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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Northam scandal, State of the Union expectations

NPR's Tamara Keith and Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report join Lisa Desjardins to discuss the week’s political news, including a call from Democratic leaders for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign, the broader implications of the Northam scandal for our American conversation on race and what to expect from President Trump’s State of the Union address.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, first, Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look at the political turmoil inside Virginia's state capitol and has a preview of tomorrow's State of the Union.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The controversy in Virginia intensifies. There's another government shutdown potentially on the horizon. The political stakes are high.

    What better time to check in with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR for Politics Monday?

    All right, let's just jump right into this difficult story.

    Tam, let's start with the embattled Democratic governor of Virginia. What do these calls for resignations tell us politically, especially about Democrats?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Democrats have taken a position of, they have a zero tolerance policy.

    They have a zero tolerance policy on racism and things that are overtly racist. They also have a zero tolerance policy that they showed about a year ago, when we were talking about all of this MeToo stuff, including with Al Franken.

    The Democratic leaders made a choice: We are going to be the party that says we can't tolerate this.

    And that leads to moments like we're in right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Amy, what do you see long term and short term that's happening now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    So, the short-term consequences are exactly this, that Democrats are unified. There's no division within at least the Virginia sort of political establishment that — of anything other than that Northam should go and resign.

    And that happened pretty quickly. I mean, some were waiting until after this press conference he held on Saturday. But, for the most part, they have been incredibly united, right.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    The next question is sort of what the long-term implications are.

    And I think we're at a moment now, I mean, talking about it socially, about this sort of reckoning that we're in right now with issues of structural racism and sexism. And now we have a political reckoning that's going on.

    And the thing with a reckoning is that oftentimes it doesn't look very fair or equitable. And it doesn't always work out, and in the way in which a lot of people expect it to. And, at many moments, there are times when there — there are folks who are going to say, well, wait a minute, you held one standard here for this person and held another standard there.

    And I think that's all going to be the case. And so, just in the long term, thinking past the Northam issue, this is going to come up time and time again. The issue of blackface continues to come up.

    This isn't just something that happened in 1984. There was a candidate — not a candidate — the secretary of state in Florida resigned for a blackface photo from 2005.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    On college campuses, you hear a story every year about a party or Halloween costume that included blackface.

    This is a time to have that discussion from a social standpoint. Politically, though, it is going to be messy. The only way to get to the other side of this is for it to be messy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, Governor Northam reportedly has said that he doesn't want to be seen as a lifelong racist, and that's one reason he's resistant to resigning.

    Tam, I'm wondering. That term racist is obviously a very dividing term in itself. Some supporters and President Trump himself have responded angrily to when he's been called a racist, even as his opponents insist that that's true.

    Can you take us through kind of the politics of that term racist right now? I know that's a very big question, but where does that take — what does that do?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes.

    Well, and issues of race were central to the campaign for governor in 2017.

    Virginia has been going through a wrenching conversation about race, about history of racism, about what happened in Charlottesville. And for this to happen in this state at this moment is really particularly difficult.

    Or it really just put salt in what was an open wound in the state of Virginia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Could there be political blowback even from those who say, no, this man should be heard?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Anything is possible. Certainly, there was blowback as related to Al Franken being pushed out of the Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Brett Kavanaugh. Yes.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Brett Kavanaugh.

    It's not clear whether this is in the same realm as those things. And Northam has — that press conference — I don't think anyone could look at that press conference and say, oh, that went well, the press conference that Northam had.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The press conference.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Tamara Keith:

    What this really points to, as Amy is talking about, is that our politics are not really set up for dealing with difficult things, things that — where it's tough, where there's not a good answer.

    Typically, when the going gets tough, people resign. And then there are never any sort of metrics that are laid out or rules of the road. It becomes whatever that moment is, and then the politics sort of roll over.

    And so, as a country, we have not built a capacity for knowing what the right answer…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And I want to talk about also lower — we have got the lieutenant governor.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right. I was just going to say, so we have the immediate short term. We're talking sort of big picture and longer-term thinking about these issues.

    The immediate short term of a resignation by Ralph Northam would be the ascension of Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax to be governor, who today it came out that there were allegations of sexual assault from 2004.

    Fairfax's adamantly denied those, saying this was a consensual relationship.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And it's anonymous. The accusations are anonymous right now.

  • Amy Walter:

    We don't know this woman's name. The Washington Post does. It seems that other news organizations — does know her name. She has not responded or come forward. So that's the reality there.

    The other short-term political consequence here is, if he — if Northam decides to stay, then he is hobbled by the fact his entire — the entire Democratic establishment has come out and said, we're not behind you.

    There's a Republican majority in the House and the Senate already. It's a one-term governorship. So, you're already a lame duck before, heck, the first five minutes of your governorship. And there are legislative elections in 2019, a bunch of Democrats hoping to tip what is a very close House and Senate to Democratic control, obviously wouldn't like to be running if — with an embattled governor on top of the ticket.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We need to talk about someone else who's an executive in office. That's President Trump.

    Big speech tomorrow, ladies, a State of the Union. All right, let's start right now.

    Tam, State of the Union, he's signaled, he's even told reporters that he wants to have a unifying tone, maybe a conciliatory tone. What does that mean? Does that work, briefly?

  • Tamara Keith:

    So the White House often, before his big addresses — I mean, there have only been two other joint addresses — or addresses to a joint session of Congress in this presidency.

    Before both of them, they previewed a conciliatory tone. And then the speech happened, and the takeaway wasn't that it was conciliatory. The takeaway was, typically, he read from the teleprompter, he read the words in front of him, maybe his tone was — was different than at a rally, but the words were not necessarily all the way through let's make peace, let's work together.

    Lots of presidents go into State of the Union, say they want to work with the other party. Typically, it doesn't quite work out that way. And this is a particularly precarious moment.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    With the government shutdown still — that's right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In between potential shutdowns.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Amy, what does he need to do tomorrow?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well — and I would argue it's not just doing the bipartisanship with Democrats. It's not — it's not only Democrats with which he has disagreement.

    It's Republicans that he's also going to have to sell on his foreign policy. There's been a tremendous amount of consternation among Republicans in the Senate about his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria, withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Syria.

    So the president is going to have to both convince Democrats to go along with him on the wall. And if you watched the interview he had with Margaret Brennan of CBS this weekend, this doesn't look like a man who is interested in finding compromise with Nancy Pelosi. Doesn't seem like he's going to find…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Not on that topic.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    Not on that topic.

    And on Syria and Afghanistan, again, doesn't seem like a person who's looking to do compromise within his own party.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, happily, we will have you with us for our special State of the Union coverage tonight.

    Tam, we can listen to you on NPR.

    Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, thank you both very much.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome, Lisa.

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