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Shields and Brooks on the Barrett hearing, dueling town halls

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including what stood out from President Trump’s and Joe Biden’s TV town halls, how the two candidates are polling and whether the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett will affect the election.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's Friday. Time for the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

    David, I'm going to start with you on those two town halls. It was supposed to be a debate night. It did not happen. Instead, each candidate was before a crowd, answering questions. What stands out for you?

  • David Brooks:

    The annals of global rhetoric are just spared another debate.

    You know, what really stood out to me is the ratings, that Joe Biden got much higher ratings than Donald Trump. And that's interesting to me, because the Biden event was bound to be more boring. It was more boring. And Trump was a show. And Savannah Guthrie was a very good adversary for — questioner for him.

    But it gives me the indication that people are not regarding the show the way they did in 2016. A lot — in 2016, a lot of people thought the show was fascinating and riveting and funny. Right now, I think a lot of people are more tired of the show.

    So, even beyond what they said, the audience reaction really was what struck me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what about you? What stood out? Joe Biden boring, as David is saying?

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, I will say this, that being the — as old as dirt and the most senior person on the "NewsHour," I can quote Robin MacNeil, who said, we on the "NewsHour" never mentioned ratings, unless they're very, very good.

    And — with Joe Biden last night, they were very, very good indeed. And I think David put his finger on it.

    I think it's even larger than that, though. I think people have moved on. They're now looking at — they're looking at the next president. That's what they were doing last night.

    And the founder of "The Apprentice," to be absolutely confounded by his interrogator, the most envied professional position in television today is being the agent of Samantha (sic) Guthrie. She effectively confounded Donald Trump. She was relentless. She was smart. She was a one-woman fact-check.

    And her line that — calling him to task for his retweeting that Osama bin Laden had not been killed by the Navy SEALs, that it was a body double, as being the height of irresponsibility, she said: You're not somebody's crazy uncle. You're the president of the United States.

    I mean, I just thought she saved NBC's reputation for scheduling at the same time.

    So, I thought it was a great night for Joe Biden. The statement to me about it all was, the lights were down, the microphones were off, the cameras were shuttered, and Joe Biden was still standing there answering questions from ordinary people, no payoff politically.

    But that's Joe Biden.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, if people are starting to move on, if these forums aren't as effective for the president, where does the race — where does that leave the race at this point?

    I mean — and was there anything last night that you think could move the needle one direction or another?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, Donald Trump's strongest argument is an argument he made at the end, which is that the economy was really good pre-COVID. I think that's his best argument.

    But this is sort of about personality and character. It's about COVID and character. And Donald Trump's character is tough guy, rough guy. And some people like that, and a lot of people are exhausted by it. I'm not sure there's anything they can do, because that's fundamentally who he is.

    After the debate, Mercedes Schlapp, one of Trump's aides, texted that Joe Biden felt like being on "Mister Rogers." And that's a pretty good thing for a lot of people.


  • David Brooks:

    Mister Rogers is quite an admired character.

    And so I do think there's really not much way that Donald Trump can pivot at this point to anything new.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We like Mister Rogers here on PBS, don't we, Mark?

  • Mark Shields:

    We sure do.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Mark, what about the campaign overall?

    I mean, most of the polls we're looking at, national polls, have Biden up 10, 11, 12 points. We know that could tighten. But what does that say?

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, in an absolutely chaotic, traumatic, bizarre year, it has been a remarkably stable race.

    If you go back to the first poll done in January of 2020 by The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Joe Biden was ahead of Donald Trump by high single digits. He has maintained that lead in every single poll throughout, and now it's enlarged.

    And while the race itself has not been a race of great drama, other than the drama of the country is going through and the trauma the country is going through, but, on the campaign trail, great intersections with the candidates, one lousy debate, voters have taken this, as Peter Hart points out that, as a very, very serious election.

    I think the turnout reflects that. I think we're going to see record turnout. It's an important election. It's America's role in the world. It's about science. It's about race. These are — these are big issues.

    They may not be debated every day, but they're on the voters' minds. And this is a voters election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, how do you read this election? What are we, two weeks and three or four days until Election Day? A lot of early voting already taking place.

  • David Brooks:


    And it's different than 2016, in the way Mark described. 2016 really was a volatile election. The polls moved up and down. And they haven't moved, as Mark said.

    Second thing that happened in 2016 is, a lot of late-breakers went for Donald Trump. He was a new thing, and he was change. And now he's not a new thing anymore. And so now I think it's a pretty solid — I have more confidence in the polls that maybe I should, but I — it's worth reminding that they weren't all that wrong in 2016. To be — and now it's about a nine-point lead.

    The thing that worries me, frankly, is, a lot of people I know who are Trump supporters are absolutely certain that Trump is going to win. They just say that: Polls were wrong in 2016. They're wrong now. I am absolutely certain it's going to be a landslide.

    And when you say, well, the polls — maybe he will lose, and it's just not part of — a lot of people I know, a lot of people I like, it's just not part of the possible reality.

    And so, if Donald Trump does lose, I'm a little concerned about how a lot of people will react, because it will come as a complete shock to a lot of people, and maybe vice versa on the Democratic side, though I just happened to hear more from some of the Republicans.

    They will be completely flummoxed that this happened. I don't know what reaction that will prompt.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, does that concern you?

  • Mark Shields:

    It doesn't concern me as much as David.

    I have lived longer and through this with David than David has. In 1964, you may recall it was a — the theme of Barry Goldwater's campaign was a choice, not an echo, that he wasn't going to be a moderate, lukewarm Republican, he was a different choice, and there were millions of people who had never voted before who were going to show up and elect Barry Goldwater. That never happened.

    In 1972, there was a revolution, the George McGovern Democrats, convinced that there was a great peace majority in the country who would turn out in numbers never before seen to rout Richard Nixon.

    In both cases, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the incumbents, won, and those armies never materialized. I'll be surprised.

    I think the Trump people have done a good campaign of registering voters this time, and registering those who had not voted last time. But I just don't see that this is going to materialize, this — these great armies of unnoticed and previously unrecognized voters are going to show up on Election Day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me turn you both to the Barrett — Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court.

    David, what did we learn about her this week?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, first thing, as not a legal scholar, I think she's a remarkable human being. I just think she's a very good person, a very admirable person, who's led an admirable life.

    Her approval ratings rose consistently over the period, which is not normally the case. And even 27 percent of Democrats think she should be confirmed.

    Having said that, these hearings, as Dick Durbin said, have just become semi-useless. If you go back to the Robert Bork hearings, he — it hurt him, of course, but he did have a very interesting disquisition on his judicial philosophy.

    Now, if you ask them, is the sky blue, they will just say no. I mean, I remember Elena Kagan was like this. She was certainly like this. Anything remotely stepping into politics, should we have a peaceful transfer of power, oh, I don't want to get into politics.

    These hearings have just — the way the politicization of the process has destroyed the usefulness of the hearing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see these hearings, Mark? She testified over three days before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. Yes. No, I mean, she was a superb witness of the Republicans, make no mistake about it.

    It was interesting, Judy, that support for the president's nominee was announced even before the nominee was identified by several members of the committee, which does really suggest that the hearings are a sham or just a pretense.

    But I think both sides learned something. The Democrats realized that they didn't have the votes. I thought they made the case on health care very, very strongly, and the major case that's going to be confronting Justice Barrett, if she, in fact, confirmed before the election, that — and the Republicans were playing — playing defense. So, I think, no surprises. To me, she was an excellent witness for this side.

    In a strange way, politically, it may have helped Lindsey Graham rehabilitate his somewhat sullied reputation of being caught in flagrant and open lying on public television and public airwaves about whether, in fact, there would be a new justice confirmed if there were a vacancy in the last year of Donald Trump's presidency, because they did go so well, and that there weren't — the Democrats did not go after her the same way — and I think for good reason, politically — that they went after Justice Kavanaugh.

    And they found out that was the course to follow prudently.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Will be really interesting to see whether this has any bearing on the presidential election.

    Thank you both on this Friday night, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

    We will see you next week.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thanks. Thank you, Judy.

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