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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: The Stage Is Set For Third 2020 Democratic Debate

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Summer, at least unofficial summer, comes to an end this weekend. In the world of presidential politics, it means that three months of picnics, county fairs and fried food is coming to an end. That said, the campaigning goes on in earnest and will get more intense from here. It also means that the next presidential debate is less than two weeks away. We're going to talk about all this in our regular Week in Politics segment. Joining us now in studio is David Brooks of The New York Times.

Welcome back.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And Sabrina Siddiqui of The Guardian and CNN - welcome.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, I want to talk about the debate coming up. There's going to be only 10 candidates on stage. And that has brought some attention to Elizabeth Warren. David, can you talk about why things are shaking out that way?

BROOKS: Well, her campaign looked sick and dying about three or four months ago, but it is now surging. She's got the highest favorability ratings of all the candidates. She's - I've read in an NPR piece that she's taken 45,000 selfies.

CORNISH: Thanks for the plug.

BROOKS: So she's doing - you're welcome. So she's doing retail politics. And the thing that seems to be the key to her rise, aside from the plans and the wonkiness, is the thing people said was her weakness, which is likability. People actually do like her. And I've always found her a perfectly, extremely warm person. And when you ask people, in their heart of hearts, who would you really like to vote for, they'd like to vote for Warren. And they - the doubt about her is electability, but the more - the better you do, the more you overcome that doubt.

CORNISH: Sabrina, can we talk about that more? David talked about it being a rocky start, so to speak, but also this idea of electability. Has anyone nailed down what they mean by that?

SIDDIQUI: Well, I think you've seen different definitions depending on who you ask. If you're looking at supporters of Joe Biden, they see it as the candidate who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump and who is best positioned to take on the president. I think there are supporters of Elizabeth Warren who are coming at it from a prism of big ideas and trying to capitalize on this grassroots movements of progressives and really identify where the energy is within the Democratic Party.

What's been interesting about Elizabeth Warren is that this isn't a post-debate bump, like the one you saw for Senator Kamala Harris, which was temporary. She has steadily risen in the polls over the past few months by really introducing herself to voters one policy proposal at a time. Her big identifying, I think, factor or trait as a candidate is that she has a plan for everything.

Now, the flip side of that is, because she was kind of flying under the radar, she hasn't been held to much scrutiny in recent weeks. And I think what you're going to see on that debate stage is perhaps Warren weather some attacks for the first time from some of her opponents, who now recognize that she really is, at least for now, this - the runner-up to Joe Biden, who still holds a commanding lead in the polls.

BROOKS: I also have to say that I think electability is more a function of us pundits than it is the way people vote. When people come out on a cold night in Iowa, they're going to vote for who's in their heart; they're not going to vote for who they think other people will like. And I think you...

CORNISH: But then why did we hear so many Democrat voters and stories saying, well, I like so-and-so, but I think so-and-so's more electable.

BROOKS: Yeah.

CORNISH: They're guessing what other people think's electable.

BROOKS: Right, they're guessing...

CORNISH: That's not in their heart.

BROOKS: ...And I think they're probably guessing badly. And I think...

CORNISH: (Laughter) Guessing doesn't work? That's your takeaway from the last few years?

BROOKS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Punditry 101, folks. I want to come back to Joe Biden for a second. The latest issue he's had is that he appears to have told a story about traveling to a war zone as vice president and saying that he was meeting up with a general while he was there. Now, the problem is that, according to The Washington Post, it seems that he got some of the main details wrong - maybe conflated them with other events. Either way, here's some of what he told to an audience in New Hampshire this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: The general wanted me to pin the Silver Star on him. I got up there - and understand, this is the God's truth; my word as a Biden. He stood at attention. I went to pin him. I said - sir, I don't want the damn thing. Do not pin it on me, sir. Please, sir, do not do that. He died. He died.

CORNISH: Now, as I said, The Post is saying he's gotten some serious details wrong, conflated it with other events. David, how much does this matter? People seem to be on sort of gaffe watch, so to speak, when it comes to Biden.

BROOKS: If it keeps happening, people should monitor. But it has been a problem, as you suggest. It's now the only story for Biden. So if Biden does nine really good things in a day but commits a gaffe, that's going to be the story of the day for Joe Biden. So he's sort of stuck with that. I would say, if you talk to memory experts, our memories are much more malleable and much worse than we think they are. And the only thing I have comparable to politics is going on book tours to try to talk about my books. And I can tell you, if you're travelling every day giving a thousand speeches, you really can't remember if you said this anecdote to this audience before. So...

CORNISH: But you're not trying to run for president. So Sabrina what does this mean?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I'll give you time, but yeah.

SIDDIQUI: It reinforces this narrative that perhaps Joe Biden isn't prepared for what is going to be a very grueling national campaign. And it also draws scrutiny over his age and some of these recent gaffes that have become somewhat of a problem. At the same time, I think that Donald Trump has very much changed the standards for what's acceptable. And given the president's propensity for falsehoods, I think The Washington Post, which reported on this Biden issue, put Trump's falsehoods at 12,000 since taking office. People are a little bit more forgiving when it comes to some of these other candidates.

And the fact of the matter is that Joe Biden isn't new to the public eye. People already have an opinion of Biden, whether it's good or it's bad. And I think that familiarity that he has with the public is part of why he still is leading in the polls, despite a lot of the conversation here in Washington about whether or not he's up for the task.

CORNISH: The last two minutes we're going to devote to Joe Walsh. This is the kind of conservative, talk-show type. He has a history of racist and controversial statements, and he is - wants to run for president against Donald Trump. And people have been pointing out some of his past ugly tweets. And he has said, quote, "well, look - it's made me consider that Trump is the ugliest version of what people like me were doing the past nine years" (ph). But at least I admit it - that's basically his argument. David, does that work?

BROOKS: This is like Mini-Me running against Dr. Evil from "Austin Powers." They come out of the same tradition, the same sort of demagogic, showbiz tradition. And it will not work. The people who like Trump will not - will detest Walsh. The people who are Never Trumpers (ph) detest Trump because he comes out of this tradition. They're not going to take somebody who comes out of this crazy wing of the party and then embrace him. So I see this as pretty much nothing.

CORNISH: Sabrina?

SIDDIQUI: Well, look - the fact of the matter is, Donald Trump has the support of close to 90% of the Republican electorate, and so I don't think that there is any serious potential for someone to challenge him from the right.

CORNISH: Right. That's Walsh's be brave slogan, right.

SIDDIQUI: If someone is serious about mounting a challenge, they can mount an independent candidacy and try to siphon off some of those votes and play spoiler. It looks more like Joe Walsh is in it for the publicity, not because he's earnestly trying to limit Trump's presidency to one term.

CORNISH: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and Sabrina Siddiqui of The Guardian and CNN.

Have a good holiday weekend.

BROOKS: You, too.

SIDDIQUI: Thank you. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.