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On Professional Death Sentences; Sexual Assault Accusations, Racist Photos In Virginia Politics; Warren Announcing Candidacy At 11 AM As Ethnicity Issue Remains; Report: Warren Never Used Ethnicity For Professional Gain; Can Warren Get Past Controversy Over Ethnicity Question?; Top Harvard Astronomer: Are We Alone In The Universe?; Milky Way Mystery; Amazon's Bezos Exposes National Enquirer Threats; Is Socialism A Dirty Word In Politics? Aired 9-10a ET
Aired February 9, 2019 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's exactly the right person. On the one hand, you've got the establishment, but on the other, she's got hip hop in her blood.
STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: More women on stage and among the nominees and perhaps more female Grammy winners. Stephanie Elam, CNN, Hollywood.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR, NEW DAY WEEKEND: And "SMERCONISH" starts now.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST, SMERCONISH: I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. More controversy in Virginia politics as a second woman has now come forward with a charge of sexual assault against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and many are calling for his resignation. He's calling it a spear campaign. So how are we to react? These days, mere allegations of alleged bad behavior calls oftenly decalls (ph) for a professional death sentence. How to safeguard due process? No easy matter.
And today's the day Elizabeth Warren officially throws her hat into the ring in the 2020 campaign, but in the buildup, she still finds herself digging out from the ethnicity controversy. Will she ever get past that?
Plus, this has to be a first. We learn about sexually explicit photos from the world's richest man to his mistress and we applaud him. Will Amazon's Jeff Bezos exposing the threatening tactics of "The National Enquirer" and publisher David Pecker bring down the tabloid?
And in his State of the Union Address, the president delivered what is likely to be a re-election theme, attacking socialism. Has that word lost its sting?
Plus, Harvard's top astronomer upended the cosmos with his theory that this object in the Milky Way might be evidence of alien life and he's here to explain it. But first, accountability is the word of the week, whether the subject is Jeff Besos holding responsible "The National Enquirer," Elizabeth Warren still being dogged by claims as to her heritage or the many Virginia politicians fighting for survival.
With regard to the latter, here's the lesson. While it's tempting to reach a conclusion at the outset, we're better served stepping back, letting the facts come to light and then applying our common sense collective wisdom and nonpartisan critical thinking. Instead, in the political arena, too often the first whiff of scandal had caused a rush to judgment, often dependent upon the party of the accused.
The flood gates opened after revelations that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page contained racist photographs. Clumsily, Northam initially took responsibility and then one day later denied he was in the subject photo, says it wasn't him. still, many want his resignation.
On Thursday, "The Washington Post" lead editorial was headlined, "Ralph Northam must resign." "The Post" argued that his, quote, "shifting and credulity shredding explanations were just too much." After conceding that it was reasonable when last weekend Northam said he would hire a private investigator to learn the truth, just four days later, "The Post" ran out of patience. That's the epitome of a rush to judgment.
And once presidential contender Julian Castro sent out this tweet demanding that Northam resign, well, the other candidates had to quickly follow suit or look like somehow they were condoning his as yet unexplained situation.
Another example of the rush to judgement came in the "Daily Mail." Thursday morning, this story was splashed across the front page of the highly trafficked website. Check it out. To the casual observer, it looked like North Carolina Roy Cooper had himself appeared in blackface or that he belonged to a fraternity that was involved in such hijinks, but neither was true.
A careful reading of the story revealed that in 1979, 40 years ago, Cooper was a fraternity brother at UNC Chapel Hill's Chi Psi, but the racist attire was worn by members of Chi Phi. It wasn't even his fraternity, yet his face was on the home page of the website that reported the news.
This sense of gotcha is out of control. Of course, we need accountability, but not in the absence of evidence and critical thinking. Now, here's a tough one. Many immediately called for the resignation of Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2004. That Fairfax had said the sex was consensual did not lessen the demands that he resign.
His right to a presumption of innocence is really being tested now that a second woman has come forward with a rape allegation, which Fairfax labels part of a coordinated smear. That there were multiple claims against now Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn't stop his nomination to the Supreme Court, so we're not sure how this ends. The case of Governor Northam has its own complexities. His adult life has been one of service and building bridges across racial lines. You'll remember that after the divisive events of Charlottesville in 2017 when some were ascribing blame to both sides, it was Northam who appropriately said, quote, "White supremacists have descended upon Charlottesville again to evoke a reaction as ugly and violent as their beliefs.
[09:05:04] Just as they did before, I am urging Virginians to deny them the satisfaction."
We really don't know what happened in the case of the Virginia governor, or the Commonwealth's attorney general for that matter. All we know for sure is that in 1984, the Virginia governor dressed like Michael Jackson at a dance contest and we know that in 1980, the Virginia attorney general dressed as rapper Kurtis Blow at a college party. And those things we know because each told us, no doubt out of a fear that it would soon come to light.
Assuming that's all there is, should one picture in poor taste and with racial overtones ruin a person's later professional life? Where is the preservation of a route to redemption? And as if that's not enough for one state, Thomas Norment Jr., the Virginia Senate Republican majority leader, was a top editor of a 1968 college yearbook at Virginia Military Institute that included pictures of students in blackface and racist slurs.
Here's the point. Each of these cases is different and must be evaluated based on individual facts. They present problems of restraint for members of the public. We all have a natural inclination to want to reach conclusions quickly. And they present challenges for the press.
There's tremendous pressure on journalists, and elected officials for that matter, to not demand fact finding. Many people accept as true a mere assertion of racism or sexual misconduct without investigation or corroboration and are hostile to those who don't presume the credibility of the complainant, who do presume the innocence of the alleged perpetrator or simply wish to inquire further. And if you don't believe me, wait for some of the social media reaction to my plea for restraint.
Joining me now to discuss is Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, where he's a professor of politics. So great to have you back.
LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, UNIV. OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: Thank you.
SMERCONISH: Can Fairfax survive this?
SABATO: Very difficult, Michael. All three state-wide elected Democrats in Virginia are in trouble. Fairfax is in the most trouble because these accusations, which have some corroboration, particularly the second one, involve crimes, at least crimes at the time. I'm not familiar with the statute of limitations in these cases. I don't know whether he can be prosecuted, but this is as serious as it gets. I'm not saying he's automatically guilty. I'm just saying that he's in the most trouble of the three.
SMERCONISH: And yet it appeared earlier in the week as if was destined to assume the reigns of the governorship. Is Northam, at this point, out of the woods?
SABATO: He's not out of the woods in terms of public opinion. I think it will permanently affect how people view him. His popularity has dropped from 60 or better into the upper 20s and low 30s. That's a pretty severe judgment already. And, look, you have to ask, even though he can survive, because you can't force a governor to resign, and what he's done is not criminal and I don't think it's impeachable under the state constitution. So if he doesn't want to resign, he's going to stay right there for the next three years, but he will be isolated.
Just to cite one example, he's already been disinvited from the College of William & Mary. I don't think he'll be giving many college graduation addresses. That's my guess. And so he's not going to have the ability to communicate with the public the way most governors do or even to work with other -- with legislators on key legislation. It's going to be very tough on him.
SMERCONISH: Professor Sabato, from a couple of states away, I keep wondering, is there something unique about your commonwealth?
SABATO: I think probably, Michael, it's our difficult relationship with racial issues, which has stretched throughout the entire history of Virginia. This is the 400th anniversary of the landing at Jamestown, which, of course, also means the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery into the United States. And from there, we have had a difficult relationship with the truth about race and it's stretched into modern times.
Maybe people don't consider the 1950s modern times. I do. And in the 1950s, Virginia is the one who led the way on the Southern Manifesto, led the way on massive resistance to school desegregation. Not even integration, Michael, just desegregation. Token African-Americans in a few schools. And we've had other incidents. So many incidents. That's why these blackface examples hurt. And they don't just hurt African- Americans. They hurt all of us who have hoped that Virginia was progressing and was beyond this.
[09:10:05] SMERCONISH: I follow the Sabato crystal ball. So let's apply it to this circumstance. Tell me how these dominos might conceivably fall in the days ahead?
SABATO: Well, a week ago, of course, I thought Northam, along with everybody else, wouldn't be able to survive and he's dug his heels in ...
SABATO: And there he is. I don't think the attorney general, Mark Herring, will be threatened, even though he ought to be condemned for attending that blackface party at my university. I've been here, next year, 50 years and I know for a fact ...
SABATO: ... that that was not acceptable. That was not acceptable when he did it in 1980 and he knew that and he hasn't totally owned up to it. So I think he'll stay. Justin Fairfax, look, I don't know. Just as I was waiting for you, I opened an e-mail just sent out by the Republican speaker of the house of delegates demanding Fairfax's resignation. So it's both parties demanding his resignation. I think it will be tough for him to survive, but given what we've seen with Northam and, for that matter, Donald Trump, you just never know anymore.
SMERCONISH: Larry Sabato, thank you as always. Appreciate your expertise.
SABATO: Thank you, Michael.
SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish. Go to my Facebook page. What do we have coming in, Catherine? "That's it. I consider myself a Dem, but I want all three men gone. When you think blackface was ever OK for white people to do, you're wrong. And #MeToo must be believed, especially from multiple women @Smerconish."
Christine, that's the question. So you're saying, I guess, it is a professional death sentence. Nobody, nobody is condoning what any of them did, to the extent they did it because Northam is saying that's not even me, but that's what I'm trying to drill down on. If somebody in the 1970s or 1980s, 1960s, appeared in blackface, despicable act. Are we saying you are unfit to ever serve your public? Where's the path to redemption is a question I would ask.
Still to come, the "National Enquirer" threatened to release lewd selfies that Amazon CEO sent his mistress, but instead of money, the price was ending an investigation of its sources and motives. What's the tabloid afraid of?
And Elizabeth Warren launches her presidential campaign today, yet the buildup was again shadowed by the controversy over her claims of Native American heritage. Why can't she get past that issue?
Plus, Harvard's top astronomer has put forward a theory about possible evidence of life on other planets that has gone viral. You'll fine out why and I want to know what you think. This is the survey question today at Smerconish.com. Do you agree? Do you agree with Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb that it's arrogant to assume we're alone in the universe? Go vote.
SMERCONISH: Today, Elizabeth Warren will make it official with her announcement in her home state that she's running for president, but has she already fatally misstepped before even getting to the starting line?
Not so much with her actions, but with her explanation. Warren's controversial claims to Native American heritage, which she says she's variously tried to scientifically prove, explain away and apologize for resurfaced with a new report from "The Washington Post" that on this 1986 Texas state bar registration card, she identified herself as American Indian. You've heard me say before that I think the key question is not so much how Warren sees her heritage, but whether she had used it to professional advantage.
And on that score, the definitive analysis was written by my next guest, a 5000 word, investigative piece for "The Boston Globe." Annie Linskey is now with "The Washington Post" and co-wrote that new story that I referenced. She joins me from Lawrence, Massachusetts where Warren is scheduled to make her announcement at 11 A.M. OK, Annie. Here it is. September 1, 2018, 5,000 words, Elizabeth Warren co- operated, you looked at all of the files relative to her employment and you concluded that she never used her ethnicity for professional gain. Has anything changed since you wrote this?
ANNIE LINSKEY, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Not on that front. There has been no new evidence to come to light to suggest that she gained by calling herself a Native American. You know, nothing has changed from the University of Pennsylvania where she very clearly was hired as a white woman or from Harvard where I reached out to -- I believe it was, at the time, 50 different law professors who voted on her appointment. None of them that have recanted their statements at the time, which was this was not an issue when they -- when they hired her. In fact, most of them did not even -- were not even aware that she had this claim.
So that hasn't changed, but as you point out, I mean, there is a new document that came out right on the heel -- right as she's about to announce her formal bid for the presidency, you know, is bringing this conversation back to a topic that she definitely does not want to be talking about.
SMERCONISH: I don't understand why she's apologizing. If she never used it for professional advantage, then who cares how Elizabeth Warren regarded her heritage?
LINSKEY: Well, the apologies sort of unspooled over the last few days in a sort of unusual way. She initially privately apologized to the chief of the Cherokee Nation and that apology leaked out in the press and then she sort of made it into a more broad public apology.
And what she was apologizing for was sort of harm caused for calling herself Native American and many in the Cherokee and other Native Americans have felt quite offended that she had appropriated their identity and that has been something that has caused them to be quite irritated with her and she hasn't been able to get past.
So her decision was to apologize, not for trying -- getting ahead or anything along those lines. She's made no change in her stance on that, but just for the act of doing so. [09:20:01] And in the Democratic electorate right now, issues of identity are really coming to the fore in a way that they hadn't in previous elections. So I think that she's sort of responding to the sort of rest of base in the Democratic party that looks at identity a little bit more -- a little differently, a little bit more carefully than they have in the past.
SMERCONISH: I have a piece of that most recent apology to which you referred. Hopefully, you'll be able to hear it. Let's play it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELIZABETH WARREN, UNITED STATES SENATOR: I am not a tribal citizen. I had a good conversation last week with Chief Baker who is chief of the Cherokee tribes and I told Chief Baker that I am sorry that I extended confusion about tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty and for harm caused.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Annie, that's the sensitivity, right? Among Native Americans, the tribal implication -- literally the tribal implication of what she has said?
LINSKEY: Right. The sensitivities for Native Americans, there is this constant -- there's been this constant theme throughout -- for years of people of many races claiming that they have Native American heritage and Native Americans feel that this dilutes the specialness and the importance of the culture they -- people who are saying they have -- they are Native American and have not undergone the discrimination, the hardships and the unique experience of actually being Native American is quite problematic to them because it does make it -- it sort of expands the definition, in a way, that they disagree with.
So I think that's a -- that's where she's trying to apologize here for this notion of cultural appropriation, which is something that over and over again, when you talk to Native Americans, this is understandably a very sore point.
SMERCONISH: Annie, thank you so much for being here. I suspect this is not be a subject that will be addressed from that stage behind you today, but we'll find out. Thank you.
LINSKEY: I don't -- I don't think so. Yes. Thank you.
SMERCONISH: I don't -- I just don't get why she doesn't say, hey, I mean here's the answer. I was raised in Oklahoma, raised to believe I that I am of Native American ancestry, which I wear as a badge of honor. I have never used it for professional advancement. That's it. I'm Elizabeth Warren. I approved this message.
What do we got, Catherine? Hit me with something. "Listen, I like what Warren stands for, but she's toast. Trump will beat her because the story is too complex for most people to follow correctly without jumping to any conclusions." Louis, you're so right because, look, here it is. Here's the record, but it's 5,000 words and it will take you about 22 minutes to read it and it's much easier to simply say, "Pocahontas."
But if you -- if you read it, what you find -- let me say this. I'm keenly interested in this because she was employed by my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I incorrectly assumed she played that card to get the job. The conclusion is otherwise. The documents say differently.
Up ahead, when "The National Enquirer" threatened Amazon's Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man provided the "New York Post" one of its richest headlines. Now, will "Enquirer" publisher David Pecker be caught in a ringer?
And meet the Harvard astronomer who caused a sensation by claiming a mystery object in the Milky Way could be proof that we are not alone in the universe. Please go to Smerconish.com. Vote on the survey question of the day. Do you agree with Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb that it's arrogant to assume we're alone in the universe?
SMERCONISH: The day of this week's State of the Union speech, the number one story at "The Washington Post" website had nothing to do with politics. Instead, it concerned this multi-sided object spied in the Milky Way given the name "Oumuamua," which is Hawaiian for scout. And this theory about what it might represent, Harvard's top astronomer says an alien ship may be among us and he doesn't care what his colleagues think.
Joining me now is Avi Loeb, professor of science and the chair of astronomy at Harvard University. So Dr. Loeb, isn't it amazing? The whole nation focused on the State of the Union and politics and so forth, but this, this is what we were really interested in. Why?
AVI LOEB, PROFESSOR OF SCIENCE AND ASTRONOMY DEPT. CHAIR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, the state of the universe is much more exciting and people are looking for uplifting news from the sky.
SMERCONISH: Is it necessarily uplifting if we're not alone?
LOEB: Well, any information about our place in the universe is important for us in order to get a better understanding of our place in the universe. It's clear that space is the ultimate frontier, that we will need to move out there at some point. Currently, all our eggs are in one basket here on earth, but in order to avoid the risk of a catastrophe, we'll have to move into space at some point and it's quite likely that other civilizations have done that already.
SMERCONISH: I read the actual scientific paper that you co-authored and parts of it, admittedly, are very hard for me to understand. You are not saying that there's definitely alien life among us. What are you saying?
LOEB: We're saying that this is the very first interstellar object, an object that came from outside the solar system that we have seen near the earth and it looks nothing like the asteroids or comets that we have seen before in the solar system.
It has an extreme shape. It deviated from an orbit that is shaped just by the sun's gravity. And it looks shiny and quite unusual.
So we say perhaps it was manufactured by some alien civilization. Perhaps it is a spaceship or a probe. We have to put that possibility on the table.
Unfortunately this special guest that we had for dinner already left our house and it's out there in the dark street so we can't really see it anymore. But we can look for other guests that came from that foreign country and perhaps study them much better in the future.
SMERCONISH: From your scientific paper, considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that Oumuamua is a light sail floating in interstellar space as debris from an advanced technological equipment. What's a light sail?
LOEB: A light sail is simply a sail just like the sail we find on a sailboat, but it's being pushed by light rather than by the wind. And when light bounces off an object, it gives it a push. And we are currently developing this technology for exploration of space.
In principle, you don't carry the fuel with you. And so you can reach very high speeds with that kind of technology. And it's quite possible that a mature civilization that had many more years to develop technology uses that technology.
We ourselves sent out Voyager I and Voyager II from outside the solar system, they would not be functional after awhile, but they would still constitute space debris. And it's quite possible that there are lots of objects out there, technological relics from other civilizations, some of which are dead by now.
And by the way finding evidence for dead civilizations is as interesting, I call it space archeology because it can teach us a lesson to take our -- get our act together and behave better so that we don't have the same fate.
SMERCONISH: You also said this, we'll put this on the screen. "Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentional to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization." Speak to that.
LOEB: That's a possibility that probes are being sent to stellar systems to spy on what is going on in their inner regions where life may exist and that, you know, it's quite possible that we are looked at, that someone knows about our existence. This is a possibility. We need to explore that possibility -- have it on the table and all I am saying is that we have now the technology to figure out whether we are the smartest kid on the block.
That will be the most interesting question. Maybe we can learn from them. If we are not.
But so far, we have been just focusing down here on earth on disputes among nations, we should consider the possibility that we are not alone and then learn from other civilizations that are out there.
SMERCONISH: I set my radio audience afire when I ask this question. You don't have to answer it. Do we want them to be religious? Think about that.
Dr. Loeb, thank you so much for being here.
LOEB: My pleasure.
SMERCONISH: I want to remind everybody to answer the survey question at Smerconish -- you like that huh? Answer the survey question at Smerconish.com.
Do you agree with Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb that it's arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe?
Still to come, when the "National Enquirer" threatened it would release compromising photos of Amazon's Jeff Bezos and his mistress Bezos turned the tables by publishing the magazine's lawyers' e-mails. I've got the inside scoop with a great guest.
And the president has decided that fighting socialism is a winning message for his reelection campaign. Is he right?
SMERCONISH: Who would have thought that when the world's richest man himself published a list of graphically described photos he sent to his mistress that would make him a hero to many. But that's what happened when Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, wrote a post on the Web site medium, no thank you, Mr. Pecker, got to love that. That completely turned the table on "The National Enquirer" and its publisher David Pecker.
You recall the magazine had exposed Bezos' affair earlier this year, coinciding with the end of his marriage, Bezos launched an investigation into how the information got to them and whether it was a political hit job because he also owns "The Washington Post" has been a frequent target of President Trump.
Joining me now is Manuel Roig-Franzia who writes for "The Washington Post." He has been covering this situation. Manuel, think about this, there is a negotiation of sorts taking place, some would say extortion or blackmail, involving the richest man in the world. They don't want money from him. What they want, we'll put it up on the screen was this assurance, "affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM's coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility."
Why would that be so important to "The National Enquirer"?
MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA, FEATURE REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, isn't this fascinating to get kind of a backstage view of how things work at "The National Enquirer" when they have somebody in their target, looking at somebody like a Jeff Bezos?
I mean, we see all of these letters that "The National Enquirer" sent to Bezos. What we don't see is what Bezos responded. And that will be interesting moving forward, too.
Jeff Bezos throws out quite a fascinating possibility that all of this has something to do with the country of Saudi Arabia.
SMERCONISH: I know from your reporting that there were actually these dueling investigations pertaining to the hack or leak of the material. Who ran them and what do they conclude?
ROIG-FRANZIA: Yes. It's very interesting. You have to understand the players here.
Jeff Bezos hired a well-known security consultant name Gavin de Becker and at the same time looking into all this was the brother of his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez. His name is Michael Sanchez.
As we have been reporting since Tuesday night, both of them at various times are looking at various possibilities, including the possibility that governments or foreign actors could have been involved in this transfer of information to "The National Enquirer". Eventually, the two investigators who seem to be cooperating with each other turn on each other. And Michael Sanchez suggests that Gavin de Becker may have something to do with the leak of information to "The National Enquirer" and Gavin de Becker very publicly suggests that Michael Sanchez might have something to do with it. And so there we are left with quite a messy scenario.
SMERCONISH: And-- at least for the time being the bottom line is we don't know how "The National Enquirer" got those pictures, got those texts relative to Bezos.
ROIG-FRANZIA: Yes, what has been thrown out there in the ether are theories. What we have not seen is a definitive statement of the case.
You're an attorney. You know about the law. We haven't seen a statement of evidence about how this happened.
We have only seen conjecture and some circumstantial speculation.
SMERCONISH: It was quite the power move, right? I mean, we're not even really talking about the graphic content. We haven't seen it. Maybe we'll never see it. But it's like Bezos just leapfrogged that whole part of the process and instead it's all about whether "The National Enquirer" can even survive?
ROIG-FRANZIA: Yes. If you talk to crisis managers and we have over the last couple of days. They will tell you a good idea is to get out in front of a story and Jeff Bezos saw a potential story coming. He was given a heads up by "The National Enquirer" that they might publish additional pictures.
Additional material that might be embarrassing to him. And he just preempted them by blasting this out on to Medium, this Web site where people self publish and that has overshadowed everything in this saga at this moment. Right now, he's in control of the microphone.
SMERCONISH: A final observation, now that you have referenced Medium. I'm fascinated by the way it appears that Bezos has stayed at arm's length from your "Washington Post," in other words, he didn't drop this at "The Post." He went to Medium.
I don't know whether he's cooperating with the coverage of "The Post" any more or less than other media outlets, can you speak to that?
ROIG-FRANZIA: Yes, what I can say is that as with any story, we would love to talk to the principles and we have sought to talk to Jeff Bezos, and he has opted not to. And there has been no involvement in our coverage beyond us asking for comments from both him and his spokes people.
SMERCONISH: Manuel, great job as always, thank you for being here.
ROIG-FRANZIA: Good to be with you.
SMERCONISH: Still to come in his State of the Union speech the president attacked socialism as a threat to American values. Is this a winning strategy for 2020?
SMERCONISH: Is socialism a dirty word in American politics? It depends on who you ask. At this week's State of the Union, the president used an attack on socialism as a rallying cry.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We are born free and we will stay free.
Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: CNN found that of those who watched the speech, 76 percent thought it was very or somewhat positive. You already know President Trump and Republicans will use this as a campaign theme in 2020.
Will it work or will it backfire, joining me now, the author of, "Like it or not, Mr. President, many Americans embrace democratic socialism."
Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of "Rising," Hill T.V.'s bipartisan morning news show. She's president of "The People's House Project," which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia.
Krystal, your view seems to be bring it on if this is the debate you want to have.
KRYSTAL BALL, LIBERAL CO-HOST, "RISING," HILL TV: Yes. Absolutely.
And look, I get why he is doing it because fundamentally the ideas that are being espoused here whether it's Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax, whether it's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with raising the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent, whether it's Medicare for all, those ideas are all exceptionally popular.
I mean, easy majorities of Americans, including on some of these idea, a majority of Republicans support those concepts. So instead of talking about the ideas he wants to throw a scary label on it. Unfortunately the label doesn't pack the punch that it used to.
I mean, it really doesn't have quite the same meaning, when Republicans have been running around for years calling Barack Obama a total moderate centrist type of bipartisan president, a socialist, it just loses some of the scare power.
SMERCONISH: But I wonder if you're give the electorate too much credit. Might -- might Americans conflate Hugo Chavez with Democratic socialism?
BALL: Sure. Yes, that's certainly the intent here, right? No one is talking about seizing the means of production. Democratic socialism is about putting working people back at the center of government and having a robust role for government in making sure that people have health care and lives of meaning and dignity.
However, you know, they tried to throw that at Bernie Sanders when he ran in 2016 and it wasn't a barrier to his success or his popularity at all. Similarly, it doesn't seem to be scaring people off of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others.
So I think people are engaging more with the ideas and substance. And also by the way Americans are very frustrated. We have inequality now that is the same levels as the gilded age.
New numbers came out. 400 wealthiest Americans in the country have the same amount of wealth as the bottom 60 percent. 150 million Americans combined. So the problems are big. And Democratic socialism is an expression of the fact that we can't tinker around the margins if we are actually going to deal with the crisis that is facing the American economy.
SMERCONISH: I was watching the State of the Union, not surprisingly, on CNN, and I was complicating -- complimenting from my sofa the technical directors who had the awareness to immediately go to AOC and to Bernie when the president dropped that line.
I want to ask you a different question. How is this going to play out in the Democratic primaries and caucuses given the presence presumably of Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg? Because I don't think they're going to be cool with a conversation that calls it socialism or Democratic socialism. Might they pull the party back toward the middle?
BALL: Well, sure and have it out (ph). I mean, I welcome that debate. I am very much the more the merrier in terms of the Democratic primary. But another thing that you have to keep in mind is when the president says make America great again, what is the era that he is harkening back to? He is really talking about this -- this golden age of the '50s which was terrible for women and for minorities, but in which the middle class was growing and it was seen as a very great time in terms of the American economy.
That is the most -- is this can be a word socialisticky (ph) time in American history. We had top tax rate of 91 percent. We had millions of Americans going to college for free on the G.I. bill. We had million more getting houses with help from the government and the middle class was growing and we were very prosperous.
So the idea that these notions are un-American, that they're outside the mainstream just doesn't accord with our own history.
SMERCONISH: I hear you but I'm thinking of high school educated white guys in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, who may benefit from some of the aspects of Democratic socialism that you're describing. I don't think that they're comfortable with being the beneficiaries of socialism. We're going to find out.
You get the final quick word.
BALL: Well, those are the same folks who supported Bernie Sanders' Democratic primary last time. So we will find out. But I welcome a robust debate and I am glad that Democrats are coloring outside the lines and really thinking big about a vision that's going to work for working class Americans in all communities.
SMERCONISH: Thank you, Krystal
BALL: Thanks, Michael.
SMERCONISH: Still to come, your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments. And the final tally. Love the survey question today at Smerconish.com.
Do you agree with Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb that it's arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe?
SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded to the survey question at Smerconish.com.
Do you agree with Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb that it's arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe?
Wow! 10,679 votes cast, I am wowing at the margin, 91 percent say yes. Only 9 percent say no.
What else came in?
"Smerconish, if there is life in outer space, will real Donald Trump build a wall around Earth and will the aliens pay for it?"
I like the question. I like my question better. Do you want them to be religious? That's good barroom (ph) fodder (ph).
Hit me with another one.
"Where was @smerconish on 'rush to judgment' for Kavanaugh? Love the double standard @CNN."
Hey, Vinny -- hey, Vinny, take it up with somebody else. I didn't rush to judgment on Kavanaugh. I am the guy who was criticized for saying I found both of them to be credible. I parsed everything said by Dr. Blasey Ford and everything said by Kavanaugh. I applied the same litmus test to this -- to that as I'm saying we should apply to all these.
So you're (EXPLETIVE) me off here because that's just not the way I reported on it.
I'll see you next week. Hey, by the way if you want to catch my "American Life In Columns" tour I will be in Pontiac, Michigan tomorrow, Chicago March 17th, Wilkes-Barre April 7th.
Hope to see you there.