GWEN IFILL: Hi, everybody. I’m Gwen Ifill. Welcome to the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up where we left off on the weekly broadcast.
I’m joined around the table by John Harwood of CNBC, Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post, Jeff Zeleny of CNN, and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.
Late today, Michelle Obama made her return to the campaign trail, campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton at George Mason University in Virginia.
FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: (From video.) The presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are. (Cheers, applause.) And the same thing is true of a presidential campaign. So if a candidate is erratic and threatening –
Let me tell you, that is who they are. That is the kind of president they will be, trust me. A candidate is not going to suddenly change once they get into office. Just the opposite, in fact.
MS. IFILL: “Erratic and threatening.” What could she be talking about?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: A mystery. Just a total mystery. No, one of the things that Michelle Obama proved is that her 64 percent favorability can really come in handy as an advocate – you know, a surrogate for Hillary Clinton. And the campaign in Brooklyn was just exuberant. You could see that they were immediately tweeting out that they hoped that Michelle Obama had plenty of spare time in October. And what the first lady was doing was really reaching out, you could see, to younger people and trying to describe to them why she was giving this very full-throated, very, you know, complete endorsement for Hillary Clinton, the person that I’m not so sure she was so thrilled about in 2008. But she was definitely with her in a big, big way, and definitely encouraging people to be inspired to turn out to vote.
MS. IFILL: You know, Michelle Obama got the reputation in 2008 as being someone who didn’t like politics much because of one thing she said, but in fact she’s actually quite good at it, and I think has been good at it for a long time.
JEFF ZELENY: She’s very good at it, which is why initially when he started running for the U.S. Senate a lot of people in Chicago – I was back at The Chicago Tribune at the time – were surprised that she wasn’t running. When he first started running for the State Senate, I guess that was. No, she’s very good at this. Now, she hasn’t always wanted to spend every waking moment on the campaign trail. She doesn’t like all that comes with it. Who could blame her? All the – you know, the extra baggage, I guess. But she – I think, watching that speech today, I can’t think of a more effective surrogate, more effective than her husband in many ways. Definitely more effective than Bill Clinton. And it’s, you know, one first lady talking about another first lady, but just with this passion and vigor. I’m told she –
JOHN HARWOOD: Well, she’s real.
MR. ZELENY: She’s totally real.
MR. HARWOOD: Like, when she – she doesn’t communicate like a politician. She cuts through in the genuineness of how she talks.
MR. ZELENY: And urged people to, you know, not just attend rallies, to get out there and work. You know, that’s – you know, Democrats know that they need that.
MS. IFILL: That’s a very interesting point, actually. I was listening to her when she said that, because I – one of the students at Colorado College asked me last week, I feel like when I vote I’m just throwing my vote into the wind and it makes no difference. And I said to her, you know, your bottom line is a vote, and then what you do after that is up to you. And I think that’s not so different from the argument that Michelle Obama makes, which is if you care about this then work for it. That’s kind of life, isn’t it?
I want to talk to you a little bit more – I will stay with you, Jeff, and talk a little bit more about working for things, because part of the dilemma – the brouhaha about Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia this week obscured the fact that often candidates get sick on the campaign trail. And this quickly turned to a question of why didn’t you tell us about it, but in fact we’ve seen lots of examples where candidates have gotten sick.
MR. ZELENY: A lot of examples, because it is a total marathon, to use a cliché, but it’s true. And you know, you shake a lot of hands, you see a lot of germs out there. A lot of her staffers have been sick really for weeks, some hospitalized. It is a – you know, a hard process.
The question here I think is one that always comes up with her, is of transparency. Even people in her own office didn’t know. Her running mate didn’t know. That was – that became –I thought that was the most revealing thing of the week, that Tim Kaine did not know what had happened to her.
MS. IFILL: Her answer was we communicated, which wasn’t the answer –
MR. ZELENY: Like, our staffs communicated, whatever. So I think that, to him, has to be like a wakeup call of if she’s elected – if they’re elected what his role’s going to be. I mean, he can’t really ask for much now.
But look, I think it’s fine for – I mean, a lot of candidates get sick. I still don’t know what would have been so horrible about her saying last Friday, look, I have pneumonia.
MS. IFILL: We can go a million different ways on that, actually.
MR. ZELENY: I have whatever. But to go to a Barbara Streisand concert and to be with her, there’s real conversation among her supporters that they need to start treating her differently. Yes, she’s always wanted to work 24/7.
MS. IFILL: But maybe that’s not a good idea.
MR. ZELENY: Now she’s in a different moment, and she’ll be 69 years old next month, and she’s never been this close to the presidency before, quite literally.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Just to add one human dimension, I can remember in 1996, Bill Clinton is running for reelection. He was at an outdoor rally. He goes behind the riser, he does like this and this – (makes hand gestures) – and the Secret Service sprayed his hands down with this blue fluid because he had shaken every hand in the rally out in the sun. He’d kissed every baby.
MS. IFILL: Well, George W. Bush was famous for squirt some of that stuff on my hands.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Exactly. This is a human thing, and why we don’t see this – you know, or she couldn’t have said – it was evident. She’d been sick for a week.
MS. IFILL: Well, the fact that Donald Trump’s first reaction was I hope she gets better tells you that they recognize it was a human thing, too.
I wanted to talk to you, Jim, a little bit more about the story you had in the paper kind of taking off on the polls about whether Americans respond to the idea that America is great again. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I think Michelle Obama too, all said his vision is a very dark one, that’s not the America I know.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Yeah, it’s true that there’s a big divide, usually, in campaigns. It tends to be that the people – the partisans of the incumbent party tend to be more optimistic about America than the ones of the challenger, but the divide this year is much greater than we’ve ever seen. So we asked, do you think America is greater or worse than it’s been in the past, or about the same? Eighty percent of Donald Trump supporters said it’s worse, and it was only like 20 percent for Hillary Clinton supporters. That’s just a huge difference. And then, when you ask about their own lives – do you think you’re doing better than your parents, about the same, doing worse – Trump supporters, again, much more likely to say that it’s worse. And when you go out and when you talk to them – I drove out to Delaware, southern Delaware, rural southern Delaware this week, talked to some folks about that – they really crystalized. There was this feeling like, when I was a kid my dad worked hard, but we had things and we could go out to eat and we could take vacations, and it’s too hard for me to do that, and I don’t even think my kids are ever going to be able to have that, and that makes me really pessimistic.
MS. IFILL: And it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it’s just if you feel that way.
MR. TANKERSLEY: I mean, it’s definitely true in this – you know, the folks I talked to, it was true in their experience. But that sense that it wasn’t going to get better unless we really shake things up – you know, the main character I talked to for the piece, his feeling was the government and big corporations had sort of turned on ordinary Americans, were keeping them down on purpose, taking what they had to enrich themselves. It’s a very deeply engrained pessimism.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about another disconnect, and that’s on the Republican side. Once again, it feels like a million years ago, but this is when Donald Trump consistently praises Vladimir Putin – he’s got 80 percent approval rating, he says nice things about me. But this splits him off from people within his own party as much as it does from Democrats.
MR. HARWOOD: It does, and it’s curious. You know, I talked to Republican foreign policy experts about it, trying to get an explanation. You look at the basic political facts: Vladimir Putin has no constituency in the United States. We put him on an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this year: 8 percent approval overall, 8 percent among Democrats, 8 percent among Republicans.
So why does Donald Trump consistently say these things? Well, there are a couple of factors. One is he does have some business interests and has explored business opportunities. He took the Miss Universe Pageant there. He sold a property to a Russian billionaire. So there’s some connection. But he also admires – we’ve talked earlier in the show tonight about strength. Donald Trump likes people who are strong, and he’s appealing to some of those frustrated people who think their lives have gotten worse and said, I’m going to be strong for you.
MS. IFILL: But do other members of his party – leaders of his party go to him, or if they can get to him, and say, this isn’t actually our policy, this is not what we believe?
MR. HARWOOD: And I don’t think Donald Trump cares about that. And as a matter of fact, I talked to Republicans at the convention. They changed the platform to make it more favorable to Russia at the Republican Convention. I talked to Tom Cotton, hawkish young senator from Arkansas. He said, well, Donald Trump’s going to have a different view of Vladimir Putin once he starts getting classified briefings. Well, he started getting the classified briefings and he hasn’t changed his view. I think this is personal with him. He admires a guy who’s tough, strong, gets stuff done. That’s part of his message. It’s part of who he is.
MS. IFILL: Reality is kicking in. Thank you, everybody. And we will see you all again next time on our pre-debate edition of Washington Week Extra.