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Journalist and political analyst Amy Walter

Veteran journalist and political analyst Amy Walter is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Cook Political Report. (Photo: Matthew Septimus)

Journalist and Political Analyst Amy Walter: Are We Headed Toward "A Really Dark Cynical World?"

The Cook Political Report’s Editor and Publisher on Biden, Trump and Democratic Chances in 2022 and 2024.

Michael Winship

In this time of COVID and heated rhetoric, when the imminence of far-right opposition turning violent seems ever-present and with the constant drumbeat of crazed insistence that lies are truths, it’s a relief to find an oasis of seeming sanity these days, no matter how brief, and even if you don’t completely agree with everything you hear there.

That’s how it was about a week ago when I had a chance to sit for a while and have a conversation with Amy Walter, newly named owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Cook Political Report, arguably one of the most astute and unbiased publications of political journalism in the country. When it comes to political campaigns and their eventual outcomes, the Report is well known for the accuracy of its predictions. You may not like their conclusions but it’s hard to argue the fairness of its reporting.

These days, perhaps Amy Walter is best known for her appearances every Monday on the PBS NewsHour’s segment “Politics Monday.” Named a few years back by Washingtonian Magazine as one of DC's 50 top journalists, she was for several years political director of ABC News and the Editor-in-Chief of National Journal's The Hotline.

She’s wise, knowledgeable, funny, and as perceptive as she is concerned about the current state of America and the very real threats posed to our democracy. Our conversation took place at the George M. Ewing Canandaigua Forum in my upstate New York hometown, one of a series of public conversations held each year on local, national, and international issues of interest. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Amy, both of us have worked in public TV and we each worked for what's now the PBS NewsHour, but we’ve never actually met until today.

So now, hello.

I wanted to ask you a question that Scott Simon at NPR asked Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report. It was Cook’s exit interview, actually. He was making the transition to your taking over. And Simon said, looking at our current situation, the public health crisis with the COVID pandemic, domestic terrorism, congressional quagmire, a party that insists that last year's election was stolen, and that January 6th was a peaceful protest, "is America's electoral democracy permanently broken?"

I'm spending a lot of time thinking about this and talking to as many people as I can -- both people who are academics and people who are politicians or former politicians, trying to answer that. And I was just with a group a couple weeks ago, and the first question asked was, what is this time period we're in? Are we in the middle of something, or are we at the end of it? Are we at the tipping point, or is this just -- this person said, are we at a tipping point or a tension point? We know that this polarization didn't start in 2016. We know we've been moving toward this red-blue divide for the last 25-30 years. So are we in sort of the death throes of that moment, and now we have nowhere to go but a different path? Or are we going to be continuing on it?

And another way that somebody described it, the one I go with, is, are we going to move to a place where we can at least have, maybe not all kumbaya and everybody's holding hands, a unity-level of politics, but at least some understanding where we can meet and have a common belief system? Or are we just going to be managing our divisions?

And I do think we're at a place right now where we just manage divisions and hope that it doesn't get out of hand, because the forces that are out there, the incentive system that is out there is so powerful in pushing the division, and there aren't those incentives out there pushing for unity.

Some of it is about the death of local news and these little handheld computer things [points to mobile phone] are a big, big part of that. We also know that especially if you're on social media, these things are driven by algorithms that keep you locked into a certain bubble. Your favorite cable TV station is there, they got to keep you glued to that. Their advertisers need it, or they needed to get more advertisers, so they’ve got to keep stoking outrage all the time: "Don't go away. Here's one more terrible thing that you need to know about this other party or this other person."

It's all just brewing. And then to me, the other piece of it, and this becomes the more sort of dangerous, and I don't really understand where we go from here, but this red-blue divide, in terms of our densely populated areas being blue and less densely populated being red, isn't just a problem in that we have cities disliking rural areas and rural areas thinking city people are terrible, but that all of the economic growth in this country is being generated in, almost all of it, about 70% of it, in blue America.

And you look back to like 2008 and the median income for a red district or a blue district was about the same. Brookings has done a great study on this -- you look over the last 10 years, and this gap has just continued to grow where the blue households are richer than the red ones, where the GDP from red is lower than the GDP from blue.

And so when you live in two countries where the economic growth is coming just from one region, that's going to breed a lot of real challenges beyond the cultural challenges of issues like guns and climate… The priorities of those different areas are so different. We don't have representatives who represent anything other than, if you're blue, you represent blue. If you're red, you represent red.  It's hard, then, to get the two sides to even communicate, given how different their priorities are.

Minority leader Mitch McConnell declared that Senate Republicans will not vote to increase the Treasury's authority to continue borrowing, which is the same as voting to allow a default.

Paul Kane, of The Washington Post, wrote, "As he's done before, McConnell has essentially created a new rule out of whole cloth to justify his actions." How long can Americans be so dominated by a party that has the louder voice with the fewer members and still claim to be a democratic nation?

… I just want to let you know that just because I'm saying these things doesn't mean they're going to come true. It's just, as I said, I see what the pressure points are on the incentive structure and that's where I become more pessimistic. For years, the party in power was able to do things because they were the party of power and they used their levers, but the thing in the Senate was, even if you were in the minority, you also have leverage.

Now, many times that’s considered a good thing. We don't want the tyranny of the majority, right? Now, even if you have just one more seat, that means that you get to decide for the entire country what's going to happen, even though the country is clearly evenly divided. It is important for a minority to have a voice.

At the same time, I think we don't appreciate just how dangerous it is to keep playing games. This is not the first time we've seen this debt, the cliff, come into discussion, and where you see Wall Street, and they're like, "It's just posturing. Nothing's going to happen to it." Same with the former president saying, "It's all rigged. Don't trust the votes." "Oh, when he loses, it'll be over. Just let him spout off for a while. Let him be upset. Who cares?"

Until it happens and there is no one standing up and saying, you know, when these institutions go, and faith in them, which has already been deteriorating, goes, there's no going back. We then just live in a really cynical dark world. At the same time, I also feel like we need to appreciate -- the one tipping point that we're in is that the 21st century has been incredibly dynamic in terms of the things that have happened, once-in-a-lifetime events that we've seen in just 21 years that should be changing our institutions or the way we think about institutions. But instead, partly because the people in charge are still from the baby boom and are now slowly moving into my generation, the Gen X-ers, we only know the 20th century, so we keep trying to shove all of this stuff in the box, right?

Like, "We have to put it in this institution because it's great…” because it's the only one we know, as opposed to the folks who are coming up: "Let's just try something different. Why do we have to trust this one institution?"

If you think about it, we're losing faith in government and civic organizations, and religious organizations and yet, at the same time, we think, "Oh, you know what? It's okay that I'm going to get in the car with someone that I don't know and they're going to drive me somewhere." "No, it's not a cab. It's just some random person I got from the app and I'm going to get in their car. " "Oh, I'm going to go stay in someone's house." "Oh, do you know them?" "No. It's called Airbnb." "Could they have the key and come in and murder you?" "I guess so, but I trust it." The things we do and don't have trust in are sort of fascinating. It's not that we don't have trust in humanity. We just don't have trust in the institutions that were supposed to be, or we thought were supposed to be, the standard forever and ever

A lot of people would argue that the Democrats understand how one uses government to positive effect and that the Republicans just see it as something that gets in the way.

Right. If you go and think about what's happening on the Democratic side right now, the president wants to put this big $3.5 trillion package through, and you see the different factions within the Democratic Party sniping at each other: "You can't get rid of this, we're not going to vote on that, you have to add this, I'm not going to vote for that.”

And so, to the question of, "Oh, is it going to make it? Is it not going to make it?" It's going to make it because they recognize this is sort of it, right? Your team is more important than anything else and if we don't do this, not only will we hamstring Biden for the next two years, but we have no governing. We can do only so much with only 50 seats in the Senate and a three-seat margin in the House, so we got to all row the same way.

I’ve talked to frustrated Democrats who say, "There is no room for dissent now. You got to go with what the leadership wants because there's no margin for error. There's no opportunity to align with Republicans because Republicans said, ‘Well, I can't vote for anything that Democrats agree to.’" So we're now in this really uncomfortable place.

I do think that it is true with the rise of the Tea Party, when you think about the very fringe on the Republican side, their job is simply to blow stuff up. It's not about using their vote to get something, right? You could argue, "Well, why are you holding out your vote, Democrat?" "Well, because I want this way to govern. I want this money going here," versus, "I just think all of it's terrible. We're going to just get rid of everything."

I was reading an interview that you gave early on during the Trump administration in which you said that you felt that there was still more that we agree on than we disagree on. Do you still feel that way?

I think there are things that we absolutely agree on, but there are the forces out there telling us that we need to be focusing on these other things, right? Using the things we disagree on as the focal point, rather than the things we agree on as a place where we start. But it is getting increasingly difficult to solve problems when the problems that we see are incredibly different. The Pew Foundation does great work and I also love it because they've been asking some of these things for 20 or 30 years. Back in 1999, they asked the question, "Okay. What do you think the top five priorities in the country should be?" Democrats and Republicans agreed on four out of those five. Maybe they put them in different order. Then, you get into the mid 2000s and now it's three out of five. In 2020, it was zero out of five. There was not one issue on the Democrats’ list that was on the Republicans’ list and vice versa.

You can think of that in two ways. One is to say, as I did, if I'm living in an urban, suburban area, my views on things like climate and immigration are really about where I live, where my environment is shading my opinions. I'm surrounded by a lot of diverse people. I am working in the knowledge industry, right? Versus my views on climate and immigration if I lived in a place where resource extraction is your economy, right?... We have gas, we have coal, whatever it is, that is everything. If you don't have Democrats representing those people and you don't have Republicans representing the other people, then it's very easy to say, "Oh, it's the other side that's terrible."

I get that I live in a really urban place, so guns are going to be really different for me than they are for you out in Wyoming. But when the person from Wyoming is of a different party and the person from suburban Chicago is of a different party, then it becomes, "See, all those people want to do is protect illegal immigrants.” Or “All those people want to do is hold on to their guns, even though they're killing all these kids in the inner city.”

I was thinking about when John F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen wrote Profiles in Courage about senators who showed courage in the face of great opposition and adversity, that there was a joke that it was quite a thin volume because there weren't that many senators who demonstrated courage. I was wondering if you see that at all today,

I think if you voted to impeach Donald Trump, that was a courageous vote, not just politically, but as you saw probably this week, one of the members who voted for the impeachment from Ohio [Anthony Gonzalez], decided he was going to retire rather than try to run for reelection. Donald Trump, of course, was already supporting his opponent. [Gonzalez] said, it's not just losing an election. It's the death threats and threats of physical violence. That shouldn't be part of our experience when you run for Congress.

Trump sending out a statement saying, “One down, nine to go…”

Maybe it wasn't like this in the olden days, but there was a sense, at least as I remember, of the people who wanted to know what their place in history would be, thinking about the longer term and the longer meaning. But we now are in such a short-term mentality in everything that we do that it's never thinking about three years, 10 years, 20 years from now. It's, “What's going to happen next election? What's going to happen in my primary? What's going to happen just tomorrow? That's all I care about right now, and that long-term is for suckers.”

The short term and the whole premise of our elections is that if you lose, you are graceful in your loss, you acknowledge my win because you want the same courtesy when the opposite happens, which of course it will. But now, it's like, "Let's just pretend that's not going to happen. I'm going to win and then when I don't win, I'm just going to say I won."

I still won.

And I still won, and you never have to lose.

There used to be, promoted heavily by historians like Richard Neustadt and others, the idea that a member of Congress, a member of the legislature should be one of two things or both, which is one, as you were mentioning, "Whatever my constituents want, by God, that's what they're going to get." Or, "Hey, I was elected for my knowledge, for my ability to look at the issues and decide on what's best even when you don't like it."

Even when you don't agree with me, right? Some of those people are still there and there are a handful of them still in Congress, they are the sort of outliers that say, "Yeah. You don't always agree with me, but you know me."

But as I said about all the forces that are pushing against your point of, "You elected me to do the right thing," you have these things that are pushing in many cases, fake, not true stuff about you: "Well, I don't know.”

I love having those conversations with people: "Well, I read that blah, blah, blah." "Really? Well, where'd you get that?" "From Facebook." "Well, where on Facebook did it come from?" "What do you mean? It came from Facebook." "Right. But that person who was quoting it, where did they get that?" It's my favorite thing when people say to me, "Well, I've been doing my research." Oh, God. I know what that means.

There was a thing on Twitter this week of a tombstone that said, "Died doing what she liked best, her research."

Her research. “I don't know. I've heard a lot of different stories.” The waters are much muddier than they ever were. Even for people who are truly doing it, really and truly saying, "I do want to understand what's going on it. The more I dig in, the more complicated it gets, the harder it is to figure out truth from fiction."

Then, you have the money that pours in. Now, we can argue about super PACs, right? For a while, it was these big super PACs. Some of them were industry oriented, but mostly they were individuals, billionaires who had their own agenda and they could use that to go after you and you could never compete with that.

Now, the good news, thanks to the internet, is if enough of you in this room get together and [each] give someone $100, that's a lot of money that they just got, and the small dollar fundraising is taking off, right? We're seeing people raising millions and millions and millions of dollars from people writing $5 and $10 checks, which in theory is great, the democratization of politics, but that also means that Marjorie Taylor Greene can raise $13 million, while a nice little person says, "Hey, my name's Amy. I'm running for Congress. Not really going to say anything crazy, going to do some things, pretty boring. Got some priorities or I have a lot of priorities, a lot of issues that I want to work on." "Okay. Are you going to say anything crazy?" "No, I'm going to try not to." "Are you going to punch anyone, or..."

Blow something up in a campaign ad.

"Blow something up or get on Twitter and be really funny about things?" "No." “Well, I’m sorry…”

“Where’s the entertainment in that?”

Right. Now, the good news is people like some of those profiles in courage. Yes, Margaret Taylor Greene raised a lot of money, but so did Liz Cheney, so did Adam Kinzinger, who also is one of the folks who voted for impeachment and also a big critic of President Trump. They're probably not going to be back. It's almost certain they're not going to be back in the next Congress, so who wins then? Well, you did your best. And oh, you lost. There's that quote, it's my favorite Homer Simpson quote: "You know Bart, you tried your very best, and you lost. What's the lesson? Don't try."

An audience member asks, "Are there any Republican leaders you know of who might be brave enough to break away and lead toward reason and compromise?"

Look, I have to give Biden and Republicans in the Senate credit, which is, he came in saying, "I'm going to bring America together, and also, this idea that bipartisanship is dead – everything that we just talked about -- I don't believe it. I've been in that Senate 175 years. I've seen it all. I know how these people operate. I get it. I'm going to get in there and I'm going to work it. And I'm going to show you we can get things done in a bipartisan way."

So they passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, right? So there we go. Got it done. And it's possible. Now, infrastructure's about as easy a thing you can find bipartisan compromise on when it’s, “You’re going to get a bridge, you're going to get broadband internet, you're going get new pipes to get the lead pipes out.” That is an easy thing to compromise on. The harder thing is the stuff we just discussed, and the stuff that's not only not getting solved, but being used as wedge: Healthcare, immigration, the social safety net.

Biden has been in office a little over eight months. How do you think it’s going, both domestically and internationally?

So obviously we started off early 2021 with a pretty horrible amount of violence and destruction at the Capitol, and the rhetoric about a rigged election and fake news, and it continues. But you have Joe Biden continuing to focus on this issue of unity and competence. And, "We're going to move ahead. We're not going to dwell on all this bad stuff back here. We're going to fix stuff. I'm going to be the opposite of a guy who's here for the last four years. There's not going to be the drama. There's not going to be the tweeting. There's not going to be the firing. There's just going to be good old fashioned competent leadership with adults in the room, very skilled, experienced people who've been in government." And you know what? For the first few months, that was really paying off.

And he also comes into office while, yes, having to deal with a major health crisis. But the vaccines are done. Doesn't have to cover that. And it looks as if the economy's starting to come back up. So he's got the sort of building blocks and now you just got to make sure you put the building blocks together correctly. Which was working, right? Delivering the vaccines, people getting their shots. Enthusiasm's going up. Stores are opening. The sun is coming out. People are making plans again. My kid's back in school. He's wearing a mask, but whatever, he's back in school. It's like, "Okay, we're going down the train tracks. Things are good."

And then Delta comes, right? And suddenly it's like, "Wait a minute. What, what, what? I thought we turned the corner, but we turned the corner back to the stupid virus? But I was told we were done, and now I have to ... But wait, and people aren't getting vaccinated on purpose? What? This isn't a distribution issue, this is a resistance issue?  Okay. Still getting bad."

And then, "Now I'm worried. Should we buy that car? Because I don't know. I'm already starting to lose jobs. I don't feel that confident that the economy's necessarily coming back. And everybody says it's just the supply chain is still messed up, but stuff is costing a little bit more. I don't know. I'm feeling really anxious about the economy."

You saw in July the Michigan consumer sentiment had the highest, or maybe it's like the biggest drop in optimism ever. So Delta's really now taking its toll. And then Afghanistan happens. And so with those two things, the competence question now becomes really problematic. And for the first time in his presidency he's now underwater. More people disapprove than approve of the job that he's doing. Now, it's not significant in the way that it was for Trump. So he's at minus three. Trump at this stage was probably 15, 17 underwater.

Since the Eisenhower era, Gallup has been asking voters that first week in February, "What do you think about this new president?" And going up through 2008, what you saw was the other side, the party that wasn't in the White House, would give the new president some benefit of the doubt. 30 to 40% of those voters would be like, "Yeah, I think favorably of this person." In 2017 that went away, only 11% of Democrats said that they approved of Donald Trump.

But the gap got even wider with Biden, believe it or not. In part because he had Democrats more united for him than Trump had Republicans united for him. But the percentage of Republicans who said, "I view him favorably?” Record low. So the gap between Democrat and Republican is bigger than it's ever been, going all the way back to Eisenhower. So he started with no benefit of the doubt from Republicans, but was able to stay within the 50% range, in part because he was doing the things that he said he was going to do. And the intensity of opposition just wasn't as strong as it was with Trump. The thing about Trump, for all the talk about, he has this base and the people with the boat flags, right, there were always more people who deeply, deeply hated him than people who loved him and would do anything for him. Sometimes that gap was two to one. So like 25% would say, "I strongly approve," 50%, "I strongly disagree."

For Biden, it was pretty even. Same number of people really liked and really disliked. But since August that really dislike number has gone up a lot. And now it's at Trumpian levels. Now, does that mean it's going to be here forever? I don't know. I tend to think that foreign policy events don't count...

You can already see, Afghanistan is not in the news really as much anymore. It's certainly, for many voters, it was a moment where they got to see him in action, they didn't like what they saw, and that's going to stay with them, even if Afghanistan isn't in the news anymore, right? You had, "Here was your challenge, and you didn't live up to it in the way I wanted you to." But I think the issue really is more about where are we going to be this time next year on COVID, on the economy, and whatever other craziness is going to befall us by then.

In the wake of the recall vote that succeeded in keeping Gavin Newsom in the governor's mansion, can California be considered in any way to be a barometer of the country's political climate?

It is a barometer, it's just not a bellwether. It perfectly encapsulates the moment that we're in, which is Newsom was able to hold on because he nationalized the race. In a state that went for Joe Biden by 30 points, you can lean into bringing in Democrats, national Democrats, the vice president, the president. He had Barack Obama cut an ad for him. He made it about, "This Republican, the top Republican, who would be the governor if you recall me, is a person just like Trump. You want California to be run by Trump? Well, great. Go have at it. That's who this guy is." And it worked really well in California. What we don't know is, is it going to work in a suburban district in Atlanta next year with Trump no longer in office? Or is it going to work in the Pennsylvania Senate race? Those are the bellwethers.

In Virginia, we have a governor's race coming up. Virginia has a really interesting track record. We only have one -term governors, which is super annoying. And I hate it, but it's going to be there, I guess, for a while. For political scientists, it's a great test of partisanship and mood when, what you see going all the way back to the '70s, is that whichever party is in the White House would lose the governor's race in Virginia… And the swings could be dramatic. George W. Bush wins Virginia in 2004 by like 10 points, and then Democratic candidate Tim Kaine wins the governorship by six. Right? How does that happen?

Those swings aren't as big anymore because we've become just much more hardened in our partisanship. This is a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points. Democrats should not lose the state. If they do, that is the bellwether. And it would suggest that the antipathy to Trump, which was an animating force in places like suburban Northern Virginia, doesn't translate when Trump's not in office.

We talk about the fact that in some ways Republicans have a geographical advantage, and it's especially predominant in cases where there's not sufficient momentum on the Democrat side, or motivation or energy on the Democratic side. In 2018, the midterms, the Democrats came back very strong in the House of Representatives. I'm not yet seeing enough signs that that enthusiasm is there yet, which worries me.

Yeah, I don't know that we're going to see that. I mean, I liken the midterm elections to calling customer service. When do you call customer service? When you're really mad at something. You don't call customer service to say, "You know what? You're doing an awesome job. Thank you." But when you're angry, you're going to sit on hold for like two hours. “No, I'm still waiting. I'm still waiting for the manager.” So angry people vote, right? Angry people will do whatever it takes to get to the polls. And angry people are the people usually that aren't in the White House, and they're watching the other side do all these terrible things.

But we also know that we had more people vote in 2018 and 2020 than ever before in history. Are those people going to remain engaged -- even though traditionally they haven't?

The other really interesting wrinkle, and I think this is what all of us who study this are going to be paying a lot of attention to this upcoming election, is what about those, we call them suburban voters which is just a catch-all, but we've seen over the last 20 years, and most especially in the last five, the shift of the Republican and Democratic party; one being the Democratic Party was white working class, voters of color, Republicans were sort of the white upper middle class, and especially white college educated voters. And that has shifted. We see white college voters voting overwhelmingly now for Joe Biden, for Democrats in 2018, white non college voters voting overwhelmingly for Republicans.

And also, who turns out in midterm elections? Besides the customer service people, your education and your income level are also really good indicators of how likely it is you are to vote, right? The more educated and the higher your income, the more likely it is that [you think] it's your civic duty, "I'm going to go show up at the polls every single year." That used to be a problem for Democrats because those were more likely to be suburban Republicans. But now they've been voting for Democrats since 2018, some of them since 2016. Are they going to really go back? Or is it going to be like what we saw with rural small-town America that had been voting for Democrats for years, move to Republicans. They haven't gone back. They're not going back to Democrats. So that's where the midterm thing is really going to be fascinating.

As I recall, The Cook Political Report actually was the most accurate in terms of 2018 calling the number of Democrats who won in the House. So why do you think in 2020, and this isn't anything against The Cook Report, because a lot of people ... there were so many estimates that there would be many more Democrats in the House, and there'd be many more pickups in the Senate, and it didn't happen? I've always been curious as to why.

The thing about 2020, this is what I love now: When you win, you can say whatever you want. And also, the thing about politics, there's that very fine line in many cases between winning and losing. It could be just 3000 votes. But if you're the winner, you're brilliant. And if you're the loser, you're an idiot, right? 3000 votes between brilliant and idiot. In this case though, there seemed to be a real polling problem. And for the Republicans who say, "Well, we knew all along we were going to pick up seats?" No, they didn't. We talked to all of them, too. They didn't see this coming. They were just as surprised on election night as everybody else.

And the one thing that I think we learned about polling in the era of Trump is that there are voters who fit a demographic profile that looks different than the people who show up in polls. In 2016 the polling community said, "Oh, we know what happened. We know why we screwed this up." So this education gap that I just told you about, white college, white non-college, it was never a gap. White people who've had a college degree or non-college degree, they basically voted the same way. Now there's a big gap…. So, great. We're going to solve it. 2018 comes. The polls were pretty good. There were a couple of screw ups, but pretty good. No surprises. We like no surprises. That’s Charlie Cook’s motto: We don't care who wins or loses, we just don't want to be wrong.

So now 2020 comes. All right, we fixed those problems. 2018 worked. We know the demographics, right? The pollsters said, "Oh, well, we know all these new people are going to come in. So we're constantly modeling for that. We have the breakdown in demographics perfectly aligned." But the person who fits the demographics of white non-college or Latino isn't necessarily the same person in their polls, but the people that they missed.

So in other words, there were a bunch of people, people like to call them shy Trump voters, people who were embarrassed to say it. No -- they're just not taking polls, right? And they're hard to find, they're hard to reach, they don't trust these pollsters or people who are asking them to participate. And I also think that there was a big miss ... because if you think about the big misses, where did Republicans really pick up seats that were unexpected? In heavily Latino, or in parts of Orange County that are heavily minority.

And again, I think that is the fault of the modelers, the data analytics people, who for years -- you just put in the numbers. If more minorities turn out, then they will break the way they've always broken, 70-30 for Democrats. Yeah, but what if you get new people who've never voted before into the process? Why are we assuming they're going to break the same way as people who have been part of the process?

What we've come to find is those really were new people who had very different opinions about Donald Trump, but they'd never been part of the process before. So again, a poll is just a snapshot, blah, blah, blah. It's not predictive. But if you've sort of seen that movie before, you say, "Well, this is the direction it's going. Trump is unpopular here. We know how these voters traditionally break," and then they don't.

I do also think, even though there were very few districts where Biden won and a Democrat didn't, I do think there was a drop off in many of these districts between folks who said, "I like Biden," or maybe, "I don't like Biden necessarily, but I hate Trump so I'm going to vote for Biden. But I don't know, I don't know if I want to go all in on a House of Democrats." So I do think there was a little bit of that. And I think the good news for Republicans was that they put up candidates who were overwhelmingly, or the ones who won, were female, were people of color, and it was hard for Democrats to demonize them. "She doesn't look like Donald Trump. How can you say that she's going to just be a vote for Donald Trump? She looks nothing like that. Acts nothing like him."

It was easier to do that with the white dude who had been in politics for a while. So I think all of those factors combined for that, which then gets you to the question of, well, so can we trust the polling now? And I think you always have to say, well, to a certain extent, you have to. There's no other tool that we have. But you shouldn't take it as the Holy Grail, like we're going to get to the place where it solves everything, right? It's going to give us a picture, but it's still kind of blurry, and you have to be willing to understand and appreciate where those blind spots can be.

Journalists have been criticized for giving equal time to both sides of an issue, even when obvious facts may contradict one side of the question. What’s your opinion?

Yeah, this is a challenging one: how do I describe the system we're in? Let me just start with this. I remember, early in the 2016 campaign, talking to a political reporter who was covering Trump. And that was when everyone was like, ha ha ha, when it was kind of a joke, whatever. You know, "I'm following the Scott Walker campaign. I'm on the Rubio beat. You're on the Trump beat, good luck."

But she said the hardest thing about dealing with that campaign is that we can't have a discussion about the simplest things, because if I say to them, "This is a bottle that is empty," they will say it is not. And so do I spend all my time defending the fact that this bottle is empty? Or do I say, okay, but what are you going to do about this bottle -- whether it's full or not? This idea was brand new for us. We know that we get spun, and the operatives are there to put the best face on their candidate, and sometimes they don't tell you everything. It wasn't really lying, but I just didn't maybe tell you everything that I knew. But to out and out just say, "This is empty," was not a debate that we had ever had before with a serious person running for the highest office in the land.

And so it was almost like, okay, well, now what do you do with that? And how do you have a conversation when there are alternative facts? You can spend all your time on that, or you can say, okay, now what are you going to do about it? All right, I don't want to get in the semantics fight, I want to get in the "let's solve the problem" fight. But if they just want to have the semantics fight, they want to have the fight to have the fight, then you're also in this terrible position.

I would also add that I think political journalists spend a lot of time with the assumption that their view of the world is as pure as it can be and isn't clouded by or influenced by other things. Well, this is the way it should be. These are the facts, these are not the facts, and we're going to follow them where they go. But there is a lot of hypocrisy in the business. There's a lot of homogeneous thinking in the business, and again, what's rewarded and what's not. There are a lot of people that made a whole lot of money being anti-Trump forces, right? It was just as big of a commodity as being part of the Trump train.

When I first started, you would have reporters who would be out in the field, they would file their package, and then, "Throwing it back to you, Wolf." Right? And then you'd have commentators, people like me, commentating on that. The reporter was in the field. Here's what's happening, here are the facts, and then the commentator types chew it over. Well, now the reporters are sitting at the table, and Wolf says, "Well, what do you think about that?" "Well, I think it's ridiculous." It's not your job to think it's ridiculous.

And so they are now in the position of deciding what's good, what's bad, or to give advice, right? "Well, I just think that is a pretty risky strategy there for the Biden campaign." What, are you the candidate’s manager? No, you're not. You're the reporter, right? The people who are there as either the analysts or the advisors, or people who are consultants, that's supposed to be their lane. But we put reporters in this lane. And then, as a way to balance that out, you say, well, yeah, but we're going to do it to the other side too.

And so when I happen to be on Twitter, I try not to read the comments, but it's remarkable that all the people who loved the stuff I was writing in 2020 now hate me, right? Because I have it in for the Democrats, because I'm both sides-ing it, because I just want to see the Democrats fail, right? Somebody wrote me, "Have you ever said anything nice about Democrats, or something that isn't negative?" And I was like, so you can Google on this site everything I wrote in 2018 and 2020, and a lot of it was not bad for Democrats. It was all about how good the climate was for Democrats. So it is impossible now for us to kind of get back to that place, and we're never going to get back to the Walter Cronkite world.

He was described as the most trusted man in America…

It's never, ever, ever going to happen again, let's just get that out of our heads. But for the first time ever, thanks to these things [points to mobile phone], you don't need an intermediary, right? You can watch a Trump rally or a Biden event or whatever directly on your own device and determine for yourself what he was trying to say or what he wasn't.

But yes, it is a challenging place to be… If the job of journalism is holding people to account, then that's going to mean you, as a viewer, are some days going to be happy about that, and some days going to be angry about that. "Well, I don't remember them being so hard on President Trump the way that they're doing to Biden. I don't remember them being like this with my guys that they are with this person." So you've got to be able to do both.

Gerrymandering…

New York, you guys, it's up to you, literally. If you look at the political balance right now, in terms of who's drawing the lines, things are better for Democrats than they were in 2010. They control more states and line drawing, more districts than they did in 2010. And there are more commissions than there were in 2010, including in New York. Now, the thing about these commissions, Ohio has one like this, as does New York, is that these maps are like suggestions, kind of, and the legislature can decide whether to vote them up or down.

Now, there is a really good opportunity for Democrats to completely annihilate Republicans in this state, and basically consign them to three districts in the entire state of New York. There'd be three Republicans left. Now, if you're a national Democrat looking to hold onto the House majority, that's a great thing. If you are somebody who believes, though, that we really need good government, we need to stop this war of you draw your lines, I draw my lines…The best at gerrymandering wins. That's not feasible, that's not successful.

So this is going to be a test. Will Democrats allow a map to go through that does not give Democrats as big of an advantage as they could have, or do they say, look, we have no choice. We really wanted to keep this process in the hands of a bipartisan commission and not drawn by legislators who want a certain outcome, but you know what? So sorry, we just can’t because Republicans, look what they're doing in Texas and Georgia. So, we had to; we have no choice. And the good news is, for the both sides argument, everybody can look like a hypocrite.

In Virginia, there's now for the first time ever a Virginia independent redistricting commission. Why did Democrats want that 15 years ago? Because it was unlikely, they could never conceive of a time when Democrats would control the legislature in Richmond. Oops, they do now. And they have a Democratic governor, but they can't use it, because they said we want an independent commission. So the government works if both sides agree that that's a good way to do things. And thus far, I'm feeling as if both sides are going to try to find loopholes through those commissions.

And term limits? Yes, no?

I just don't think they do very much. I mean, granted, I've been in Washington a long time, but sometimes I look up on C-SPAN and I see names of members of Congress, and I think, what? Who in the hell is that? How long have they been there? They're from where? I used to know all the names, and part of it is me not covering the House anymore, but the turnover rate is incredible. There's a lot of churn. For every Mitch McConnell and every Strom Thurmond there are hundreds, especially at the House level, of people who have been there two years, four years, six years, and then they're gone.

The issue is not so much about getting people to churn through, it's the quality of the people who get there in the first place. And if people don't believe that they can make a difference, if people think that you're only there to score political points, people are only coming in because they can't get a better job anywhere else…

But that's not the kind of people we want there, right? I mean, it's 435 people, so they should reflect America in that there are going to be some real superstars and there are going to be some real duds, but there should be enough of a commitment from the people who are running to uphold a certain set of values.

So I said I was going to give you a little bit of a silver lining. There still is one. I meet as many of these candidates as I can, and I have to tell you, this is the first question I always ask them: Why do you want to do this? Serial killers have a higher job approval rating than you do. And it doesn't matter, this could be the most liberal person, the most conservative person, all over the country, they always come back with a version of, "Well, if not me, then who?... Yeah, I could be having a really nice life," especially people who come from districts where you're like, “I'm sorry, you could be in Hawaii right now.” "Yes, I leave a really nice life, but I'm looking at the world and I'm saying, I need to do something about that."

So people are stepping up and believing that service matters. And again, I sit down with all these people. These are really normal people. They're people that you know, they're your dentist, they're the person that your kid played soccer with. You might not agree with their politics. You might be angry with how they stuck with this party or that party, even in difficult times. But they're there, they believe, and they really do want to do something, right? They are not there to just get on CNN, although there are many of them, or Fox, but they're the smaller piece. And the bigger piece is boring, and boring doesn't make the news. And so this is where we also, I think, fail them, when we spend way too much time on the Marjorie Taylor Greene’s.

Right. Do you think there's a way for the Republican Party to free themselves from the Cult of Trump?

On paper, you would say, so let's see here, what happened while Trump was president? Well, we Republicans lost the House, lost the Senate, and he lost reelection. Only the third incumbent in the last 40 years to lose. That seems, I don't know, bad to me… Obama lost the House and the Senate, Clinton lost the House and the Senate, Bush lost the House and the Senate, but they were all reelected, right? But still, Trump got the trifecta. So you're going to double down on that? I'm not getting it.

And at the same time, even as Trump was losing, the Republican Party was losing seats in the House, they were gaining seats in the Senate. So there's not a, "Boy, it would be a lot easier if everything went," kind of moment, right? If Trump had lost 60-40, if the Senate had gone in 2018, if Democrats won in a red state, boy, that would send a signal, right? That's what everybody's saying, that would have sent a signal. That would have broken the spell. Maybe. But if you believe that what Trump has been able to do is energize and engage a population of voters that had been sitting on the sidelines and now can be part of your coalition, well, you just are going to keep hoping that that coalition is always going to be there for you, right?

That's the way that you grow your party, because when Republicans have been told for the last 20 years is you're in a demographic death spiral. Your party is, and your voters are too old and they're too white and they're too rural and you cannot win national elections. That is true. You're not going to win a popular vote with that message or that model ever again, but you can win the Electoral College, and you can win the Senate, and you can win the House. So until you tell me that there's a reason I shouldn't keep doing this, then I'm going to keep trying to emulate this model.

I also think we make a mistake by saying that they're following the Trump model. There are some candidates who are going to run as Trump acolytes, and many of them are going to be running in 2022, so we'll have a nice little report card on how well they did, right? Can you run as Trump if you're not Trump? But we're going to have a whole lot of Republicans who run who don't talk about him at all, right? They've just sort of accepted it, and they kind of are glad he's off in the distance. As one Republican said to me the other day, the whole thing is you don't have to run against him, but just don't piss him off. Because he'll ignore you, as long as you're just running on whatever you run on, your two, three issues. You don't poke him in the eye. You don't say January 6th was an embarrassment, then you can win, and win over some of those folks who wouldn't have supported Trump in the first place.

Amy, thank you.

Thank you, this has been great.


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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. 

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