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Week In Politics: Unemployment Rate Drops, AG Barr's Testimony And The 2020 Race

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, let's bring in our week in politics guests now, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, who's joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

KAREN TUMULTY: Great to be here.

CHANG: OK, we're going to stay with the economy for a little bit. As we just heard from Jim Zarroli, a week that was dominated by the Mueller report and Russia ended with some good news about jobs - the lowest unemployment rate in half a century. Karen, what does this news do for President Trump?

TUMULTY: It's very good news for President Trump. If you are the incumbent president, you get credit for the good economy. Now, certainly Democrats would point out he is building on a lot of the economic gains that were made under President Obama. But this is terrific for the president, and Republicans wish he would talk about this exclusively. You know, it's - there are so many distractions. What they would really like to see is the president out there hammering this home day in and day out.

CHANG: But David, is this good economic news enough to lift whatever pressure is building from pending investigations into people in the Trump orbit or from Democrats who want to keep talking about the Mueller report - all of that? Is a good economy enough?

BROOKS: Well, if it helps, it's probably not sufficient. There's a majority of Americans who say they won't vote for President Trump at least right now, so he's got some pretty hard ceiling on his numbers. I think the best news about this is the wage growth and especially the wage growth at the bottom. The lower you go down the income scale, the better the wage growth is. So the workers in the bottom 25 percent have seen their wage growing at - by 4.4 percent, and there's been wage growth for nine consecutive months.

And so to the extent that this affects politics, I think it will have some effect on the Democratic primary 'cause some of the candidates are frankly talking about what's wrong with capitalism. Some of them merely want to reform capitalism. It's hard to launch a comprehensive critique of capitalism when the poorest workers are doing the best and seeing amazing wage growth.

CHANG: Well, as the U.S. is seeing continued economic growth, these good jobs numbers, I mean, how full of a picture do these numbers paint in the first place about how people are faring in this country? What do you think, David?

BROOKS: Well, there's obviously still a lot of struggle. There's still a lot of people who are, you know, one check - you know, they can't afford $400, a cost that comes in their lives. So we shouldn't interpret this as an end of economic anxiety, and there's still a certain amount of economic anxiety over health care costs, et cetera. But we should look at the good side - is this is the best economy of our lifetime. So it's at least a day to take some reflection on good news.

CHANG: Karen?

TUMULTY: I think that's absolutely true. And it does suggest, too, that as we look forward to this political season, the economic inequality arguments perhaps are not going to be as strong for the Democrats as going directly after other aspects of President Trump's performance in office and as well as his character.

CHANG: All right, let's turn now to Attorney General William Barr's testimony this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The questions we heard from Democrats and Republicans were very different questions. Democrats wanted to focus of course on collusion and obstruction of justice, and Republicans wanted to focus on other matters, which was not lost on Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: Finally we get down to the bottom line - Hillary Clinton's emails. Questions have to be asked about Benghazi along the way. What about Travelgate, Whitewater? There's a lot of material we should be going through today according to their response to this. That is totally unresponsive to the reality of what the American people want to know.

CHANG: Is Durbin right? David, were Republicans trying to deflect the real question at hand?

BROOKS: That was their job.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROOKS: It was a TV drama, and some people did well. I thought Kamala Harris did extremely well. Some people did bad. But it was just a TV drama. And I think the major disappointment - we needed somebody who wouldn't spin. We needed somebody at the center of this process who would just be an honest broker, whose word we could trust. And I don't think Barr has been lying too much, but he's certainly been spinning. He's been hiding things that are uncomfortable for the administration. He's been overemphasizing things that are comfortable. And he just hasn't been an honest referee. And in that, he's let down his department, and I think he's let us all down.

CHANG: Well, even given that, Karen, how much do you think the American people will really care about the nitty-gritty of the Mueller report, about all these pending investigations? How much do you think that will come into play when people go vote in 2020?

TUMULTY: Well, it's surprising. It's actually maybe not surprising given how, you know, durable President Trump's numbers have been - the ceiling and the floor. This report doesn't appear to be changing anyone's minds about the president's behavior. But I do think that Attorney General Barr's testimony just really raises the stakes and makes it all that much more important for all of us to hear directly from special counsel Mueller.

CHANG: I want to also get to Senate races. In the short time we have left, you know, this week, Stacey Abrams made an announcement. She's the Democrat who almost won the governor's race in Georgia last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACEY ABRAMS: I do not know the job I'm going to run for, but I know the work I need to do.

CHANG: Karen, you wrote a really interesting column this week about how so much of the political oxygen has been sucked up by the presidential race that Democrats might not be paying enough attention to taking back the Senate. Tell us what you mean by that.

TUMULTY: Well, at this point, it looks like the - if the Democrats do win back the presidency, they're going to need to pick up three seats in the Senate to win back control of the Senate. If they don't, they'll have to pick up four seats. They have a very narrow path to doing it. And when somebody like Stacey Abrams, who was a star recruit who could have perhaps expanded the map a bit for them, decides to take a pass...

CHANG: Who's been urged by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to run for Senate.

TUMULTY: Absolutely. It's a - you know, frustrating for the Democrats. But the other thing is that I think increasingly people are beginning to understand on the Democratic side that if they do win back the White House, their entire agenda is going to be stymied in the Senate if come January of 2021 Mitch McConnell is still the majority leader.

CHANG: So David, do the Republicans have the upper hand here when it comes to the Senate races?

BROOKS: I think they do in part because every Democrat is running for president.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROOKS: What strikes me is the latter has broken. It used to be you ran for Senate as a way to position yourself to run for president. Now you can run for president as the mayor of South Bend, Ind. And so people who are not climbing those ladders and turning away the Senate jobs may be aware that being in the Senate right now is not a lot of fun.

CHANG: OK, that was David Brooks of The New York Times - he's also the author of "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life" - and Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post. Thanks very much to both of you.

TUMULTY: Great to be here.

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