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Week In Politics: The Most Underrated Stories Of 2019

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been a quiet holiday week in Washington, but 2019 was filled with political news.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

NANCY PELOSI: Today I am asking our chairman to proceed with articles of impeachment.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's the single greatest witch hunt in American history.

ROBERT MUELLER: Our investigation found that the Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: This is Day 22 of the partial government shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history.

ELIZABETH WARREN: ...To declare that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.

CHANG: So as the year draws to a close, we're going to do something a little different during today's Week in Politics segment. We're going to look back on the whole year and also take a peek at 2020. And to do that, I'm joined now by David Brooks of The New York Times and Jason Johnson of The Root. Hey to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello.

JASON JOHNSON: Hello. Happy soon-to-be-Happy New Year.

CHANG: (Laughter) Happy soon-to-be-New Year to you, too. I actually don't want to start with the big stories of 2019. What I want to do instead is start with what you guys think is the most underappreciated political story of 2019. David, let's have you begin.

BROOKS: To me, it's the fact that everything happened and nothing changed, that we had all these events - impeachment, Mueller, everything, 51 weeks of news-packed weeks.

CHANG: Right, ramp-up of the 2020 election.

BROOKS: And we're exactly where we were a year ago. Trump's approvals are basically the same. The political landscape is basically the same. And to me, that tells me that events don't drive politics anymore, sociology does. If you're urban, you're probably progressive - you're probably a Democrat. If you're rural, you're probably a Republican. If you're a white working class guy, you're probably a Republican. If you're a highly educated person, you're probably a Democrat. And so we have broken down into sociocultural micro cultures. And we vote our culture. And events don't change our minds.

CHANG: What do you make of that, Jason? It's not about events, it's about culture.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I don't agree with that at all because I do think events change things. I think, like, what happens in Charlottesville changes, think Sept. 11 - events do change things. They do alter people's perspectives because I think one of the most underreported stories this year was back in July, when the House had a resolution to basically say the president of the United States is a racist. That's not a small thing.

I've talked before - we've had racist presidents before. We've had white nationalist presidents before. But for it to become such a politically toxic and dangerous thing that a white majority party said, my goodness, this president's attacks on people of color, on women of color who happen to be from the heartland in America are so problematic that our entire House, including four Republicans, are going to make a resolution about it. That is a sea change in American politics.

CHANG: Remind us of the events that led to that.

JOHNSON: So the president had been tweeting, you know, a series of hostile tweets about Ilhan Omar, about Rashida Tlaib, about the entire sort of squad...

CHANG: Right. These are freshmen Democrats in the House.

JOHNSON: Yeah, four Democrats in the House, a squad - I've never really liked that term. And after some sort of back-and-forth about certain statements that Ilhan Omar had made, that the House sort of decided, look, this is a problem. And they rebuked the president in comments and interviews. And eventually they came together and put together an entire resolution condemning the president's behavior, condeming the president's sort of rhetoric. And I think that is a sea change.

We've - look. The president of the United States, the majority of the public never wanted him, right? I mean, he lost the popular vote. But for this to no longer be a discussion of virtue signalling by white liberals, OK, maybe he's a bigot, but for an entire House of government to say this is a problem, I think that's significant.

And I think that sort of thing can't be discussed enough. And I said at the time, when the entire House says the president's a racist, every policy decision he makes from now on, from a Supreme Court to the judges to anything else should be viewed in that frame.

CHANG: David, do you think that resolution represented a sea change as Jason just put it?

BROOKS: I think with Charlottesville, with Black Lives Matter, I think it definitely does. So I think what I was trying to say is the partisanship has not changed, that partisan affiliations have not changed. But the whole frame of debate undergirding this argument has changed. And so social justice, racial justice has certainly been more salient than it was 10 years ago. #MeToo has changed - sea change in cultural attitudes.

So you see these sea changes in attitudes without seeing a change in partisan affiliation. But those sea changes are tremendously important. And the one thing I'm worried about this next election year is that we now are going to have an election - we had it last time, but we're going to have it even more - where our partisan divides completely overlap with racial divides. And that's just a recipe for badness.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about next year. I mean, we talked about underappreciated stories of 2019, but what do you think will be the most important political story of 2020? Obviously, there's going to be a presidential election. There's also probably going to be an impeachment trial. But what are you two specifically going to be watching for?

JOHNSON: The biggest issue for 2020 is voter protection and voter suppression. And as I said before, look, the president of the United States lost the popular vote by 3 million. The majority of the country doesn't like this guy. They don't want him in the job. They said so in 2018. They've said so in polling.

We're now at the point where you've got a recent poll - 55% of the public doesn't just want Donald Trump impeached, they actually want him removed. But because of what we've seen with voter purges and voter ID laws in Michigan and North Carolina and Georgia and other locations, the popular will will not be represented in next fall's election unless the Democratic Party and well-meaning Republicans and state officials take voter suppression and voter ID seriously. And I don't know if they will. I think that story can not be reported on enough in 2020.

CHANG: David, do you agree with that, that if election security, election integrity are preserved, that we would see Donald Trump out of the office of the presidency?

BROOKS: I think that'll happen either way. You know, I think, you know, I keep having Democratic politicians come up to me say, secretly, you know, I think Trump is going to win this. I think they're crazy. I mean, since 2016, since Trump was elected, there have been 300 elections around the country - governorships, House races. Republicans have done terribly in pretty much all them. They've lost 10 governorships. They've lost their House majority.

They're just - the voters want to move on. And the core of the electorate that is Trumpian is sort of the populist core that we've always had going back to 1896, William Jennings Bryan. It's just not big enough to win. And so I think the Republican Party is in a generational spot where what worked for the four years or four years ago is just not going to work. And there's going to be a fundamental restructuring of the Republican Party. And that'll be the big story of 2020.

CHANG: All right. Jason, in the very short time we have left, we've heard Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say that he will be in lockstep with the White House when running this impeachment trial. But let me ask you this. Do you feel like he said anything new there? Is it really fair for us to expect that this Senate impeachment trial will really be a cast of impartial jurors weighing in on whether the president should be impeached?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Does anybody not think that they weren't passing notes underneath the lunch table the whole time? (Laughter) Like, I mean, it's been pretty obvious that the Republican Party is in lockstep with with President Trump. That's how these things were going to operate.

You know, the problem that we've had here, it's almost like you have - if you have an HR problem and you realize that there's nothing in the employee manual on how to handle this. Impeachment doesn't operate when you know that you've got sort of partisan tribal people.

CHANG: That is Jason Johnson of The Root and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.