Episode: Shields and Brooks on the GOP’s Trump problem, Paul Ryan’s speaker leadership

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Shields and Brooks on the GOP’s Trump problem, Paul Ryan’s speaker leadership

The rhetoric of fear and division drowned out discussion of just about everything else on the campaign trail this week.

And so tonight, NewsHour’s political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks react: What does Donald Trump’s rhetoric — targeting Muslims specifically — say about our society? Should we demand a tougher response from our political leaders? And what now for the Republican party as it contemplates a future where Trump is one of the last candidates standing?

The gentlemen also discuss Sen. Ted Cruz’s strategy: He’s beginning to remove himself from Trump’s wake, but can his own reputation as a firebrand give him the boost he needs to dislodge the frontrunner?

And back on Capitol Hill, Paul Ryan is facing his toughest test yet. As our own Lisa Desjardins reports, the new speaker has sealed the deal on some major legislative accomplishments in his few weeks in office. But has he built up enough good will within the House Republican conference to avoid the government-funding drama of years past?

As always on Friday, watch the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks in the video above, or read the transcript below.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, let’s talk about Paul Ryan for minute.

Mark, how is he doing?

MARK SHIELDS: He’s doing fine, Judy, until — this is a test coming up, of course, with the budgeting, keeping the federal government open.

He’s got a certain honeymoon period. And I think he’s been the beneficiary. First of all, he has to deal with the Freedom Caucus and the conservatives who were the bane of John Boehner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The bane of John Boehner.

MARK SHIELDS: And I think he’s benefited, in a strange way, by the chaos created by Donald Trump.

He looks, in comparison, by — a grownup. And I think, at the same time, that, for the first time, there is nervousness and anxiety among Republicans that they could lose their congressional majorities next November.

So, there is less tolerance, perhaps, for all the hissy fits and tantrums that have been thrown by House members in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Contrast with Boehner?


First of all, I have to say there are very few successful Republican beards. And I think he’s pulling it off. So, that’s very important to the brand.


DAVID BROOKS: Not since Lincoln, maybe, have we had a good Republican beard.

But he — the way you believe something is as important as what you believe. What Chris Van Hollen said in that piece, that he is more conservative than John Boehner, that is certainly true. But he is more communicative. He’s also just warmer. And he’s ostentatiously respectful to other people.

And so just that manner has helped him. It’s also helped him, frankly, that Boehner did a lot of the heavy lifting on the government shutdown stuff before he left, on raising the spending caps and some of that other stuff, so it will be a lot easier. And that’s a tribute to what Boehner did before he walked out the door there.

And then the devolution of power is just big. You are managing an organization. And you give some people some control over what they’re doing. I would say, since I came to Washington, in almost every institution, power has grown more and more centralized, either in the White House or in Congress or in agencies, smaller zones of trust.

And so to reverse that is kind of revolutionary and kind of impressive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if you look at — as David just said, you’re looking at Paul Ryan as someone who is more conservative than the leadership the Republicans had before, so you would think there would be more push and pull, but it looks like he’s trying to get things done.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he is trying to get things done.

But it comes down to the continuing resolution. This is the maximum power that a minority who are in opposition or have a particular case, a cause or point of view, for them to exercise it and to influence the threat.

The Republicans could not have a shutdown of the government right now. They can’t. And so he’s got to limit…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not? Why not?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, because this is a party that, quite frankly, right now is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, I think it’s fair to say, with the Trump candidacy and what’s going on and just the rhetoric in that whole debate.

You heard Ileana Ros-Lehtinen say in her piece to Lisa the Republican brand, that she looks to Paul Ryan to save the Republican brand, which is damaged. And so he’s got to get that done. So — and this is the time where you bring up riders. Riders are the last children, really, of special legislation.

There’s not supposed to be a rider on appropriations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are issues that are separate from…

MARK SHIELDS: They’re not supposed to be on appropriation, but everybody wants to bring up his cause right now.


MARK SHIELDS: And so that’s the problem he faces.

He’s got to get it done. They want to see him succeed. And they don’t want him to fail. He does have one great advantage. And that is that he didn’t plot and scheme to get this job. It was really thrust upon him. So I think that’s an advantage, that he didn’t crawl all over — crawl over carcasses and corpses to get there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When it comes to Trump, David, I know we have been talking about him, but this week, with the statement about keeping Muslims out of the country, is this just more of the same of what we have been hearing from Donald Trump, or are we hearing something at a completely new level?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s a different level.

The man is a genius for attention, an addict of attention, and therefore a genius of getting it. And so this I think is a different level for a couple of reasons. First, it is bigotry of a naked sort. The Mexican stuff was bigotry, too, but this strikes me as a higher level.

Second, an offense against religious liberty. And, third, because of the way Trump has now risen to prominence, it has reverberations around the globe, in the way the stuff even he said earlier about Latin Americans didn’t.

And so it’s done enormous damage to America’s reputation abroad. And so I do it’s something different. Politically, it’s a total winner. I mean, let’s be clear. The polls show it, and for a number of reasons.

People, as we heard earlier in the program, are scared about terrorism. Secondly, there has been a pent-up, silent frustration about political correctness. So anybody who says something politically completely incorrect, and properly incorrect, for some people, that’s like a liberation. It’s, finally, somebody’s saying the truth.

And so he’s benefiting from that. And so it’s right now a total winner on the Republican primary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if it’s a winner — and, Mark, the polls do show that — I think I saw 40-some percent of Republicans agree with his statement.

But when you talk about the electorate overall, it’s only about 20-something percent.


No, it’s a real problem for the Republicans, Judy. It’s a problem for the country. I mean, we saw it this week. Karl Rove, George Bush’s amanuensis, his master strategist, said that — wrote that the nomination of Donald Trump is a gift to the Democrats and would doom the Republicans.

We saw 20 Republican leaders, as reported by Robert Costa in The Washington Post, had a secret meeting, that they were that concerned, that anxious to somehow provoke and guarantee that there will be a brokered convention in Cleveland next summer to do anything, apparently, to deny him the nomination.

What he did this week, with — talked about as being intemperate, or being outrageous, or ethnic slurs — this really, to use a term I’m reluctant to use, was un-American. I mean, religious tolerance is in the citizenship papers of this country. It was put there by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, specifically to include Jews and nonbelievers and Muslims.

It wasn’t — so that it wasn’t simply Christians or Protestants of a certain sectarian — and so, I mean, this was just — this was really so offensive and so outrageous. I mean, when — and I thought the timid and rather tepid reaction of a lot of Republicans — when Dick Cheney becomes the moral templar of your party to say this is unacceptable, and I think a word has to be said on behalf of both Cheney and George W. Bush, that, after 9/11, they deliberately, consciously didn’t bring any — made sure that this would have a religious element to it, the war in Iraq, the ill-fated war in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What effect — David, you said, short-term, it helps him politically, but what effect is it having on this race? How is it changing the shape of this presidential…


Well, first, on the Republican Party, it doesn’t — not — looking at the data, it doesn’t seem to be bleeding over into hurting the Republican brand. If you look at the party approval, it pretty much where it was. It’s slightly up where it was three or four months ago.

People may disapprove of Donald Trump, but, so far, they don’t see him as a typical Republican, maybe because he’s running against the party. I continue to believe — and I will believe to my dying day — that he will — his numbers will collapse. I have said it here on a weekly basis, and I don’t think any of this matters until the final months.

But events like Paris…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re getting close.

DAVID BROOKS: We’re getting close. And events like Paris — and his genius for attention — what he does is, he takes a concrete issue or a broad issue which is complicated and he turns it into sometimes brutal and sometimes horrific simplicity.

And so there is this broad fear of security and terrorism. He — specifically Muslims, and that, like, lodges in people’s minds as something simple and bold, and somehow he seems to some people like a strong leader.

Do you hate women? The question that was asked to him in one of the debates. No, just Rosie O’Donnell. How much money are you worth? He could say 6.8 million — he says $10 billion. So, there’s a genius for attention by turning everything into concrete, very specific things that lodge in the mind. And that is a demagogic genius, but let’s face it, he has it.

I still think the electorate will turn, but he is not to be underestimated for that demagogic ability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you said a minute ago that Republicans had — some Republicans hadn’t been strong enough in their disagreeing or denouncing what Trump said about Muslims.

But it’s been interesting to watch Ted Cruz, senator from Texas. He’s one who seems to be rising in the public opinion polls. What is it that he’s saying? And his statement about Trump, if I got it correctly, was, I don’t agree with him, but he has a right to say that.

And then there was, I guess, the story that came out today or yesterday where, in private, he said he thinks Trump is going to collapse, but then — Trump later shot back, and Cruz said, oh, Trump’s terrific.

But how do you explain Ted Cruz?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, if you want to know what a candidate really thinks, you tape him in an off-the-record fund-raising meeting. And that’s where Ted Cruz did say that, that he didn’t think Donald Trump had the judgment to survive and to win the presidency.

Ted Cruz has just been right up to Donald Trump’s left shoulder. Donald Trump insinuates, as David puts it, that Barack Obama may not be a total American because he won’t say radical Muslim terrorist, or extremist, and he won’t use that term, he won’t, in other words, give it the religious component, and he says, there is something going on there, he says.

Well, Ted Cruz calls him an apologist for radical Islam instead. Now, it’s one thing, Judy, if I disagree with you and say you’re mistaken or you’re ill-informed. When I start demonizing your motives — and he does that. He does that in speech. He’s sort of Donald Trump with better academic credentials, a better haircut and probably 60 I.Q. points.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, other than that, what would you add about Ted Cruz?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Cruz is interesting because he’s universally unpopular.

MARK SHIELDS: Universally.

DAVID BROOKS: In the law firm, at school, among the Republicans — when he was working with George W. Bush’s campaign, he could not get a serious job after that, because everyone said, I will not work with that guy.

He comes to the Senate, Republican senators, if they had a vote between some Democrat to be majority leader and Ted Cruz, they would vote for the Democrat. He is just unpopular. And he’s used that unpopularity to his benefit in this campaign. Look, they all hate me.

And so, if you’re running an anti-Washington campaign, the fact that everyone who works with you hates you suddenly becomes a plus.

The other interesting is, for a guy who runs on principle, he’s extremely tactical. He’s very deft at moving this way and that. And so the Republican Party faces this problem, that they don’t want Trump, but the alternative might be Cruz, and they don’t want that either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will leave it on that note, David Brooks, Mark Shields.

The post Shields and Brooks on the GOP’s Trump problem, Paul Ryan’s speaker leadership appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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