Reporters’ Roundtable (August 9, 2019)

Aug 9, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4648 | Podcast | Transcript



A race for the presidency impacted by mass shootings, an incumbent president and a breakneck pace on the campaign trail. As more than 20 candidates descend on the Iowa State Fair we sit down with national reporters covering them on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 9 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: When the Democratic National Committee outlined monthly presidential debates from June through the end of 2019, they left out the crucial month of August. Candidates are already taking advantage of the full month without debate prep by diving into the butter cow and the deep fried Twinkies at the Iowa State Fair. On their heels are state and national political reporters and some of them join us today at the Iowa Press table for our campaign update. Jeff Zeleny is a Senior White House Correspondent for CNN. Lisa Desjardins is Political Correspondent for PBS Newshour. John McCormick is a National Political Reporter for the Wall Street Journal. David Weigel is National Correspondent for the Washington Post. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa. Thank you all for coming out here to do this. We have a cast of thousands here so this is great. I'd just like to quickly go around the table. I'll start with you, Kay. Give us your analysis of the shootings and the gun violence that has gone on and that debate. What is the effect of that on this campaign?

Henderson: Well, obviously the effect is it has raised the profile of that issue. All of the candidates are articulating their stand on the issue. None of them are articulating a stand that is different than the one they held before the shootings happened. Sadly I think the next national conversation may be about something happening on the nuclear stage and so the campaign debate will shift. But right now this is obviously at the fore.

Yepsen: Jeff Zeleny, your take on this?

Zeleny: I think more than anything it has framed, allowed democrats to sort of reframe this, particularly Joe Biden in terms of the conduct of this President. I was in Burlington this week when Joe Biden was giving a speech about how he's fighting for the soul of the nation, that is his campaign theme, and he has used this to kind of refocus that. But the conduct of President Trump in the argument of Joe Biden is that it's unacceptable and this is something that should concern all Americans. So I think beyond the shootings this has refocused the discussion on the rhetoric that the President has been saying since he has been running for office the last three or four years. So the shooting aside, I think just the conversation about this has really made this more of a referendum on President Trump. Call me skeptical on any gun legislation. I was covering Capitol Hill after Sandy Hook and if that did not inspire Senators to pass some type of a bill, the heinous murder of all those young kids, it's hard to imagine any shooting would.

Yepsen: Lisa Desjardins, you're on Capitol Hill a lot.

Desjardins: I think right now the change, the effect of the violence we saw is actually more in Washington than on the campaign trail. We'll see what happens. I do think the President and the White House reacted quickly. They knew that this is something that the President was going to be held potentially accountable for and they wanted to get out in front of. There has been a lot of concern in the Republican Party about the President and suburban women and shootings like this is something that really raise that concern. But I think when we're talking about what's happening in Washington, I also covered after Sandy Hook and that is something you hear in Washington a lot. If that didn't do it, nothing can. But I'll tell you, in the last couple of days there have been some signs of possible openings, especially from republican leader Mitch McConnell. Three days ago his team was telling me, heck no to the universal background check that has been passed in the House. Now he's opening the door as is the President to some kind of background legislation. The problem is that the House is going to want to go much farther than the Senate and they're going to pass something. Can they pass something together is the question.

Yepsen: Dave Weigel?

Weigel: When it comes to the Senate, it played into the democrat's hands on something we didn't think democrats were going to get a chance to play on, which is they're passing bills in the House, Mitch McConnell is blocking them. He had been kind of mocking and taunting them for having a graveyard in the Senate where all their legislation was going to die. So this is the first time that their 2020 Senate strategy has come into play where people in states like Colorado and North Carolina are going to run on breaking his grip from blocking these bills in the Senate. I think it revealed another issue where the President is very weak. Jeff was talking about it before in terms of the President's ability to unite the nation. Joe Biden focused on that. This is a President who visited shooting victims in Texas and they didn't want to see him. That's fairly unprecedented that a President is so unable to reach across the divide that people at the center of a national tragedy do not want to meet him. And I think in the long run more examples of this President being unable to reach past the base that narrowly elected him, that couldn't win a majority of the vote, we're going to see more and more examples of that. There haven't been many issues this year where he got the winning side.

Yepsen: John McCormick.

McCormick: Yeah, I sort of agree with Kay, I'm not sure it changes the primary race very much, but it could obviously have some real effects on the general election. The general election is a long time from now, hard to forecast that. Sadly there probably will be additional incidents like this between now and then. But I think for suburban mothers, suburban women, this is a real important issue. This gets their attention. There is a threat here in the homeland.

Yepsen: Well, let's assess the democratic race. Again, I want to hear from everybody. Lisa, I'll start with you. What is your assessment of this democratic, your handicap?

Desjardins: Well, everyone's going to say well it's still early. But I think we're starting to see the point where the Jell-O is not jelled but it's starting to get cooled down a little. And I think here in Iowa my eyes have been opened to the Elizabeth Warren effect and how well she seems to be doing. I think we're starting to see a top 5 emerge in the field and I think we're seeing Bernie Sanders have a moment where he has to recover quickly or else he's really in danger of falling out of that top tier.

Yepsen: Dave Weigel, you spend a ton of time in our state. What's your sense of this race?

Weigel: I could have said, before Tom Steyer got in, I could have said I saw every candidate. I'm trying to correct that this weekend. I've seen the field kind of separate into candidates who represent calm and nostalgia and candidates who represent more change. And I feel that Joe Biden in the last couple of months, really since he has gotten in the race, represents the chance to turn the page on Trump and maybe not get a dynamic everything changing, all your dreams coming true presidency, just get things to stop and slow down, whereas Elizabeth Warren has taken what was the Bernie Sanders mantle of people voted for change in 2016, people had systemic problems, we need a President who is actually going to fix them. And I think that is the debate in the primary and those two candidates have taken the lead in each of those sections. No one else has been able to break through in the last few weeks, especially given the debate performances. Elizabeth Warren has had two where she came across as commanding. What I've heard from voters frankly is that she's the first person who took hits from Donald Trump, took insults, fell in the polls and came back and she has impressed people as somebody who they could see winning the election where they couldn't six months ago. Again, I haven't seen anyone else go through that gauntlet.

Yepsen: John McCormick?

McCormick: I think these debates have really helped to sort of nationalize the race. Iowa is not isolated. People in Iowa have televisions and they watch these debates and they're following all this very closely. And so I think Warren does have significant momentum here, she seems to have organization. The question I think is how much can she cut into that Bernie Sanders support? How hardcore are those Bernie Sanders backers? Because they really are in the same lane. And just a refresher course, the Iowa Poll, a poll that some of us at this table once upon a time wrote for at the Des Moines Register, October 2007 Hillary Clinton was at 29%, John Edwards was at 23% and the junior Senator from Illinois, a guy by the name of Barack Obama was at 22%. So even as late as October of 2007 that race completed inverted. We'll see what happens this time.

Yepsen: Jeff Zeleny?

Zeleny: I hear a lot of Howard Dean mentions when I talk to voters here. And of course Howard Dean was the leader at this point of the summer of '03. So these summer frontrunners, frontrunners are fleeting. I was interviewing someone at the State Fair just yesterday and I said, is Joe Biden the true frontrunner? He's like, he is, so was Howard Dean. So I think the question here is Joe Biden benefits from this very large field. Joe Biden benefits from the fact that there is an Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders sort of fight going on. I think in terms of organization, you mentioned Obama, I look at the Obama campaign from the summer of '07. He was ascending by that point but he was building an organization. Elizabeth Warren, at least on what we can see, is building an Obama-like organization. She has some of the same people like Emily Parcell, who really are doing these organizing things. We'll see if organization still matters. It always has in the Iowa Caucuses, I still think it will. But Joe Biden is a leader in the race. I'm not sure he's a strong frontrunner or just a placeholder at this point. He still has to prove that he is driving this contest. I don't think he's done that quite yet.

Yepsen: Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Iowa centric observations. Joe Biden to me feels a lot like Bob Dole in 1995. He was the frontrunner. Everybody said, oh look at all these young dynamic people, Lamar Alexander who was young at the time. Secondly, all of these candidates who got into the race because they looked at the Obama experience I think aren't calculating that Joe Biden doesn't have what Hillary Clinton had sort of clinging to her. There was a lot of Clinton fatigue in 2007 which gave the other competitors an opening and Obama used it. If you talk to democrats in Iowa there's really not a Biden fatigue. They may not think he's the man for this time. But there's not that huge negative sort of gnawing at his folks.

Yepsen: Yeah, looking at those poll numbers, two-thirds to three-quarters of likely democratic caucus goers want somebody other than Joe Biden.

Henderson: Yeah, and the other thing is this is very much like 2003, democrats in Iowa have a huge antipathy toward the President and they're looking to see which candidate they think has the credibility to go toe-to-toe with Trump, not necessarily the person who meets their ideological checklist.

Desjardins: Can I add a quick word for dark horses. That's one of our favorite games to play I think as political reporters. For a while I was watching John Delaney like a year ago because he was doing a lot of work here in Iowa, but I think now the two I'm watching are Cory Booker and Tulsi Gabbard. I'm hearing kind of people are wondering about them more and more.

Yepsen: Lisa, switch gears. Talk about Congress. In Iowa all four of the congressional districts are battleground contests. We've got a Senate race that might be competitive. What is your view of maybe from a national perspective of the battle for control of the Senate? Do democrats have an opportunity?

Desjardins: Opportunity, yes. But it's steeply uphill. It's a better cycle for democrats than it was two years ago, they like that. But I think that the, as in any presidential election year, especially with an incumbent president, that is going to especially affect the Senate more than it will the House. I think Joni Ernst is a very strong Senator. She's going to be very tough to beat. And I think dynamics that we're going to see in Colorado and North Carolina, which are more purply states as far as the Senate race goes, are not going to be in effect here. If Joni Ernst is vulnerable that is going to be a huge sign for democrats that they could have almost sort of a sweeping election. But I think Iowa is just such a gift to political reporters because you're going to have four races that people will be paying attention to. I don't know if all four will be in play, at least three will be in play, and that's more than any other state in the whole country except for Texas and Texas has dozens of congressional races. So it's really an extraordinary place. There's going to be a lot of attention here and that means probably a lot of ads. I talked to two voters yesterday who said they've already switched to Netflix and public television because they're already tired of the ads.

Yepsen: The real winners of the Iowa Caucuses are people who own television stations.

Desjardins: Probably.

Yepsen: Kay, talk about rural, the battle for rural votes. Democrats are trying to fashion a message that can appeal to rural voters. It's critical. There's a rural skew in the Electoral College, they simply have to do better there. Are they succeeding?

Henderson: Well, they're certainly trying. They're taking their RV tours to small towns and small cities in Iowa hoping to connect with people. And what really needs to happen for Iowa democrats to be successful is not necessarily to win in rural areas but to actually do better in rural areas, to have their people be more motivated to get to the polls and people are obviously more motivated to vote in a presidential election year. And a lot of people look to the J.D. Scholten experience last time around in 2018 when you had this huge shift where you had republican voters who were willing to vote for a democrat in a really republican red area of the state, that northwest quadrant.

Yepsen: Jeff, you're from Nebraska, you worked in Iowa for many years. Are democrats finding the right notes for rural America?

Zeleny: I think two words you hear a lot in this is democrats need to show up. So I think in this cycle there are more democratic candidates showing up in some rural areas. But Kay is absolutely right, you're not going to win some of these counties but you can't lose them as badly as Hillary Clinton did. One sort of metric of all the metrics we look at are the number of counties that switched from Obama to Trump. I call them OT counties. Iowa had more of those counties than any other state in the country. And why is that? If you look at the map it is because of the really dramatic fall off of Hillary Clinton in rural areas. So I do think that candidates are talking about rural issues more. The question here I think is as this race goes forward whoever becomes the party's nominee, it's not just having a rural message, it is essentially these cultural issues and other matters. And imagine a year from now next summer if there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court. If this race, the general election, becomes divided solely on the lines of abortion rights and other things I think democrats will struggle in rural areas. But boy it's a very uncertain moment out there because of the rural economy. So I think any democrat is wise to talk about that. And President Trump gives them ample openings here based on his policies.

Yepsen: John McCormick, talk about the effect of trade and tariffs on Donald Trump.

McCormick: Yeah, well, farmers have been remarkably patient with this President in terms of their support for him. They were very strongly behind him in the 2016 election and they have continued to be strong backers of him. Talking to some farmers yesterday out at the Iowa State Fair, they're concerned about these tariffs, I think this latest round of tariffs has been especially concerning, and so that patience may be starting to wear thin. We'll see how these trade negotiations go in the weeks and months ahead. Corn is at $4 a bushel, not great but not terrible. Soybeans are at $8.50. When Donald Trump came into office they were at $10. So farmers are feeling that. And they're strongly behind him. A lot of those OT, Obama Trump counties that Jeff talked about, are along the eastern seaboard, they're not heavily agricultural counties but they are places where -- the eastern seaboard of Iowa, I'm sorry, the Mississippi River -- and they're places where the candidates are spending a ton of time because they know those are going to be really critical counties.

Yepsen: Lisa, what is your assessment of Trump's strength here? Are you seeing erosion as a result of trade tariffs?

Desjardins: I don't think we are yet. I was talking to voters yesterday at the State Fair who were saying, it takes one or two or three years now I'm hearing to turn around a trade policy that they think was bad for 30 years. So they have bought in, at least for this moment, to the idea that there is a larger goal he is pursuing. But I think if we see as farmers start planting their next crop, planting that next crop, if we see this instability all the way through the fall and the spring I think then we're going to have to take temperatures again.

Yepsen: Why is there a lag time here? They passed the Smoot–Hawley Tariff in 1930 and in 1932 Smoot, Hawley and Hoover were all voted out. So is there a lag time between now and when the election comes that could be detrimental to Trump?

Weigel: I think if the general economy turns down. But look, there are a lot of voters who don't tie their personal economic status to their vote. There are a lot of suburban voters in Polk County here doing better than ever and they cannot stand Donald Trump and they're going to vote against him no matter how good the economy gets. I think Lisa was hitting on the head that if you believe that no president up to now has actually taken this policy on, and he's trying, he gets a lot of credit for trying, just the way we saw in 2012, a lot of voters still give Obama credit for trying even though the economy had not recovered, even though manufacturing was not back, it took two elections for them to get tired of it.

Yepsen: Is this another example, I'll sort of throw this open, of cultural issues trump economic ones? The famous book, What's the Matter with Kansas, John McCormick, it's hard times in the Farm Belt and yet you're still seeing, as Lisa noted, strong support for Trump. Are these economic issues really important? Are cultural ones more important?

McCormick: Yeah, I mean it depends on the voter obviously but I think economics are still important. I think some of the things that have changed though for farmers, again I was talking to folks out there yesterday, is that their incomes are not wholly dependent on the farm so much as they used to be. I talked to a guy yesterday, he's running apartment buildings in a suburban Iowa city as well as running a farm. So they have diversified some so that does help at these times when the farm economy is bad. I think one thing that we will be watching for as Lisa mentioned is if commodity prices continue to suffer, which they probably will if there are not trade improvements, that some of the implement dealers, some of those other auxiliary businesses that are affected by the farm economy, could start to feel the pain. And then it becomes more of a sort of broad-based situation.

Yepsen: Dave Weigel, is this primary contest helping or hurting the democrats win in November?

Weigel: It depends a lot on who the nominee is and democrats I don't think would have thought the 2016 primary was going to hurt them until the conventions, until it was very clear that having a binary contest with the supporters of Bernie Sanders feeling like everything was ripped away from them hurt them in a way that probably was definitive in a couple of the swing states. Because this is such a crowded, clouded field I don't think the same thing is happening. What I heard yesterday talking to democratic voters at events was they are frustrated with the media and they're picking up a little bit of the anti-media sentiment that is so popular right now, frustrated with how the media focuses on questions that turn democrats against each other. And I do think that's a reason why the candidates who have not been in a negative showdown with one of the others, like Elizabeth Warren, have done a bit better in the last few weeks. It's not that they view them as substanceless, it's that they have not gone in the mud.

Yepsen: Jeff Zeleny, on this question of party unity and divisions, democrats tore themselves up pretty good in 1968, in 1980. Are we going to see another version of this? Or are they going to get their act together?

Zeleny: I think it depends who the nominee is, as Dave was saying. But I think there is one thing that is different, there is a unifying factor in Donald J. Trump. He unifies democrats unlike any other message that they could have. So I do think that the desire to unseat and defeat him is a unifying factor. But that is the central question of this campaign that we don't know the answer to. Don't believe anyone who says that they have an answer to it. Is the better path for democrats to find a nominee who can win back some of those moderate voters? Or is it to nominate someone to excite and turn out voters who didn't turn out last time? That's what this whole process is about. But I do think that the Trump factor is a unifying thing, which is why the biggest applause line for almost every event I go to is, I'm going to support the nominee. You say Bernie Sanders saying it all the time because people are suspicious of him. But I think Trump helps democrats.

Yepsen: Dave Weigel, we've just got a couple of minutes left. Immigration. What role is immigration playing in the democratic race? Is it going to be determinative in November? What are your thoughts?

Weigel: Well, in 2018 republicans ended the campaign by focusing on the caravan coming across the border. I think democrats got a boost of confidence that that did not actually swing races against them. I don't think there's a race you can point to in the House where they lost because of that issue. At the same time, the President is very comfortable elevating this. In Iowa he tried this in a very emotional way in 2018 by highlighting Molly Tibbetts' family. He has shown that he is very willing to do that and democrats have continued to move towards their base even further than some Latino groups want and saying that yes, we're going to implement a health care reform that undocumented immigrants get onto, yes we're not going to have as many apprehensions, we're not going to focus as much on border security. There is a worry among some democrats they're going to get over their skis just because Trump is so alienating and so aggravating to them that the impulse is to run the other direction towards their base. And Iowa is a place where I would expect some of that to slow down because I saw it in 2007 when there was an immigration debate and candidates like Barack Obama were not saying if elected I'm going to decriminalize border crossings. I'm wondering how far they're going to go because of the President exacerbating this.

Yepsen: Kay, we have less than a minute, or just about a minute. Third parties, do any of you see third parties emerging in this campaign like they did with Ross Perot or Ralph Nader that it had an effect on or the greens?

Henderson: Not right now. None of them have spent any time in Iowa. They have not connected with people. But I think the experience last time around with Sanders and the Jill Stein's of the world, I think that has really roiled democrats and people who are democratic leaning voters.

Yepsen: Lisa, what do you see about third parties?

Desjardins: I agree. I think there's something deeper going on here which is about American identity and how you see identity and I think all of the themes here, farmers, everything, what you're hearing here in Iowa is how you feel about, what are you proud about in this country? And voters see that differently and I just don't think third parties tap into that at this point. I think it's a fight between the two parties on that question.

Yepsen: John McCormick, 30 seconds. Is this the last time we see the Iowa Caucuses be a big deal?

McCormick: I think not. I think Iowa will probably continue to be a big deal. I think the DNC's early debate, sort of winnowing process the winnowing of the winnowing is maybe weakening Iowa's strength a little bit. But inertia is very strong for this sort of thing to continue. It's great for the economy here, political reporters spending all kinds of dollars at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

Yepsen: And we're already seeing the starts of the 2024 republican caucus. But we'll have you all back to talk about that another time. Thank you very much for taking time off the trail to be with us. Thank you.

Zeleny: Thanks, David.

Desjardins: Pleasure.

Yepsen: Before we go, an event reminder for later in August. Iowa PBS's special presidential town hall series continues with former Vice President Joe Biden joining our in-depth, hour-long discussion on Iowa PBS presents Conversations with the Presidential Candidates hosted by Des Moines Area Community College at their Ankeny campus. That's on Wednesday, August 21st. And we'll be back next week for Iowa Press with Senator Charles Grassley. That's Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night, Noon on Sunday and anytime on So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.



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