MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So let's head now into the Barbershop to talk more about all this. Now, of course, this is where we sit down with a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. A special politics-focused Barbershop today because, you know, why - what else would we talk about today but politics? It's President Trump's first anniversary in office, the first government shutdown in five years, the first when both - when one party controlled all three branches of government.
So we thought we'd get this group together to get their take on what this means going forward. Joining us, Puneet Ahluwalia. He is a businessman and a Republican Party activist from Northern Virginia. Welcome back.
PUNEET AHLUWALIA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Also from the DMV - that's what we call the metro area here when we want to be hip and we definitely do - that's Kathleen Matthews. She's serving her first term as chair of the Democratic Party in Maryland. Before that, she was a journalist here in the D.C. area for many years. And, Kathleen, welcome.
KATHLEEN MATTHEWS: Michel, thank you so much.
MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Charlie Sykes. He's an author, a longtime conservative talk show host based in Wisconsin. He's with us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee. Charlie, welcome back to you as well.
CHARLIE SYKES: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: So the big news of the day the government shutdown. It's been five years since the last time the government shut down. And today is the first year - the first-year mark of President Trump's reign as president. And he tweeted this morning, this is...
MATTHEWS: I liked that word reign.
MARTIN: Reign. Sorry, I was just looking for another word other than anniversary. But this is the one-year anniversary of my presidency, and the Democrats wanted to give me a nice present. And he put #democratshutdown. Charlie, I'm going to go to you first because you are in the heartland. And I wanted to ask you, what is this, you know, how does this look from there? Obviously, we've spent all day with both parties blaming each other. What does it look like to you?
SYKES: This is why people hate Washington, D.C., and Washington, D.C., politics. You have this bonfire of hypocrisies, all of the finger pointing going on. You know, who's to blame, the competing hashtags, whether it's, you know, the Schumer shutdown or the Trump shutdown. You know, this is - if we just step back from the partisan politics for a moment, this is just a terrible way to run government, that every once in a while, the system becomes so dysfunctional we just have to partially shut down the federal government.
I mean, at some point, are we going to come to our senses and realize this is a terrible way to run a railroad, you know, much less the federal government? But I think Mara's analysis is right. A lot of the politics is aimed at these swing states. And both parties are taking a huge risk by going to the mat. But both parties are also, in some sense, held hostage by their bases. And it's hard to see an easy or quick or graceful way out of this at the moment.
MARTIN: One of the reasons I invited both Puneet and Kathleen here is that you are both people who actually have to win elections locally because this is a midterm election. Now, Virginia just had its legislative elections. But you've got a Senate seat opening up in 2018. Tim Kaine, the incumbent, is going to be running - one assumes - for re-election again. And you've got to go out and find good candidates and sell them and sell them under the party banner.
So, Kathleen, I'll start with you. You know, what about the White House argument that - and the Republican leadership argument that the Democrats are to blame because they're not willing to let the DACA issue go to keep the government running? Now, in your state, just as in Puneet's, there are a lot of federal workers, as well as a lot of military people. How do you defend that?
MATTHEWS: I think this is so clearly the #trumpshutdown. And it was interesting because when I put #t in today when I was tweeting, Trump shutdown came up automatically with just the T. But this is a guy who tweeted that he was happy that we were going to shut the government down. This is a president who doesn't believe in government. And I think that's why you've seen shutdowns under Republicans in 2013 and all the way back in - when Gingrich did it in 1994.
And so I actually think that it'll be different this year in terms of who gets blamed. People do look to the person in the White House to resolve these disputes, to somehow slip in there with some great compromise. And they certainly expect that out of a guy who said he was the deal maker of the century, that he could cut every deal.
MARTIN: Puneet, what about you? I mean, how do you - your party controls all three branches of government. How do you defend this? How do you go to the voters and say, give my party even more power?
AHLUWALIA: Look. First thing is President Trump has done a tremendous job in one year. You have to give that and recognize that. And then at the same time, we have seen the Democrats time and again try to push him back and try to obstruct every aspect of things which he wants to and the Republicans. So people who are in the Washington, D.C., area are very smart. They see a doer and person who's looking to solve things and make their life better. You saw the tax break, which they will see and start reflecting in their paychecks. And you saw how Apple gave a huge bonus to that.
I think when people see his work and what he has promoted - and look at the stock market, it's done tremendously well. And the consumer confidence is high. So when you build on that and then you see a Schumer shutdown, you can see exactly who's making it very hard. Based on the illegal immigration, you're basically holding our men and women in armed forces hostage, senior citizens and students and kids. All these people are suffering just because Schumer - it's a democratic way of holding us hostage.
MARTIN: OK. So I see both of you have fully absorbed the national party talking points, so there we go. So let's take a step back now and ask each of you to assess this year of Donald Trump's presidency. What effect do you think it's had on the country? Kathleen, I'll go to you first.
MATTHEWS: It's been a disaster, I think, for the country. But it has also fueled more candidates - and going back to your earlier question - more candidates than ever before on the Democratic side, including more minorities and women to run for office because they are motivated to step in there and actually take their government back.
MARTIN: Puneet, what do you think?
AHLUWALIA: I think it's being very energetic, of course controversial at times. President Trump has tried to do - and attack many things, not only making our country safe, fighting and defeating ISIS, finding issues with countries who are not great allies to us - that's Pakistan, to say - at the same time, giving the consumer confidence. Our stock market is doing excellently well. Consumer confidence, again, up. So he's done a phenomenal job, I would say.
MARTIN: You're not worried about his record-low approval ratings? You're not concerned that that's going to be a drag on any candidates that you would run?
AHLUWALIA: If you see, the media has played a huge role on that. And, of course, the narrative of that has been coming out of the media. I think that's the reason why he has pushed the fake news out at the same time. And he tweets directly. And mind you, look at his actions. We all knew what we signed up for and who we voted. And he became elected president. Let's not forget that. American people...
MARTIN: But I don't think you've answered my question. What do you make of his low approval ratings?
AHLUWALIA: Well, I think it'll change once people start to see his positive actions coming out. Give him a year. It's just been a year. It's got another three years to go.
MARTIN: Let's hear from...
MATTHEWS: Job growth is slowing. Wages are stagnant. And really, the only thing that he has accomplished, other than dividing our country and going after people, people of color, has been a tax bill that actually has been the biggest shift of wealth from working class families to the rich. So that is one accomplishment, which is why I think the job approval ratings are so low.
MARTIN: Let's hear from Charlie Sykes on this 'cause, Charlie, I know you've done a lot of thinking about this. I mean, you are - you've - you are identified with the conservative movement for your entire adult life. You've written many books. And you were a talk show host. You've written many columns. But you are also a person who did not support Donald Trump. And your reasons are not just matters of policy but also sort of broader philosophical reasons. Can you talk about that?
SYKES: Yes. And that's the most painful position to be in because there are things that he has done that plausibly, you could say, are positive. But the price tag is horrific. And, you know, this is - I can't get past what Donald Trump is doing to our political culture, to society. You know, character used to matter to conservatives. But the bullying, the chronic lying, the name-calling, the attacks on the rule of law, the attacks on democratic institutions, the, you know, fanboy adulation of autocratic thugs around the world. You know, not to mention his personal, you know, his personal business dealings.
Look. All of these things, I think, are having a long-term effect on what we as Americans regard as acceptable. He is changing the norms of our society. And I understand that, you know, if you're a liberal, it's totally horrific. If you're a Trumpian, you want to ignore all this and say it's a matter of style or personality I think it's fundamental. And I think that the first year of the Trump presidency has been shambolic because what we found out is that Donald Trump the candidate turned out not to be that much different from Donald Trump the president.
MARTIN: Puneet, I have to give you a chance to respond to that. I mean, as a person who is both a business person yourself and also a person who's been a conservative for your adult life, I mean, how do you respond to that?
AHLUWALIA: I'm a minority. I'm from Indian heritage. I haven't felt anything that would say he'll put me in a back seat. Look at Nikki Haley. Look at so many other minorities who have taken a great position in the Trump administration and doing a phenomenal job. Again, I think...
MARTIN: So do you think that all the people - other people of color who find his comments demeaning, corrosive, vulgar, are they all just - what? - naive, sort of sensitive? I mean, how do you respond to the fact that so many of your fellow citizens feel that he is diminishing and coarsening our culture? How do you respond to that?
AHLUWALIA: I would say each person has a way of understanding and taking a judgment or a call or whatever they want to do it. That's personally. But I feel - when I see it, I see a person who is trying to stick to a campaign promise. And he's also trying to fulfill what he set out to do. Now, if people take it disparagingly or personally, that's up to them. At the same time, if they start focusing on the real objective that he's trying to do is make America safe again. At the same time, getting the people back to job. And again, I keep hearing this narrative, which is to me is - as a businessman, I see the confidence up. I feel the Democratic policies are hurting us at the same time right now with the Schumer shutdown.
MARTIN: So, Kathleen, to you...
SYKES: But the bigotry and the xenophobia and the misogny. And I say this as a conservative. Look. I like tax cuts. I like cuts in regulation. But what we've seen this year is we have seen a president and the Republican Party acquiesced to him align themselves with forces that, I think, represent some of the darker impulses of American society.
And we're at this shutdown today - I don't know whether we can say this on the air, I haven't boned up on what the NPR policy about the S-hole thing is - but, you know, you realize that we are here today because the president of the United States basically tore the mask off when he talked about, you know, not bringing people in from S-hole countries as opposed to countries like Norway, as if Norway, by the way, is a skill. And I think that was so shocking and it was so toxic that it brings us to the moment we're at now. And this is the Trump presidency.
MARTIN: Charlie, I have to give you the last word. I wanted to give Kathleen a chance to get another bite of that apple, so we'll have to have you back so you can talk more about your perspective on this. That was conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes, an author of a number of books and a columnist. Maryland Democratic Party chair Kathleen Matthews was with us. Also, Virginia Republican Puneet Ahluwalia here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you all so much for speaking with us. More to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.