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The Week In Politics


It's time for our regular week in politics chat. And for the first time in a long time, President Trump hasn't dominated every news cycle. Hurricane Florence, its historic size and intensity has been where the nation's attention has been focused. Nevertheless, there's been some political news of note. President Trump did make headlines when he praised the government's handling of another hurricane, Hurricane Maria. Voters in New York went to the polls to cast their votes in the final primary of the season. And this afternoon, President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to two felonies and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department.

We're going to talk about all this with Jason Johnson, politics editor at The Root. Welcome to the show.

JASON JOHNSON: Glad to be here.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times - welcome back, David.


CORNISH: So we actually spoke with Cynthia Nixon, the challenger to Andrew Cuomo, earlier this week about what she sees as a changing of the guard in the Democratic Party. And she made this point.

CYNTHIA NIXON: We need more and more working-class people running for office and elected to office because so much now it is white males who have access to great networks of wealth. And what we're seeing is more and more women and people of color who are saying, damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.

CORNISH: David Brooks, Ms. Nixon was not able to convince voters in New York that she was part of this up-and-coming vanguard. What do you think happened?

BROOKS: Well, if you look at the primary season as a whole, the progressive wing of the party scored a few obvious high-profile wins. But in general, the Democratic establishment did extremely well. The DCCC, which is the - basically the party establishment - 95 percent of their candidates won. The New Democratic PAC, which is where the moderate Democrats - 87 percent of their candidates. If you look at the left-wing groups, they had about 30 percent win rates. So there were some big progressive wins. But in general, the Democratic Party has not swung wildly left and certainly not in the Cynthia Nixon direction.

CORNISH: Jason, I know you've been looking at this in the context also of the Congressional Black Caucus conference this week. Can you talk about where your head is at in terms of (laughter) these primary wins?

JOHNSON: It's been really interesting to see, you know - you have to be Georgia - you have two big races, in particular the governor's race in Georgia, the governor's race in Florida. And generally speaking, the Congressional Black Caucus weekend is usually just an opportunity for a bunch of incumbents to hang out with each other and glad-hand and tell everybody what they're doing. But this is a very different year.

You have African-American candidates competing across the country in non-minority majority districts. And there has been a serious discussion about what strategy and what policy needs to look like. There is a possibility there could be an African-American lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, an African-American lieutenant governor in Michigan. And those are different kinds of issues than what we've heard in the past. So this is probably the most strategic CBC weekend that I've ever seen.

CORNISH: David, is this something that the Republicans have to think about going forward in terms of the politicians who are in the pipeline on the Democratic side and what they look like in terms of the nation's demographics?

BROOKS: Oh, for sure (laughter). The Republican Party's basically become an all-white party, and that's disastrous for it. It's a party completely revolving around Donald Trump. What we saw through the primary process was that if you were - the most pro-Trump candidate won almost every Republican primary. And the second thing we saw on the Democratic side is the wave of women running. It's a real wave. They've - African-Americans doing extremely well is a real wave. And so the scary thing to me is our partisan divide may overlap with the racial divide, which is not a good place for the country to be. And it's largely because the Republican Party as has fled from any minority group.

CORNISH: I want to talk about hurricane preparations this week. President Trump managed to praise last year's handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, denying the reporting on the number of deaths of Americans there, implying a conspiracy about the data, claiming it had to do with Democrats all in one fell swoop.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think in a certain way, the best job we did was Puerto Rico, but nobody would understand that. I mean, that - it's harder to understand. It was a very hard, very hard thing to do because of the fact they had no electric. Before the storms hit, it was dead, as you probably know. So we've got a lot of receptivity, a lot of thanks for the job we've done in Puerto Rico.

CORNISH: There was a lot of criticism of this - needless to say not a lot of thanks from the voices we heard from Puerto Rico. President Bush once suffered politically for his handling of a storm, Hurricane Katrina. How are you guys hearing (laughter) the comments this week?

JOHNSON: Well, the president doesn't surprise me. And I talked about this when Hurricane Maria hit last year. This is what White nationalism looks like as policy. I wouldn't be surprised if the president didn't even know that Puerto Ricans were Americans, and that's - that would be considered a joke a year ago, but it wouldn't surprise me. And his dismissiveness of the death there it's not surprising.

But I do think that it's important to take into consideration - if you look at - going back to 1992 with Hurricane Andrew and Katrina with Bush and Sandy with President Obama, hurricane responses don't actually affect the poll numbers for presidents all that much. Now, because this is happening in a midterm year, it could have an impact on Florida. It could have an impact on the Florida governor's elections. But as far as Trump itself, it's not going to change how most people view him.

CORNISH: David, you've been looking at approval ratings for the President. How are you thinking about this?

BROOKS: Well, he's dropped eight points in a couple weeks, which is kind of unprecedented because he was floating around there at 43 forever and forever and then suddenly drops eight points over the last couple weeks into a really terrible position, losing independent voters and Republican voters. Why did it happen? I happen to think it could be in contrast with McCain. It could also just be the end of summertime. People started paying attention. But to go from 43 to 38 with midterms two months away is a pretty bad place to be.

CORNISH: One last thing we want to talk about - Paul Manafort entered into a plea deal rather than to go to trial. He will cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller. David, very quickly, is this a significant moment?

BROOKS: Not politically. I think the Manafort thing is all factored in by the voters. Whether he says something about something Trump did illegally, then it could be a very big moment. But we just don't know.

CORNISH: And, Jason Johnson...

JOHNSON: Could have an impact on Trump's family. It depends on who Manafort flips on 'cause it may not be about the president. It could be about Ivanka. It could be about Jared. And that could have an impact on Washington even if it's not going to change how people vote this fall.

CORNISH: Jason Johnson is politics editor at The Root, David Brooks of The New York Times. Thank you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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