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Week 3: As federal shutdown endures, so do political divides

In today's political climate, the idea of reaching across the aisle may be considered 'heresy,' says NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Jeff Greenfield. Plus, a look at prospects for the U.S. economy and the 2020 presidential race. Greenfield joins Hari Sreenivasan from Santa Barbara, California.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Good evening, and thanks for joining us. Talks but no change as the partial shutdown of the federal government enters its third week. Vice President Mike Pence, senior adviser to the president Jared Kushner, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney met with Democratic congressional staff members today.

    After the meeting, the vice president tweeted a photo and said there was a quote "productive discussion" and that talks are set to continue tomorrow.

    For more on this stalemate and what's next for the new Congress, we turn now to NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

    Jeff, we've had divided governments before and gotten things done.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Certainly, for the last 50 years, we've had 34 years of divided government. From Nixon on, every president but Carter faced this, and we had environmental protections, we had fixes of the tax system, we had Social Security fixes. What's different now is the intense polarization of both parties. I mean, even when Clinton was being impeached, we had welfare reform and other progress. But during the Obama years, the Republicans quite openly said, we don't want anything of accomplishment to happen, because it will help the president politically. You may remember Senator McConnell saying his number one goal was to make Obama a one-term president. Well, now, you've got members of a new House Democratic majority who are openly saying one of their key goals is impeachment, if not ongoing investigations of all manner of accusations about Donald Trump and his business. So the climate this time for divided government is just very different from what we've seen in the past.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We've had people who've reached across the aisle to try to find common ground, to try to get legislation going. Why not now?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Well, for one thing, the parties back then were much more diffuse ideologically. You had moderate and conservative Democrats. You had moderate and even liberal Republicans. At this point now, where the parties are so clearly divided ideologically, the idea of reaching across the aisle is almost considered heresy. There was one Republican in the House the other day who said he was going to vote for the Democratic Party's rules changes. These are not ideological, they're just how the House works. He thought they were good ideas and then he said, "but I'm going to get into a lot of trouble for this." And so the impulse to reach across to somebody of the other party is limited both because there's very little agreement across those party lines and because the political costs of doing it in your own party are very high.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How does the 2020 campaign, which is beginning on the Democratic side, factor into all of this?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Oh big time. You've got somewhere between four and eight Democratic senators who say they want to run for president. Now the one thing we know about the rank and file of the Democratic Party now is that they really, really, really dislike President Trump, and I am putting it mildly. So if you're looking to build support in a Democratic primary, the very idea of raising outreach to President Trump seems, to me, to be a nonstarter. And then you look at the president, who over and over again has brought Democrats into the Oval Office and said, we can work together on infrastructure, health care, immigration, taxes, and then as soon as his more militant supporters start lobbing grenades at him, he says, no, no I didn't mean that. And which is one of the reasons now we're in a situation where the president is threatening a months-, if not years-long shutdown and the possible invocation of a state of national emergency.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Let's talk about this in the context of the economy. In the past few weeks and months, we've seen incredible volatility in the stock markets, we've seen concerns about whether or not the president will fire the head of the Fed, and at this point, the head of the Fed says, no, I'm not going to leave.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Yeah, well, he can't fire the president of the Fed. But it's interesting you raise that because just Friday we had very good economic news — the jobs, 300,000-plus increase, markets soared 750 points, wages real wages are up. But there are these blinking yellow lights down the road having to do with the size of the deficit, the weakening of China's economy, the impact of a possible trade war. And the reason why I think it's so important to raise this is, if the political atmosphere is so rancorous now when economic times are good, just imagine what happens if the economy turns, and on top of all the political bitterness, we get really bad economic news. That is a very unsettling prospect.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Jeff Greenfield, thanks so much.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    OK, thank you.

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