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Sunday Politics


NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us on the line this morning, and she was listening in.

What strikes you about the political effect of these raids?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I thought what was the most interesting was really the struggle for Vitiello to explain, why announce this in advance? Why give up the element of surprise? - because even if you want the public to understand why you're doing it, you can certainly explain that after they start. But the president has been talking about this for several weeks. At first, he said there were going to be millions of people deported. Now it's just a couple of thousand, so he was willing to give up the element of surprise for the headline. And it's pretty clear the president wants to show his supporters that he's as tough on illegal immigrants as they expect him to be. And he wants these raids to seem as big as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And all this is connected - right? - the push on immigration, while also this failed push to get the citizenship question on the census. This is all part of the foundation of his administration.

LIASSON: Absolutely. This is his go-to issue. Those tweets this morning saying that these members of Congress, some of whom were born in other countries, should go back to where they came from - that's a kind of blanket attack on immigrants in general. But whether it's talking about Mexico sending rapists, his unsuccessful attempts to build the border wall, his threats to close the border altogether or even putting a citizenship question on the census, he comes back to this issue over and over again. And the citizenship question is really the most strategic of all of them. It's part of a longer term Republican strategy to get districts apportioned among states and district lines drawn inside states based on the citizen population - in other words, what Trump calls voter-eligible people. That means an older, whiter, more Republican electorate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, let's turn to the Democrats because this is the week that the debate lineup for Democrats is announced. So why is that significant?

LIASSON: It's significant around the edges. The debate lineup is not going to change a whole lot from the first debates we saw in Miami. So Eric Swalwell is gone. He's dropped out. Steve Bullock will be on the stage, but these are candidates who are generally polling around 1%. What we have now in the Democratic primary is a normal-sized Democratic field of candidates, four or five leaders - Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris and then followed by Buttigieg.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A normal size.

LIASSON: Normal-sized, embedded in this huge sea of one-percenters. We don't have 20 candidates who are all polling between 5 and 10%. So what's really significant, to me, about these upcoming debates is, what does Joe Biden do? He has raised the bar for himself because he had such a weak performance the first time. And that's the big question. Who's he going to stand next to? That's a bit of suspense. And will he take more attacks like the ones he took from Kamala Harris? And most importantly, how will he defend himself? He barely tried last time. So right now you've got the fight to see who will become Biden's main competitor. We also have the intramural fight for the progressive lane of the Democratic Party, where Warren looks like she has now overtaken Sanders.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, and at the last debate, we saw a real tack to the left by the Democratic Party. And over the past week, we've seen a lot of leftwing criticism of Speaker Pelosi. What is happening here?

LIASSON: Well, it's a similar theme in both places. In terms of the Democratic candidates, you've got all of them saying they would give taxpayer funding - funded free health care to illegal immigrants. You had four of them saying they are for mandatory "Medicare for All," which means the end of the private health insurance system. These are stands that are popular with Democrats. But many Democrats I talked to say you can't win an election in a general electorate with those kinds of positions. So you've got that tension inside the Democratic Party. Do they want to run a base election? Do they want to be the mirror image of Donald Trump? Or do they want to try to win back some of those white working-class voters and suburban women that voted for Trump last time?

Inside the House, you've got Nancy Pelosi kind of feuding with these newly elected, young Twitter giants. They call themselves the squad. And it became kind of racial. What's happening is, you know, Nancy Pelosi said, look. These people might have a lot of Twitter followers, but they seem to only have four votes inside the caucus. They were the only ones who voted against the border crossing bill. That got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to say that Pelosi was dismissing newly elected women of color. Her chief of staff went even further, called moderates - compared them to the Southern segregationist Democrats of old and said they were enabling a racist system. So the bottom line is they made Donald Trump and the Republicans very, very happy. Whenever Democrats get in a circular firing squad, the Republicans are thrilled.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.


Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.