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Week In Politics: Democratic Debate, New Hampshire Primary


Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met in Milwaukee last night for their first debate since the New Hampshire primary. Clinton is trying to bounce back from her 20 point defeat. On the Republican side, New Hampshire muddied what people were calling a three-man race just last week. And also, President Obama took a nostalgic trip back to Springfield, Ill., this week, where he launched his first presidential campaign. Here to discuss the week in politics is David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome, David.


SHAPIRO: And Alex Wagner of MSNBC joins us from our studio in New York. Hey, Alex.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with somebody who became an unexpected star of last night's Democratic debate, President Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Sanders said he was surprised that Clinton talked about getting Kissinger's support. Let's listen.


BERNIE SANDERS: I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.

SHAPIRO: Alex Wagner, what do you think? Did Clinton walk into a trap there?

WAGNER: Well, I mean, Clinton was someone that was touting the fact that Henry Kissinger sort of called her one of the most competent secretaries of state in his lifetime. So she had brought that up, in all fairness. I do think it was a surprise to a lot of us that Sanders was going back 20, 30, 40 years. He was talking about the shah of Iran and Henry Kissinger in the context of foreign policy. This is someone who has a strong millennial following, and it was interesting that he'd gone back nearly half a century to make his foreign policy points. I thought Hillary's response to it, you know, revealed that - I don't think she was prepared for that question or line of criticism.

SHAPIRO: But David, this seems to say something larger about the dynamic between the two Democratic candidates right now.

BROOKS: Yeah, Hillary's just too young to be president.


BROOKS: They need somebody with some seasoning. Yeah, I was sort of like, why isn't he - you know, Henry Cabot Lodge was really mean to Woodrow Wilson.


BROOKS: So I do think there were a couple of moments he just seemed old. And maybe that's part of his charm.

SHAPIRO: But didn't the millennials eat it up?

BROOKS: I don't know. If you're under - like, I'm a middle-aged guy. Henry Kissinger - I was 12 the last time Henry Kissinger held elective office or held public office. So to me, Henry Kissinger is just, like, a distinguished old guy.

WAGNER: Well, but see, I think that's - and I think that's part of the thing. That's why millennials are kind of interested in Henry Kissinger, because he's representative of an establishment that Hillary Clinton is - or a system that maybe Hillary Clinton is a part of. And in that way, it plays into the narrative.

SHAPIRO: Last night we also saw both Democrats try to align themselves with President Obama. His name came up again and again and again. Let's listen to Clinton here.


HILLARY CLINTON: Today, Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past, he's called him weak. He's called him a disappointment.

SHAPIRO: David, you wrote a column this week saying candidates on both sides of the race make you miss Obama even before he's left office. Do you think the country is entering into a kind of Obama nostalgia phase right now?

BROOKS: Yeah, it's pretty - he's still here. But I miss his integrity. I mean, I don't agree with him on a lot of policy stuff, but on integrity, honesty and class. And we haven't seen a lot of class. A friend of mine named Tim Montgomery did a YouGov poll as if Obama could run against Clinton and Sanders among Democrats.

SHAPIRO: In the primary.

BROOKS: In the primary. And it's Obama, 56, Clinton, 20, Sanders, 17. So that suggests there's some Obama nostalgia. I think Clinton generally did well last night, but clinging that closely to Obama is not having a narrative of her own, but trying to borrow his narrative. And I think the core problem with her campaign - and it was evident last night, as well as she did - that Sanders' narrative still dominates, and so everything's done on his turf. And she just has not yet come up with her own counter-narrative that would determine what subjects people talk about.

SHAPIRO: There was also a lot of Obama nostalgia in the visit to Springfield, Ill., this week. And yet, Alex, when you look at turnout numbers, the Republican side is voting in much larger numbers in these primaries and caucuses than the Democratic side. It suggests that the way Republicans feel about Obama right now is the way Democrats felt about George W. Bush in 2008. The nostalgia, if it exists, is hardly universal.

WAGNER: Well, not only that, Ari, but Democrats - both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders - are running on a platform that there has been massive institutional failure in the government, the system is rigged for the rich, that we are at a crisis point in American politics. At the same time - and Michael Grunwald points this out in Politico - at the same time as they are trying to cloak themselves in the legacy or to - I think Hillary more than Bernie - trying to cloak themselves in the accomplishments of this president. So on one hand, this is an excoriation of some of the policies that have been in place in recent years. And on the other, Democrats are also trying to say, this - what this president has done is something we would like to repeat or continue, which is a completely awkward position.

SHAPIRO: Kind of a two-step.

WAGNER: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: If we look at the Republicans, there was something that struck me in the New Hampshire results on Sunday - on Tuesday night. When you look at John Kasich's strong second-place showing in New Hampshire, trying to be less divisive than his opponents, when you look at Marco Rubio's very humble speech when he underperformed, I wonder wonder if, in contrast to the kind of bravado and bluster of Trump and Cruz, there's a kind of humility lane forming in the Republican contest. David, what do you think?

BROOKS: Very common among presidential aspirants...


BROOKS: ...The quality of humility. I think there is an anti-Trump lane. And the crucial thing about the Trump campaign is that it's more about manner than about policy. It's more about a style or a way of being. And as I've said before, he took the mode of professional wrestling and brought it to presidential politics. And so I do think there's a - there'd be a market for a dignified person. I'm not sure it'll be Kasich, but I think Rubio or Bush are still very much alive, and it'll possibly be one of them.

SHAPIRO: You think Rubio's still very much alive?

BROOKS: Yeah because he messed up as a communicator, but he's not like Rick Perry. He is actually a good communicator. And so he will have moments where he can prove that he's a good communicator, and maybe this'll loosen him up, which would be a good thing.

SHAPIRO: I don't know. Alex, what do you think?

WAGNER: I just - I got to say, I am struck by how hard it is to deliver any good news in this election cycle. I mean, it has just become - I mean, I'm honestly surprised. Like, I understand that there's - there are, on the left, some very serious feelings about the criminal justice system, about systemic racism and problems that we're having, you know, at the center of our democracy. But as it concerns economic progress, you know, the number of American - 14 million jobs created. The unemployment rate's below 5 percent. You know, 20 million Americans have health insurance. I think that this president in particular would be sort of - is probably confused that it's so hard to make a case for progress and, in that same vein, Ari, to your question, I mean, reasonableness, rationality. And, David, you touched on this in your beautiful column. It's a very hard thing to sell in this climate. And I don't know. I think humility is generally harder in an American presidential election. We will see if anybody gets anywhere by doffing their cap to anybody (laughter).

SHAPIRO: David, briefly, given how good the numbers suggest things are, why do you think it is such a bleak campaign?

BROOKS: Yeah, in a column I call it the pornography of pessimism. It's just, like, self-perpetuating. You've got to prove your authenticity, you connection to people by how angry you can be. And Alex is right; that's just how the mode - the official mode of campaigning is this year.

SHAPIRO: David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks for being here.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And Alex Wagner of MSNBC, good to talk to you, too.

WAGNER: You, too, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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