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Week In Politics: Candidates Make Closing Arguments To Voters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Heading into this last weekend before Election Day, the presidential candidates made their closing arguments to voters in key swing states. For the Republican nominee Donald Trump, that meant trips to Ohio and New Hampshire, where he described his opponent as unstable and corrupt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It's time to cut our ties with the failed and bitter politics of the past. Hillary Clinton is the candidate of yesterday. We - you, you, we - are the movement of the future.

SHAPIRO: Compare that with what Hillary Clinton said at a rally in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: I truly believe you deserve a candidate you can vote for, not just someone to vote against.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to take a moment and look back on this rule-breaking election with our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, speaking to us from WGBH in Boston. Hey there, E.J.

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

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times in studio with us. Hello, David.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: Now, all last month, Fridays brought all of this eye-popping news. It was Friday when we heard about the decade-old "Access Hollywood" tape, where Donald Trump was heard boasting of groping women. It was a Friday when we heard from the FBI reviewing new emails with a potential connection with Hillary Clinton's email server. And each time these were called an October surprise. And it seems like the reason why we care about this is really more how they react to the surprise, right, David, how they would behave in a crisis as president. So what did we learn from each nominee? I'll start with you.

BROOKS: (Laughter) Well, we learned Trump is belligerent. He reacts to any kind of surprise - he reacts with attack. And Clinton has reacted - all of her surprises have more or less been email surprises. And the one we had last week has hurt her. She's down to 2 and 3. Maybe she now - she used to have an 80 or 90-percent chance of winning this thing. Now she's got, like, a 65-percent chance of winning this thing. And that's because this whole race she's never really had a good answer for the email thing.

CORNISH: E.J., same to you. I don't know if these qualify as October surprises looking back historically. But what did you make about how they handled them?

DIONNE: You know, I think that Trump - you know, the biggest October surprise was the "Access Hollywood" tape. And he reacted in such a predictable way that - and it's a terrible predictable way. His reaction was first to say I did this. Then as women came out sort of confirming that he had behaved exactly as he had said in the Hollywood - "Access Hollywood" tape, he denied it, one after another after another. And so the odd thing Trump put himself in a position of saying he did this stuff and then denying it later. You could either believe one Trump or the other but not both.

With Hillary, I thought her reaction to, you know, FBI Director James Comey's strange letter - I say strange because it was so unspecific. It violated longstanding rules and understandings about not intervening in the election. I thought they reacted with a lot of discipline. And they also reacted with a lot of energy. They actually went after Comey.

Now, some people said, well, that only drew more attention to it. But I think as more information has emerged over the last several days about a cadre of FBI agents, particularly in New York, you know, seem very conservative, FBI agents who really have it out for Clinton, I think this could serve a long-term interest by saying wait a minute, before you believe everything that comes out of there, let's examine what's happening inside the FBI. And I think that's going to be a long-term effect of this episode.

CORNISH: Do you have a sense that there was a turning point in this election, David, looking back, a moment where you thought - I know pundits kept saying this is the moment that so and so - and maybe punditry's broken. But was there a moment that you felt was really a decision point?

BROOKS: There were some - I mean, there were some moments, certainly, "Access Hollywood," the Khan family, the emails, et cetera. I really don't think there was a turning point, though. What's been depressing and interesting about this election is that the campaigning and the TV ads and all that stuff has almost not seemed to matter. Demography is what matters.

And this thing is breaking down so cleanly and so depressingly on all sorts of chasm lines - a chasm between the races, a chasm between the classes, a chasm on partisan lines.

CORNISH: Don't forget gender.

BROOKS: And gender...

DIONNE: Yeah, I was just going - yeah...

BROOKS: Gender's a gigantic one. And so America looks much more divided than ever before. That's in part because Donald Trump has only played to a certain sort of person, and he's exacerbated the divides that we've had all along.

CORNISH: E.J., briefly to you. Did you see a turning point?

DIONNE: Four quick ones.

CORNISH: Whoa, four?

DIONNE: June 16...

CORNISH: How about one quick one (laughter)? Yeah.

DIONNE: June 16, the day Trump announced, that changed the whole campaign or May 3, when he won the Indiana primary. If Trump loses, which I am anticipating, it was Khzir Khan's speech at the convention which led Donald Trump to pick a big fight with a Gold Star family that set the tone for his whole campaign. If Trump wins, which I don't expect, it'll be the Comey letter. But I would bet on the Khan convention speech over the Comey letter.

CORNISH: Finally, I want to put to two of you a question that my colleague Robert Siegel has been putting to voters this year. Fill in the blank in this sentence - and, E.J., this is a Mad Libs, so you can't have a long answer for this one, OK? It's the state of American democracy is what?

DIONNE: Parlous, which means precarious, full of danger and uncertainty. I am really worried about our democracy.

CORNISH: And David Brooks, the state of American democracy is what?

BROOKS: Fragmented and unintimate. We just have a problem of relationships that if our democracy were a marriage, we'd be in - we'd be in therapy.

CORNISH: Usually, I don't ask you guys for predictions. But what are you going to be looking for in this last minute? David?

BROOKS: I think she's going to win significantly big. I just don't think Trump has ever gotten beyond the bounds of his base, and that's just not enough.

CORNISH: And, E.J., I don't know, are you feeling confident in making some kind of prediction looking ahead?

DIONNE: I am. I lean the same way David does on the presidential race. I think the big question is the Senate. Two weeks ago, I would have said with some certainty that the Democrats are going to take over the Senate. That's where you might see a Comey effect. But I think having one House in Democratic control would make - if Clinton wins, as both of us expect - her governing a whole lot easier for her.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, speaking to us from WGBH in Boston. E.J., thank you so much.

DIONNE: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks for coming in.

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