NPR’s Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. They discuss reaction to the police shooting in Charlotte, N.C., and look ahead to the presidential debate next week.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We’re joined now by our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you both.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to see you.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: Before we talk about the upcoming Trump-Clinton debate or today’s endorsement of Donald Trump by Ted Cruz, I’d like to spend a moment on the story we just heard and the lack of confidence in the police in so many African-American communities. Have either of you heard any constructive wisdom from our political leaders about this? David, the thought doesn’t strike you serious.
BROOKS: (Laughter) As constructive wisdom, no, I haven’t heard that in four years or so. Listen; this was shocking, very sobering, and it reminds you of the human drama at the heart of these cases – a man’s life, a woman’s husband, the police and the tension that builds up. It just leaves you shocked.
But I will say, whether there was a gun or not, whether this particular case was justified or not, it doesn’t really affect the political debate. I think the political reality is that there’s tremendous disparity. And when African-Americans are searched, when they’re pulled over on the side of the road, on all sorts of police work, there’s just these huge disparities.
And that’s the fundamental social problem, not one individual case. And so dealing with that problem is I think things police are beginning to do post-Ferguson, but obviously it’s an ongoing issue.
DIONNE: I’d like to believe, as David said, that this will not be politicized in the exploitative sense of that word, but I’m afraid it already has been. I mean politicize is a funny word because it does also at its best would involve a serious effort to overcome what is a genuine and heartbreaking problem for how justice is done in our country, for how the African-American community and the police relate to each other.
But I have to say, in listening to Donald Trump over the last couple of days, it’s hard to escape what, for me anyway, is a sickening feeling that we’ll just have a replay of the kind of rhetoric that’s aimed at igniting racial feeling, and that’s not how we ought to be dealing with this problem.
SIEGEL: Well, let’s move onto the debate that’s coming up Monday evening, and let me start by playing devil’s advocate. That first debate in the fall campaign is always supposed to be a huge moment, but we all – we remember, at least you guys and I remember, Mitt Romney winning by acclamation in the first debate four years ago. Walter Mondale did very well against Ronald Reagan. There was no President Mondale. Two candidates – we’ve known about them both for 25, 30 years. What’s more to learn? It’s not such a big deal. E.J., what’s wrong with that?
DIONNE: Well, I – the counter case is of course John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon where I think the first debate really did have a real impact. You’re quite right about the other two. I think that there are a number of specific things here.
One is, I really think the way expectations are set that if Donald Trump gets a C minus, it will be curved up to an A, and if Hillary Clinton gets a B plus, it will be curved down to a D because so many people on both sides really do not expect Donald Trump to do that well. And it’s worth looking back that he did what he needed to do in the Republican debates.
Clinton I think has the harder job because on the one hand she really wants to challenge and shake Trump, but she also has to make herself look more attractive, particularly those – to those anti-Trump voters who are defecting to candidates like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.
I think Trump simply needs to make himself look less bigoted, less dangerous, more comfortable to people. That’s the easier burden to carry.
BROOKS: Yeah, well, I agree with the devil’s advocate case. I mean, you look historically. Like, did George W. Bush ever win a debate? I mean he lost pretty consistently, and he still won the White House twice. And if you look historically at the polls, you occasionally get a bounce of 2 percent or 1 percent, and it tends to be temporary. So the debates tend to be – we tend to overestimate their power. In this case I think there’s some possible upside because people don’t take Trump seriously, and if he seems semi-serious then I do think it gives him more of a boost than it would give a normal candidate.
I am greatly taken by – James Fallows has a piece in The Atlantic Monthly this week on the debates, and I shouldn’t make this case on the radio. But his argument is that you should watch the debates with the sound off…
BROOKS: …Because if you look at the things that actually matter in a debate, it’s all visual, and it’s all dominance displays. And he’s got a great quote from Jane Goodall, the primate expert…
BROOKS: …Saying Donald Trump reminds her of sort of a primate establishing dominance, you know, slapping the floor. And so one dominance display is what he did to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. It’ll be interesting to see how the gender politics plays out, but it’s one dominance display can actually have some effect on how people see him.
DIONNE: Which just proves that truly thoughtful people should actually listen on the radio because then you focus on what they’re actually saying. I just want to cite a counterexample.
SIEGEL: It has long been claimed, by the way, that Richard Nixon won on the radio.
SIEGEL: …In 1960…
DIONNE: That’s true.
SIEGEL: For those who heard it that way, yes. Go ahead.
DIONNE: Just one debate performance that I think won an election for a candidate – it was Ronald Reagan’s performance in 1980 where his job was to counter Jimmy Carter’s campaign which was essentially based on the idea that Ronald Reagan will blow the country up, and he succeeded quite brilliantly in that debate in reassuring enough of the country to win by a landslide.
SIEGEL: Oh, there you go again.
SIEGEL: That was what he said. The political news within the Republican Party today was that Ted Cruz, at the very end of an over 700-word posting on Facebook, said that he indeed will vote for Donald Trump.
A year ago he said, I pledge to endorse the Republican nominee and I’m honoring that commitment; and if you don’t want to see a Hillary Clinton presidency, I encourage you to vote for him. Does it mean anything to the Republican Party, David?
BROOKS: No. I mean the Republicans are coming around to Trump. He’s got, like, 90 percent of the votes, so the idea there would be mass defections – it’s mostly a group of pseudo-intellectuals like myself. But the Cruz thing – I had, like, a shred of respect for him for a minute there or a couple of months…
SIEGEL: You mean when he wasn’t into it.
BROOKS: …When he was – I mean, at the convention. And now he’s sort of just flip-flopped in the worst opportunistic way possible. And the whole – his whole critique of Trump was character, and in this statement he ignores character completely. It’s all about a bunch of policy issues that he probably doesn’t really care about. So it’s the bizarrest act of opportunism.
DIONNE: You know, Cruz has made life morally easier for people who were his critics before. He actually stood up and said or suggested he wouldn’t endorse Donald Trump. And to me the question comes to, where is the honor in American politics?
I mean, Donald Trump defamed Cruz’s dad, defamed his wife, invented the term lyin’ Ted, and now he comes around to endorse. I think it does show the pressure on Republicans to fall into line.
SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks a lot.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Good to be with you.
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