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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on new Congress, party evolution

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report join John Yang to discuss why the border wall is so important to President Trump right now, how neither side is feeling enough pain to be interested in yielding and whether a "generational divide" in the Democratic Party might affect the new Congress.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The government shutdown over the border wall has amplified political divisions.

    John Yang looks at how all this is highlighted in this new era of divided government.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, the new Congress is at work, even if some of the federal government isn't. And the new members include some progressive Democrats who are calling for big changes.

    To break all this down, I'm joined by our Politics Monday team. That's Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    The shutdown is in day 17. We're essentially where we were on day one.

    Tam, let me ask you. Let me start with you.

    The president, for two years of his administration, has been saying he wants this barrier, he wants this wall on the border, but he's signed spending bills without any money for the wall, until now. Why is he digging in now?

  • Tamara Keith:

    There are a lot of reasons why he might be digging in now.

    The official reason that we got from Vice President Pence today is that this is a crisis along the border that didn't exist earlier, that it is more of a crisis, a humanitarian and security crisis. That is the administration argument.

    The other argument would be that the president is looking at 2020. The reelection has begun, and this is a key, central, very important promise of his campaign that he hasn't been able to keep. And if he folded one more time in his last best chance, then what?

    And so, from the administration perspective, that's why we're here. From the Democrats' perspective, they just waged a campaign where President Trump, in the midterms, went and held rallies that were all about border security and the wall. It was such a big focus. And Democrats won the House, and not by a little bit.

    And so they don't — their voters are telling them and polls are telling them, why move? Don't move on this. Don't fold to the president. They feel like it would be a really bad precedent to set at the beginning of a new term for Congress.

  • John Yang:


  • Amy Walter:

    So, no one feels like they have anything to lose, right?

    And when you are in a process where you're not feeling any pain, you're not going to make any changes. And the only way, it seems, that the folks who are in Congress will feel the pain is they're — either their constituents come to tell them or they see polling that suggests that voters are blaming them.

    What is really different this time, too, from back when we were talking about these issues in 2016 and '17 and '18, not just that the House changed control, but look at the Senate map. The Senate map in 2018, it was tilted very much in favor of Republicans. It was red state Democrats who were on the ballot, and so there was a lot of political calculation from folks like Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, about protecting those vulnerable incumbents.

    Well, guess what? In 2020, there's only one red state Democrat on the ballot. There are a number of blue and purple state Republicans on the ballot. How many of them? We have already seen a number of them come out and say, we would like to see the shutdown end. It's going to take a lot more than a couple of them.

    But they're certainly much more vulnerable than — Republicans are more vulnerable on this issue than they were, at least in the Senate, back in 2018.

  • John Yang:

    One of the senators on the ballot in 2020 is Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who has been mostly absent from this.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. But he's much more worried about a primary challenge. Guess who else is on the ballot in 2020? Lindsey Graham.

    What is Lindsey Graham more worried about, a primary or a general election in South Carolina? I'm going to tell you, it's a primary.

  • John Yang:

    Well, this is a sort of rude awakening or welcome for the about 100 freshman lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, although if — casual observers may be forgiven if they only think there's only one freshman.

    That's Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been given a lot of attention. She got something this weekend that some senior members have never gotten. That's a full-blown profile on "60 Minutes."

  • Amy Walter:


  • John Yang:

    Let's take a listen to a little bit of what she said.

  • Anderson Cooper:

    What you are talking about, just big picture, is a radical agenda compared to the way politics is done right now.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.:

    Well, I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country. Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like Social Security.

  • Anderson Cooper:

    Do you call yourself a radical?

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.:

    Yes. You know, if that's what radical means, call me a radical.

  • John Yang:

    Proudly embracing the title radical, Amy, what do you make of this?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, there are many Republicans right now who are happy to see her embrace that title, and they want to put that mantle on every single Democrat in every single district. They'd love to run the 2020 campaign on that message that Democrats are too radical.

    But, look, I think what we're starting to see is the beginning of a real significant generational divide within the Democratic Party. And it's not just about age. It is about their style, and it's about priorities and approach, compromise vs. confrontation.

    She talked a lot in that interview as well about the fact that she thinks Democrats have compromised too much in the past. We hear folks like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders also frustrated that Democrats haven't stood up and confronted more, not necessarily talking about confronting Trump himself, which is interesting.

    Neither really talked about that, Elizabeth Warren on the trail this weekend or Ocasio-Cortez in that interview. What they're talking about is confronting the policy agenda, more aspirational, more aggressive.

  • John Yang:

    Freshmen talking about too much compromise.

    Could Speaker Pelosi, Tam, be facing the same problems that Speaker Boehner and Speaker Ryan had to deal with, with the Tea Party, with these sort of younger progressives, the Democrats in the House? And how is this affecting what she's doing both on the wall and also on calls for impeachment?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, it's not clear yet whether she really has the left version of the Tea Party, because, you know, basically, the votes that have been taken have been — basically, she got what she wanted, Democrats fell in line.

    So it's not clear that she has that on her hands. But ceding on the wall does her no good. It does her no good with the Democratic base at all, and is one of the first actions. That's why we're stuck. That's why Congress and the president have hit an impasse on this.

  • John Yang:

    Is this schism between pragmatics and progressives, for lack of a better phrase, is this also going to shape the Democratic primaries of 2020?

  • Amy Walter:

    Exactly. I think that's the battle lines now being drawn.

    Again, you have got Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, some of the folks in that world, saying, we need to go and have a full-throated, nonapologetic, progressive agenda. We spend too much time apologizing as Democrats, they argue.

    And then you have folks over on the more moderate or compromise side of the ledger, like Joe Biden, who would argue, we need to come back from the ledge. We have had four years — it will be four years of confrontational approach. What voters want is a return to the middle, a return to compromise.

    If you look at polling actually that's been taken since the election, there is a generational divide among Democratic voters, voters over 50 much more willing to compromise even on issues that are really important to them, like immigration. Voters under 50 say, no, we want our elected officials to stick to their principles.

  • John Yang:

    I was going to have you tell us how this is all going to end, but we're out of time.

  • Amy Walter:

    Oh. Next time.


  • John Yang:

    So, next time.

    Amy — Amy Walter, Tam Keith, thanks so much.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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