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Week In Politics: Florida's Election Recounts And New Sanctions On Saudi Arabia

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now we turn to our regular week in politics segment. This week, we're joined by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

CORNISH: And Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review, columnist for the Bloomberg View and now the parent of a 12-week-year-old (ph). I understand. I don't know how you're still awake right now. But thank you for being here.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you very much.

DIONNE: Congratulations, Ramesh.

PONNURU: Thank you.

CORNISH: So other people watching closely what's going on with the Mueller investigation, House Democrats - unfortunately they're still busy thinking about who they want to lead in the House, right? There this conversation which I feel like I've heard before. I've got some deja vu about Nancy Pelosi and whether she is going to have a number of people who oppose her. Can you talk about what the tensions we're seeing here say about where this party is right now? I'm going to start with you, E.J. Keep an eye on the clock.

DIONNE: (Laughter) I will keep an eye on the clock.

CORNISH: I said it.

DIONNE: The - this could take all day, but actually it doesn't. There's really two tensions. There are two widespread views in the party. View one is Pelosi is the natural leader for the party right now. She has the experience. She knows how to deal with difficult - she knows how to deal with Republicans. And after all, the Democrats are the only check on both a rather supine Senate and a very troublesome administration. So most Democrats feel that.

At the same time, many Democrats look at the polls and say, Pelosi's not popular. Republicans keep using her in ads against Democrats. There are at least nine members who say - new members who say they'll never vote for her. I think they're going to resolve this by electing Pelosi, and she will give some sense that she will be a bridge - a word she's used often - to new leadership because I think in the end, there's no obvious figure to replace her. And a lot of Democrats, even when they wish they had new leadership, trust her to deal with the circumstances.

CORNISH: Ramesh, Republicans are no strangers to speaker troubles and (laughter), like, leadership strains - right? - when you've got sort of diverging interests. What do you see in this conversation?

PONNURU: Well, of course Republicans have been cheering on Pelosi because they've thought of her as an effective foil. I do wonder, though, looking at the election results if that's really the case. Are there really seats where running against Pelosi helped the Republicans hold onto power? I think the problem she has is in the course of running for that for the the midterms, a number of House Democrats did feel it necessary to distance themselves from her because her approval ratings are low. They're actually lower nationally even than President Trump's.

I think there is a sense on the part of some Democrats that there needs to be a generational shift and that she's been in power for too long. But the absence of an opponent, a single focal point for the opposition to rally around, I think is the fundamental problem. Two nights ago, Brian Higgins, a Republican - excuse me - a Democratic congressman from New York was talking up Karen Bass of California as a possible challenger. And then the very next day, Bass herself endorsed Pelosi. That's an illustration of the problem they have.

CORNISH: So no one's stepping up there. More deja vu - recounts in Florida, in Georgia. We spoke to Katherine Harris yesterday. She was Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida. Here's what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KATHERINE HARRIS: We have excellent election laws, but we have a very closely divided electorate. I say that we're not a red state or a blue state. We're a purple state. Consequently, we are always going to have close races.

CORNISH: Beneath this rhetoric, how much do you think that kind of the problems that we have seen with the recount - do they undermine the public's confidence in the vote?

PONNURU: It depends of course on how political leaders respond to them. Do they accept defeat graciously? Do they conjure up conspiracy theories if the results don't go the way that they want to? I think that most people understand that you can have some tight elections, but the deja vu that you were mentioning earlier is particularly pronounced in this case because we may once again have a problem of poor ballot design in Broward County, Fla., having national importance. Of course that was the case back in 2000 with the Bush-Gore election, and it may have led to people not voting in the Senate race this time.

CORNISH: E.J., I want to let you jump in here 'cause obviously Democrats have been talking about issues of voter regulations and voter suppression over the last couple of weeks. What do you see about the public's confidence in the vote when we're mired in these recounts?

DIONNE: Well, I think voter suppression was a problem in a lot of places the - making it extremely difficult particularly for people of color or poorer people to vote. I have to say that hearing Ms. Harris' voice made me want to scream about the 2000 recount because this whole week brought back so many of those memories. And I think there are two issues here.

One, the recounts in Florida bring out the worst in Republicans. They act as if counting ballots is the same as inventing votes. President Trump went out and said, well, let's go with the election night count. Let's not keep counting ballots. He didn't realize that he would thereby be excluding a lot of military ballots, which are accepted 10 days after the election.

But on the Democratic side, there's a problem, as Ramesh alluded to - Democratic counties creating problems for Democratic candidates, that ballot design in Broward County being like the butterfly ballot all those years ago. It reminded me of a book by the great thriller writer Ross Thomas. The title was "The Fools In Town Are On Our Side."

CORNISH: OK, we're going to have to footnote your comment there (laughter) on the website. Ramesh, do you want to answer? I feel like he gave us some strident comments there.

PONNURU: Well, you know, I understand that there are still strong feelings about the 2000 recount. And I also think that the criticism of the election authorities in Florida and in Broward County and Palm Beach County, too, are, you know, understandable, natural. I think - and they're growing, and they're becoming more bipartisan I think as people watch what they've done and just see...

CORNISH: But the language back and forth is exactly...

PONNURU: ...The incompetence.

CORNISH: ...The thing you're talking about, which is people saying - using words like theft and stolen. And I've heard that by various party advocates.

PONNURU: That's right. And we're seeing that kind of rhetoric being used with the sides reversed in Georgia as well. And, you know - and then - and each side will say the other side is delegitimizing democracy, delegitimizing elections. I think it is a reflection of how polarized our American politics has become.

DIONNE: I think there are two issues here. One is actually nonpartisan - that there is a real problem with election administration in a lot of places. In Florida, it happens to be hurting Democrats in particular, but that's a problem everywhere. The other problem is, however - is more partisan, which is, what do you do with recounts demanded by the side that loses? In this case, it's again the Democrats pushing the Republicans to count every vote. And voter suppression we are going to be debating a lot over the next several years.

PONNURU: Well, Katherine Harris was right. When you have a tight election, it exposes these problems. There may be problems in other counties across the country that aren't coming to light.

CORNISH: That's Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review, columnist for Bloomberg View, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: And you too.

PONNURU: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.