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Shields and Brooks on the mail bombs and politics as an identity

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the series of pipe bombs, extreme political divisions in America and campaigning on issues vs. values.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's move beyond West Virginia for a look at this moment in American politics with the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    And welcome to you both.

    So, clearly, a lot of relief that the suspect has been arrested in connection with these pipe bombs.

    It turns out, Mark, that this is somebody who is a big supporter of President Trump. We don't know much more than that at this point. He is a suspect.

    But what does this say about this moment in American politics?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, what it says, Judy, I think, more than anything, not knowing the suspect, other than what I have read, is that Donald Trump is a different, sui generis kind of president.

    We Americans are used a president, in a time of crisis or tragedy putting aside any partisan hat.

    Ronald Reagan, at the time of Challenger, speaking of the deaths of the astronauts, saying they broke the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God, I mean, it healed a nation. It reached out to a nation.

    That is missing from Mr. Trump. In fact, this morning at 3:00 in the morning — it's 3:00 a.m. Do you know where your president is? Our president was tweeting and lamenting the fact that all this bomb talk had interfered with the Republicans' early voting and had changed the political dialogue.

    So, I mean, I think that's what we have learned. And it's confirming, and at the same time upsetting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, what do you make of how the president's talked about this, handled all this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, in the last 24 hours, he's been OK. He said it's a despicable act and called for unity.

    But that's following three years of friend-enemy distinctions, of us-them thinking. And it's not only Republicans. I mean, when Steve Scalise was shot, that was somebody from the left.

    But we have just entered a world — and it's been increasing over the years, and I would say Donald Trump is the exclamation point of it — A, is treating politics as a war to the death between two sides and that, for the country move forward, you need to destroy the other side.

    And that's not what politics is. It's competition between partial truths, competing value systems. And then the second thing is, politics for some people has become their identity for them.

    This guy's truck or his van just was covered with these stickers, some of them with crosshairs on Democratic figures. And that's when — if you try to make politics your idol, you're asking politics to bear more than it can bear. And you're headed for an ugly place.

    And so we have entered a spot where we have got these Manichaean distinctions, and then we have also got people catastrophizing, if the other side wins, then the country's off to ruin. And neither of those things are true.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mark, I mean, again, we don't want to make more of this than what we know.

    But there does seem to be — this seems to be a moment of particular vitriol out on the campaign trail. To some extent, it's the way the president has talked about this caravan of people coming up through Mexico, migrants from Central America.

    And there have been other steps that Republican politicians and Democratic politicians have taken to stir people up. I mean, are there any guardrails right now?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, Judy, the terrible part about our politics is that the dominant rule is, if it works, emulate or try to simulate it.

    And I think — right now, I'm in Ohio. And I think the Senate race is a perfect example of that. Jim Renacci, the congressman, won the Republican nomination by almost behaving like a mini-Trump, but he can't — he's going to be beaten quite badly by Senator Sherrod Brown because there's only one Trump.

    I mean, Donald Trump has been doing this for 25 years. He's practiced at it. But make no mistake about it. There will be knockoff Trumps. There will be people trying to do it. There will be Democrats trying to say, this is the way to do it. And it does — it does work, until it doesn't work.

    And I think it's not working, quite frankly, when the president refuses to accept the responsibility Ronald Reagan laid down, that Bill Clinton did after Oklahoma City, that George W. Bush did in the wreckage of 9/11 with the first-responders, that to heal a nation and to reach out to the other side, to offer an arm around the shoulder, rather than pointing a finger of blame.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, I mean, whether it's a negative or a positive, we have polling results that remind us again how much President Trump is a factor in these elections.

    We look back. This was the "NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll. We look back at how much people said President Obama was a factor in 2014 — 28 percent said he was a major factor, compared to 44 percent for President Trump today. We're in a different time.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. And those numbers are low. People don't want to admit they're actually voting on the president, when, in fact, they are.

    And so I would say it's 80 percent is really who Trump is. And he represents a fundamental shift in what the country, how the country sees itself, how we see our foreign policy, how we see our identity. He's a very talented cultural poker.

    And so a lot of identity issues, a lot of cultural issues are poked by the way he talks about the caravan, the way he talks about men, the way he talks about women, the way talks about race. And so he's presented really a fundamental challenge, first taking over the Republican Party, and a challenge to the way either party has defined the country and defined themselves in defined morality, basically.

    And so he is sort of this revolutionary force, and so it's not surprising the election would really revolve around him. I think it's a mistake, personally, that the Democrats are countering him by running on health care, on preexisting conditions and some of the Obamacare benefits.

    I think the Democrats constantly make a mistake where they say, we can win elections by offering people material benefits, and then they don't understand why they lose the working class, because they say, what's the matter with Kansas? We offered these people these benefits and they didn't vote for us.

    It's because most people vote on culture and identity, not on material benefits. So when the Democrats go to materialism, and Donald Trump is doing culture, I think it's playing more into his hands, because there's no response.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what do you make of the way Democrats are responding to the president?

  • Mark Shields:

    Let me respectfully disagree and tell David to keep his eye on Kansas in 2018.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Because he may have — he may have a new theory after November 6.

    I really do think the Democrats have shown remarkable discipline by not chasing down the rabbit hole that Donald Trump tries to suck them into. I mean, just think what the president has proposed. He's proposed — the last time I checked, he was going to have a new tax bill introduced before — before Election Day, even though the Congress is not in session, a 10 percent across-the-board cut for working families, something that was forgotten in his major tax bill.

    Then he's going to cut the price of prescription drugs across the board. Then he's on the caravan. You name it, he's there. And the Democrats, I think, have shown an uncharacteristic discipline by staying on health care.

    Republicans ran on repeal and replace. They didn't do — they tried very hard to repeal. They had no replace. And now, as Americans are aware of preexisting conditions and what it means to cover people who do have a preexisting condition, and the insurance companies didn't do that voluntarily and aren't going to do it again, unless they're forced to by law, all of a sudden, Republicans are coming up all over the board across the country with individual stories, how they had a child or a nephew or a brother or a sister…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mark Shields:

    … who is sick, and they would never, they would never repeal this.

    So I really think, quite to the contrary, I think the Democrats have shown uncharacteristic discipline. And Trump has been all over. There's been no theme for this Republican pudding.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So he disagrees with you.

  • David Brooks:

    Astonishing.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Listen, I'm not going to say it's going to be a Republican year. I'm not saying that.

    But I do think people tend to vote on values. And I do think identity issues — and so what we have seen is, in the areas where, frankly, Trump is culturally repulsive, the Democrats are doing very well.

    But, to me, the Democrats had a historic opportunity to win over a lot of centrist places, make some inroads in some red places, where a lot of people just don't like the cut of the guy's jib. And they are not probably going to do too well in the Senate. There's a chance they may actually lose some Senate seats.

    And so to me this was a potentially realigning election, because you had a president who was phenomenally unpopular. And by running on the big spending vs. tax cuts, we're back in a normal Republican-Democratic field. And that's likely to be a little more 50/50.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of tax cuts, I want to share with all of you, this is a — this is a look at the New Jersey Senate race.

    They had a debate this week. Our own Lisa Desjardins was one of the moderators. She helped moderate it.

    Here's an example of the exchange between the incumbent Senator Bob Menendez and his Republican challenger. Let's listen.

  • Bob Hugin:

    New Jersey is so overtaxed. I go all around this state, I don't meet one person that says taxes are too low in New Jersey. Everyone says it's overtaxed.

    And when you pay your tax bill, remember, Senator Menendez has voted for over 500 tax increases in his tenure, including increases taxes on your Social Security check.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.:

    What we shouldn't have is a $2 trillion tax bill that my opponent supports and that he helped the person who drove the tax bill be in office, the president of the United States, Donald Trump.

    And now that they have $2 trillion unpaid for, what's the Republican leader of the Senate say? As soon as this election is over, we have to after go entitlements, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you see, Bob Hugin, Mr. Hugin, who is the Republican candidate challenging Bob Menendez.

    Mark, they did come back to taxes. It's one of the things David was just saying is not terribly effective, going to be terribly effective for Democrats this year.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    No, I mean, I think that the New Jersey race, I think, has to be understood that but Bob Menendez, the Democrat, in a state — when Democrats talk about winning back the House, the three keystone, cornerstone to that strategy are California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, where the Democrats — I would add to it today Iowa, possibly.

    But I mean, those are the states where the Democrats are going to pick up the majority of their seats. So the fact that the race is close is a reflection, more than anything else, on not simply the Republican challenger's campaign, where he's been very deep-pocketed and run a very strong campaign, but Bob Menendez, as you will recall, had a hung jury on his own conspiracy and corruption charges.

    And I think that's what this race is about more than — more than any national issues.

    I would just say to David, preexisting conditions is a value, David. It isn't just whether we're going to French kiss after the prom is a value.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Health care — health care for people who can't afford it is a value. It's a real value.

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, this is a family show.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So just wanted to remind you.

  • Mark Shields:

    I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

    (CROSSTALK)

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    Belgian kissing, OK?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I'm going to — well, just on the New Jersey debate, it strikes me that — what we just heard in that clip was a Democrat — a Republican promising to cut taxes and a Democrat saying, this guy is going to take away your Medicare entitlements. That's a debate we have been having since 1984 or 1980 or maybe 1956.

    To me, Trump does represent a shift in how we view politics. It's no longer that debate is essential. It's much more, what do we think about immigration? What do we think about America's role in the world? It's more open/closed, less big government vs. small government.

    And it takes a little while for a lot of the other races to adapt to this new field. But I do think Trump and the global populists around the world have really changed the terms of debate. And what we just heard there could have been said any time in the last 30 or 40 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, I mean, the point is, he's changing the poles, basically the poles. Mark, go ahead.

    I mean P-O-L-E, not poll.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. No, no question, Judy.

    In 2012, when Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee, there was a widespread consensus of immigration as an issue. The Republicans were — essentially, the Republican position was that they were for more liberalized immigration perhaps than Democrats were, who were concerned about immigrants representing threats on hourly jobs.

    But, at the same time, only 4 percent of Republicans considered it a top issue. This is now Donald Trump's party; 23 percent of Republicans now consider this the top issue in 2018.

    That is Donald Trump's party. That isn't the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan or the Republican Party of George H.W. Bush or the Republican Party of Mitt Romney.

    So, David's right. There is a change. And Donald Trump, when you — win this race is about him, he — I will say this. We have seen, I think, probably the last press conference with Sarah Huckabee Sanders as the press secretary, not a reflection on her.

    Donald Trump is now the press voice of this administration. You may have noticed, at the White House now, he's the one who holds the press conferences and holds hostage Democratic senators who happen to be standing there at the same time.

    But this is — this is written, produced and directed, this administration, this government, by Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We come back to the same — to that central point, David.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. And he — you see how he goes back to the caravan again and again, an issue, like, made to order for him. To me, it's an exaggeration.

    I mean, we have had refugees come to this country before. We haven't had a national crisis over it. We haven't had to send down the National Guard. We were able to process these things. We're a country of 330 million people. We can handle if it's 2,000. And if they really are refugees who need protection, we can handle it.

    But that's not how it's being played out. It's being played out like the invasion of the hordes from barbarian — some — and so that is — that's the issue for him right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, on that note, we're going to thank you both.

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you. Thank you, Judy.

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