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Inside Politics

Amid GOP Chaos, Jeffries Holds Unusual Amount of Power; Progressives Suffer String of Losses in Oregon Primary; Polls Show Tight, Static Race Between Trump and Biden; U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Announces Surprise July Election. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 22, 2024 - 12:30   ET




DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: House Minority Leader is a fancy title. It comes with a bully pulpit. It comes with a pretty nice office. But generally speaking, it doesn't come with a lot of legislative power.


REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): Good afternoon, everyone.


BASH: The question now is whether or not the Republican House dysfunction has transformed that role, at least in the short term, and made the man you are looking at, Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, one of the most powerful lawmakers ever to hold the job of House Minority Leader. Little can get done in the fractured House without Democratic buy-in.


JEFFRIES: House Democrats are change agents. We effectively have been governing as if we were in the majority because we continue to provide a majority of the votes necessary to get things done.

The political thing to do is always to let the extreme MAGA Republicans crash and burn because they have so many out-of-control members they cannot govern on their own. But when we say we are going to continue to put people over politics, we actually mean it.


BASH: We have new reporting today from CNN's Lauren Fox and Melonie Zanona that unpacks how Jeffries scored pretty major wins, holding his caucus together through really a tumultuous two years. Melanie joins our panel now. Nice to see you. Such great reporting that everybody can read on And just kind of give us the overall view from not just Democrats, but also Republicans on why and how he's been able to take advantage and he has chosen to do so, I mean, certainly will help him politically, but he has chosen to take advantage in order to further policy --


BASH: -- and legislative initiatives.


ZANONA: Yeah, the minority party has had really an extraordinary and unusual level of power this Congress over both the legislative agenda and the fate of two Republicans speakers. Just think about it, Democrats have put up the votes for everything from the debt ceiling to government funding bills to foreign aid to a foreign surveillance package, to blocking the motion to vacate the speakership under Speaker Mike Johnson.

Now, some people would say this is the reality of a razor-thin divided House and a divided Washington, right? They are going to have to have compromise to get things done. But Republicans could have had a whole lot more leverage if they would have stuck together on the front end. They would have had a lot more impact and say on the final product if they had done that, and that infighting has just made that impossible. And so, it's been really interesting to watch how Hakeem Jeffries has played Democrats' hands.

And one thing that Lauren Fox and I learned in the course of this reporting is that during the last round of government funding, he actually quietly negotiated a major bumping earmarks which are Congressional projects, money for those earmarks for Democrats back in their districts. So Democrats have gotten something in return for playing ball here.

BASH: And I'm going to unleash your -- not so inner -- nerd here --


BASH: Yeah. Yeah. Do you want to wave in there?


BASH: They were trash talking --



PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF DOMESTIC CORRESPONDENT: There's so much more is all I want to say right now and just trying to keep it in.

BASH: About the fact that this is a part of this story that I absolutely loved, which is the Democrats got all of this pork, frankly, for their members, every single district got something to take home.

And they didn't put out press releases and they didn't crow about it because Jeffries understood that that would hurt the Republican, hurt the Speaker if they did that. It would be even worse for him, aha, look, you're letting the Democrats do what they need to do. But that's kind of how it used to work.

The leaders used to do with -- used to horse trade.

MATTINGLY: Yeah. And the immediate analog, or at least the now analog, is the Biden White House. That's very much how Biden -- President Biden operates and his kind of top advisers, Steve Ricchetti, Mike Donilon, his legal (ph) affairs team, which has a lot of former House Democratic senior staffers, we are going to let them act like they won something. We are not going to try and spike football or rub their noses in it because we know in order to get or to keep relationships alive and in an order to get what we are going to need in the future, you need to kind of maintain a balance there.

I thought one of the stories is outstanding. I had no idea about the earmark stuff that is used to be a scarlet letter when Republicans took power -- it feels like seven decades ago -- during the baner (ph) years. But now, coming back into force and Democrats finding a way to kind of wield their negotiating power to get more on that front. But also, whenever we are talking o Hakeem Jeffries, when Mike Johnson looked like he was on the verge of becoming speaker, and I asked him, like what's your relationship?

Do you still have great relationship with Kevin McCarthy? That fell apart and Democrats writ large hated Kevin McCarthy by the time everything is done, Jeffries said he didn't know Mike Johnson at all. Mike Johnson gave a state or talk to mel (ph) and was somewhat a few (ph) statement and their relationship, his ability to build, keep discipline in his caucus, while also build a relationship with the speaker is very tenuous.

BASH: Let's quickly play that. Let's play that sound bite from Johnson.


MIKE JOHNSON, (R-LA) SPEAKER OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: I think he is a trustworthy individual and I think he believes the same about me. So, that is very helpful. If your political adversary on the other side of the table, then you could be assured that he is shooting straight about things (ph). I think that makes a big difference.


BASH: Breaking news, members of Congress getting along at the highest levels of each party. I mean, we talk so much about chaos. It is important to show this. It might not be exactly helpful for Mike Johnson politically with his conference but it is the reality.

ZANONA: Right. And even though they disagree politically, they have a level of respect for one another and one of the things that we learned that they really bonded over was their faith. They are both very religious.

BASH: Yes. ZANONA: And one of the first time they ever met was actually at a prayer breakfast on Capitol Hill. So they have that level of respect and I do think at least for Jeffries, there is a recognition that soon the roles may be reversed where --

BASH: Yes.

ZANONA: -- Jeffries is the Speaker, and they have a razor-thin majority, and might need to buy-in (ph) Republican colleagues.

BASH: I want to quickly shift gears a bit to talk about the election yesterday. There were primaries in several states, including in Oregon, and the progressives did not do well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it seems like, I mean really, it wasn't that long ago. Post-2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd, that there was a lot of momentum behind some of these sort of progressive prosecutorial policies and approaches that we were seeing. But momentum has shifted and it is interesting because yes, we did see a crime spike nationally during COVID, but we have a national decline right now.

But in a place like Oregon, disorder and crime, even the perception of it continues to kind of be the bogeyman, particularly for Democrats.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it seems moderate Democrats are claiming some of that momentum.

BASH: Quick final word?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, POLITICS & POLICY COLUMNIST, BLOOMBERG: Yeah, no, and you saw some of his, I think in some of the previous elections, you see some of this going on in California too. In New York for instance, they went with Eric Adams who was the cop, who of course is how having his own issues now. But, it was the thought that he was a former police officer and he can tackle crime, but this is going to continue to be an issue nationwide.

BASH: OK. Thanks, guys. Don't go anywhere because we are going to talk after the break to two women who have their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the electorate because they are pollsters, a Democrat and Republican. They are going to come and explain what they are seeing next.



BASH: I'm not making that mistake again, that's what one 2016 Trump -- 2020 Biden voter said when asked why he would vote for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. over Trump or Biden. That apathy towards the top choices, or maybe even just disgust in some cases, is part of the 2024 election story. Another big story is inflation cooling, stocks at record highs, so far the question is, as it has been for months, is that or will that change the president's re-election chances? So far, it has not seemed to, at least in the polls, which is why we have two fantastic pollsters here.

Joining me to help explain Republican strategist and pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson and Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. I am so glad to have you both here. Welcome back from maternity leave, you're back- ish.


BASH: Congrats on your new gorgeous baby. And I want to start with you and play for you what some voters, who again, whether they were Trump 2016, Biden 2020, told our friend Richard Tau (ph) in a focus group.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feeling different, like I don't really know how to feel. So I don't really feel anything.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Indifferent or maybe a little underwhelmed.


BASH: Just to be clear, that's how they feel about Joe Biden.


BASH: In your research, what does it tell you about how to combat that for Democrats?

GREENBERG: Well, I've also been doing a lot of focus groups and that's how they feel about the country too --


GREENBERG: -- not just Joe Biden and --

BASH: But he is in charge of the country (ph).

GREENBERG: And -- no, no, no. You are clear. I'm just saying it is a broader issue then just that.

BASH: Yeah, got it.

GREENBERG: Look, I think that there is the confluence of a few things that are not great for Biden, but I also I think sort of fixable, if you will. And so, I think it is both a combination of that. This economic recovery is sort of uneven. So if you're older, if you're college-educated, if you're affluent, actually this economy is great for you. If you're younger, lower-income, especially lower-income Hispanic voters, this economy has not been great for you.

And so -- and what you see happening, whether it is $35 insulin for seniors -- doesn't help you, it helps seniors, right? And so a lot of the really big accomplishments, whether it is the student loan (inaudible), if you didn't go to college, it didn't help you, right? And so, I think that there it is a realistic assessment of how this economy is working for them. Layer on top of that, those are the same groups that are always lower information voters, less likely to follow politics, and less likely to vote.

So, it is kind of a deadly combination of being disaffected economically and also being the kinds of folks who tend not to vote as much anyway. I do think there is a very specific conversation that the Biden campaign and Democrats who are running down ballot can have with those voters. I was doing focus groups last night and a woman said to me, very conservative woman. We said, we started with can you name one good thing Biden has done because we feel like if we start with all the negative, it is hard to have a conversation.

And she is well, you know, I work for a non-profit and I've not been able to pay for 20 years any of my student loan debt. In fact, it is even higher now and he actually wiped out my debt and I don't feel bad about it. I don't think I tricked the system and she almost looked bashful or abashed about it, right? So, I think figuring -- there are things that actually this administration has done for people who are younger. It is not communicated to them effectively.

And I think there has to be a more concerted effort to have that conversation with younger people and not just accomplishments, but what are we going to do with systemic problems like the cost of housing --

BASH: Right.

GREENBERG: -- that are not solvable in an instant. But there are things that are actually being done.

BASH: Yeah. So communication. Go ahead.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Yeah. The concern about the economy is a huge problem for the Biden team. And one that the polls do not show that even as the economy on paper looks like it is getting better, voters are picking up on. As you headed into the election in 2020 Biden and Trump are tied on the attribute of who would do better job handling the economy, back in October of 2020. And nowadays, when you ask voters in battleground states that question, Trump wins by a 20-point margin.

And so, I think the real question that this election is going to hinge on is, does that 20-point advantage for the economy stay for Donald Trump? And if it does, can the Biden team say, well that may matter, but what about issues like Roe, et cetera, and override that.

BASH: Yeah. OK. So on that note, I don't know if this is related to that, but maybe it is adjacent to it. Want to look at what we have seen in the Republican primary contests over the last few months. And of course, this is mostly, not entirely, but mostly -- since Donald Trump has been the clear nominee, Nikki Haley has gotten 18 percent, 18 percent, 16 percent, 7 percent and even up to 21 percent in Maryland. Obviously, we don't expect Donald Trump to necessarily when Maryland, but even in the swing states, there is a sizable percentage of Republicans, these are close primaries, Republican voters who are choosing to vote for somebody who is no longer running as opposed to Donald Trump.


SOLTIS ANDERSON: I still think in the end, most of them will come home to Trump. I think in the end, these voters who they say they like Nikki Haley depends in some ways, I think on who trump picks as VP. If he picks someone who is of a little more unusual flavor, like that could scare those voters away. But if he picks someone like a Tim Scott, for instance, somebody who even more sort of establishment old school Republicans kind of like, maybe that does set them at ease. But ultimately, I think this is such a polarized country that even those who say I cannot believe were doing this again as a party will come around to Trump in the end.

BASH: Real quick, you're going to get those Haley voters?

GREENBERG: I think some of them already were Biden voters. They were Republicans who voted for Biden and they came out to show that displeasure. I think it shows that they are just as there is weakness in the Democratic base, there is actually a weakness in Republican base. We spend a lot less time talking about that. But if you look at the most likely voters these days, they are more likely to be Democratic voters.

BASH: OK. When you guys come back because we really -- really want to talk about independence, but you can come back anyway. You can (inaudible) whatever you want.


BASH: Thank you both. Appreciate it. Much more ahead. Stay with us.



BASH: Now to some political news across the pond. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just called for a surprise early election on July 4 to determine who will govern the U.K. Sunak's conservative party is in big trouble polls show. They're struggling to retain a 14-year hold on power against The Labour Party. Now, July 4th is 43 days away.

July 4th also, of course, is the day that several hundred years ago, more than 200 years ago, rebels declared their independence from Great Britain here in the United States. There, it just means a six-week campaign. Imagine that.

Thank you so much for joining "Inside Politics." "CNN News Central" starts after the break.