign in the states — in the battleground states.

    I mean, they never got to those contests. So, there's been a shakedown cruise. And I think we are seeing that.

    And as far as Joe Biden himself, I think he's — the more comfortable he is, as he talks about Scranton, the more he's Joe Scranton and the less he's Joe aviator glasses, the better for the Democrats. I mean, it's — I think it's that simple, that straightforward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joe with the aviator glasses, all right, we will — we're thinking about that.

    But back to the president, though, David.

    Last night — yesterday, he gave remarks where he brought up what he called patriotic education. And he railed against any effort to teach more about Black American history, the history of slavery, to emphasize that in American classrooms.

    Is this an issue that can punch through to voters in this election?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I do think that it is an issue. Trump is good at culture war issues.

    And there's a kernel of truth to the problem he identifies. It is a truth that some of the ideas of critical race theory have gone into the American schools, the idea that society is essentially a power struggle between groups and that words are really masks for group power, and civility is a mask for group power.

    That is an idea that is common in the universities and now spreading around American culture. The solution to it is not to have a counterindoctrination. The solution to it is actually to have civics education and education that tells an accurate story, showing America's sins and showing America's glories.

    That's obviously not what Trump is talking about. He's talking about a counterideology. Nonetheless, I do think this issue is a powerful one. I do think a lot of people have looked around and see some people saying that America is fundamentally a land of genocide and slavery.

    It is a land of genocide and slavery, but it's not all that. And so they see America and the patriotism they hold dear being run down. And I do think this has always been a super core part of Trump's message. And he's not — politically, he's not crazy to unfurl it again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And picking up on what David said, Mark, there was just yesterday a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced in the Congress to promote civic education, in a way the opposite of what the president is talking about.

    But do you think the president can be effective with this tack, this emphasis?

  • Mark Shields:

    I don't, Judy.

    I mean, I think it's a propaganda ministry, is what he's proposing. And, yes, are there other pockets of hyper-American criticism in academia? No question about it.

    I mean, presenting America for what it is, a remarkable country founded by remarkable individuals who had flaws, serious flaws, but we have been a self-correcting country, and we continue that process. It's been painful. It's been bloody. It's been slow. But nobody has done it better than the United States of America, in my judgment.

    And I really — I really look at this and say that the effort by Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, on civic education on Capitol Hill is a serious effort. It is important that the students and for all Americans to understand the obligations, as well as the incredible rights, of being an American citizen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question. And we all need to be thinking a lot more about education. It's decided at the local level, but every American is invested.

    And we're going to let one of you go answer the telephone.


    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

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