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Stu Rothenberg and Domenico Montanaro on 2020 gun policy, Democratic debate takeaways

Stu Rothenberg of Inside Elections and NPR’s Domenico Montanaro join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including how gun policy is factoring into the 2020 presidential campaign, another sexual assault allegation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the contest between Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for progressive voters and how helpful the Democratic debates are.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates have new dividing lines this week, from preventing gun violence to impeaching Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.

    Here to look at the Democratic field midway through September, I'm joined by Stu Rothenberg, senior editor of Inside Elections, and Domenico Montanaro. He's senior politics editor from NPR.

    Hello to both of you. Thank you for being here for Politics Monday.

    Let's talk about guns first.

    We saw, Stu, at last week's Democratic debate, some real division. We saw Beto O'Rourke stake out some territory we hadn't seen Democrats speak about recently.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Yes. Everything seems to be about the Democratic divide, doesn't it, between the various wings of the party? And it's showing up on guns, as it showed up on impeachment and other issues.

    You have the Democrats who want to go as far as they can, and those who are thinking more about the general election. And that's a division in the party that they're going to have to figure out how to deal with this, to keep the progressive populists enthused and excited and behind the party's nominee, and yet also reach out to — remember that the general election is about swing voters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — and his talking about buying back assault-style weapons, again, this is a place that even Democrats haven't gone.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Yes.

    I mean, the fact is, you have someone like Beto O'Rourke, who had to reboot his campaign, right? So, of course he's going to go on the campaign stage and want to be on the debate stage and be as bold as possible. So he says, hell, yes, we're coming for your guns.

    Well, maybe pump the brakes for a second, because when you look at the polling on this, something like mandatory buybacks is one of the more divisive issues in our NPR/"PBS NewsHour"/Marist polling. The country is split on whether they approve of those things.

    Much more in favor of things like those red flag laws, universal background checks, even high-capacity ammunition clips, banning those and assault-style weapons, majorities of people overall in favor of those, but not Republicans. And that's where the big difference is and why Congress isn't acting on them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So this is a risk for somebody like O'Rourke?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Well, look, he needs to take risk because where he is in the race.

    So, yes, it's a risk. But more it's a risk for the Democratic Party in the general election if they appear to be too extreme, too radical, too — too liberal, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one other thing that we're hearing now from the Democrats and is weighing in on a story that came out over the weekend, The New York Times reporting, Domenico, that there is a new accusation of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who, of course, went through hearings.

    A lot of information or allegations were aired. He was ultimately confirmed. He's sitting on the court. Here we are many months later, this story comes out.

    We should say the woman who is cited, not by name, reportedly doesn't have a memory of what happened. So the whole thing is a little muddy.

    But, having said this, you have already got, what, several, a half-a-dozen Democrats running for president, saying that Brett Kavanaugh should be impeached.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    And there's the key phrase, running for president, because they know that the base very strongly is in favor of impeachment generally.

    The rest of the country, not so much. independents have tracked with Democrats all throughout the Trump presidency on almost every issue, except for impeachment, when you look at it in the polling.

    And this is another one of those areas. We don't have specific polling on Kavanaugh himself. But when it comes to President Trump, independents think it's not a great idea to go and do that.

    So that's why you see a lot of these Democrats going and doing this, because three-quarters of Democrats said they're in favor of impeaching President Trump, for example. And, by the way, a lot of these Democrats think the FBI did a very cursory investigation of Kavanaugh, didn't vet him very well.

    In fact, one of these allegations was sent by Senator Chris Coons of Delaware to the FBI, with the name redacted, that was then named in this New York Times essay. That was October 2, and he was confirmed October 6.

    So, you have a lot of Democrats still upset strongly about Kavanaugh, not really, they feel, being vetted very strongly. But instead of moving on from that, they — you have some of these presidential candidates trying to rile it up, something that President Trump loves to have front and center.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because he's now — it's given him an opening, Stu, to take his own position and saying, it's all lies, and painting them as extreme.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    And you have one impeachment inquiry. And are you going to have a second one? And then does it not look like Democrats want to overturn the elections and overturn the Supreme Court nominations?

    So it just looks very messy. And, as you say, it gives the president a talking point to talk about how the Democrats are — didn't like the election results, and they will try to change it now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we should say these allegations are part of a new book that is coming out about the Kavanaugh case.

    Let's look at the — I guess you would say the far left, Stu, of the Democratic field, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. A lot of — there has been conversation about the two of them, that are they fighting over the same territory?

    Just today, a small progressive labor group in New York City called the Working Families Party, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, this year says it's supporting Elizabeth Warren.

    So, yes, it's a small group. It's in the Northeast, as far as we know, and perhaps other parts of the country. But is — does Bernie Sanders have something to worry about?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Absolutely. And, actually, he should have started worrying weeks ago about this.

    There's always been questions about, would he sell a second time? Because, remember, he was the alternative to Hillary Clinton. He was the populist. She was the kind of corporatist Democrat. And now the Democratic field is very different.

    Elizabeth Warren uses much of the same rhetoric, language, and imagery that Sanders does. And I think some people think that Bernie isn't selling over the long haul the way he did last time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see it?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    But you have Elizabeth Warren is somebody who a lot of Democrats have taken to. They see her on the campaign trail. They see the way she makes the message, this sort of left-wing populism, and she doesn't go as far as Sanders, right?

    So I thought was interesting during the debate how both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren seemed to use Bernie Sanders as very useful kind of foil.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Foil.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    For Biden, it was on socialism to paint his politics as too extreme and tying Elizabeth Warren to that.

    But Elizabeth Warren was sort of able to escape by unscathed because she was able to use Bernie Sanders as a heat shield. She doesn't have to say that she's totally in favor of what he's in favor of too.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Sanders doesn't fight the description of himself as a Democratic socialist. He will explain what that means, where, on the other hand, Elizabeth Warren said, no, she's not a socialist.

    Well, there are lots of Republicans that doubt that. But it's an interesting difference that appears that I think points out differences between the two candidates.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    The fact is, they have maintained this sort of nonaggression pact, where I have had people close to Bernie Sanders tell me that they're not going to attack Elizabeth Warren, because they view her as an ally for the kind of country and the kind of change they want to see.

    And they want to make sure that Bernie Sanders maintains a level of at least 15 percent in the polls and in delegates, because that's the key threshold number to get those delegates to stick to go to convention. So then Bernie Sanders can still be relevant at that convention.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you both — we asked you both to take a look again at whether they are going after the same voters, I mean, considering all this. What do we see about that?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I think they largely are. They are going after populist progressives, people on the left, at the left end of the party, who are frustrated with corporate America and big institutions. And, yes, I think they are.

    Now, there are differences.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Yes.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    But look at their rhetoric. It's very similar.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you break it down.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Yes, I mean, look, when you look at their similarities and differences, when you look at very liberal voters, there's a big Venn diagram.

    But Bernie Sanders is very strong with younger voters in particular, men, people who make less than $50,000 a year. Warren, on the other hand, people who are paying close attention to the election, women, she does better with whites than African-Americans, whites with college degrees, traditional Democrats and people who make a little bit more money.

    She — her deficits aren't quite as glaring. And a lot of Democratic strategists think that she can make up some of those deficits, particularly with African-Americans, if there is this supposed Biden implosion that were to happen, because she has worn very well in front of black audience, in particular in front of — with black women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally, very quickly, less than 30 seconds, are these debates helping us figure all this out?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Not as much as we said they would help us six months ago, when supposedly these are — each debate was going to be critical, do or die for everybody. It hasn't been — it hasn't been that way.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    It's still a big audience. A lot of these candidates have to get in front of it. But a clear top tier has emerged.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Democrats paying very close attention.

    Domenico Montanaro, Stu Rothenberg, thank you both.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    You're welcome.

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