GWEN IFILL: Terror in the south of France casts yet another shadow over the 2016 presidential campaign, redefining yet again the choices at hand. We are at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, working to put it all in context, tonight on Washington Week.
Donald Trump went to the heartland today to select Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his vice presidential pick. Is this the ticket that will help Republicans win the White House in November? And will it blunt Democratic criticism?
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) This man is the nominee of the party of Lincoln. We are watching it become the party of Trump. And that’s not just a huge loss for our democracy; it is a threat to it.
MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton moves to bring progressives into the fold as Bernie Sanders delivers his endorsement.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States. (Cheering.)
MS. IFILL: The race tightening as the nominating conventions begin. We get analysis from Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Susan Davis, political reporter for NPR; John Dickerson, CBS News political director and host of Face the Nation; and Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report.
ANNOUNCER: From Cleveland, Ohio, this is a Special 2016 Election Edition of Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, from the Playhouse Square Hanna Theatre, moderator Gwen Ifill. (Applause, cheers.)
MS. IFILL: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, everybody. Good evening. Good evening. We’ve got a lot to talk about. Let us get to it, OK?
Good evening from Cleveland. We’re at the site of next week’s Republican presidential nominating convention. And we have to deal with the realities of the world.
Yesterday’s horrific Bastille Day attack in Nice, France had a predictable effect on politics here at home as both likely party nominees raced to demonstrate who could be more tough in the face of the unimaginable. So the first question tonight becomes, what can we read into how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, John, handled yesterday’s events – last night’s events, actually?
JOHN DICKERSON: Well, you know, during campaigns people look to the candidates for – maybe for a five-point plan, but even not that, but just to put things in a frame to give people some sense of control of their lives. The best example of this is probably – and this is candidates, not presidents –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. DICKERSON: – when Robert Kennedy announced in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, it was this moment in which he spoke to the pain of the community he was speaking to. And he also, in that, showed that he had thought about loss and pain and the relationship between African-Americans and the rest of America. And that was a man who kind of met the moment.
And what we’ve seen both in the attacks overseas and in the violence last week here in America is the turning to the leaders who are running and looking to them for some kind of frame. But look at the landscape in which those people are running. Pew did a poll recently and it showed that people are highly interested in the race and highly disappointed. They’re disappointed in the –
MS. IFILL: With both candidates.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, both candidates but also with politicians and government.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. DICKERSON: So they have a baseline disappointment, and then somehow we found a situation where we have nominees who are more disappointing than perhaps we’ve seen since the 19th century, in both major parties. And so people turn to look to the nominees and they’re not getting – and as you said, Donald Trump is offering strength. His answer is strength. Hillary Clinton is offering strength but also expertise.
And the problem finally is that the system of the campaign we’ve got in is basically both candidates are running trying to make it a referendum on the alternative. So people are anxious. They’re looking to the leaders. And what they’re hearing from Donald Trump is, Hillary Clinton doesn’t understand terrorism. And what they’re hearing from Hillary Clinton is, Donald Trump is a threat. And so anxiety is met with a response that only heightens the anxiety.
MS. IFILL: Well, Sue, this instability is not just about Nice.
SUSAN DAVIS: No.
MS. IFILL: It’s also about Orlando and Dallas and Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and I could keep going.
MS. DAVIS: Right.
MS. IFILL: And so, are voters then looking for someone who can speak to all of those things? Right now we know that’s become a major role of the president, to be the consoler-in-chief, to be the unifier.
MS. DAVIS: It’s true, because – so we have the two-pronged threat, right? There’s the national security threat that I think is very much on voters’ minds, and then there’s what’s happening in places like Dallas and in Charleston, and this sort of what feels like an upsurge of violence in America this year. And I think people do look to the president for reassurance at those times.
What’s so interesting more on the domestic front is I think what we’ve seen in Dallas and Charleston is another vein of what’s going through this election, is racial division, and the racial divide among the electorate being some of the most polarized we’ve seen in recent elections, despite, you know, the post-Barack Obama era, that in some ways the numbers look even worse.
And so there’s the national security threat, but then I also think we’re seeing that in our country, is this racial conversation that’s also happening here with the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of the conversation this week about law enforcement and how they feel they’re being represented in this election.
And it all kind of ties into an argument where – I agree completely with what John said, is that in some ways our presidential candidates aren’t necessarily calming us down. I think Donald Trump is reiterating that the threat is huge and significant and they’re coming for us. And Clinton is saying, yes, he’s right, he’s a threat.
MS. IFILL: What do you think, Amy? How are they rising to the occasion or not?
AMY WALTER: I completely agree with what John said, which is we have two candidates now who are the most unpopular we’ve seen in modern political times. So the expectations we have for them are already low, and I think they’re affirming those fears sort of continually. But I also think that there is not an easy answer to this –
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. WALTER: – and that’s part of the challenge here. So Donald Trump comes out and says, we’re going to go – I’m going to go to Congress; we’re going to declare war on ISIS. What does that mean? What is Congress going to do? Does this mean more troops? Does this mean more money? Hillary Clinton says, we’re going to beef up intelligence. What does she say? She has a term of – we’re going to have an “intelligence surge” is the term that she uses. What does that mean?
And so I think what we’re also met with is incredible insecurity in a world that looks – and I’ve been hearing this from voters since 2012, this sense that the center is no longer holding either in our country or globally, that things that once made sense no longer do. The pillars of our society seem to be crumbling all around us and there is not one person who is able to make sense of any of it.
And certainly these candidates, because of who they are and what they stand for and the divisiveness in which they come into this campaign, are only bringing – I think to John’s point, bringing people more – bringing more anxiety into the process.
MS. IFILL: We are at that season in the campaign, Dan, where they’re picking – both sides are picking their vice presidential nominees, and we’re about to talk about that, but what is – if nothing else, vice presidents tell us something about the candidate himself, or herself.
What do we know? We saw one of the finalists for Donald Trump’s was Newt Gingrich, who last night said that all Muslims should be checked to see if they believe in Sharia law, whatever his definition of that is, and that they should be deported, if so, which many people said was kind of unconstitutional. What does that tell us?
DAN BALZ: Well, he didn’t get picked. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Well, so maybe that tells us something.
MR. BALZ: So that may tell us something.
I mean, I think that the choice of Governor Pence was a conventional choice by an unconventional candidate. And it was a safe choice. It was a choice designed to mollify people in the party who have qualms about Donald Trump. It was an effort to buy peace at the convention this week. This will be a popular choice among the delegations that are here in Cleveland.
And I think the real question is what does it tell us about Donald Trump? Does it signal, in one form or another, that the people who have been saying to him, you know, boring is a little better than not at this point, that you need to be more presidential and less like the way you were during the campaign – does it signal that he’s saying, I get that message and I’m going to do that, and I’m going to make a turn, and this convention will be part of making that turn? Or is this simply a moment in which he does a rather conventional choice and then leaves the convention and, you know, becomes Donald Trump again?
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s – (laughter) – whatever that means.
Let’s move on, then, to talking about this vice president, because we’ve all been consumed by it, trying to figure out what was going to happen. And there may have been office pools involved. And in the end, John Dickerson, who won the CBS pool?
MR. DICKERSON: Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure I lost. (Laughter.) Given this campaign –
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. DICKERSON: – I feel like everybody has lost in their predictive –
MS. IFILL: Abilities.
MR. DICKERSON: – efforts.
Going to what Dan said, you know, in 1996, when Bob Dole picked Jack Kemp, it was a kind of a staid campaign picking a very exciting guy. When John McCain picked Sarah Palin, the injection was of excitement. This is an injection of the opposite.
Donald Trump is already plenty of exciting on his own. And when I talked to one of the activists who’s here for the convention, they said this was a stabilization pick, as if the volatility of Donald Trump that we hear about all the time from Republican lawmakers – which is it’s not just what he said; it’s what he might say. And then if you hook your wagon to the Trump train, it could go anywhere. It does not operate on the normal tracks of politics.
MS. IFILL: There are no tracks.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Really.
MR. DICKERSON: And so you are imperiled by his future exciting moves. And the hope is two things: one, that Governor Pence might be able to mollify or leaven Donald Trump. I don’t know if that’s, A, possible, or is the expectation, but what it shows is – to Dan’s point, is that he recognizes that – he’s taking the advice that there are certain compulsory things you must do as a candidate: use the teleprompter, which he used to say was evidence that you were a weak and bad president. Well, he’s using a teleprompter now.
That there are some things you have to do, and one of them – that seems to have accumulated to the person he picked, Mike Pence. He’s strong with conservatives. He’s not of Washington but he has Washington experience. And he’s not – Newt Gingrich described Donald Trump as a pirate. Newt said he was a pirate. I don’t think anyone has ever called Mike Pence a pirate. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Even though it should be said that Mike Pence was tea party before tea party was cool.
MS. DAVIS: Yes. Yep.
MS. IFILL: He is not just a Christian conservative. He is the guy who passed the reproductive – I’m going to get this wrong now – the act in Indiana which meant that – Religious Freedom Act –
MS. DAVIS: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: – which meant you didn’t have to – I don’t know, have weddings for gays, or whatever, and then he pulled back on that a little bit. He is very conservative, and maybe that’s what Donald Trump is looking for.
MS. DAVIS: Absolutely. I mean, Pence certainly mollifies three very important people that have been very nervous this entire election. The first is the establishment, or party leaders. You could almost hear the sigh of relief from Washington –
MS. IFILL: Yeah, yeah.
MS. DAVIS: – of the Mike Pence pick versus a Newt Gingrich pick.
MS. IFILL: Paul Ryan came out yesterday and said, I think that would be a good pick.
MS. DAVIS: Heck of a guy.
MS. IFILL: Hint, hint.
MS. DAVIS: Yes. He loves – and is a friend of his. He worked with him in the House. They feel comfortable with Mike Pence.
The evangelical grass roots. Social conservatives feel really comfortable with Mike Pence. He’s been with them all along the way. They believe in him. He keeps them excited.
And donors. A lot of people have not been interested in giving their money to the Republican Party this year, and Mike Pence is a more traditional candidate. I think some of those people will come – be engaged in a way they haven’t before.
And then I think tactically – I mean, if there’s one thing we know about the Trump campaign: If he’s going to win, his road to victory goes through the Midwest. It goes through states like Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and I think that there is thinking that Mike Pence is a guy that can speak that language. You know, he might not light the world on fire, but I think he can relate to a lot of the voters that Donald Trump needs to win.
MS. IFILL: Well, stick with me on this. Follow this theory for me. Is Mike Pence in some ways – Dan, is he – is like Barack Obama’s Joe Biden? Joe Biden was the guy with the Washington experience. Joe – I mean, Barack Obama was the guy with the excitement, and he needed to prove – he needed kind of a white-haired guy to stand next to him to say, I can be taken seriously. Is there some – am I making that up?
MR. BALZ: No, I think that’s right. I mean, certainly that was, I think, what –
MS. IFILL: I love when they say, no, I think that’s right, by the way. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: Brilliant.
MR. BALZ: Yes, I think that’s – no. (Laughter.)
That was certainly part of the calculus with Biden and the president, that he needed foreign policy experience, that the knock on President Obama was he was inexperienced. He needed somebody who had a lot of time in Washington, particularly foreign policy experience.
This is similar to that, a little different, I think, because Trump clearly wants to run an outsider campaign. So this is – this is, as Sue said, a message to the inside operations of the Republican Party, the establishment, that he’s going to play the game and have somebody that they’re going to feel comfortable with. But I don’t think it’s yet a commitment that this is going to be a campaign that is anything other than, we’re going to shake up Washington, we’re going to be different, we’re going to be unconventional and we’re going to be unpredictable.
MS. IFILL: OK, so we enter a week, Amy, we’re about to all go inside the Quicken Loans Arena here in Cleveland and never come out. (Laughter.)
MS. WALTER: Please let us come out. Please.
MS. IFILL: No, no, sorry. We’re not coming out. And we want to talk a little bit about what we expect and whether the arrival of Mike Pence might make this a kind of different convention than we have seen so far. So far it seemed very much like an unconventional convention.
MS. WALTER: I’ve been to seven conventions in seven different convention years. I’ve never seen anything like this. I have never come into the eve of a convention having truly no idea what the convention schedule is going to look like. We don’t really know who the speakers are. There’s no theme for each of the nights. Usually you have a theme. It’s, you know, a security theme. There’s an economics theme. There’s a, we’re bringing this part together, these different groups.
MS. IFILL: There’s none of that.
MS. WALTER: There’s none of that. And what it feels like is it’s actually a perfect synopsis of the Republican Party right now, which is it is a party that is – everybody is coming in there with a different expectation and they’re going to set their own agenda while they’re there.
I just have this feeling we’re going to be listening to these speeches, Gwen, and each of these Republicans is going to give their own version of Republicanism. They’re not there to give their version of Donald Trump. Now, some people will be there to be defending Donald Trump, but a lot of them will be there to sort of be setting their own line in the sand of, this is what it means to be a Republican, even though it’s not what Donald Trump says a Republican is.
MS. IFILL: But, guys, didn’t we get an understanding this week – even though we don’t usually follow platforms and Rules Committees’ hearings with the kind of passion we did this week, didn’t we get an idea in the end what the RNC now is and whether the Republican Party is what it was after its 2012 autopsy, about whether it’s now going into this campaign fully a Trump party?
MS. DAVIS: They not only ignored the 2012 autopsy – (laughter) – it’s like they threw it in a trashcan –
MS. WALTER: And set it on fire. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: – threw some kerosene in it, lit it on fire, and threw the ashes around. I mean, every lesson that they were told to learn from the 2012 election, 2016 has been a refutation of that, I think with one exception. I do think where Donald Trump – I don’t know if he was reading the 2012 autopsy, but in one way that it has changed is they did say in 2012, the perception of us is of an elite –
MS. WALTER: Yep.
MS. DAVIS: – party, and we need to appeal more to working-class voters. And I think he has done that. I don’t think it was because he listened to the RNC advice, but I think his message has appealed to them.
What is very interesting about the platform is the way he’s put his imprint on it, is it is – you know, it’s embraced the Trump message on trade, which is more protectionist, more wary of free trade, which is a significant shift within the Republican Party, and on immigration.
MS. WALTER: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: You know, the 2012 – the 2012 autopsy said, if we do not expand this tent, if we do not make Hispanics feel that they can be part of this party, we are going to be a marginalized national party. We will not be able to win national elections. The platform calls for building the wall, and it does not call for immigration reform and all these things it said they should do.
MS. IFILL: But what happened to the – what were you going to say?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I was going to say part of the worry of some of the people I’ve talked to who are here and, more to the point, Republicans who are not attending, is that, as somebody put it to me, that Donald Trump has doubled down on white guys.
So it’s he and Mike Pence and they’re going after the – basically the white vote. They know that African-Americans and Hispanics are basically a loss to Donald Trump and they’re just going to try and grind it out one more time and win on a coalition that is not changing with America. And what worries other Republicans is that this may – let’s say it works for Donald Trump. It won’t work for the party in the future.
MS. IFILL: And the never Trump movement is dead.
MR. BALZ: Well, the never Trump movement didn’t ever have much going for it to begin with, and I think we got the final evidence of that here at the convention and late last night in the Rules Committee, when any effort to do what the never Trump people wanted to do, which was to unbind delegates or, in one way or another, give them some freedom on the convention floor, was just rolled over by the – a combination, frankly, of the Trump campaign and the RNC establishment.
This was not as though the Trump campaign was at odds with the party leadership. They want a – they want a quiet convention on that issue and they’re going to get that.
MS. IFILL: Now we’ve got to talk about the Democrats before we’re done, even though their convention is next week, because this week we saw the big unity moment with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. I have to say that when Hillary Clinton hugged Bernie Sanders, he seemed like he was not going there. (Laughter.) But –
MS. WALTER: I don’t know if he’s a hugger. He’s not a hugger.
MS. IFILL: I don’t think he’s a hugger, but more importantly, I couldn’t tell whether his people are going with him. Anybody get a sense of that from watching the body language that day?
MS. WALTER: I think the Democratic Party has been more unified all throughout this process than the Republican Party. And we’re going into –
MS. IFILL: Which is flipping the world on its head. That never happens.
MS. WALTER: Exactly, but all along – you know, look, the Clinton campaign I think has a team and a unity behind her that the Trump campaign does not have, and I don’t think we can underestimate how important this is going to be. Even if there are some – and we’re going to hear pockets when we’re in Philadelphia of never Hillary, and we can’t support her and we’re going to go support a third-party candidate, but the party itself, what it stands for, its messaging, all of that is focused on electing Hillary Clinton president. That is not the same case for where the Republicans are right now. It’s a very different issue on the Republican side.
And that’s where I think the Mike Pence thing is really interesting because, again, if you think about why you pick a presidential – vice presidential candidate, it’s usually to send a message about your overall general election message, right? Who am I? What do we stand for? What is our message to America? What Trump is saying in this is his number-one concern is making sure the party is unified, period. This isn’t a message to the rest of America. This isn’t going to bring on all those voters that these folks were talking about who are not white –
MS. IFILL: Right, no –
MS. WALTER: – middle America, conservative men. And that, I think, is the other big problem here.
MS. IFILL: So who are the Sanders people who presumably are going to come on board as a result of this endorsement who weren’t already on board because of Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement? Anybody thought of that?
MR. DICKERSON: I don’t think the Sanders supporters more broadly, but also those who are recalcitrant, are going to come on just because Bernie Sanders said, hey, go do this.
I think Hillary Clinton’s strength with those voters, A, as Amy said, she actually was doing fine with liberals in her party. She was not – but I think it’s going to come – to the extent there are people who are still wary of her, it will come – she’s going to earn it. She’s going to make the pitch to them about the future and why the party meets their needs. And she will have an assist from Donald Trump because she will have a period of time to explain why he is a threat to the things that those people believe. But they’re not going to come just because Bernie told them to.
MS. IFILL: OK.
Finally, guys – shockingly finally – I do want to talk a little bit about the polls this week because they’re all over the place. And if you’re even a casual consumer of polling, you don’t know what to think. And I don’t know what to think, and I actually don’t believe we should take them too seriously until after the conventions. But we know one day Hillary is up, the next day Donald is down, or he’s up. What’s going on?
MS. DAVIS: I mean, well, at this moment of time we’re in, as we’re going into these conventions, it is an incredibly close race, by the numbers. And I think Hillary Clinton has definitely taken some hits because of the FBI investigation, and the most recent polls are coming out of this, and voters’ impressions of her. She has fundamental problems. He has fundamental problems.
To me, what’s so interesting about these polls and how close they show in the battleground states is you can’t understate how little of a professional campaign Donald Trump is running yet still manages –
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: – to run so close with her.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: He is not on the air in battleground states.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: He is not campaigning in battleground states. He does not have the infrastructure to turn out the vote and he is still performing incredibly well because of – despite that.
MS. IFILL: Briefly.
MR. BALZ: I think that at this point Hillary Clinton has an advantage in many of the battleground states, which is the key to victory. She has an easier route in the Electoral College. It is a competitive race, and I think that one thing we learned is that establishment politics are not in favor and she’s got to move away from that.
MS. IFILL: OK. Thanks, Dan.
Thanks, everyone. I appreciate this, but we’re not done. There is more Washington Week to come – yay – on many PBS stations and online as we turn to our Cleveland audience here at the Hanna Theatre for their wisdom and their questions.
Next week we come to you from the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia with a preview of the Democratic National Convention there. And in the days in between, be sure to stay on PBS all week for our special prime time convention coverage, as the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff and I, join forces for the first time with NPR. Yay, Sue. (Laughter.) And Amy will be here as well.
Thanks to WDIZ Ideastream here in Cleveland, and we’ll see you next week on Washington Week. Good night. (Applause.)