MARCUSON: Hello. This is Marcuson (ph) in Honolulu. I sing to my cat So-So (ph) every single day by making up new lyrics to pop songs.
(Singing) I fell in love with a kitty face. I fell in love with a kitty face.
This podcast was recorded at…
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
11:46 a.m. on Friday, July 31.
MARCUSON: Things may have changed by the time you hear this but my badly sung expressions of love for my kitty never will. OK. Enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I have no words.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Might have a recording contract.
DAVIS: That is a man after my own heart, guys. I do that all the time with my – not with a cat but with my daughter. I make up song lyrics all the time to her. I love it.
KEITH: I make up song lyrics all the time because I know the lyrics to nothing.
DAVIS: Hold me closer, Tony Danza.
DAVIS: Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And back on the podcast, NPR chief economics correspondent and longtime friend of the pod, Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.
HORSLEY: There must be some bad economic news to talk about.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Aw, but good to hear your voice.
HORSLEY: Thank you. Good to be here.
DAVIS: Yesterday on the pod, we talked extensively about President Trump’s tweet in which he questioned whether we should move the election and mail-in balloting. But what I want to talk about with you is the timing of that tweet because he put out this provocative tweet shortly after some rather bad economic news about the U.S. gross domestic product.
HORSLEY: It was almost like he was trying to distract us.
DAVIS: Almost as if he was trying to distract us. But I would say you distracted me because the headline on your story about it had the words calling it, quote, “three months of hell.”
HORSLEY: That’s right. Yesterday, we got the Commerce Department official scorecard of what happened in the second quarter of the year – that is April, May and June – and it was the worst quarterly GDP report on record. And they’ve been keeping these records for almost 75 years, so it was a pretty grim report. Not really a surprise. We all lived through the second quarter. And we know that the economy, in large measure, shut down in what was supposed to be an effort to get control of the coronavirus. What’s really scary is that for all that economic pain we suffered, we didn’t get control of the coronavirus. And so now we’re looking at maybe a disappointing third quarter as well.
DAVIS: I know you said it’s the worst ever, but can you put it in perspective to something like the 2007, 2008 financial crisis, which is of most recent memory for comparison?
HORSLEY: Sure. I mean, the thing that was really startling about this was both how far the economy fell and how quickly it fell. And it happened in a shorter time span than we usually see in a recession, where things kind of gradually grind to a stop. This was, you know, a real slamming on the brakes. And so the downturn we saw in the second quarter of this year – April, May and June – was almost four times as sharp as what we saw in the worst quarter of the Great Recession, which was the end of 2008. So it’s pretty bad. It was more than three times as bad as the previous worst quarter on record, which was back in 1958, before my time.
KEITH: Scott, can we talk about numbers really quick? Because the figure that has been floating around is this 32.9% collapse at an annual rate. And, like – you know, I used to be on the business desk. You are on the business desk now. Normally, we talk about the annualized rate. But this time, it is a really big, scary number. And hopefully our economy is not going to be shrinking that much for the entire year.
HORSLEY: That’s right. The Commerce Department usually reports GDP numbers and a lot of other statistics as if whatever trend was happening in the quarter were extrapolated for a full year. And there are good reasons to do that. But in a volatile economic period, like the one we’re in right now, it can be misleading. As bad as the downturn was in the second quarter, it’s not as if the economy actually shrank by nearly a third. In fact, the economy shrank by about a little less than 10% from the previous quarter.
KEITH: Which is also terrible.
HORSLEY: Which is still terrible. It’s still the worst on record. But it’s not quite as bad as that 32.9 headline figure might make you think. The reason for that is we know that this was a short, live downturn. In fact, even as we got into May and June and businesses started to reopen, we began to see the economy sort of bounce up a little bit from the bottom. So it’s not as if we’re going to continue to see that kind of contraction for a full year, which is what that headline number would suggest.
DAVIS: This is what confuses me about this moment is you have this poor economic picture, and you have a president and a White House that wants to run on a strong economic message for reelection. But yet, right now in real time, the White House is pretty resistant to any additional big, bold economic measures to get the economy back on track. And I don’t fully understand that resistance, Tam.
KEITH: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows actually came into the White House briefing room today. I think they are realizing that it’s not a good look to have these additional unemployment benefits just expiring. And he came out and said, well, Democrats don’t want to make a deal. We’re trying to be flexible. They don’t want to make a deal.
I think there’s a lot of murkiness on exactly what is going on there. But he gave an example of how Democrats were kind of being greedy. They’re saying – he said – well, they’re asking for more and more and more. Democrats had passed their next sort of coronavirus relief bill a couple of months ago, and the situation on the ground has changed since then. He said, you know, Democrats are saying they want hundreds of billions of dollars for schools. They want way more for schools than we’re asking for.
And, definitely, the posture is that the White House is wanting less – less unemployment benefit, less money for schools and other things. And, you know, part of that is just that that’s the default setting of particularly the chief of staff, who was the head of the Freedom Caucus in Congress – the ones who were always trying to whittle down the budget. And now he’s one of the lead negotiators for the White House.
HORSLEY: For economists, though, it really is a head-scratcher because while, fair enough, when the CARES Act was passed back in March, there was some expectation that maybe by July the economy wouldn’t need additional life support. It would be breathing and growing on its own again. But it’s been clear for some time that that’s not the case, and some additional support would be needed.
DAVIS: The other thing I’d say is the CARES Act, which Congress passed earlier this year – the other big, bold measure – is one of the most popular things that Congress has done. Like, the public really liked it. It polls really well. And you would think that the White House right now would want something similar – something big that people like that they can go campaign on and say, see? We’re getting this economy back on track.
KEITH: Yeah, except the White House – I think the president wants to just will the coronavirus away. He just wants businesses to open. They – you know, they’re there under the belief that…
DAVIS: The market can do it itself.
KEITH: …All this assistance – yeah, that all of this assistance is what’s holding back the economy. Whereas there’s also this problem of a major pandemic that is raging out of control in more and more states in this country.
HORSLEY: One of the arguments you do sometimes hear from conservatives is that the $600 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits is more than a lot of workers could be making if they returned to work, and therefore that it serves as some sort of disincentive to go back to work. There’s actually very little evidence of that. There’s just not much economic data that suggests that people are not going back to work because they’re collecting big unemployment checks – or were collecting big unemployment checks until this week.
In fact, they’re not going back to work either because it’s not safe or because they don’t have jobs to go back to. And so that’s – it’s a little bit of a red herring that the additional unemployment benefits have served as a real drag on the job recovery.
DAVIS: All right. I think we have to take a quick break. But, Scott, as always, thank you so much.
HORSLEY: I wish I had better news to share.
DAVIS: Me, too. All right. When we come back, we’ll talk about the other thing the president brought up in that tweet – mail-in voting.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIS: And we’re back. And we’re joined by our voting and election expert, Miles Parks. Hey, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Sue.
DAVIS: So the president held a press conference and once again spread a lot of false information about what voting by mail means – the allegations that it’s rife with fraud, that ballots get lost. Let’s do a little fact-checking here, Miles. What should we know about mail-in balloting?
PARKS: The biggest thing that he seemed focused on yesterday was this idea of universal mail-in ballots, is how he was referring to it. And he said that hundreds of millions were going to be sent out and that officials or people in charge of the election wouldn’t know who they were being sent to and that people basically who were not registered to vote could end up getting sent ballots, which is just factually not true. He seemed to be referencing California, which made a decision a few months ago to send out all registered voters ballots for the upcoming November election.
But to be very clear, these are only people who are registered to vote. And in the other states which have these universal mail ballot systems – Oregon, Washington state, Hawaii – these are all situations where people who are registered to vote will be sent a ballot automatically. They don’t need to ask for it. But it’s only people who are registered to vote, not just anyone off the street or anyone who walks into an elections office. They can’t just say, send me a mail ballot, and they’ll get one.
KEITH: Well, and it’s not some fly-by-night thing. Like, Oregon and Washington state – they’ve been doing this for a while, right? Like, if there was a massive problem, in theory, it would be obvious by now.
PARKS: Yeah, absolutely. And even in California, a wide majority of people were already voting by mail. More than three-quarters of the state was already receiving mail ballots before the pandemic hit. So this is not like the state is turning this on with a switch. Most of the voters were already voting this way.
DAVIS: One of the other things the president brought up was that if we have widespread mail-in balloting across the country this year because of the pandemic, it’s very possible we might not know the winner election night. But that’s something we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast. It doesn’t necessarily mean that not knowing the winner means there’s fraud. It just means it takes longer to count the votes, right?
PARKS: Yeah. This is a thing that honestly it might be the most important part of my job this year, is just telling people, do not expect to know who won the presidency on November 3. It’s very possible we could know. But we can’t expect it because of the mail – the way mail ballots work and how many safeguards against fraud.
That’s what’s so interesting about this. It seems like President Trump is very worried about fraud in mail balloting but also worried about this delay, when in reality, the delay comes from the safeguards about the fraud that President Trump’s worried about – things like signature verification, where an election official looks at the signature on the mail ballot that was sent in and compares it to the signature on file in the voter registration system for that voter. That takes time to do for thousands and tens of thousands of ballots, you know. So even just opening up the ballot envelopes takes time.
All of this makes it so mail ballots just take a lot longer time to process than in-person voting. And that’s not necessarily a problem. I talked to Kathy Boockvar, who’s the secretary of state of Pennsylvania, a couple months ago, right around the time of her state’s primary, and asked her whether she thought it was a kind of disaster that – like President Trump is saying, that we may not know the results on November 3.
KATHY BOOCKVAR: The headlines that say this is a disaster if there’s a delay – that’s not right. If we all anticipate that accurate vote counts with a higher volume by mail or for any reasons, because of a pandemic or because of civil unrest, if it takes longer because it takes longer to make sure that count is accurate, then that’s the opposite of a disaster.
PARKS: She said, basically, that officials, the public – everyone just needs to be worried about the accuracy of the count, and it doesn’t matter how long that takes as long as the vote counting’s right.
KEITH: He has been talking about the idea of elections being rigged since 2016. He did it before 2018. Now we’re in 2020, and he is doing this again. And he’s had different targets or different reasons why he suspected that or claimed that things would be rigged. Before, it was in-person voting that was the problem. Now he’s saying it’s vote by mail that’s the problem. He is – and this is not normal for a president to do by any means – he is actively working to undercut faith in the institutions of voting in America.
DAVIS: But that’s my question, Miles. Has the president’s campaign against mail-in voting – are we seeing it having an effect on the way voters feel about mail-in voting? In other words, are people going to do it or do it less because of the influence the president has?
PARKS: There are definitely early indications that Republicans specifically may be having a negative reaction to mail-in voting based off the president’s tweets and comments. Just based on some early polling and some behavior in the primaries, it’s hard to say for certain that’s going to affect behavior in the November election.
It’s worth noting also that the polling we have shows that Republicans in states that already do a lot of mail voting, where – this is from a Pew poll a couple of months ago. In states where mail voting is happening more than 30% of the time, more than 30% of the ballots are coming in via the mail, Republicans love mail voting in those states. More – almost 70% of Republicans say they support the right for all registered voters to get a mail ballot.
So it’s hard to imagine, basically, President Trump’s comments swaying those people who were already using this system and who like it. Where you may see an effect is those states that aren’t already using mail ballots in frequent amounts. States in the South or in the middle of the country – you may see Republicans there being a little bit more hesitant to vote by mail in November, which potentially could also politically hurt the president.
DAVIS: Tam, President Trump’s tweet seemed like a different kind of tweet because his suggestion not only about the potential for fraud in the election but the idea that the election should be moved prompted such a swift rejection and response from within the Republican Party, I think almost unlike any other tweet we’ve seen.
KEITH: Absolutely. Republican leaders in Congress were very fast to say, no, that’s not happening. We’ve done elections in the Civil War, in the Great Depression. This isn’t going to happen. And also, there was pushback from sort of Republican thinkers and people who have been Trump allies who have supported Trump, opposed impeachment – all of those things – including Stephen Calabrese. He is a co-founder of the Federalist Society, and he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times where he said, you know, people claiming that President Trump was going to do something crazy with the election, he didn’t take it seriously. But he said that this tweet was appalling to him. And he wrote, this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate. That is not messing around.
And I think part of what’s happening here is talking about moving the election, President Trump, you know, by the end of the day was, like, oh, I didn’t really mean it. What he was really doing there was what he’s been doing since 2016. He did it in 2018. He is trying to cast doubt on the process. He is trying to cast doubt on the institution of our elections, and at a time when he is trailing badly in the polls, potentially as he was trying to do in 2016 – but, you know, then it turned out he won – setting up a way to say, well, I didn’t really lose.
Or it’s not clear exactly what he’s doing, but he is laying the groundwork for, you know, questions to be out there about voting. And people like Calabrese and Republicans in Congress are pushing back on that. The question is, are they prepared if, on Election Day, there aren’t results, or President Trump does lose? What happens then?
DAVIS: Let’s take another quick break, and when we come back, Can’t Let It Go.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIS: And we’re back. And it’s time to end the week with Can’t Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week we just can’t stop thinking about, politics or otherwise.
I’m going to go first this week, and I think it’s probably something a lot of our listeners saw. And it was President Barack Obama’s eulogy of former Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. It was a really powerful speech. But it also contained something I just simply wasn’t expecting to hear at John Lewis’s funeral. And in the speech, Barack Obama essentially called to end the filibuster.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BARACK OBAMA: By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around. And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster – another Jim Crow relic – in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.
KEITH: It was, like, a whoa moment there.
DAVIS: That was a big deal, guys. It was a big, big deal because all throughout Barack Obama’s time as president, people wanted Democrats to try to do the same when they had control of the Senate. And they fought it, and they resisted it. The president was always opposed to it. And him coming on board and saying it’s the right thing to do I think has totally changed the conversation on that. And if Joe Biden wins, and if Democrats take the Senate, it may well be that they just do it – that they get rid of the filibuster. And believe me when I tell you that it will change dramatically the kinds of legislation that you could see coming out of Congress in the coming years.
PARKS: Well, it’s kind of amazing, too, because it seems like it’s kind of emblematic of this Democratic effort over the last 10 years to make really process-oriented things kind of sexy.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Yeah.
PARKS: When I think about how no one knew what gerrymandering was – or a lot of – you know, a lot of normal voters didn’t know what gerrymandering was 15 years ago. And now it’s, like, in stump speeches.
DAVIS: Yeah, it’s like a battle cry.
PARKS: It’s mentioned in Democratic debates. Exactly. It’s like – and so I feel like this is just another step in that where it’s this thing that really does matter to our politics. And it’s this effort by, you know, arguably the most notable Democrat there is to really get this into the mainstream conversation.
KEITH: What I love about this is it also – it kind of reminds me of when Joe Biden went on “Meet The Press” and said, yeah, I support gay marriage before President Obama had said that he did. And then it was like, oh, wait, oh, they got out ahead, oh, no. What’s going on? This is a case where former President Obama is going out and saying, I support doing away with the filibuster. And now Biden is going to be asked about it, and he’s going to be asked about it repeatedly. It’s going to be a topic in debates. It’s going to be something, you know, the former president got out ahead of the former vice president there.
DAVIS: And I think it’s going to trickle down to a lot of Senate races because I think this is something that Republicans can use to say this is why you need us in the Senate to be a check on the Biden administration. And I’m curious to see what sort of – like, the impact is of that statement in this election year alone. Does it really become sort of a rallying battle cry for both Republicans and Democrats? Because the Senate’s really in play. And the consequences of what happens in this election – I mean, we talk so much about the presidential, but Joe Biden or – whatever happens, whoever wins, the makeup of the Senate is where your – what you can do happens. And…
KEITH: Well – and if Senate Republicans are running on you need us in the Senate to be a check on President Biden, then they will have officially thrown President Trump overboard.
DAVIS: So much intrigue. So much intrigue. Miles, what can’t you let go this week?
PARKS: So I can’t let go of this hearing that happened – also going to Capitol Hill a little bit – with all the big tech leaders. We had Mr. Bezos and Mr. Zuckerberg digitally but taking questions from lawmakers in the House this week. And I just thought it was kind of amazing because every single lawmaker who talked was angry with these guys. I mean, they were – there was yelling. There was really pointed questions. There was emotional tape being played of local shopkeepers talking about how, you know, Amazon has ruined their life, honestly. But what was really interesting to me is it kind of, like, was this Super Bowl moment in business reporting of like, oh, these guys are going to be taken to task. And they were, but I don’t think there’s any risk of anything legislatively actually happening in the short term. And so I think it was this lesson of, like, for the business leaders who are, you know, the most – some of the most wealthy men in the world – it’s OK to have every member of government mad at you as long as they’re mad at you for different reasons.
PARKS: Like, as long as they can’t come together on one reason to change your life, then you can have them be angry with you, and it doesn’t really matter.
DAVIS: Especially when you’re providing services that they all use and need to run both their professional and personal lives. It’s like, how angry are you really?
PARKS: Yeah, and services that people really, really like, especially in the case of Amazon. You know, I personally would be quite inconvenienced if I woke up tomorrow and wasn’t able to order stuff shipped to my door in two days, especially during a pandemic.
DAVIS: Miles, are you saying that Congress can be a bit of a paper tiger sometimes?
PARKS: I’m just saying that there’s a lot of yelling – a lot of yelling – and sometimes, you know, the doing just takes a little longer.
DAVIS: Welcome to my life.
DAVIS: Tam, what can’t you let go this week?
KEITH: So my can’t let it go is an update on an earlier Can’t Let It Go. A few months, ago I told you all about how Chuck E. Cheese pizza was putting itself up on, you know, like, GrubHub and whatnot as Pasqually’s fine local neighborhood pizza joint. And people were, like, kind of distressed or thought it was funny when they discovered that they were actually just getting Chuck E. Cheese pizza. Well, since then, my children have been haranguing me about wanting Chuck E. Cheese pizza. So about – I don’t know – what was it? – about a month ago, we finally ordered…
DAVIS: The best Chuck E. Cheese pizza in the world.
KEITH: Yes. The best pizza in the world, it turns out. So ordered it through Uber Eats or something, saw that there was an option for a birthday party kit. Although it was no one’s birthday, we got the birthday party kit.
DAVIS: As one does.
KEITH: So we got two pizzas, chocolate cake and a bunch of really, you know, mediocre prizes and toys. And now today – what’s happening, Davis (ph)?
DAVIS: Get Chuck E. Cheese pizza.
KEITH: Can you tell them about Chuck E. Cheese pizza, why you like it?
DAVIS: Cheesy crust.
KEITH: Cheesy crust. It does have cheesy crust.
PARKS: That’s good.
DAVIS: Inside of it.
PARKS: Cheesy crust is a must.
DAVIS: And the cheese is super good and all the toppings are super good and it’s super yummy.
KEITH: Super yummy.
PARKS: How was the cake? Was the cake also the best cake in the world?
PARKS: All right. I’m getting – I’m on board. I’m getting the Chuck E. Cheese pizza.
DAVIS: Get the cake.
KEITH: Here’s the crazy thing – I have started making homemade pizza crust using my sourdough starter because it’s a pandemic and yet…
DAVIS: No, no, no, Tam, never going to be the kid’s favorite.
PARKS: Yeah. Your first mistake is expecting your 8-year-old to appreciate all that you’ve given him.
DAVIS: Well, Davis, I hope you get your pizza and your cake because I think you deserve it.
DAVIS: So, Tam, did you think it was the greatest pizza you’ve ever had?
KEITH: Oh, I’m lactose intolerant. I can’t eat it.
DAVIS: That is it for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
PARKS: I’m Miles Parks. I cover voting.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
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