ROBERT COSTA: The border crisis jolts Congress and the Democrats debate. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Fractures in the Democratic Party at the opening debates.
REPRESENTATIVE ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): (From video.) Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He’s still right today.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m still holding onto that torch.
MR. COSTA: Many contenders move left.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) We need to make structural change in our government, in our economy –
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Healthcare is a human right, not something to make huge profits off of.
MR. COSTA: And take on President Trump amid a migrant crisis.
FORMER HUD SECRETARY JULIAN CASTRO: (From video.) I would sign an executive order that would get rid of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy.
MR. COSTA: The debates and the president at the G-20 summit, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: The migrant crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border continues to confront political leaders from the White House to Congress to the debate stage. The latest development, reports of horrific conditions for children at detention centers and that photo of migrant father Oscar Martinez Ramirez and his young daughter Valeria, who drowned in the Rio Grande. That photo helped to spark action this week on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fought with Republicans and members of her own caucus to add language to an emergency aid bill that would further hold the Trump administration accountable, but on Thursday the speaker said House Democrats would reluctantly pass the Senate bill, which included 1 billion (dollars) for border facilities and close to 3 billion (dollars) for migrant children. It passed, 305 votes to 102 votes.
Joining me tonight, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of Confirmation Bias; and Kimberly Atkins, senior Washington news correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.
Susan, you’re writing a biography of Speaker Pelosi. She moved forward on a bill she didn’t want to pass. Why?
SUSAN PAGE: Because it was better than nothing. Getting the 4.5 billion (dollars) that would – that would go a long way to helping this terrible situation with migrant children who have been separated from their parents was worth the cost of taking a bill that had been negotiated on the Senate side and was opposed by some members of her own caucus. This was – this was a vote that she – she worked – she has a divided caucus on this issue, but I think to portray this as a big loss for her is incorrect. She held control of her caucus. She got it through because she thought it was better than the alternative of letting it go down.
MR. COSTA: What’s the price she pays, Carl, with liberals who are frustrated that they took up a bill passed by Senate Republicans?
CARL HULSE: Yeah, I think there’s a little cost to this, but a few things went on there. I totally agree 100 percent with you, this is what happens in divided government. At some point you have to make a deal. This was a bill negotiated in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans. You know, this was the – and what it allowed them to do – I was actually surprised they could get to a finish here. What it allowed them to do was to be able to go home and say, listen, we’ve really addressed this crisis. And you know, I always say, too, it’s not a bad thing for Nancy Pelosi sometimes to get attacked from the left. You know, it shows that she’s being a pragmatic, moderate manager of the House. Was it perfect? No, but it was an accomplishment and they were able to get it together. Those votes were pretty strong, and she complied with the Hastert rule which we all know; she had more than half of her caucus voting for this bill.
MR. COSTA: Does the Trump administration continue its hardline policies? We’ve seen a shakeup at the Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yes; in short, they do. They see this as a winning issue. They say that border security and being tough on immigration is what’s going to get President Trump reelected, it’s what’s going to keep Republicans in control of the Senate, and they’re not going to give that up. If anything, they’re going to push even harder. We’ve already seen them labeling Democrats as wanting open borders, really attacking them for policies like wanting to give illegal immigrants healthcare. They see this as their biggest issue that helps fuel them forward in 2020.
MR. COSTA: And this issue isn’t going away. There was some bipartisanship this week, Dan, but we saw the Supreme Court will decide whether the Trump administration can shut down the DREAMers program, DACA, next term. That will start in October and then be decided, perhaps, in the spring or summer of 2020, just months before the presidential election.
DAN BALZ: It will be interesting to see how quickly the Supreme Court tries to dispose of that issue. I mean, I’m not sure that the justices really wanted to take this on, but eventually they had to. And there is a possibility now that it is there at the Supreme Court that that might spur some kind of a legislative or a deal between the Trump administration and Democrats in Congress, who knows? I mean, we’ve been up and down the hill on this many, many times. But to have that issue in the middle of the presidential campaign, in addition to everything else that is going on with this issue – and Kim’s exactly right; I mean, the Trump administration sees this very much as a winning issue. Democrats believe that – and their biggest applause line when they’re out on the campaign trail, or one of their biggest, is when they attack the president for separating children from their parents at the border. But nonetheless, Democrats are struggling to come up with a policy that is a real alternative to what the Republicans have.
MR. COSTA: And they’re having a real debate inside of the Democratic Party. We saw it at the two debates this week. They’re talking about whether they should move to decriminalize crossings over the border. Where do you see the party moving? Is that going to become the standard, the policy for Democrats?
MS. PAGE: Well, there’s support for it, and you saw – you saw Julian Castro really using that. His support for the idea of making it a civil penalty, not a criminal one to be an undocumented person here got some support. He used it to really bludgeon Beto O’Rourke, his fellow Texan, on the debate stage. But it does open Democrats to criticism that they are having what President Trump would call open borders, where you really reduce the penalties for coming into this country without having permission to do so. That is the risk that Democrats face.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, when I was watching the debate, you know, all the Democrats – I think all of them raised their hand, right, as healthcare for undocumented immigrants, and this – I get their position, but this is a – the Republicans are going to bludge them – bludgeon them with this. And as soon as they said that, I said, boy, that’s going to be a big issue for the Democrats. And it works in some places, but in the parts of the country where we’re going to be really competitive in this presidential race I think that’s easy for the Republicans to say, look, the Democrats are looking out not for you, but for people who aren’t even supposed to be here. I think it’s going to be tough for the Democrats. I understand their policy, but I think they’re opening themselves to attacks.
MR. BALZ: I had a conversation a year ago with a Democratic strategist, and he was at – even at that point quite worried about the immigration issue because he said there is a basic question that Democrats have a great deal of difficulty answering, and that is if someone comes across the U.S. border illegally what do you do. And he said Democrats are very tentative in how they want to respond to that, and you know, former Secretary Castro moved it in a direction that makes it even more difficult to try to, you know, give an answer that in a general election is going to be easy to do.
MR. COSTA: And Vice President Biden didn’t totally lurch to the left when he was asked about decriminalizing border crossings. He said you need to target people who commit crimes, but he didn’t start to embrace every single position on the left on that issue.
MS. ATKINS: Right, he basically enunciated the Obama administration policy, which is you prioritize how you deal with people who are in the country illegally and those who have committed crimes on U.S. soil are the ones who get the priority. And yeah, you’ve seen him – you saw him on a lot of issues sort of reluctantly sort of inch a little to the left; a lot of times with those raised-hands questions his hand – he would kind of look around and wait to see what everyone else did before he raised his hand.
MR. HULSE: Barely. (Laughter.)
MS. ATKINS: He was really struggling with that. He thinks that the way that the Obama administration did it is the standard.
MR. HULSE: Well, and plus the deportations, I think that he struggled explaining that. The Obama administration, you know, there was a lot of pressure on them at the time for deporting so many people, and I do think that he struggled explaining that.
MR. COSTA: Let’s step back, because two nights, 20 candidates, new faces and well-known Democrats, tensions – as we’ve been discussing – over policy, the past, and the future at these debates. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts captured the rising populism in the ranks with her call for structural changes in the government and the economy. Then on Thursday, Senator Kamala Harris of California had a breakout moment when she criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on civil rights in the 1970s when he worked to restrict forced integration through busing.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) That’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true.
MR. COSTA: Dan, we were just talking about the Democrats moving to the left on immigration. But when you step back and you look at these two debates this week, is this a party moving to the left wholesale? What did you learn?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think that what we learned is that, on the one hand, there are ideological differences within the party. And former Vice President Biden is in one place and Senator Sanders and Senator Warren are in another place and others are scattered around. That’s reality.
But the other reality is that almost all of them have moved farther to the left. I mean, this will be, I think without a doubt, the most liberal platform the Democrats will write in the history of presidential politics. On one issue after another, people have moved to the left, the party has moved to the left. Senator Sanders has a series of positions that he put out in 2016 that were not in the mainstream of the party at that time and many of them today are.
People are quibbling or talking around the edges, but this party has moved to the left. And I think the debate – I thought in some ways the debate on Wednesday night highlighted that as much or more as it did on Thursday night.
MR. COSTA: What about race and that confrontation between Senator Harris and Vice President Biden? The vice president was in Chicago today meeting with Jesse Jackson and other leaders. He said he had a solid record on civil rights. How significant was that exchange?
MS. ATKINS: It was very significant. I mean, I think we are seeing the Democratic Party not only move to the left, but sort of move to the woke.
MR. COSTA: What do you mean “woke”?
MS. ATKINS: Well, no longer can you just say, oh, just forget about these really problematic things in my past, you know, believe me what I say now. They are moving to a different direction. And when he was in Chicago, he got a chilly reception from Jesse Jackson. I think folks are really having a difficult time in this new Democratic Party that’s emerging. It’s making Joe Biden look more like a relic from the past and they want to move forward. So I think Kamala Harris there did that.
It was twofold: One, he still is holding on just from name recognition to a larger share of the black – you know, of black voters in polls, even though it’s very early. She wants to cut into that, but she also wants to point out this is a guy who in the past was dealing with things in a very terrible way. If you are – if you are sidling up with segregationists, there’s no room for you in the Democratic Party of today.
MR. HULSE: Well, this is Joe Biden’s problem. He has a huge record, he’s been around forever, he did a lot of things. To Joe Biden, talking about working with James Eastland and Mitch McConnell, this is a positive thing, this is something that gets him credibility. But in this current environment, it’s a negative thing.
And Michael Bennet actually came after him pretty effectively I thought in the debate where he – where Biden’s praising the tax deal that he cut with McConnell and Michael Bennet says that was a horrible deal and we got taken to the cleaners and we’ve been fighting it ever since.
And it’s interesting about Vice President Biden because he is seen as a person who can attract the African American vote. And he has that through labor, but, you know, it can dissipate very quickly.
MS. PAGE: You know, you think about the African American vote, when Hillary Clinton held most of it and Barack Obama was challenging her and she held that for quite some time until he won in the Iowa caucuses and seemed like a credible candidate, and then you saw African American voters in South Carolina and elsewhere go to him.
You know, I think – I think, you know, you don’t want to overstate the impact of two nights of debates. We’re going to have a lot more debates. Joe Biden has a long history, he’s been very successful raising money, we think he’s going to have a big money-raising figure coming out soon.
On the other hand, this first debate really reinforced the questions that a lot of Democrats, including Democrats who like Joe Biden, have about whether he’s a credible candidate and whether he’s a candidate that can lead a party that always wants to go with someone new and fresh and looking at the future.
MR. COSTA: And race wasn’t the only issue confronting Biden. He also faced issues about whether he was far enough to the left. We also saw race as an issue for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. A white police officer killed a black man in his city. He apologized. Did he steady his campaign with his debate turn?
MR. BALZ: You know, I talked to a number of people today and I got quite mixed responses on that. I think a number of people thought that he had done well, that he had shown contrition and seemed to address it in a, you know, a serious and kind of stand-up way. Other people that I talked to did not think he did that well, that this – you know, after a number of months in which he’s had, you know, a pretty dramatic introduction to the American people and has used his intellect very effectively and shown a temperament that people have liked and admired, that this has brought home a serious problem that he has that’s twofold: One is a relationship or lack of a relationship with the African American community and nobody can win the Democratic nomination without a relationship. And the second is age. I mean, he wants to make a generational argument. There’s a generational argument to be made in this campaign. But a number of people have said, in this situation, he has looked quite youthful – I mean, he is only 37 years old – and that that is not working in his favor.
MR. COSTA: Medicare for all – someone like Buttigieg says he wants Medicare for all who want it, others say Medicare for all. We saw Senator Harris, as much as she had a breakout moment, she was also talking on Friday trying to reassure people that she doesn’t want to get rid of private insurance. Is this a complicated issue for Democrats moving forward?
MS. ATKINS: It’s a very complicated issue. I mean, look, even Obamacare was not fully implemented in a way that people wanted and we saw how difficult that was, what a fight it was, how many years and court challenges it took. So the idea, on the one hand, of this brand-new system that you’re building from scratch is really difficult, it reinforces this idea that the Republicans are pushing that the Democrats are socialists. On the other hand, healthcare costs are still rising, we still haven’t dealt with drug companies. And so the voters do want something and at least it’s a plan where the Republicans have none at all.
MR. HULSE: Well, I think the interesting thing about that is that Democrats crushed Republicans in 2018 on healthcare. This is their best issue. When President Trump came out recently and said I’m going to have this new plan and the Republicans on Capitol Hill said quit talking about healthcare. But the Democrats don’t want to get into a fight over healthcare and neutralize themselves on their best issue.
They have to figure out a way around this. People in the United States – there’s a lot of people who like their private health insurance. And if you start talking about eliminating that whole industry, people get nervous. I think that’s a problem.
MR. BALZ: There are some Democratic strategists that I’ve talked to who say that the – that the tenor of the healthcare debate has shifted since 2018. It clearly helped the Democrats.
MR. COSTA: Just in a few months.
MR. BALZ: Just in a few months, but primarily because the conversation has moved within the Democratic Party away from the preconditions issue, which they were able to hang around the necks of the Republicans, to the question of Medicare for all, single payer, big government and what the – what the Trump administration calls socialism.
MR. COSTA: Why wasn’t there much discussion, if any, about Robert Mueller, the Russia investigation, impeachment?
MS. PAGE: Well, I think one reason was because those questions were not particularly raised by the moderators and they didn’t always – the candidates didn’t always respond to the questions that they were asked –
MR. COSTA: But they didn’t raise those issues either.
MS. PAGE: No, and that is – that is a – if you talk about issues where – with Medicare, there’s a difference between what’s going to work in a Democratic primary and what’s likely to work in a general election. That’s one dilemma.
The same thing, I think, is true with impeachment. The idea of impeaching President Trump is something that really animates voters who are most likely to participate in Democratic primaries and caucuses, it is not the issue that is likely to most animate Americans who are going to determine the general election.
MR. HULSE: Well, the first night was interesting because Mitch McConnell was much more the bogeyman than Donald Trump. And the whole thing got a little bit out of whack.
MR. COSTA: Real quick: Which candidate are you watching in the – in the months and weeks to come? I’m keeping an eye on Bill de Blasio, the New York mayor, showed some media savvy on Wednesday night, pulled the party to the left. Kim?
MS. ATKINS: I’m going to watch Senator Harris. I mean, she had a good night, but we’ll have to see if she continues that, if she’s still able to punch up.
MR. HULSE: I’m actually watching for a weird thing. I’m watching for, like, Beto O’Rourke and the former John Hickenlooper. Are they going to just drop out and run for the Senate, which is what a lot of people in Washington want them to do?
MR. COSTA: Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado.
MR. HULSE: And would be a formidable candidate against the incumbent out there.
MS. PAGE: Kamala Harris had the most amazing debate performance for a first-time debater on a national stage that I’ve ever seen in 10 presidential campaigns, this is my 11th. So I’ve got my eye on her.
MR. BALZ: I agree with Susan on that. I also think that of all of the candidates who participated in those debates that Elizabeth Warren was one who was able not to get down into the weeds of her policy initiatives, but to talk about the theory behind them and the idea of where we stand in America and who she’s fighting for.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, President Trump, he’s in Japan for the G-20 summit where he will address several issues, including the ongoing trade dispute with China. But he made headlines on Friday during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders shared a laugh about election interference by the Russian government. It underscored the friendly relationship the president has tried to maintain with Putin just months after the special counsel reported that Russia conducted a sweeping and systemic operation to sway the 2016 campaign. Surprised by what happened on Friday, or is this a defiant president post-Mueller report?
MS. PAGE: Well, it’s very consistent with how he’s behaved before, but every time he does this it raises concerns about our electoral system. And you know, he was met today with comment from former President Jimmy Carter –
MR. COSTA: You were with him in Virginia.
MS. PAGE: – in Virginia at a conference sponsored by the Carter Center, where President Carter said that he did not think that – he said the Russians elected President Trump or were responsible for his election. Asked if that meant President Trump was an illegitimate president, President Carter indicated that he thought he was. This is extraordinary, one of the living ex-presidents saying the current president is not a legitimate president, and a president – Jimmy Carter – who has devoted his post-presidential years in part to looking at election – the credibility of elections abroad. So this was quite extraordinary.
MR. COSTA: And it’s just weeks before Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill.
MR. HULSE: Testifies on the Hill. And I think what it does is Donald Trump is the one person left in Washington who does not take seriously the Russian interference in the election because to him it undermined his claim on the presidency. But I just think that was a disturbing image for him to be, honestly, yukking it up.
MR. COSTA: Well, it wasn’t just – it wasn’t just the grin. He also discussed their mutual dislike with Putin of reporters and the media, and it’s – we must note that reporters have been killed in Russia.
MS. ATKINS: Yes. Yes, they are assassinated in Russia, and he made a joke about getting rid of them, which was – which was very disturbing. But on the impeachment front, I mean, especially with Mueller coming to testify, it’s a problem on two fronts, right? One, it makes it look like he is encouraging Russia to get involved in 2020. And on the other hand, it’s still about 80 members of Congress, but it’s a growing number – today Joe Kennedy, a close ally to Nancy Pelosi, said – came out and said that he wants impeachment proceedings to go forward. That number is growing. I think Mueller’s testimony is only going to push more people in that direction, and this is a growing problem for the president.
MR. COSTA: The president over in Japan, there is a report just tonight that he’s going to head to South Korea and go to the DMZ, perhaps. He said after some very important meetings with President Xi of China I may go try to meet Chairman Kim of North Korea. I hope he sees this tweet, the president wrote, and could meet him at the border DMZ just to shake his hand and say hello. What’s the point for the president, when you talk to your sources, Dan, about this G-20? Is it about a trade deal with China? Is it about engagement with North Korea?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, I think the key word in that tweet is “may” – I may go meet him. The president likes to constantly keep things shaken up, and we saw that as he was en route to Japan, I mean, trying to shake up the relationship with Japan where he had just been a few weeks ago for a – where he was treated fabulously, and yet on the way over he caused a problem. So I think that for him he’s got all of these problems in the air; I don’t think this is aimed at solving any of those in any way. The key one, obviously, is China – are they going to be able to move forward with any kind of an agreement on trade? But given everything that we’ve seen so far, you have to be skeptical.
MS. PAGE: You know, this tweet is – reflects, I think, his growing – the president’s growing confidence in doing what he wants to do on the foreign stage. You know, early on in his presidency you saw a lot more guardrails. People – advisors and others –
MR. HULSE: There were more people to be the guardrails. (Laughter.)
MS. PAGE: – willing to say you can’t do that, that’s going to disturb our allies, no one behaves this way, you don’t just invite the head of North Korea to meet you at the DMZ if you want to shake hands. But the president I think feels like he has now done this job for two-and-a-half years, and he is increasingly willing to follow his own instincts despite what anybody else tells him.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think part of that is that, you know, when he had done some of the things in the past people would say the sky’s going to fall, the sky hasn’t necessarily fallen. It’s not as though there’s a – everything’s worked out. But so I think you’re right, he’s more confident about saying and doing what he wants.
MR. HULSE: I do agree with the confidence, but I also think that part of this North Korea-South Korea thing, he’s got Iran bubbling over here. He needs to keep this other part of the world, you know, calm while he deals with that, and I think that that – he wants this picture at the De-Militarized Zone showing, listen, I have this under control; I’ll keep that under control.
MS. ATKINS: But meanwhile, there’s domestic implications, too. I mean, this meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is incredibly important to farmers, to manufacturers, to a lot of people who make up his base here at home. And they are sticking with him so far, but their patience is getting thin. And if he doesn’t come back with at least the beginnings of a solution to this trade war, it’s going to be a big problem for him.
MR. HULSE: And farmers are having a hard time. Dan and I are kind of from farm country in Illinois. It’s a tough season for them out there this year. So that is an important voting constituency.
MR. COSTA: Two reporters from farm country in Illinois.
MR. BALZ: How bout that? (Laughter.)
MS. PAGE: Three, Kansas.
MR. BALZ: Three, Kansas, yeah, yeah.
MR. COSTA: Well, wonderful.
MS. ATKINS: Michigan. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: And I’m Philadelphia, it’s all right. (Laughter.) Thanks, everybody. Up next on the Washington Week Extra we will discuss the Supreme Court and its latest decisions and Carl’s book. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.