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Week In Politics: 2020 Presidential Candidates And The State Of The Union

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All right, as Scott just described, Cory Booker is entering a field of Democratic presidential hopefuls that is already crowded. In fact, Booker is not even the only senator in the race.

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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I'm filing an exploratory committee...

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ELIZABETH WARREN: Committee for president.

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TULSI GABBARD: I have decided to run.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: To serve the American people.

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JOHN DELANEY: It can't just be about how bad he is.

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KAMALA HARRIS: I stand before you today.

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JULIAN CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: That was Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, John Delaney, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, all of whom intend to run for the Democratic nomination for president. We're going to talk more about the race to enter this race with our week in politics regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to have you both here in the studio.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Great to be here.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to see you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This is a big field, and there has never been one so diverse. David, what stands out to you about the Democratic field at this point?

BROOKS: I, too, am running. I call on all Americans to run.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) At least somebody is announcing this on NPR.

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BROOKS: You know...

DIONNE: Which party, David?

BROOKS: My imaginary single party.

SHAPIRO: We're going to get to the independent race in a moment. But the Democrats...

BROOKS: You know, of the Democrats - first of all, the thing that strikes me both about the Booker announcement and the Kamala Harris announcement is how upfront they were about being African-American. And that may seem banal. It's kind of obvious. But my memory is that Barack Obama was not that way.

SHAPIRO: Trying to downplay race.

BROOKS: He sort of downplayed race. And they're saying, no, this is who I am, and they're owning it. So I take that as a sign of progress. I do think, as we just heard, this temperamental difference is the key difference, not an ideological difference. I hope that Cory Booker's right, that comradeship can defeat polarization and hatred. I don't think there's that much evidence for it. I think Kamala Harris is a very strong candidate because she is a prosecutor and can be a very polarizing presence.

SHAPIRO: E.J., big picture - when you look at this crowded and quickly growing field, what do you see?

DIONNE: I'm still pondering somebody running for president on the slogan love ain't easy. That that would get a lot of support. I want to just underscore something Scott and you, Ari, said. This is an amazingly diverse field. When you think about just how much has changed since Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton, so far, three of the major candidates are women, and more may come. Two of the major candidates are African-American. One is a married, gay military vet. Another is a Latino former cabinet secretary. And we got more coming. And I apologize to anybody I left out, such as, say, millionaires.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DIONNE: I mean, this is an amazing thing that's happening in the country, and we - before we get into all of the division we're going to face, I think that's worth celebrating. I broadly agree with David that Kamala Harris is a very strong candidate and had a very good start out of the box, something Donald Trump himself actually said in an interview. That may be the worst thing that ever happened to her in the Democratic primary. I think that Elizabeth Warren had a good start in Iowa, and Trump is targeting her. That will probably help her along the way.

SHAPIRO: Well, we could spend a long time going through the entire list of 10...

DIONNE: Yes, I know.

SHAPIRO: Democratic names...

DIONNE: Right, exactly. I just want to - one candidate I do want to mention who's not on the list today is Sherrod Brown because I think his tour in Iowa - and I guess he's taking it to New Hampshire - the Dignity of Work tour - whether he runs or not, I think that theme is going to take off because with all this talk of unification, that's a theme that could actually pull this party and the country together.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about a different potential candidate who got the lion's share of attention this week, Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO. A lot of that attention was negative. He's thinking about running as an independent, seems to be getting trashed for it. David, what - as somebody who's often dissatisfied with the candidates of the two major parties, would you like to see a credible third-party candidate, and do you think Schultz is that person?

BROOKS: I'd like to see one with a stronger message than he has. He has - his message is one of fiscal conservatism and civility, which is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't really respond to the needs of the moment. On the other hand, if the choice is between Bernie Sanders, who wants to eliminate all private health insurance, and Donald Trump, Schultz is the sort of empty vessel where a lot of people will go. So I don't think it's completely ridiculous to think that he could have a serious campaign depending on how effectively the Democrats repel anti-Trumpers who are not liberal.

SHAPIRO: A serious campaign to win or a serious campaign as a spoiler, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I think David may have said the essential phrase - empty vessel - because that's kind of what he looks like at the end of this. I agree with you. The question that - it's impossible to see how he can win. The smallest group in the electorate actually if you look ideologically are economic conservatives and social liberals. And for somebody who says he's doing it to defeat Trump, he, as a matter of strategy, directed all his - practically all his fire at Democratic candidates.

SHAPIRO: At Democrats, yeah.

DIONNE: And so I think it's the worst - one of the worst rollouts I've ever seen unless he was trying to sell books, where he did get more...

SHAPIRO: He does have a new book.

DIONNE: ...Attention than most book writers get.

SHAPIRO: Staying with the theme of elections, Congress considered a bill this week that would have made Election Day a national holiday, making it easier for people to vote. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was strongly opposed to it. This is part of what he said.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Just what America needs - another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work, I assume, our folks on - our colleagues on the other side - on their campaigns.

SHAPIRO: McConnell also described this holiday and the bill in which it would be contained as a power grab. David, do you think it's a power grab?

BROOKS: I don't think opposing paid holidays is a good political move for anybody.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROOKS: I will say I think I broadly support it. I think both parties should be in favor of as many people voting as can. It should be said that people do study this and have studied it for decades. The idea that there's some hidden well of voters - of progressive voters or conservative voters who would swing the election one way or the another if we had higher turnouts is not true. Our elections basically reflect what would happen if everybody turned it down.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: If that were true, I don't think Mitch McConnell would be opposing this bill so much. If it's a power grab, it's a power grab by the electorate. And what he is clearly saying is that Republicans fear that if you do make Election Day a holiday, people, particularly working people who don't control their schedules, will have a greater opportunity to vote. And so he's saying, I really want a smaller turnout. That's even a worse message, I think, for a politician than opposing a holiday.

SHAPIRO: All right, we've only got a minute left, and I want to give each of you 30 seconds to look ahead to next week's State of the Union and the Democratic response from Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia and was defeated. E.J., what are you looking for?

DIONNE: Donald Trump - presidents are supposed to inspire optimism and hope, but Donald Trump depends on our being petrified. So I think that that dynamic between the two is tough for him. Stacey Abrams was a great choice not only because she represents a big chunk of the Democratic Party but because she's an optimist, and she combines pragmatism and progressivism.

SHAPIRO: And David?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, if Cory Booker - if acumen sells, then Cory Booker is going to get the nomination. I don't think it does. I'm actually looking forward to this just to see first what Trump says. It's not as if he has a gigantic agenda to rollout. He's just got his wall. But second, it - you could in theory have a really philosophical difference between two versions of American cohesion, one which is the Trumpian version which is more ethnically monocultural and one that is different. And that's sort of the big debate of the moment.

SHAPIRO: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, have a great weekend. Thanks so much.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.