MS. IFILL: We are here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with 500 of my closest friends to talk about the issues, the politics that are driving this incredible election 2016.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra Wisconsin Edition.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from the Helen Bader Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, moderator Gwen Ifill. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: Hello from Milwaukee, where we pick up where our regular broadcast left off, this time with questions from our audience, and with the addition of one more reporter, Craig Gilbert of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We’re here to find out what everybody thinks about what happened here last night in this hall at the debate, but also to ask what you think in general about this election and whether it’s answering any of your questions.
I want to start with Craig and ask you a really important question: What are we doing in Wisconsin? (Laughter.)
CRAIG GILBERT: So good question. You know, the DNC said it wanted to have a debate in an important Midwest battleground, which this is. You know, it also felt like a little bit of counterprogramming. I mean, this is a state where the Republicans hosted a debate last fall. It’s a state whose Republican governor was expected to be a major Republican presidential contender, attempting to put his state into play in November. And it’s also a state, as a result of the battles over Governor Walker and his policies, where on a whole host of issues, passions among Democratic voters and activists run really high, and we heard some of that last night.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the passions and the issues among Democratic voters. I am really quite curious about what are the issues which are driving those voters in Wisconsin, assuming that we’re coming back here for the general election.
MR. GILBERT: Well, so, I mean, we heard Secretary Clinton last night talk about labor issues. I mean, that was obviously at the heart of the kind of long slog and political war that occurred in Wisconsin that got so much national attention. But also issues of economic inequality, issues of changes to voting and the voting system and the way elections are conducted, education funding, I mean, on a whole host of issues that, you know, you’ll see fought over in November, they were – have been fought in Wisconsin at a fever pitch.
MS. IFILL: Someday I’ll tell you all all the questions we didn’t get to last night which we had prepared. He just named at least three or four of them.
MS. IFILL: Do you have a question for our panel?
Q: I do have a question, and it’s about Wisconsin. Craig sort of led me right into it. How relevant is Wisconsin now that Scott Walker has left the campaign?
MS. IFILL: Let me ask Jeff that question, actually.
MR. ZELENY: Well, I think Wisconsin has always been, at least in recent time, a presidential battleground. I think there’s no reason to think it won’t start out that way. I don’t know if it will finish that way or not, but obviously in the last several presidential elections, I guess, of five that I can count – you would know better – I believe five have gone Democratic. But the Bush campaign in 2000 and 2004 fought it mightily. I remember that very well. I was working at The Chicago Tribune at the time and spent a ton of time in Wisconsin. And I think that, you know, all the dynamics that have played out here, you know, still have some juice left in them. So I think 2016, this year, is going to be a big Wisconsin state.
And of course, the Senate race is so interesting. I find it one of the most interesting Senate races in the country. It’s a rematch. There are handful of rematches, but you know, I think it’s a great one. So I think Wisconsin is still important, you know. And who knows, maybe Scott Walker will end up on a shortlist for someone.
MS. IFILL: Anybody else still looking for that, Scott Walker to come back? (Laughter.) Oh, wow! (Laughter.) This is kind of an ugly crowd here. (Laughter.) No, Amy – no?
MS. WALTER: On Scott Walker coming back?
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. WALTER: I don’t think so. (Laughter, applause, cheers.) He’s – but he’s much more focused on running for reelection, right.
MR. : Three years away.
MS. WALTER: That’s right, three years away. But that’s, I think, his major focus.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) He was such a promising candidate at one time.
Q: Hello. My question is, we’ve had a number of candidates who have been running, and certainly a number who have dropped out. As we finally get down to the two nominees, do you think we’ll ever get to substantive discussion around policy?
MS. IFILL: Michael?
MR. SCHERER: It’s remarkable, especially on the Republican side, how little policy has mattered this cycle. Ted Cruz has tried to make the election be about intellectual purity, ideological purity, and he’s been stomped on by Donald Trump. I think – and on the Democratic side you see the beginnings of a real policy debate, and I think over the next month we’re going to have much more policy than we’ve had over the last month.
I think the question of whether we’ll have it in the general really depends on the nominees. If Donald Trump is the nominee, probably not. He’s just not a candidate who campaigns on that level. He campaigns on a – on a(n) almost, you know, more on the id of the electorate – (laughter) – than the ego.
If it was Bernie Sanders is the nominee, he’s all about policy. He’ll talk about policy every day all day, and you would have a real – I mean, if you had Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, you’d have as big a contrast in terms of policy and ideology as we’ve probably ever had. So you could have a huge general election policy debate. But we just have to wait and see.
MS. IFILL: Anybody else on policy? Dan?
MR. BALZ: You know, I think that, given what we know about this country right now, the differences between whoever is the Republican nominee, with the possible exception of Trump because some of his – some of his views are more liberal than the average Republican to say the least, but I think that the debate in the fall is going to be a stark choice between two different views of what the role of government is. We can – if you watch a Republican debate and you watch a Democratic debate, it’s as if there are two totally different countries. The issues are different. The passions are different. And somehow that’s got to come together into the battle into the fall. But I think in some ways both sides will be talking past one another.
Q: Hi. If Bernie Sanders would be elected president, I wonder what you think his chances of enacting any of the programs that he promotes would be, given the – given the current state of the Congress?
MS. IFILL: You’re not for Hillary, are you?
Q: I haven’t made up my mind.
MS. IFILL: OK. I’m asking you that because it’s something she’s brought up repeatedly, that he has ideas but they can’t be enacted. What do you think, Amy?
MS. WALTER: Right, and that is the core of her campaign message, is this is great and lovely but it’s not ever going to happen. I made the mistake, apparently, last night of comparing Hillary Clinton’s challenge to the one about Santa Claus, and it’s a mistake I said because a lot of parents – I hope there are no children watching – that there is no Santa Claus. (Laughter.)
MR. : No!
MS. WALTER: I know. (Laughter.) And so her challenge is – her challenge is –
MS. IFILL: When did you break it to your kid? (Laughs.)
MS. WALTER: I know, we’ve had a whole – that’s a whole other discussion.
MR. SCHERER: Don’t believe the media.
MS. WALTER: Don’t even – don’t believe – right, he’s not believing the media telling him that there’s no Santa. (Laughter.) But you have to – her challenge is to say, OK, there may not be a Santa Claus, but that doesn’t mean that Christmas can’t be magical, right? So how do you balance those two things? And the reality I think of what we talked about earlier is that what Bernie Sanders is promising is aspirational. That’s what we hope for when we’re voting, right? We want to vote for something that seems bigger than us. And when you get into transactional, that just seems kind of small. It’s important, but not as motivating. But the hope from the Clinton campaign, what they tell you is, as you go through this process – we’ve only been through two states – as we move through the process, that is going to be the core question: What is he going to be able to get done? And the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats are OK with Hillary Clinton. They like Hillary Clinton. They’re not going to be upset if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. The Republican side, there are going to be a lot of very upset people who – once the nominee is picked from them.
MR. SCHERER: President Obama gave, I think, a pretty important speech this week on political reform in which he proposed a number of things that could actually, over the long term – this is like a decade-long process, redistricting reform and other things – change the way Congress is made up. That’s really the only way I foresee in the near term actually breaking that ideological gridlock that we have. You can try and govern from the center, but if you want to bring, you know, what Sanders is describing as sort of a radical revolutionary change to the country, you can’t do it in this Washington right now with those members of Congress.
MS. IFILL: Hi.
Q: I’m a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and I have noticed that there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about this election, particularly on social media and around campus. I was just kind of wondering how different this is in comparison to other elections, and if you think that this is actually going to be something that translates into the general election.
MS. IFILL: That’s a great question. Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: I think it’s considerably different. I think that is one of the things that is really fueling the rise and keeping the rise of Bernie Sanders. You know, there were a lot of comparisons early on to Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders; wouldn’t – you know, isn’t the ending going to be the same? You know, if – in today’s social media, I think Howard Dean’s campaign may have been different. So I think social media is very important, and it’s a huge frustration of the Clinton campaign, just on the Democratic side here for a second, that Bernie Sanders is so popular on Reddit and Snapchat and other things, and on Facebook. So I think that it is a huge – it is changing how elections are conducted, much in the same way that television changed.
We’ve seen the limit of television ads, at least at this point. No one has spent more than Jeb Bush and his super PAC, and we see what has happened so far. So TV ads, still important, but social media I think is a true driver. If you look at Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, they both have – you know, they can sneeze and it becomes sort of a big thing. So I think it’s a change in this election, and I think it will influence the general election. No question about it.
MS. IFILL: Craig, are you hearing the same thing?
MR. BALZ: I think the other –
MS. IFILL: Let me just ask Craig real quick and then we’ll come back.
MR. GILBERT: No, I think that by almost any measure, certainly, I mean, the engagement is there. The number of people that are watching the debates, the number of people that are coming to events, the people that are voting, I mean, this is a very engaged state. It’s so divided. People are so aware. But I think we’re going to see that in a lot of places that maybe haven’t had that kind of engagement before. I mean, the presidential campaign will end up only being conducted in a handful of those states, but I think the level of interest – partly because of Donald Trump, partly because of this sort of competition and standoff and impasse and extreme polarization between the parties – is driving that.
MS. IFILL: Dan?
MR. BALZ: Well, what I was going to say, two quick points. One, in addition to social media being a driver of energy and enthusiasm, I think the way Donald Trump has reinvented political communication is an important element of this campaign. It may be unique to him. It’s not that other people can replicate it in the future as easily. But he’s doing something that’s different.
The other thing that we’re seeing, the votes in the first two states, there is enthusiasm and energy on the Republican side in particular because they’ve had a Democratic president for eight years. It’s not unlike eight years ago, when there was similar energy on the Democratic side after eight years of the Bush administration. So I think that’s driving it as well.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, that’s a good point.
Q: Hi. I am a freshman at Nicolet High School, and my high school is like prominently known for having an extremely diverse population. So my question is, how do you think the issue of racial disparity will play out in the upcoming election?
MS. IFILL: Good question. Who wants to take it?
MR. SCHERER: It’s already become a major issue on the Democratic side. And you know, it’s interesting, the question of whether Republicans will do what they said they were going to do after the 2012 election – after the 2012 election, Republicans talked a lot about doing a lot more outreach to minority communities, especially Latino voters, young voters, and they just haven’t done that in any real way. And unless there is a pivot – and again, depends on the nominee – you could have basically a general election that looks like a base turnout play. Democrats will be working on these issues very hard, and Republicans will be basically, if not running away from these issues, backing off these issues. So it’s not really a great dialogue. It doesn’t set up a great dialogue. I think the real discussion is happening right now within the Democratic Party.
MS. WALTER: Yeah, and I think it’s a very different debate that Republicans are having internally about reaching out or reaching back. You know, Donald Trump talks a lot about making America great again, right, with the presumption that things were better way back when. And his appeal is very much white voters, especially more blue-collar white voters who feel like the pace of demographic and cultural change has not benefitted them. And that’s – but that debate, as Michael pointed out, is happening within the Republican Party. There are many Republicans, including Marco Rubio, who say we’ve got to embrace this new America.
On the Democratic side, what’s interesting is – you saw this last night – both candidates fully embracing the idea of doing more to have police reform and educational opportunities, admitting that we need to do more on racial justice. But –
MS. IFILL: But you know – I just want to interrupt you – one of the reasons I asked the question last night about white people – (chuckles) – is because I was curious about whether Democrats were interested in talking about race in a way that wasn’t just about black mythology.
MS. WALTER: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: And I thought, well, maybe it’ll be interesting to see if they’re paying attention to the same disgruntled voters that Republicans seem to be paying attention to. Did anybody hear a real answer? I didn’t, really.
MR. ZELENY: I didn’t hear an answer, but I think that is one of the sort of things that’s happening inside the Democratic Party. It’s one thing that some labor union members are a little bit worried about – you know, some white voters in Ohio, other places, you know, supporting the Republican, potentially, if it’s Mr. Trump because, you know, he is saying some things that resonate with them. So I think if anyone’s being honest inside the party, they are having those conversations. I don’t think your – I didn’t hear an answer to your question, but it was a great question last night.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, thank you. I thought so. (Laughter.)
Q: Hi. How can we have a positive election campaign where people can participate and get informed, rather than turned off with the negativity?
MS. IFILL: Hmm.
MS. WALTER: Well, we may not have a choice about that. You know, the possibility of Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump would mean that you have two of the most polarizing figures right now in American politics facing off against each other. Hillary Clinton right now has negatives somewhere close to 55 percent. Donald Trump’s are closer to 70 percent. It would be one of the more negative campaigns that you’re going to see.
The one thing that I will say, though – and it goes back to the social media question before – we do have a very engaged electorate right now, and we do have big difference of opinion. Listen, I think this is a – this is a kind of tipping point election in many ways. On the Republican side, it is about the future of the party – who they want to be and where they want to go forward. And I think for the country we are at a place with such tremendous demographic, economic, technological change that we have never seen before, and so we’re struggling through that. And some of it’s going to be ugly and some of it’s going to be inspirational, but that’s how we get through this process.
MR. BALZ: Gwen, I think there’s one element of this that’s important, and that is that there is kind of an all-or-nothing sense about politics today, on each side – that if the other side gets in, the world is going to end. (Laughter.) And, you know, you can – you can see that in any Democratic audience, you can see it in any Republican audience. That makes for, A, a very divisive election, as we know. But it also means that when we get through the election, it makes it very, very difficult for whoever is the winner to try to pull the country back together. And I think that’s one big issue that people have to worry about in the way they conduct this campaign.
MS. IFILL: Thank you.
Q: Hi. Mayor Bloomberg of New York has hinted that if the nominees end up being Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders that he may enter the race. So my question to you is, how would that impact the race? And from who would he steal the most voters?
MS. IFILL: Nobody up here works for Bloomberg, so, Craig? (Laughter.)
MR. GILBERT: Well, I think – I mean, the idea of three New Yorkers in a three-way presidential election and forcing the rest of the country to choose among them is pretty interesting. (Laughter.) I think, you know, he’s – his big barrier is Electoral College, and that’s what’s holding him back, because how does he get to that number in a three-way race? I mean, and most people think he’d be taking Democratic states away rather than Republican states. But it’s still a huge – a huge barrier for him.
And I think, you know, there is – one of the things I’m interested in watching, whether or not he runs, but particularly if either party nominates a really unconventional candidate like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, is we’ve been in this sort of trend line where we’ve seen the death of ticket-splitting, and we’ve certainly seen it in Wisconsin more than most places. But it’ll be interesting to see whether – if either of those candidates are nominated, whether there’s any potential to shake up some of these coalitions and cross some of those political lines, particularly with Donald Trump.
MR. SCHERER: I would just add that, as a national matter, Mike Bloomberg’s a Democrat. He’s not – he’s not on the line. He’s run as a Republican in New York City, but I mean, he’s given lots of money to Planned Parenthood, he’s funded a massive effort to try and curtail global warming, he’s – yeah, he’s one of the biggest activists for more gun control. So the idea that the Republican Party, is it right now in a place where they’re really open to thinking different about these issues? I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of it. So almost certainly, you know, the initial drag would be from independents and from Democrats, and so it would probably hurt the Democratic candidate more than the Republican.
MS. IFILL: I’m still wanting to see whether there’s anything real about a Bloomberg candidacy that extends beyond the area codes 202 and 212. (Laughter.) We’ll see, if he actually gets in.
Q: Hi. Since you’ve started following these candidates in this election season, what changes in them have you observed in policy, attitude, approach?
MS. IFILL: That’s an excellent question. Jeff, you’ve been out there nonstop, and Dan.
MR. ZELENY: What changes have we seen in the candidates themselves? I think you always see the candidates that are successful have growth and growth potential.
I think Bernie Sanders has grown as a candidate. I mean, just look at the – at least the image of him in Washington. No one gave him much of a shot at all, really. His announcement was not carried live on television. It was barely covered at all. He’s become a credible and I think serious candidate. But he’s gotten very good, I think. He, of course is tapping directly into the vein, the bloodstream of what people want to hear him talk about. But I think he has improved as a candidate.
I think that the – on the Republican side, I’ve been waiting for a little more growth from Marco Rubio. I was thinking by this point he would have grown and blossomed as a candidate a little bit more than he has. And one point of reference in comparison is Barack Obama, although he kind of shies away from that. But I covered the Obama campaign extensively, and I think it’s important to remember he was not a great candidate during any of ’07, really, and during some of ’08. He really had to scrap from behind. So I think it’s too early to sort of rule anyone out. But Ted Cruz, I think, was – you would have to say, in terms of a political athlete, I think he is – has grown and evolved. And Donald Trump, I think, is just in his own league. I’m not sure that I – (laughter) – I have no point of reference to compare him to.
MS. IFILL: That’s a nice way of putting it. (Laughter.)
Dan? I’m curious.
MR. BALZ: Well, what I would say on Donald Trump is that Donald Trump is trying to figure out how you act as a real presidential candidate. And there are times when we see him kind of throttling back just a little bit, and then it’s like, you know, he can’t help himself and he goes over the edge again. (Laughter.) But it’s clearly in his own mind that he’s made the transition from being not a politician to being a politician, and I think that is fascinating.
I think for many of the other Republican candidates the thing that has happened with them is that, when Donald Trump arrived on the stage, their view was this is an alternate universe, and we can watch it but we don’t have to really be in the middle of it. I think they’ve had to learn how to stay true to themselves, to the extent they can, but also embrace the kind of anger message that Trump has tapped into, the frustration. You’ve seen various of them – with the real exception, I think, being John Kasich – in one form or another having to adapt their message to try to take into account what Trump’s tapped into.
MS. IFILL: I have to say the interesting thing about watching Donald Trump is he’s transparent. He seems to think aloud as the campaign goes along, and he’ll tell you that he’s trying to pull back, and then the next day he’ll tell you he went too far. I mean, it’s like he is examining himself while he’s learning.
Q: Hello. We have a new dynamic in this state this year as far as the election is concerned, as do a lot of states across the nation: the new voter registration laws. And it’s going to affect the election. I’m curious: How do you think the – our law, our new law – Craig, you would probably have an impact on that – and the laws across the nation will affect the upcoming election?
MS. IFILL: Let me start with Craig.
MR. GILBERT: Well, you know, I think it always – those kind of changes always have the potential in a really, really close election to have an impact. I mean, whether we have that kind of election or not I don’t know. I mean, we’ve mentioned there’s a really interesting targeted, contested, high-profile Senate race in the state, along with what may or may not be an all-out battle for president in this state. But there’s been a lot of changes. You know, every state is different, but there’s been a lot of changes in Wisconsin in voter registration. The big change – the one big change that hasn’t been made yet, which I think would be significant if it were made, would be to get rid of same-day Election Day registration, and that’s a big deal in Wisconsin. That change hasn’t been made. So the impact may not be as dramatic as you think.
MR. SCHERER: There’s a counter-impact there, too, because Democrats in recent years have really made the message of voter registration one of their core arguments for motivating people to come out. And so it’s hard to know exactly, you know, if you push down one place, whether it pops up somewhere else. You know, we saw it in North Carolina in the midterms. It became a major issue to try and motivate especially African-American voters to get to the polls. And I think Hillary Clinton has telegraphed that she’s definitely going to do that if she becomes the nominee. I’m sure Bernie Sanders would do the same.
MS. IFILL: OK.
Q: Hi. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and we had a Republican governor at the time, too, Republican Dreyfus. But since then we’ve really started to lag far behind in terms of transgender rights, sensitivity. Joe Biden says transgender rights is going to be the civil rights issue of our time. Where do you see our country going in terms of gaining rights for more people, and then protecting the rights that were fought for so hard that the Republicans are swearing they’re going to just say no?
MS. IFILL: Quick answer.
MR. BALZ: I think we have a red and blue country on these issues. And so in blue states those barriers will get broken down faster and more extensively, and in red states there will be resistance to it. And when the Supreme Court steps in and creates a law of the land, that will affect all of them. But we’ve seen in the – in the aftermath of the decision on same-sex marriage resistance to it in a lot of the red states, and I think that kind of thing’s going to continue.
MR. SCHERER: I would – it’s amazing how quickly the changes have happened just in the last eight years. Even though transgender is now the issue, if you were to say in 2008 – which is only eight years ago – that President Obama would be entirely behind something he then opposed, that Hillary Clinton would be entirely behind gay marriage, which she then opposed – so I – and if you also look at the polls, the generational split here is enormous. So it’s almost –
MR. ZELENY: In both parties.
MR. SCHERER: In both parties. It’s almost becoming – even among, you know, churchgoers you see it, among younger churchgoers. So, you know, that change is – it’s sort of baked in the cake. I mean, there will be fights and it will take a while to actually play out, but the – but the question or whether it’s going to happen is, I think, almost settled.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you all very much. This has been very interesting. They say we don’t talk about policy, we only talk about politics. You guys are a great and smart crowd. I really appreciate it. Thank you. (Applause.)
And thank you to our hosts here at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and thank you to our public television partners at Milwaukee Public Television. Keep up with election news online with more reporting, more analysis, and more original content. That’s at 16 for 2016 at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we’ll see you next week from Washington. (Laughter, applause.)