GWEN IFILL: Sixty days to the election. What do voters want to know? We’re on the road in Colorado, hunting for answers. Tonight, on this special edition of Washington Week.
Colorado has voted for the winner in eight of the last nine presidential contests. Will the bellwether hold? State polls show Hillary Clinton well ahead of Donald Trump, here and nationally. To find out what’s driving voter decisions, we’re in a place where national security issues run deep, Colorado Springs, just miles from the U.S. Air Force Academy. But whether the map is blue, red, or purple, voters say this year they are also concerned about immigration, the economy, and health care. Our political roundtable answers voters’ questions about those issues, and more, next.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from the campus of Colorado College, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Hello. Hello, everybody. Thank you all for coming. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and even Libertarian Gary Johnson all weighed in on national security and foreign policy, with varying degrees of success, this week. For example, here's a taste of how the two major candidates see the challenges facing the Veterans Administration.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Twenty to 22 people a day are killing themselves. A lot of is they're killing themselves over the fact that they can’t – they're under tremendous pain, and they can't see a doctor. They need tremendous help, and we're doing nothing for them. The VA is really, almost you could say, a corrupt enterprise.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) I will not let the VA be privatized. And I do think there is an agenda out there, supported by my opponent, to do just that. I think that would be very disastrous for our military veterans.
MS. IFILL: A lot to dig in right there. Joining me for a little Q&A with our audience, Dan Balz of The Washington Post; Molly Ball of The Atlantic; Jackie Calmes of The New York Times; and Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine.
So, what is correct and what is incorrect about what the candidates had to say about the Veterans Affairs Administration this week, Michael?
MICHAEL SCHERER: It's not 20 to 22 suicides. It's 20. And a lot of it was rhetorical, I think. You know, both candidates have put forward veterans plans that look a lot like what previous presidents have put forward. They say they're going to make it better. You know what I mean? And every president who’s run – or every candidate who's run for president since the VA was created has promised to make it better. President Obama tried to do that and, you know, has made incremental progress. The differences between their actual plans on these issues have actually not been very well fleshed out.
Mostly it's in the realm of rhetoric. So if you ask what they said that was true or not true, I mean, Donald Trump calling the VA a corrupt organization is more rhetoric than anything else. Where the differences are, you know, Donald Trump is more willing to have veterans be able to have the option of going to private health care providers than Hillary Clinton, which is why she says he's for privatization. He says he's not for privatization. It's an incremental move. He wants to set up a hotline for veterans, which she has not proposed, where they could call someone on the phone if they have a complaint. But, you know, it's a giant bureaucratic organization. And the solutions are not ones that fit into sound bites.
MS. IFILL: Why is this a big issue right now, Jackie? We're here in a heavily veteran, military community, and maybe that's who the voters are they're going after?
JACKIE CALMES: Well, that’s true. In almost all the battleground states you have significant military facilities. But you know, people, especially people who have a direct pipeline to the VA, have got to be a little cynical because it’s in every election year there's a play for the veterans. And every candidate of every party promises to do better by veterans.
But if I could be the devil's advocate for a second, I mean, this VA at this point in time is not only addressing a huge population of aging Vietnam veterans, but also taking in this new population from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that seem to be unending, and where the injuries are such that more people survive, but they survive not only with harder-to-treat – or, you know, wounds that are very costly to treat, but they’re – we're now recognizing more than in any other military conflicts, they're not just physical wounds, they're mental wounds. So it's a big issue for – it has no boundaries.
MS. IFILL: Our audience has questions for us tonight. So I’m going to start right here.
Q: Thank you. My question involves the endorsement issue that's been being brought up, how I've got 88 and somebody else has 97, I don't know.
MS. IFILL: Generals, retired generals.
Q: Yeah, generals. But I think what I would like to ask, as a daughter and spouse and mother of military, is if we could please educate the American public about who can campaign and make political statements in the military, and who cannot. And I think it's a very important thing, distinction, so.
MS. IFILL: Sure. Dan, do you want to take that?
DAN BALZ: Yeah. I mean, it's a very important question, and a good one, because we have seen in this campaign, it seems, more military people coming out and endorsing one candidate or the other. Most of them are retired, let’s be – let’s be honest. But we've also seen some criticism of some of the people who have been very high profile in their endorsements of one candidate or the other. There's discomfort that we can see within the military about the degree to which the military is being politicized, as is every other part of the government. And I think – I mean, I think that's an important and legitimate concern.
MS. IFILL: Molly?
MOLLY BALL: Yeah, you saw generals on stage at both political conventions this year. You had General Flynn at the Republican Convention and General Allen at the Democratic Convention. And there are a lot of people in the military who are uneasy with that level of political involvement, with lending – especially General Allen, you know, brought a bunch of people on stage with him, really seeming to seek to lend the imprimatur of the American military.
And, you know, I spoke to Marine General Mattis, who really objects to this kind of thing, really feels that for the military to continue to be an independent and trusted and nonpartisan organization – which it is; people trust the military very much – it shouldn't be politicized like this. So I think this is controversial thing within the military.
MS. IFILL: Thank you. Another question?
Q: Do you think that this year's campaign has showed the need to have more than two major traditional political parties?
MS. IFILL: Who wants to tackle that? Mike.
MR. SCHERER: I’ll take it. I think it's been fascinating in that regard, because what we've seen is a real unevenness in how the political parties have handled it. The Democratic Party is a unified party, for the most part. There are disagreements within it, but it is cogent, it's coherent. Whereas the Republican Party has been far less coherent. And you have, at the same time –
MS. IFILL: What do you mean when you say “coherent”?
MR. SCHERER: That what the basic premise of the party, the basic beliefs, the basic ideology is very much up for grabs. What Donald Trump talks about when he talks about conservatism is not what many Republicans talk about, or what Republican Party has been talking about for the last three decades. I mean, it’s really a jump ball there. The Democratic Party has also had some turmoil, but more that it's moving to its left as a group. And you don't see the same divisions and infighting that you see in the Republican Party.
I think the question is going to be one that will be asked in a very real way after this election, depending on the outcome. If Hillary Clinton wins, the Republican Party is really going to have to decide whether – I mean, this is now the third or second incarnation of this division. We had the tea party a while ago where they were fighting. Now you have this Trumpian movement within the party. And the party is going to have to figure out whether it is a group of people that can congeal, or whether over time it fractures. On the Democratic side, I don't think there's that same danger. Bernie Sanders is basically trying as best he can, even though he has a lot of disagreements with Hillary Clinton and a lot of people in the party, to bring his people in.
MS. IFILL: Another question?
Q: My sense is that Hillary Clinton is a more warm, caring, ethical, normal human being than her high negatives would indicate. If that's at all true, what can and should she and her supporters do to reduce those high negatives?
MS. IFILL: Dan?
MR. BALZ: I think it's very difficult for her at this point. And the point you made is something that people who are very close to her say time and time and again, that if you know her up close, she is very warm, she is very funny, she is very lively. She worries about her friends who have illnesses and when she's in between events, she calls, and when she's off the trail she checks in. But she has been in public life for so long that opinions about her are, I think, so baked in at this point, that there's very little she can do. I think the degree to which she can change that, particularly over the last 60 days in this campaign, are very – are very limited.
MS. IFILL: Jackie, you and I have covered Hillary Clinton off and on over the – it seems like a long time. It seems like a long time for us. It must seem like a long time for voters watching her evolve.
MS. CALMES: Right. Yeah, it's remarkable watching sort of the – literally, they are ups and downs of her standing with the public, from being first lady to a Senate candidate and a senator herself, and then a presidential candidate.
MS. IFILL: An incredibly popular secretary of state, it should be said.
MS. CALMES: Right. And that's the thing. And she had – she was a popular first lady in the second term, not the first term. She was a very popular senator. People thought she would have a terrible time with the New York tabloid culture. She didn't for the most part. And what's really been interesting to me in Washington is when she – because I think there’s – half of her problem is she's her own worst enemy. And just this recent – you know, the fact she hasn't given many news conferences or accessibility to the media. It’s really – to people who have covered her for a long time, in some ways, it's inexplicable because she's not that bad at it at all. And when she was in the Senate, and most of all secretary of state, the reporters who covered the State Department loved her. And she would come back on the plane with them, she would pour a golden drink, and she would hold forth with them. And it's like a totally difference between political reporters and diplomatic reporters is like night and day.
MS. IFILL: Pouring a golden drink? That I like. (Laughter.) Molly, quick, yeah.
MS. BALL: I just think that we have to mention though, in this context, I mean, she hasn't always been unpopular. This isn’t something that’s always been baked into her persona. She was quite popular as secretary of state. Something happened between then and now and it's not only, as I think a lot of her supporters see it, that the Republicans and the media all ganged up on her. There also has been this revelation about the email scandal, which I know many of her supporters feel is blown out of proportion, but clearly a lot of Americans take it very seriously and do feel that it has damaged their trust in her as a person and as a politician.
MS. IFILL: We must just have a question about that.
Q: Yeah. With all these talks about email and servers, wasn't it once common for Cabinet members, or even congressmen and women, to have private email addresses and a server?
MR. SCHERER: So, there's a remarkable email that came out this week from Colin Powell to Hillary Clinton, explaining how he did it when he was secretary of state. And what was interesting about the email wasn't just the words, it was the tone. It was sort of like, do as much as you can to get away with it because the diplomatic security people and bureaucracy and using the old servers will drag you down. And the email talked about how he escaped his Secret Service minders or his diplomatic security minders. So, yes, it has. And really, the government – this story about Clinton's email is a story of a federal government that has yet to really catch up with email. I mean, we have a Federal Records Act which predates this technology that says basically all work product has to be saved. And that's where this problem is created.
In Congress, if you're a senator or you’re a congressman, you don't have to preserve your records. The Federal Records Act doesn't apply to you. So it applies to some people and not others. And so, yes, most members of Congress still, I think, do most of their work on private email. They don't use their government email. And I think to this day, many, many people in government still work – not their own servers – but they’ll use their Gmail accounts, things like that. And the government still has not figured out how to balance that because according to the law, all that government – all that personal email, all those Gmails, if they mention anything they’re doing for work, they have to find a way to get that into a public system when they leave.
MS. BALL: Well, there – so that's a transparency issue, I agree. And you do see that routinely circumvented. But the difference between members of Congress or other, you know, people in agencies, something like that, is that they're not routinely dealing with secure systems and classified information. And that’s, I think, the difference for a secretary of state.
MR. BALZ: I guess I would add only this, that the way she has handled this from the beginning has added to the distrust. Her unwillingness to be fully transparent at the beginning, to try to minimize this completely as opposed to addressing it and alleviating concerns from the beginning, allowed this to spiral to the point that it did.
MS. IFILL: OK. Another question.
Q: Given the recent controversies surrounding Chris Wallace and Matt Lauer, what do you see is the role of a moderator for the debates? And do you think the moderator should be a fact checker, or to allow falsehoods to stay unchallenged?
MS. IFILL: Hmm. (Laughter, applause.) Go for it, Dan.
MR. BALZ: I think that being a moderator in the debates this year will be more difficult by a factor of 10 or 20 or 100 than it has been in the past, largely because of the kind of campaign we’ve been through and the degree to which things have been said, particularly by Donald Trump, that simply are not true. The Commission on Presidential Debates prefers that the candidates talk to one another and that the moderator in a sense stays out of that. The moderator is supposed to facilitate, but not get in the middle of that. But as you saw when Chris Wallace said he did not see his role as being a fact checker, there was an immediate blow back. And Matt Lauer got some criticism for the way he handled himself.
I think it's a fine line, that they’re going to – I mean, to some extent, the candidates have to be their own fact checkers. They have to be prepared to call their opponent when they are incorrect or when they say something that's factually wrong. But I think the moderators this year are going to also have to be on their toes and play some kind of role on that.
MS. CALMES: I agree with Dan. I mean, I would not want to be a moderator. But if I were – if I were, I could not have been there and let him say that he had never – that he had been against the Iraq War from the beginning and not challenge it. I just – and I do think the moderator has to be a fact checker, to the extent you can under the circumstances, and when you know that there's another – there's an alternative view.
MR. SCHERER: The other thing that’s shifted – and it’s not just this cycle, it's been building – is that the campaigns have become more talented at making this the issue. You know, when they walk out of debates, the campaigns now will spend enormous energy attacking the journalists in the middle of it, often to cover up for their own candidate's failings. And that's changed this. Like, you know, 20 years ago the candidates would basically lay off the press. The press was a moderator.
Now the press has been elevated by the campaigns to be participants in this, which makes our job far more complicated. In the case of Trump, he came out the day after that forum and contested the point, falsely. I mean, he was not against the Iraq War from the beginning. But he claimed yet again he was. And then he said any reporter who tells you different is lying to you. And he made – he made the issue about a fight with the press, not about what is true and what is not.
MS. IFILL: I just have to say that to my dear friend, Martha Raddatz, to Eliane Quijano, to Anderson Cooper, Lester Holt, who am I missing? I wish them all the best moderating. (Laughter.) Chris Wallace, moderating these debates.
Q: What factors could be contributing to the apathy of the middle spectrum of the voters?
MS. IFILL: Dan, you wrote a piece about pessimism. We’re going to – tell me a little bit about that.
MR. BALZ: Yeah, we did – the Post just did a 50-state survey that we published this week, that we did in conjunction with Survey Monkey, which is an online polling organization. And it allowed us –
MS. IFILL: With a ridiculous name, it should be said. (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: Pardon me?
MS. IFILL: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
MR. BALZ: (Laughs.) It allowed us to have sizable samples in every state. We had a total of 74,000 respondents to this survey. And we asked a series of questions in addition to who are you going to vote for, trying to get at questions about their perceptions about what this campaign is doing to the country. Ninety-five percent of people interviewed said that either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or both would be a threat to the well-being of the country if they become president – 95 percent. And 20 percent say both would be a threat.
We asked another question about to what extent do you think this campaign will be able to reduce the political divisions that have been commonplace for some years? And again, overwhelming majorities and majorities in every state – red state, blue state, purple state – said they think it will do very little to nothing at all to reducing that. So this is such an incredibly pessimistic electorate at this point, not only their view of the two candidates which we know they find them untrustworthy and they don't like them very well, but also the degree to which they think this election is going to move us to a different place than we have been.
MS. BALL: Yeah, I actually don't perceive much apathy at all in the electorate. I find a lot of people very riled up, very interested, very passionate about this election. What I do perceive is people who don't feel they have a voice, people who don't think anything they can do can make a difference, whether it's voting or being an activist or any politician they support even getting in there.
And that's why I think so much of the sentiment of the election this year has been motivated by this anger at institutions and the establishment and a whole system that people perceive as not working, to the point where, you know, they would elevate a candidate like Donald Trump who proposes to tear the whole thing down, or Bernie Sanders proposing a revolution. Saying things are so out of reach for me, I am so not being heard that I want to go in and just smash the whole thing and start over.
MS. IFILL: I talked to a class here yesterday at Colorado College in which one of the students said: You know, I want to vote and I’m interested in voting, but I feel I’m just blowing into the wind, I’m throwing my vote into the wind, and it’s not going to make any difference. What do you think I should do? And all I could say was, voting is your baseline. And what you do beyond that to make a difference is really up to you. So, students, this is what I'm saying.
MS. CALMES: Well, you know, if I could add to that too.
MS. IFILL: Quickly.
MS. CALMES: We've all felt like that at one point. But having lived through the 2000 campaign and covered the 2000 campaign and then the recount, 538 votes in Florida made the difference in the final analysis. So your votes do matter.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Sir.
Q: It has been said we have a dysfunctional government. To what extent does the media contribute to that dysfunctional government by too much focus on the presidency and too little focus on Congress, its chairpeople, its moderates that get things done, or other members of Congress that get things done?
MS. BALL: I would say not at all. (Laughter.) No, I'm joking. Look, the media's not perfect. But we write a whole ton about what's going on in Congress and who's in charge of it. And you know what happens to those articles? People don't read them. They want to read about the presidential race. I do worry about the hollowing out of local journalism. When I was growing up in Denver, we got two local newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Now only one of those still exists. So I think what I worry about is the lack of reporters, and therefore the lack of accountability at the state government level.
I was a state capitol reporter. And there are fewer and fewer of those positions. And that's an important training ground for journalists to see close up the workings of an often very dysfunctional democracy. But it also is important, obviously, to the people of all those states to have that kind of reporting. And so I think the financial crisis of the media – what I'm saying is you need to spend more money supporting your local media. But you know, so much of it is about the fact that media organizations cannot afford, in many cases, to impose as much accountability as we would like on local institutions.
MS. IFILL: We’ve only got a little time left for one more question. Hi.
Q: Love your program.
MS. IFILL: Thank you.
Q: In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, what is the one thing that has really surprised each of you?
MS. IFILL: Let’s start with you, Jackie. What surprised you?
MS. CALMES: Oh, that’s – what surprised me is actually easy. I mean, that we have a candidate who has become a major party nominee that – you know, dangerous ground here, but I think it's less and less so – that I'm seeing a freedom to just call and describe in ways that we would never have thought to do to a nominee, and just because of the provable falsehood of many of the things that Donald Trump says.
MS. IFILL: Quickly, Dan.
MR. BALZ: I think everybody would agree Donald Trump is the biggest surprise. He was the – you know, everybody or almost everybody said he would never become the Republican nominee. And he did. And he and his – he and his “movement”, quote, unquote, have been the biggest surprise of this cycle.
MR. SCHERER: In the last two weeks, I would say the way Trump has run his campaign over the last month has been endlessly surprising. Every few days he's got a totally different tone, a totally different message. He seems to be listening to different people. I've never seen that before at this stage in a presidential race.
MS. BALL: And he really doesn't have much of a campaign to speak of. There's very little field organization. There’s very little staff, compared to what we would expect. There’s very little television advertising, which is usually what campaigns spend hundreds of millions of dollars on. Full disclosure, this is the topic of my new article in The Atlantic. (Laughter.) But I think one of the surprising things about this campaign is how little that seems to matter, how little the sort of tactics and strategies that we spend so much exertion studying are really seeming to affect this result.
MS. IFILL: It surprises me the most is that we’ve got 60 days to go and we're still kind of terrified about whichever way it's going to turn out – no matter what your side is. So it’s going to be a fascinating time.
Thank you everyone for your great questions. Thank you all for your great answers. And we also want to be especially thankful to our folks here at Colorado College, and our producing partners at Rocky Mountain PBS.
Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks. Online, you can see our conversation with more than 15 Washington Week panelists about how the U.S. changed in the year after the attacks. That's at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we'll see you next week on Washington Week. Good night. (Applause.)